football Edit

Northwestern expert gives his take and prediction on Saturday's game

Nebraska and Northwestern will play on Saturday in what's been a very entertaining series since the Huskers have joined the Big Ten. The two teams are deadlocked at a 5-5 split and eight of the 10 games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

To get some more perspective on Northwestern, we caught up with Wildcat Report's Michael Fitzpatrick in this week's "Ask the Expert" breakdown.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

What is your read on this Northwestern team through four games?

"It's hard to say, honestly. Northwestern had a lot of turnover from the team that won the West and finished No. 10 in the AP Poll last season, with a handful of new starters on both sides of the ball and a new defensive coordinator due to Mike Hankwitz's retirement. Things have been very up-and-down through four weeks, as the 2-2 record would indicate. Northwestern had slow starts before, the 2018 team started 1-3 before winning eight of their last 10 en route to winning the West, so the Wildcats aren't dead yet. In general, it seems like the whole team is still trying to find their "sea legs," so to speak.

"There have been key issues that have plagued Northwestern so far this year, though. The defense got gashed against Michigan State and Duke, giving more than 400 yards of total offense to both teams. They have been better lately, though, allowing only six points over the last six quarters, and even that was an Ohio touchdown in garbage time against the backups. So the hope in Evanston is that the early season struggles with a new scheme are behind the Wildcats and they can get back to playing strong defense.

"The Cats have really been hurt by quarterback play. Hunter Johnson won the job in camp, but imploded after a strong performance in the opener against MSU. He had four turnovers in a quarter and a half against Duke, three of them interceptions. Andrew Marty replaced Johnson against the Blue Devils and led the Wildcats back, cutting a 27-0 deficit to just 10 points before he suffered an apparent shoulder injury and didn’t return. He will be out for a significant amount of time, though he could be back later in the year. That brings Northwestern to Ryan Hilinski. He wasn't asked to do much last week against Ohio, but his decision-making was sound and he avoided turning the ball over. If Hilinski can give the Wildcats safe, stable quarterback play, that will be a massive improvement over what they've had so far.

How significant was the injury to running back Cam Porter, and how did it change what the Wildcats do on offense?

"It's hard to put into words just how much losing their best player affected the offense. Porter was supposed to be the offense, more or less. Everything was going to run through him and his powerful running style.

"The most tangible way it's affected the offense is the Cats use more of a committee approach now. Evan Hull is the lead back and is coming off a 216-yard, two-score performance against the Bobcats. Hull is a home-run hitter that the Cats haven't had in the backfield in a long time; if he gets a seam, he can take it all the way. Rounding out the trio in the backfield Anthony Tyus III, a bruising 230-pound true freshman and Andrew Clair, a graduate transfer from Bowling Green who provides a mix of speed and power and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

"Northwestern has had success running the ball this year, but it hasn't come as easy as it likely would have with Porter. It has put more pressure on the offensive line, which has really struggled at times, and forced the coaches to get creative in putting the three backs in positions to succeed."

Northwestern has tried a lot of different things at quarterback. What are you expecting to see Saturday?

"It will be Hilinski on Saturday, barring an unforeseen disaster that forces Northwestern onto QB4. Hilinski made some nice throws to move the sticks on third down last week, but he didn't have to do much as Northwestern racked up 373 yards rushing.

"Hilinski came to Evanston after two years at South Carolina. Before that, he was a top-50 recruit with a big arm, but little mobility. Behind an offensive line that has been as porous as Northwestern's has at times, his lack of mobility has the potential to cause problems. Due to that, Northwestern will probably try and get the ball out of his hands quickly and hope receivers can make plays after the catch. You’ll also see them put Tyus in as a Wildcat quarterback at times.

"This will also be Hilinski's first road game as the starter at Northwestern. Granted, he started two years ago for South Carolina and played in front of his fair share of packed houses in SEC, but Saturday night at Memorial Stadium will be his first time in a hostile environment with his new teammates. He's only been on campus since late March, so there are concerns about being on the same page with his receivers and offensive line because communication will be a challenge in Lincoln."

Northwestern's defense is led by safety Brandon Joseph.
Northwestern's defense is led by safety Brandon Joseph. (AP)

Where do you see the Wildcats having the biggest edge in this game against Nebraska?

"Normally, I'd say discipline. Northwestern is usually among the least penalized teams in the country, and they take care of the football. They've won countless games by just making fewer mistakes than their opponent during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach.

"That hasn't been the case this year, however. NU has been breaking in some new players, and penalties and mental mistakes have come along for the ride. Turnovers were a massive problem with Johnson under center, but the hope is Hilinski can keep that problem under control. If they take care of the ball and don't commit dumb penalties, Northwestern gives themselves a chance to hang around in games and take advantage of their opponent's mistakes – and Nebraska has been a team that has made them in bunches."

On the flip side, what area concerns you the most for Northwestern heading into Saturday?

"Where do I even start? The biggest concern is probably the offensive line. Nebraska's front seven made life miserable for Michigan State's previously dominant ground attack. Northwestern's offensive line has been serviceable at its best this season, but they’ve struggled in pass protection. They also may be without senior leader and center Sam Gerak on Saturday. If Northwestern can't run the ball, that puts a lot of pressure on Hilinski in his second Northwestern start.

"Adrian Martinez's legs are also cause for concern for Northwestern. He and Luke McCaffrey ran all over the Wildcats defense last season, as did almost every mobile quarterback they faced. Fitzgerald called Martinez "a human highlight reel" and Northwestern will make a concerted effort to make someone other than No. 2 beat them. But if he gets loose, it could spell trouble.

"One final concern would be the kicking game – something the Wildcats share with the Huskers. Wildcats kicker Charlie Kuhbander has missed three chip shots through four games. Northwestern and Nebraska love taking their matchups down to the wire, which magnifies the importance of the kicking game. In the Wildcats' last trip to Lincoln in 2019, a missed short field goal from Kuhbander cost NU a chance at forcing overtime, at the least, and the concerns of that happening again are very real."

Finally, what is your score prediction and breakdown for Saturday’s game in Lincoln?

"This will probably be another close game between these two West rivals, but if Northwestern struggles to run the ball against Nebraska's front seven, it could be a long game for the Wildcats offense with how limited they are in the passing game. Maybe Hilinski has an incredible game, but he really only has two reliable receivers – Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson Jr. – which puts him in a tough spot.

"Northwestern is going to have to rely on their defense to win this one. That’s typically the Wildcats’ MO, but this season the defense has been uncharacteristically inconsistent. The unit is playing better lately, but it’s hard to expect them to do enough to overcome what has the potential to be an anemic offensive outing.

"I’ll call it 24-16 for Nebraska."