This game scares me for a lot of reasons. Playing in Ireland is a distraction that no one can predict how each team will handle it. Second, Fitzgerald is far too good of a coach to have another season like he did in 2021. With that said, I have confidence in their offense, but their defense has so many holes it’s tough to see them being able to plug the gaps quick enough in just one year. The transfer portal helps teams get better quicker, but first game? I don’t know.
The Northwestern Offense:
Back for the Wildcats at quarterback is 5 game starter from a year ago, Ryan Hilinski. Hilinski was a transfer from South Carolina last year, but didn’t enroll until the spring so at least got some reps in before the 2021 season. This year, he was able to get his first winter conditioning and full spring with the team. He’s being challenged by redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan, and it appears Fitzgerald plans to keep that close to the vest.
All signs point to Hilinski getting the nod, but since I have zero inside information, who knows.
The strength of the offense will be the RB position in my opinion. Northwestern returns their leading rusher from 2021, Evan Hull, who eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing despite being on a 3-9 team. The Wildcats will also return 2020 leading rusher Cam Porter. Porter was slated to start on the 2021 team before injuring his knee in fall camp of 2021. With those two in the backfield, it can be a dynamic 1-2 punch.
The offensive line is anchored by Peter Skoronski. Skoronski started at LT as a true freshman and was named second team All-B1G. He followed that up in 2021 with a first team all-B1G honor, and for 2022 he is a preseason All-American. Northwestern loses their center from last year, but return the other 4 starters along the line while getting Colorado State transfer Vincent Picozzi. Picozzi started 34 games at Temple before heading to Fort Collins due to injuries. If he is healthy, he gives much needed experience along the offensive lines. Northwestern also returns 110 starts (Nebraska has 76 returning starts along the OL) so they are more than seasoned to handle a newly revamed DL from Nebraska. While many pundits say Northwestern just wasn’t that good last year along the line and expect them to be the same, Pat Fitzgerald told Phil Steele that this could be his best offensive line in his 17 years at Northwestern.
Receiver is where it gets interesting. One of Nebraska’s “weaknesses” is its inexperience in the secondary, but you could say the same for Northwestern. Gone from last year is leading WR Stephon Robinson, who had 8 receptions for 118 yards and scored the Wildcats only touchdown against Nebraska last year. In my opinion, this group won’t be ready to exploit Nebraska’s young secondary, so it will be up to the run game for Northwestern to get them open.
Rounding out the positions on offense is their TEs. Charlie Mangieri returns for Northwestern who started every game for them in 2021, and Marshall Lang returns who started six games. This duo isn’t exactly dynamic, but could pose some problems to our edge players. They at times start 2 TEs for games, and if they are smart I expect to see a lot of those formations to run the ball right at us.
If I were Northwestern I utilize my experienced OL to push our young DL around and allow their dynamic RBs to get some holes created. That coupled with 2 returning TEs who understand the blocking scheme and can also neutralize our edge guys like Nelson, Mathis, and Tannor could make things interesting. I expect Fitzgerald to grind it out and let his experienced offense that returns 9 starters try to keep his defense off the field. If they are throwing the ball much at all, that’s a good thing for Nebraska. Keep an eye on that.
The Northwestern Defense:
Many may not remember, but Northwestern’s long time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired before the 2021 season, and it showed. Northwestern was used to playing in slugfests, as he was able to scheme up opposing offenses many times and get them off-balance. With the retirement of Hankwitz, in came Jim O’Neil who was in the Oakland Raiders organization before making the move to Northwestern. The Wildcats slid from 5th nationally in scoring defense in 2020 to 89th in 2021.
