Nebraska football: The Huskers' front seven better be ready — Northwestern is bringing a fight to the trenches
Nebraska senior corner Dicaprio Bootle may have said it best when talking about Northwestern this week:
“They’re a physical team that’s very sound. A very smart team. (Northwestern) won’t beat themselves. They’ll keep themselves in the game as long as they can and just basically wait for you to mess up.”
Bootle is right. Northwestern is tough — both on offense and defense — and Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup is absolutely a measuring-stick game for the Huskers. It’s a big one for the Wildcats, too, who, after beating Iowa 21-20 last week, are sitting atop the B1G West.
Now that Purdue’s game with Wisconsin is canceled, this is an opportunity for Northwestern to put some distance between itself and the other West teams.
The 2020 version of Northwestern’s offense is much better than last year’s dreadful unit, which averaged just 16 points and 297 total yards per game. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald smartly shook things up on that side of the ball and brought in new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian from Boston College and transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey from Indiana.
Through 2 games, Bajakian’s spread offense has proven it’s a physical one. Northwestern has rushed the ball 113 times for 468 yards already — those are both B1G-leading numbers. The Wildcats have shown they’ll stick with the run, too, regardless of if it works well or not.
In the 43-3 win over Maryland in its opener, Northwestern rushed the ball 53 times for 325 yards, a 6.1 average. Things were clicking that night in Evanston. Then in last week’s 21-20 come-from-behind win over Iowa, the Wildcats rushed 60 times, but for just 143 yards — that’s a rough-looking 2.4 yards per carry.
Watch Northwestern’s first 2 games and you can get an idea of how Bajakian will attack Nebraska — the Huskers’ front 7 has a fight coming its way, and it better be ready for a war in the trenches.
Each of Nebraska’s 11 players on defense will obviously be important in this game, but none more than inside linebackers Collin Miller and Will Honas, and those that will be getting the bulk of the reps along the defensive line and outside linebacker spots.
Against Ohio State, the D-line group of Ben Stille, Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers played well. They hung tough with a talented Buckeyes O-line. Can that group, as well as Keem Green and former North Carolina Tarheel Jordon Riley (if he’s healthy), replicate that effort and make it tough sledding for the Wildcats at the line of scrimmage? I believe they can.
One of Nebraska’s players who should be noted in this discussion is nose tackle Damion Daniels, a 6-3, 335-pounder. Playing against Ohio State’s spread offense doesn’t quite fit well with what Daniels’ skillset is, so he didn’t get that many snaps against the Buckeyes. But Daniels could — and should — get a lot more run against Northwestern.
The Huskers’ outside linebackers didn’t have as great a day against Ohio State as their D-line teammates did, but the Buckeyes are an elite-level team. It’s hard to make any hard judgements with this group yet. That being said, I’d like to see Pheldarius Payne, another junior college transfer, get the majority of snaps opposite of JoJo Domann in this game. To these untrained eyes, Payne looked good against Ohio State — strong in run support and setting the edge.
Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, Erik Chinander, will of course keep rotating in different outside ‘backers like Garrett Nelson, Caleb Tannor and Nick Henrich. I’d love to see more of Payne out there, though, with Tannor, who had a sack against Ohio State, getting some action on passing downs and in pressure packages.
With 2 of Nebraska’s starters in the defensive backfield — Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams — missing the first half of the game due to targeting penalties against the Buckeyes, will Northwestern look to pass more than it has?
It might be the smart play to test the inexperienced backups that will be in the game, such as corner Quinton Newsome and safety Myles Farmer, but the Wildcats don’t have a receiver who scares anyone. If the Huskers need to focus on stopping one of Ramsey’s targets, it’d be Kyric McGowan. He’s a guy who gets passes thrown his way and handoffs in the backfield.
But if the past 2 games mean anything, it’s likely that Bajakian will test the Huskers’ front 7 with a steady dose of Isaiah Bowser, Jesse Brown and Drake Anderson in the run game — whether it works well or not.