Nebraska Cornhuskers: Northwestern Wildcats

Five things: Northwestern-Nebraska

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska went back to the drawing board in the wake of a troubling loss at Minnesota, shuffling personnel on both sides of the ball as it looked to sharpen focus with the strength of the schedule at hand. Will it make a difference against Northwestern?

Here’s what we'll be watching:

The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCould a solid performance against Northwestern give Tommy Armstrong the starting job for the remainder of the season?
Distribution of the football: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck drew criticism for his balance in the game plan last week. The Huskers rushed the football 30 times and threw it 30 times. Sounds good, but a closer look shows that Nebraska experienced much more success on the ground than through the air. Considering the weather conditions favored a ground attack, and with Martinez’s iffy health, Beck might have been better suited to stay conservative. The same thing applies this week, though star I-back Ameer Abdullah missed practice time with an ankle injury. The Huskers might have to rely some on backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby -- plus Armstrong in the option game -- against the Wildcats.

Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.

Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?

It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The second half starts in four days for Nebraska.

The first six games of the schedule featured just one real test of the team's progress under Bo Pelini, and the Huskers failed that exam on Sept. 14 with a 20-point home loss to UCLA. Sure, Wyoming pushed Nebraska. South Dakota State scared them for 15 minutes. Purdue forced freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong into a few mistakes. Really, though, anything worse than 5-1 would have ranked as something close to a disaster.

And while the meat of the second-half lineup previously did not appear set to start until November, let’s power up the truth machine a week early in honor of Minnesota’s upset win over Northwestern and the uncertainty that still hovers around the QB spot at Nebraska.

So here are three truths that could lead the Huskers to a successful second half:

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong has gained valuable experience in place of an injured Taylor Martinez. What will it mean for Nebraska when Martinez returns?
A healthy Taylor Martinez is set to return soon. The most optimistic of Nebraska fans envision that Martinez, out since the UCLA game with turf toe, will return to the field and finish his career with a fantastic flurry similar to the stretch that marked its beginning in 2010, when he ran wild for five games. More realistic, Martinez will be fresh for November, and his backups, Amstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III, have earned valuable experience that can help the Huskers down the stretch. If Martinez goes down again, there’s no reason to panic.

The defense is starting to gel. Let’s hold off on placing too much emphasis on the vast statistical improvement and near shutout delivered against Purdue. The Boilermakers are awful on offense. But look deeper, and the Huskers have shown growth since bottoming out in that forgettable first quarter on Sept. 21 against South Dakota State. This unit had nowhere to go but up; nonetheless, improvement is evident at all three levels, and veterans have emerged in leadership roles -- the point of Pelini’s preseason captain-naming, Blackshirt-awarding tactics.

The Legends Division is there for taking. Yes, Minnesota and Iowa are better, and the winning percentages look good for Michigan and Michigan State. But let’s be real, this is not the SEC West. Or even the Leaders Division, which showcases the league’s top two teams in Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Nebraska played in the old Big 12 with this team, a four- or five-loss season would loom as a real possibility. And while the gimmes of the past month are gone, basic, week-to-week improvement should earn the Huskers a second straight ticket to Indianapolis.

And now here are three truths that could doom the Huskers between now and the day after Thanksgiving:

A quarterback controversy is dangerously near: All looks good on the surface as Martinez nears a return. Pelini appears set to hand all control back to his fourth-year starter; no more rotating QBs, which is typically akin to playing with fire. But what happens when Martinez twists his ankle or bangs his shoulder on the cold turf? Or if his turnover troubles resurface? Armstrong is a competitor, and his mood this week is easy to read. He wants to keep playing. If Martinez slips, others – inside and outside of the program -- are likely to share the freshman’s feelings.

The young defense is sure to encounter adversity: That much we know, whether it happens on Nov. 2 at home against the Wildcats, or more likely, in 60 minutes that could turn crazy -- don’t all Michigan games? -- at the Big House a week later. The Blackshirts, particularly that youthful front seven, have yet to prove they can avoid collapse at a time of stress against a quality opponent. The Nebraska offense is good, but it also remains turnover prone, especially with Martinez in command. What if momentum turns against the defense and carries from one game to the next? It’s a scary thought.

That schedule, on second thought, is a grind: Despite the absence of a team ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings in Nebraska’s next six weeks, it is, for any school, a tough set of games. Notably, you’ve got the volatility of Michigan, a stout defense from the Spartans and foes in Penn State and Iowa that want revenge on the Huskers for two seasons of tough defeats. The Big Ten, if not on the skill level of other leagues, will beat you up. And this stretch for Nebraska rates as a serious challenge. Injuries are already taking a toll in Lincoln. And this run of games taxed the Huskers in 2012. If they make it to Indy, will they even remain in physical condition to contend for a Rose Bowl berth?

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Impact Performance Nominees
The Capital One Impact Performances of the week include Marshall's Devon Johnson, Alabama's Amari Cooper, Navy's Keenan Reynolds and Nebraska's Kenny Bell.
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