EVANSTON, Ill. - Once again, Rex Burkhead's status is uncertain. The senior will play after leaving the Ohio State game, but coaches have been hesitant to declare he will be at full strength. Ameer Abdullah is coming off his lowest rushing total of the season, but also received just seven carries against the Buckeyes. Should Burkhead not be ready for a full workload, Abdullah and Braylon Heard will be more than ready to go.
And they'll need to be, given the quality of the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats are second in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing just 109.9 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. The unit, led by Damien Proby (62 tackles) and Chi Chi Ariguzo (59 tackles) is adept at stopping ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, something it has done 36 times already this season.
This match-up appears to be strength on strength. The Huskers have amassed 482 yards in their two league games and have multiple threats in the backfield. They should be able to handle the Wildcats, even if Northwestern loads the box.
NU Pass Offense vs. Northwestern Pass Defense
Taylor Martinez is coming off easily his worst game of the season. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble against the Buckeyes, but Northwestern's secondary could be just the elixir to get him back on track. Martinez's best game was against the Wildcats last season, and his weapons have only improved this time around. Keep an eye on how the coaches try to reintegrate Tim Marlowe as he returns from injury.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern secondary isn't much more stout than last year. They allow 270 passing yards a game and have given up nine touchdowns against just three interceptions. Ibraheim Campbell is a playmaker, but he seems better as a run stopper. Whatever NU does, it must keep an eye on Tyler Scott. The defensive lineman already has six sacks and will be looking to take advantage of any protection mistakes.
It's difficult to be overly confident in Martinez following his performance in Columbus, but Northwestern doesn't have the athletes in the secondary that the Buckeyes do. One or two big plays from Kenny Bell could go a long way toward deciding the outcome.
Northwestern Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
This has been one of the Huskers' major weaknesses this season, and Nebraska won't get a reprieve against the Wildcats. While Kain Colter isn't nearly as dynamic as Braxton Miller, he can still do plenty with his feet when he's at quarterback. Even when he's not, Venric Mark (792 yards) and Mike Trumpy (208) are capable of hurting NU.
The Husker coaches say they will continue to use a containment strategy to try and harness Colter when he's in the backfield. Nebraska has struggled with that in recent weeks, but maybe the bye week will bring improvement in this area. With Chase Rome likely out, freshmen Kevin Williams and Aaron Curry will be counted on to step up.
Northwestern's rushing game is one that could be quiet for most of the game, then suddenly break the contest open with a long run. That big-play ability will keep the Blackshirts on their toes throughout the contest. Watch how David Santos responds if he gets the playing time the staff hinted he might.
Northwestern Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's use of his quarterbacks has been interesting this year. Colter seemed a lock to start at quarterback with Dan Persa graduated, but sophomore Trevor Siemian has taken the majority of reps there. Both players will line up at quarterback during the game, with Colter playing receiver when not taking snaps. Neither has been particularly harmful with his arm, as the Wildcats are tenth in the conference in passing efficiency. Also, no Northwestern player has more than 250 yards receiving.
Nebraska could have some chances to take advantage of the pair's inexperience, but the Huskers aren't very opportunistic. They have picked off three passes and Northwestern has only thrown two. But only two Big Ten schools have given up fewer passing yards than Nebraska, and neither Northwestern quarterback has lit it up through the air.
The pass rush will be critical in this one and Eric Martin will need to step up. He's easily been the Huskers' best at harassing quarterbacks this year and took down Miller twice against Ohio State. If he can fluster Siemian or Colter into a few mistakes, NU's odds of winning greatly increase.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
The wheels came off the Nebraska special teams last week. Abdullah couldn't get anything going on kick returns due to limited blocking and the Huskers routinely started drives inside their own 20-yard line. Even more problematic were the coverage units, which surrendered a back-breaking punt return touchdown against the Buckeyes.
Teams have been kicking away from Mark on punt returns, and for good reason. He averages nearly 29 yards a return and has scored twice. Kicker Jeff Budzien has made all 11 of his field goal tries and punter Brandon Williams has booted six kicks over 50 yards and has placed 12 punts inside the 20. Given the ups and downs of Nebraska's special teams, it would be a win to simply break even in this category.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It keeps Colter in check when he's behind center and manages at least a draw in the special teams battle. Note to the staff: kick away from Mark at all costs. The Huskers are more talented, but they must keep Northwestern's playmakers from breaking long gains.
Northwestern Will Win If:
It can get a few early scores, particularly with the quarterback running game, to kill the defense's confidence. The attitude seems high after the bye week, but some early failures could shatter that confidence quickly. The Wildcats should give Nebraska a heavy dose of Colter early to see how it responds.
Coaching. Fitzgerald is one of the Big Ten's best and got his underdog squad to scrape out a win in Lincoln last year. But if Bo Pelini can mold a defense to slow Colter down, he'll have won this chess match.