Huskers ready for big test from Wildcat defense
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[rl]Looking at its performances over the past two games, one could assume that Northwestern's defense might be the least of Nebraska's concerns as they prepare for Saturday's showdown at Memorial Stadium.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has watched enough on film of the unit from the entire season to know much better than that, however.
Despite being outscored 78-10 in consecutive losses to Michigan and Iowa, Langsdorf said the Wildcats' defense presents major challenges at all three levels, and that the Huskers would have to continue to play top-level offense in order to move the football effectively.
Even after two straight forgettable outings, Northwestern still ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense (301.3 ypg), scoring defense (16.1 ppg), passing defense (146.7), passing efficiency defense (93.30), red zone defense (71.4 percent), defensive touchdowns (two), and third-down defense (29.0 percent).
"They've got two great d-ends, they're extremely fast at linebacker, and they cover well in the back end," Langsdorf said. "I don't think they've played their best football the last two weeks, but I think they have a solid, solid defense and good speed, especially off the edges."
As Langsdorf mentioned, Northwestern has thrived on its pass rush off the edge, led by senior defensive end Deonte Gibson, who comes in with a team-high 4.5 sacks on the season. Behind the front four is a fast, play-making linebacking corps that is highlighted by sophomore Anthony Walker, who leads the team with 54 tackles and ranks 36th nationally with 9.5 tackles for loss.
In the secondary, on one side is cornerback Matthew Harris, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with four interceptions. On the other is cornerback Nick VanHoose, who was a second-team all-conference selection in 2014. The Wildcats also boast two talented safeties in Godwin Igwebuike and Traveon Henry who average a combined 11.8 tackles per game.
That's why Langsdorf said he's spent more time evaluating the game film of Northwestern's upset of then-No. 21 Stanford in the season opener, when it held the Cardinal to just six points and 240 yards of offense while forcing two turnovers and three sacks.
The Huskers have allowed just five sacks in their past six games and only eight all season, but Langsdorf said as much as anything he's concerned with how Nebraska's offensive line will hold up against the speed of Northwestern's pass rush.
"That's going to be a big deal for us, is blocking the defensive ends," Langsdorf said. "The linebacker speed makes it difficult to get to that second level. So we're going to have to do a good job of taking good angles, chipping the edges and making sure that we get those defensive ends handled."
With that in mind, something to watch during the week is the recovery of freshman right tackle Nick Gates coming off a high ankle sprain that has forced him to miss the past game and a half. Gates was able to return to practice in a limited capacity this week, but unless he makes major progress by Saturday it appears senior Zach Sterup will get his second start in a row.
"He's a little limited," Langsdorf said of Gates. "We're trying to make sure he's feeling good with the ankle, kind of testing it. So right now Zach's the guy, and then we'll kind of play it by ear with how Nick is feeling as we get closer to the game."
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