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LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lost its first Big Ten game at Minnesota last week, but remains in control of its destiny in the Legends Division.
Northwestern has dropped four straight after a 4-0 start and bowl eligibility hangs in the balance.
Interestingly, more positive vibes were coming out of the Wildcats' camp than Nebraska's in advance of their game Saturday.
"In our place, the sky hasn't fallen. It's sunny out," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We've got a third of the season left. You just keep grinding, man."
The Huskers have had a tough week. They went through a physical practice 24 hours after their loss in Minneapolis, faced questions about their poor run defense and hot-and-cold offense and tried to duck verbal darts thrown by upset fans.
"They deserve a better product than we put out there sometimes," linebacker Michael Rose said. "We just have to make sure we take care of our business, and if we do I think Husker Nation will be pleased."
Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) and Northwestern (4-4, 0-4) have split their past two meetings. Two years ago, the Wildcats had lost five in a row before they beat Indiana and pulled a 28-25 upset of then-No. 9 Nebraska in Lincoln. Last year Nebraska won 29-28 in Evanston after scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 2:08 left.
The Wildcats, who lost in overtime at Iowa last week, need two more wins to become bowl eligible. After Nebraska, they play Michigan and Michigan State at home and finish the regular season at Illinois.
"They're playing for everything right now," Nebraska offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "They're coming in here wanting to knock us off after what we did to them last year. They're hungry for their first win in the Big Ten this year, but they're going to have to come in and match our intensity. We need to come out with a sense of urgency."
The Huskers still need a win to become bowl eligible, but they have higher goals. A loss to Northwestern would leave them needing help to make it back to the Big Ten championship game. They still have trips to Michigan and Penn State and home games with division-leading Michigan State and Iowa remaining.
Five things to know about the Northwestern-Nebraska matchup:
ARMSTRONG GETS CALL: Tommy Armstrong Jr. will take over as starting quarterback for the Huskers. Taylor Martinez returned against Minnesota after a three-game absence because of toe and shoulder injuries. He sustained a hip pointer against the Gophers and couldn't practice.
Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III led the Huskers to wins over South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue.
"This is my first time I've actually been in a tough situation in the Big Ten," Armstrong said. "Coach has always told us it's going to be tough and all the teams are good. My whole plan is to be that leader and put my teammates in a good position to win."
CHANGES ON DEFENSE: The Huskers will tweak their defensive lineup after the Gophers ran for 271 yards. Rose will replace David Santos at middle linebacker to help control a Northwestern run attack that is averaging 182 yards a game. Pelini said he plans to shuffle other players as well.
CLOSING IN ON 1,000: Ameer Abdullah has been the Huskers' most consistent offensive threat. He needs 19 yards to hit 1,000 for the second straight year. He's coming off a 165-yard outing against Minnesota, his sixth 100-yard game of the season.
OFFENSIVE WOES: The Wildcats have been hamstrung by mistakes on offense. They outgained Iowa but lost second-half fumbles at the Hawkeyes' 34 and midfield, allowed six sacks and committed five ill-timed penalties. The good news: quarterback Kain Colter was sharp last week in his return from an ankle injury, and Stephen Buckley is a rising star at running back.
TURN THE CALENDAR: No one was happier than Fitzgerald to turn the calendar from October to November. Since 2008, the Wildcats are 9-16 in October and 12-6 in November. Five of those 12 wins were against teams ranked in the top 20.