Northwestern won a high-scoring affair with Indiana in Bloomington last Saturday, edging the Hoosiers 59-38 and snapping a five-game losing streak. It will be a great challenge for Northwestern to earn a bowl berth, needing to win three of its last four games, which includes Nebraska, Rice, Minnesota and Michigan State on tap, with the final three coming at home in Evanston.
Nebraska meanwhile, is playing for a different prize. The Huskers are still very much in the hunt to win the league, and last weekend's 24-3 win over Michigan State was a statement victory. The win featured traditional Husker values: a strong running game on offense, and a stout, physical game on defense. Michigan State wasn't able to get anything going on either side of the ball. Nebraska has its toughest three-game stretch of the season following Saturday's tussle with the Wildcats, as the Huskers will meet Penn State and Michigan on the road, followed by hosting Iowa in the final game of the season in late November.
Head coach Bo Pelini wants the team to concentrate on Northwestern first.
"I told the team after the game that this is a tough stretch ahead of us," said Pelini at his weekly press conference on Monday. "We have a good football team coming in here, a well-coached football team. We will be challenged. It'll be a good test for us. We will keep looking to get better."
Northwestern got a big day from quarterback Dan Persa last week against Indiana. Persa threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns, and the Wildcats gave their star signal caller solid run support, registering 317 yards and three touchdowns. The effort was spearheaded by Jacob Schmidt , who picked up 110 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries. Kain Colter also had a standout game. Colter not only caught six passes for 115 yards, but he also passed for two touchdowns, and ran five times for 38 yards. The all-purpose Colter leads the team in rushing at 57.3 per outing, and accounts for 123.7 yards of total offense. Schmidt averages 34.5 yards rushing per game, and overall Northwestern averages 187.7 yards per game (fifth in the Big Ten). Persa leads the second rated passing offense in the league, which produces 244 yards per game. Jeremy Ebert is the most productive receiver for the Wildcats; he has caught 45 passes for 569 yards and seven touchdowns through eight games.
"They're a little different in some ways. They can put some stress on you," said Pelini of Northwestern's offense. "I think the quarterback is a really good player. He is elusive and can make throws. It is a well thought-out offense."
The Wildcats' defense gave up 319 yards and four touchdowns last week against the Hoosiers. Northwestern is 95th in the country in rush defense (193.6), and overall, allow over 430 yards and 31 points per game. In four of five losses, Northwestern has given up 34 points or more. The unit has 13 takeaways this season, despite being tied for 83rd in the country in sacks and 108th in tackles for loss. David Nwabuisi ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 60 tackles, while Brian Peters is tied for second in the league with three interceptions.
Michigan State got a heavy dose of Rex Burkhead last weekend, as the running back carried 35 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns and was the main source for Nebraska's offensive output. Burkhead ranks 18th in the country with 110.2 yards per game; Burkhead has rushed for 100 yards or more in each of his last three games, and has scored 12 touchdowns this season. Nebraska averages 252.1 yards per game on the ground, and Burkhead is complemented by quarterback Taylor Martinez, who averages 82.3 yards rushing per outing.
Martinez passed for just 80 yards against the Spartans, and he has accumulated 1,256 yards passing this season with eight touchdowns. The run-first Martinez has scored nine touchdowns on the ground, with his best rushing performance coming three weeks ago against Ohio State (102 yards rushing, one touchdown).
The Nebraska defense has been fearsome all year long, so it was no surprise how the unit smothered Michigan State last weekend. Michigan State recorded just 187 yards of total offense, with quarterback Kirk Cousins finishing 11- of-27 for 86 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. Michigan State had problems prolonging drives, going three-of-14 on third down. Nebraska doesn't necessarily standout in sacks or tackles for loss per game, but the unit ranks 29th in total defense (334.6), with 155 coming on the ground. The pass defense has been stout, as evidence of Cousins' struggles last weekend. Nebraska ranks 12th in the country, allowing just 179.6 yards per game. Lavonte David is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles with 77, and leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss.