Five burning questions heading into Northwestern week
Here are five of the biggest questions still facing Nebraska as it gets ready for its road trip to Northwestern this week.
1. Where is the Huskers’ mindset?
As if this year hadn’t already been difficult enough on Nebraska’s players' psyche and morale, the cancelation of Saturday’s scheduled home opener vs. Wisconsin already disrupted their season after just one week.
Not only was the game with the Badgers called off due to a COVID-19 outbreak at UW, but a last-minute attempt to schedule a non-conference game vs. Tennessee-Chattanooga was then quickly shot down by the Big Ten.
So, once again, the Huskers watched everyone else play football this weekend while they say at home due to no fault of their own.
The past eight months have been a struggle for coaching staffs around the country to keep their players motivated and focused on a goal that, at times, seemed uncertain at best. Now NU finally a chance to play, showed some promising signs in a loss at Ohio State, and then immediately had to put their season on hold once again.
How head coach Scott Frost and his staff manage another frustrating week's mental aspects will be just as important as what they do on the field in preparation for Northwestern.
2. Will the quarterback split stay the same?
We finally got a glimpse of what Nebraska’s game plan would be for its two quarterbacks, Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, in Week 1.
After two full weeks to review that strategy, will the Huskers stick with a similar script at Northwestern?
While Martinez got the start, McCaffrey was on the field early and often vs. the Buckeyes and at multiple positions besides quarterback.
Martinez played 43 snaps while McCaffrey had 21, per PFF. Martinez completed 12-of-15 passes on 18 dropbacks while rushing 13 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. McCaffrey was 4-for-5 passing for 55 yards on seven dropbacks, nine carries for 80 yards, and one catch for five yards.
Will McCaffrey remain a Swiss Army Knife weapon for NU’s offense, or might he get a bigger workload under center at quarterback?
3. Will the passing game be more explosive?
One of the biggest criticisms many had of Nebraska’s offensive game plan at Ohio State was the lack of any real downfield passing game.
According to PFF, the Huskers threw just one pass that traveled 20 yards or more, and only two went between 10 and 20 yards. The other 17 attempts traveled 10 yards or less.
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said last week that there was "no question" that the staff wanted to take deep shots throwing the ball every game. But he added that part of it depended on what the defense allowed, and OSU was playing deep coverage "and wanted you to earn it" on every play.
Lubick said the game plan would ideally call for 7-10 deep passes each game, so in theory, Nebraska should have a more dynamic element next time out.
It’s not just a matter of chucking the ball down the field, either. Top receiver Wan’Dale Robinson was targeted only six times vs. the Buckeyes, a number that must increase for the offense to reach its full potential.
4. Are NU’s young defensive backs ready to step up?
Even though Nebraska will be a full two weeks removed from the Ohio State game, the two targeting suspensions for defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams will still carry over for the first half at Northwestern.
The only bit of good news to the situation is that the Huskers have had ample time to figure out how to replace those two starters and prepare the young players who will be called on to fill their shoes.
Last week, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said NU would look to redshirt freshman Quinton Newsome and true freshman Ronald Delancy to take over for Taylor-Britt at cornerback.
For Williams, Chinander said redshirt freshmen Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates and true freshman walk-on Isaac Gifford would all be counted on to step up.
Another positive is that Northwestern comes into this week as one of the worst passing offense in the Big Ten through two games. Despite adding Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey this offseason, the Wildcats are averaging just 171.0 yards per game with one touchdown through the air.
5. Can Nebraska clean up the mistakes?
For Nebraska to have a chance to beat anyone this season, it has to find a way to stop continuously shooting itself in the foot.
As well as the Huskers played during the first half at Ohio State, several costly mistakes ended up turning a close game into a 35-point blowout loss. They fumbled three times and lost two, including a 55-yard scoop and score that broke the game open for OSU in the third quarter.
Nebraska also committed eight penalties for 90 yards compared to just 3-14 by the Buckeyes. Two of those flags were targeting ejections, and one was a delay of game before the first snap of a crucial drive when trailing just 17-14 at the end of the first half.
Northwestern has been extremely efficient en route to its 2-0 start, committing just 11 penalties for 93 yards. The Wildcats have converted 51.4 percent of their third downs while holding opponents to only 35.7 percent, and they’re also a perfect 5-for-5 on fourth down attempts.
Most importantly, Northwestern leads the Big Ten with seven total forced turnovers through two games, including six interceptions.
The Huskers can’t continue to be their own worst enemy, which has been the case far too often for far too long.