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Nebraska Opponent Spring Review: Northwestern

As Nebraska enters a critical fifth season under head coach Scott Frost in 2022, we decided to look at where things stand with the Huskers’ 12 opponents coming out of spring practices.

We begin today with Northwestern, which is coming off a disappointing 3-9 campaign and will be looking for a bounce-back year. Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com gave us his thoughts on the Wildcats going into their Week 0 opener vs. NU in Ireland.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 3-9 season in 2021.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 3-9 season in 2021. (Getty Images)

Three spring storylines to know

1. All eyes are on the quarterback battle

Northwestern officially kicked off a two-man quarterback battle this spring between junior Ryan Hilinski and sophomore Brendan Sullivan. There didn’t appear to be much separation either way coming out of the spring game.

Hilinski started five games last season and appeared in four others, completing 72-of-134 passes for 764 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception while posting a 2-3 record as a starter.

While he might have been the presumed incumbent for the No. 1 job, Sullivan complicated things with how well he performed during spring ball. Even head coach Pat Fitzgerald raved about Sullivan’s play, making it clear that the starting spot would remain wide-open going into fall camp.

Hilinski has the bigger arm and holds an obvious experience advantage. But Sullivan is more athletic and showed flashes of being a playmaker that could add a different dynamic to the Wildcats’ offense.

2. Loading up on transfers

Every program in the country is taking advantage of the new NCAA Transfer Portal era, including Northwestern.

The Wildcats ended up adding eight transfers to their roster this winter, with seven arriving on campus for spring practices. That number might not stand out compared to other schools, but it was a significant amount for Fitzgerald.

With those new additions, the primary area of focus was the defensive front seven, as Northwestern ranked as one of the worst teams in the country against the run last season.

The Wildcats brought in three defensive tackles and Pittsburgh linebacker transfer Wendell Davis Jr., who will likely claim a starting role this fall.

3. The pressure is on DC Jim O’Neil

It wouldn’t be fair to say that second-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is on the hot seat right now, but his side of the ball will definitely be under the microscope in 2022.

The Wildcats were awful defensively last season, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (29.0 ppg), 13th in total defense (429.5 ypg), and 14th in rushing defense (213.0 ypg).

Given how much Northwestern turned over its roster on that side of the ball this offseason through the transfer portal, the expectation is that it will be better defensively in Year 2.

However, that unit will be put to the test right off the bat with a Big Ten West matchup vs. Nebraska in Ireland. If it struggles, the pressure on O’Neil will only continue to build.

Early outlook on Nebraska vs. Northwestern

Vaccher: “Up until last year, it’s been one of the most competitive series in the Big Ten. It’s always been a close game. Last year it went off the rails pretty early for Northwestern and turned into a laugher, but I don’t think that’s indicative.

"I think, as usual, it’s going to be about who makes more mistakes. If you turn the ball over more, chances are you’re going to lose the game. It should be a pretty close game, and these are two teams we don’t have a lot of expectations for, at least from the Northwestern side.

"There are a lot of big question marks going into the season, and we’re not sure of a lot of things. I kind of think the same way about Nebraska this season with the Scott Frost regime and where they’re standing. So it will be an interesting game, anyway.

"It’s certainly not a marquee matchup in the Big Ten, right? These are two teams that went 1-8 (in conference play) last year. But I think it’s an intriguing game, anyway, and we’ll see where each of them stand right away in the opener.”

2022 win-loss expectation for Northwestern

Vaccher: “So Northwestern is coming off a 3-9 season, and they did this a couple years ago. In 2018 they won the Big Ten West. In 2019 they went 3-9. Then in 2020, they won the West, and in ’21, they went 3-9. So they’re on a bit of a rollercoaster.

"Looking back on that 2019 team, almost all of the problems could be traced to the quarterback. They had absolutely awful play at that position, and it really hurt them. Where last year, there were problems on both sides of the ball. They scored 16.6 points per game and their defense got shredded an awful lot.

"So they’ve got a lot of problems to address. I think if they can get to 6-6 and make a bowl game, this season would be considered a success and get things back on track for Fitz.

"I don’t think they’re going to be a whole lot better than that, and there’s potential they could be a couple games worse than that. Northwestern typically wins a game they shouldn’t and loses a game they shouldn’t every season, so I think they should be somewhere around .500 for the year.”