The Huskers have made it to the midway point of the season. They are also halfway to a bowl game and could have a good chance to become eligible for one in the next month. There have been a lot of positives, mostly the defense, but also many places that could use improvement mostly the red zone play and pass offense. Matt Rhule is building a solid foundation even if it doesn’t have all the amenities yet. This week’s Northwestern game gives the Huskers a chance to get the second half off to a strong start.
The offense is running the ball well but has struggled passing. The Huskers currently have the tenth-lowest completion percentage in the country at just 53% – only the 2016 team finished with a lower percentage than that in the last 20 years. The Huskers attempt the fewest pass attempts per game (22) in the Big Ten and are twelfth in percentage, yards YPG (141.8), and touchdowns per game (0.8). To attract good quarterback talent, Nebraska is going to have to show a commitment to improving this area.
Some of the Husker’s passing woes have been out of its control, losing two receivers to injury, one to retirement, and a top tight end to an assortment of issues. The young receivers are starting to make more of an impact with Malachi Coleman getting his first catch against Illinois. With Coleman in line to start his first game against Northwestern, this unit could get a spark from its second-highest-rated WR ever. Thomas Fidone has been a top target for Haarberg and can hopefully continue to build towards the huge potential he brought as a recruit.
Heinrich Haarberg’s rushing pace has slowed slightly in the last few weeks dropping the Huskers quarterback rush rate from decade-high levels. Sims and Haarberg are still responsible for 41% of the Husker’s rushing yards which is 5th in the country. Getting Sims back at 100% is a good insurance policy for this offense pushing for bowl eligibility. Emmet Johnson or Josh Fleeks will need to step up as another reliable rushing option with Rhule being dissatisfied with Anthony Grant’s fumbles. Northwestern’s run defense is currently last in the conference (172.3 YPG). Big plays on the ground should be plentiful for the Huskers.
Northwestern’s run game is also quite one-dimensional. Cam Porter is outrushing the team’s second-leading rusher by over 200 yards. Like Nebraska, two of its three top healthy carriers are quarterbacks, although Ben Bryant has most of his runs for negative yards. Northwestern’s rushing offense (103 YPG) matches its defense ranking last in the conference. The Blackshirts have an opportunity to reclaim the Big Ten’s top rushing defense which currently only trails Penn State (72.5 YPG).
The Huskers have a great chance to get above .500 this week. Northwestern is perhaps the worst team in the conference and Nebraska is forming its identity. In terms of total point margin, Nebraska has the third-highest point differential against Northwestern against any conference opponent. Despite this, the Huskers have only managed to win half of their games against the Wildcats. Even when the Huskers had a clear talent margin, they played down to Northwestern and struggled to win. I expect both teams to have a different culture than they’ve had in the past and the Husker’s culture to win out.