Steven M. Sipple: This pick may sound a bit irrational, but here comes first win of Frost era
Nebraska’s football season already feels long, so let’s do something somewhat irrational for a change.
Let’s pick Nebraska to topple Northwestern when the teams meet at 11 a.m. Saturday in Evanston, Illinois.
That’s right, get ready for Scott Frost’s first victory as the Huskers’ head coach.
Granted, my prediction is a bit illogical considering Northwestern has won nine of its past 10 Big Ten games. The pick almost seems ludicrous when you consider in Nebraska’s last six conference games, it’s allowed an average of 50.8 points per game.
The Huskers are 0-5, including 0-3 in the league, this season. They’ve never opened a season with six straight losses, and it won’t happen this year.
“We’ve been really close (to winning) a bunch of times,” Frost said earlier this week in what amounted to a mild exaggeration.
Although Nebraska came close against Colorado (33-28) and Troy (24-19), it hasn’t been especially close since. But now it’s time for Husker fans to exhale. At last, here comes a victory.
“We’ve left a lot on the field offensively, particularly early on because of little mistakes or penalties,” Frost said. “Even defensively, there were some plays out there to be made; we just didn’t make them. It doesn’t take too many of those to turn it around.”
That’s especially true against Northwestern (2-3, 2-1 Big Ten). I hesitated to say that because it sounds disparaging. I’m fully aware that Pat Fitzgerald’s crew played Michigan a hell of a lot tougher than Nebraska did. But I’m also aware that Fitzgerald’s teams tend to play to the level of their competition. Against the Huskers, that could be dangerous.
So, look for speedy Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez to put up more big numbers. Northwestern has a sturdy front seven, but the Wildcats have only eight sacks on the season and aren’t especially athletic. You don’t need me to tell you that Martinez is a high-grade athlete. My wife can see his prowess and she doesn’t know what constitutes a first down.
That said, the attribute that impresses me most about Martinez is his temperament. The rookie stays on an even keel. But you also see the fire burning. You saw it last week after Wisconsin’s 41-24 victory when Martinez was asked if he had fun in the second half as Nebraska found success offensively. He made it clear it’s difficult to have fun when the result is an “L.”
But it’s time for Nebraska’s rising star to taste victory. It’s time for the Huskers to end a nine-game skid that dates to last season. Martinez and the Huskers’ speed on the perimeter — namely, JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan — will be too much for Northwestern. Frost will find more use for hard-charging freshman running back Maurice Washington, whose pass-catching ability could help cure the team’s anemic performance on third down.
Meanwhile, Nebraska’s defense catches a break in that it will face a spread offense. One of my foremost concerns with Frost’s program going forward is how poorly the defense fared against Michigan and Wisconsin’s pro-style offenses. The Wolverines’ offensive line, ordinarily a question mark, was an exclamation point against the Huskers. UW flat-out bullied the Blackshirts.
If Northwestern rushes for 120-plus yards against Nebraska, it’ll amount to a code-red disaster because the Wildcats rank 127th nationally in rushing at 77.4 yards per game. The Huskers should be able to put much of their focus on pass defense and perhaps get heat on quarterback Clayton Thorson. He was awful last November in Lincoln. His team won despite him.
This time, Nebraska will close the deal, and it won’t have to play perfectly to do so. Although the Huskers’ propensity for penalties won’t go away overnight, they may have to limit the total to a half-dozen or so. That shouldn’t be too much to ask. If the Blackshirts can come up with a couple of interceptions, well, that would be a change that would help greatly. They’ve forced only four turnovers all season.
Let’s close with a macro-level stat: The home team is just 1-6 in this series. Make it 1-7.
Nebraska 37, Northwestern 21.
Enjoy the day.