LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska went back to the drawing board in the wake of a troubling loss at Minnesota, shuffling personnel on both sides of the ball as it looked to sharpen focus with the strength of the schedule at hand. Will it make a difference against Northwestern?
Here’s what we'll be watching:
The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.
Distribution of the football: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck drew criticism for his balance in the game plan last week. The Huskers rushed the football 30 times and threw it 30 times. Sounds good, but a closer look shows that Nebraska experienced much more success on the ground than through the air. Considering the weather conditions favored a ground attack, and with Martinez’s iffy health, Beck might have been better suited to stay conservative. The same thing applies this week, though star I-back Ameer Abdullah missed practice time with an ankle injury. The Huskers might have to rely some on backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby -- plus Armstrong in the option game -- against the Wildcats.
Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.
Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?
It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.