Northwestern is going to struggle along the DL much like Nebraska will. While they have a key returner back like Adetomewa Adebawore, who led their team in sacks and TFL while being honorable mention last year, they had to hit the transfer portal hard to not only fill some gaps, but help them stop the run that they so desperately struggled with last year. They return Jordan Butler and Jason Gold, but they played sparingly last year and many aren’t expecting them to start. They brought in Ryan Johnson, who started four games for Stanford. Taishon Holmes from UMass comes in as well, but was not a huge factor for the Minutemen. And lastly they bring in Henrik Barndt from Indiana State. While I like their Stanford transfer, the rest of them I pretty much feel they were trying to get bodies in here for some competition. Phil Steele has this group ranked dead last in the B1G. They are bad up front with one exception.
At the MIKE linebacker spot, Northwestern returns Bryce Gallagher who was second on their team in tackles a year ago. But they lose their star and leading tackler from last year Chris Bergin, as well as their other linebacker and fifth leading tackler Peter McIntyre. The Wildcats are in all sorts of trouble in the trenches and at linebacker as they are replacing guys everywhere. They did add a transfer from Pitt, Wendell Davis, who had 3 starts, but after that it’s a bit of an unknown. Xander Mueller and Mac Uihlein return but have minimal experience. Linebacker is just as big of an issue for them as DL. Their front 7 is going to struggle early in my opinion.
Their secondary is the strength of the defense, if you can call it that. The defenses 3rd best total tackler from 2021 was a safety, who decided to transfer to Notre Dame. They do return their fourth leading tackler, CoCo Azema at safety. Cameron Mitchell returns after starting 12 games last year and receiving All-B1G honors. At the other cornerback, Aj Hampton Jr returns, who played in all 12 games starting 8, and also received All-B1G honors. They really are just trying to find another safety. But rumors circulating on social media is they may only play 2 LBs and insert another safety (think what we did with Domann) and create more of a 4-2-5 so they may need a couple more. It would be smart for Fitzgerald to lean on his secondary and get more of them out there rather than try to figure it out with his front 7.
The long and short of it is Nebraska needs to run right at Northwestern’s front 7. We may be able to throw, but running will be much easier for us. If our line is worth anything, we should be able to manhandle these guys. If we struggle to open holes up, I worry. I think we may be able to have some success throwing on them with our TEs and slot WRs, but outside may prove too difficult with their experience at corner.
I see this being a massive slugfest just based on what we “know” about both teams. Northwestern doesn’t have experience at WR, but they do at RB, TE, and OL. Conversely, we have inexperience along our DL. With that said, Fitzgerald may see that we are also inexperienced in the defensive backfield and have a gameplan to throw. I think that would bode well in Nebraska’s favor. If we can get Northwestern to throw early, or if that is their strategy, we win this going away because the game can’t be slowed down and we will have the ball more against their inferior defense.
While we have the ball, no secret that we need to run it down their throats. Losing 3 of their top 5 tacklers and 5 of their front 7 starters… the recipe is there. This should be like leaving instructions on how to make toast for your teenager for Whipple, if he starts trying to throw everywhere I am going to be frustrated. We need to run early and often, because Northwestern wasn’t any good at stopping that last year, and who they brought in to help this year will be new. Take advantage of that. If we try running and no holes are opening up, it’s time to panic Husker fans, because besides North Dakota and Georgia Southern, this is the worst front 7 we will see, as Phil Steele has the DL ranked 14th in the B1G and the linebackers ranked 13th for the Wildcats.
Northwestern has actually won 2 of the last 4 west division titles, and as stated earlier, Fitzgerald is one of those coaches that seems to put together teams that play best when they are being doubted. They just lost way too much on the defensive side of the ball in my opinion, and I expect Husker Nation to be saying just how awesome our offense is after this game.
I see a 30-17 game in favor of the Huskers if Northwestern can run the ball, which I believe they will be able to do. Eventually, we will wear down their inexperienced defense and they will have to play catchup where we will exploit their weaknesses.
We will do a game recap for Nebraska and what went right, what went wrong in Ireland. We will also try to discern what was validated and what was still left unsettled for our team moving forward against the Wildcats. While you wait to see if we start 1-0, check out our season preview from yesterday:
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