Northwestern Wildcats

2019 record: 1-3 (0-2 in the Big Ten)

Offensive yards per play: 3.93 (129th nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 4.79 (31st)

Turnover margin: minus-3 (T-100th)

Penalty yards per game: 48.3 (T-34th)


Pat Fitzgerald (97-73 overall at Northwestern and career)

The coach who did more with so much less for so many years is one of the sport’s best, regardless of what the record is in 2019. The Wildcats routinely turn mediocre recruiting classes into bowl trips and impressive performances in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald’s assistants have remained loyal to him as he has to them, and the team has a clear identity of keeping games close until the fourth quarter, when the offense opens up and sneaks on you. Northwestern has done this, multiple times, to Nebraska. Opposing coaches and players often say Northwestern doesn’t beat itself. That’s a big compliment in this sport.


Type: Pro-style spread

Coordinator: Mick McCall

Nebraska has already faced two of the worst offenses in college football in Northern Illinois and South Alabama. Northwestern gives both a run for their money. The Wildcats average 15.5 points per game — Rutgers-level futility — while taxing the defense with soul-gutting turnovers, like the two that directly led to Wisconsin touchdowns in a 24-15 loss. Like all bad offenses, Northwestern suffers from a lack of talent, especially at receiver, where 2018’s three best players — Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green and Bennett Skowronek — graduated, retired and got hurt. But the run game, paced by true freshman running back Drake Anderson, is getting better. The light, quick Anderson is averaging 5 yards per carry. Northwestern’s quarterback play — be it Hunter Johnson or Aidan Smith — has been uniformly awful, but they’re getting no help. Northwestern routinely has one of the league’s worst offensive lines for pass protection.


Type: 4-3

Coordinators: Mike Hankwitz

Saddled with a struggling offense, Northwestern’s defense is allowing 21.5 points per game, which is fairly extraordinary. Wisconsin, which had mowed down every defense in its path, managed 243 total yards and 130 rushing yards. The Wildcats are seasoned and rawhide-tough against the run. Their front seven is among the Big Ten’s top three. Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher have NFL futures, as do defensive linemen Alex Miller and Joe Gaziano. The secondary might be gettable. It was last year, when Nebraska scored 31 points in Evanston. It’s possible, too, that Northwestern’s defense is better suited to face plodding, pro-style offenses — Stanford, Michigan State and Wisconsin — than a no-huddle, hurry-up system like Nebraska’s.

Players to watch

Gaziano: The defensive end has been a pain in Nebraska’s neck for several years, and he’ll likely cause some headaches Saturday, too. He has 2 ½ sacks on the season, plus two fumble recoveries off fumbles he forced.

Fisher: Tall, rangy buster — 6-foot-4, 246 pounds — who, when he drops into a zone, makes it tough for quarterbacks trying to hit that spot in front of the safeties. He’ll come downhill on a running play, too. Looking for a comp? Current Nebraska inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud is a pretty good one.

Anderson: When the 5-11, 190-pound Anderson breaks a run Saturday and you say, “I thought Northwestern’s offense was terrible!” remember you read this. Anderson gets through a hole quick. He’s slight, though, and has to stay healthy.

They said it

“We’ve got to get more production out of our passing game, period. We can’t have a lack of balance and expect to have a lot of success ... when you’re not scoring touchdowns and you’re turning the ball over for touchdowns, I dunno, that’d zap my juice.” — Pat Fitzgerald on the offense’s struggles

“He’s trying to do too much. I don’t sense he’s trying to be perfect, because I don’t think in football, that’s a realistic thing. I think he’s just trying. Man, (Hunter Johnson) cares. He’s working really hard and it’s going to get better. Same thing with Aidan.” — Fitzgerald

“Nebraska has their own different ways of running the ball, and that includes their quarterback. That poses a challenge for us in the run game and the pass game.” — Joe Gaziano

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Three stats

58.84: Northwestern’s passer rating on third down. The Wildcats are completing 45.9% of their passes on third down — only 12 of 37 passes have gone for a first down. Northwestern also has thrown four interceptions on third down.

4.4: Yards per pass attempt. The 2018 Rutgers passing offense — perhaps the worst passing offense in the past decade of college football — averaged 4.5 yards per pass attempt.

22.50: Yards per kickoff return. This is pretty good, and Nebraska will have to be on the watch for it.

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