Post-Game Analysis: Nebraska
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, the Northwestern Wildcats (4-5, 2-4) certainly needed to put together their most complete game of the 2011 season to stand a chance against the then-No. 10 (BCS) Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-2, 3-2) in their first meeting in Big Ten conference play. And, that they did, as the 'Cats successfully avenged NU's 2000 loss in the Alamo Bowl and laid sole claim to the "NU" abbreviation (which the Big Ten Network rightly granted to the Wildcats for the game broadcast) as they knocked off the heavily favored Huskers by a final score of 28-25. With their final three games at home and NU likely favored in their next two (against Rice and Minnesota), Northwestern now has a solid shot to go bowling after those hopes for a 13th game looked dismal just a couple of weeks ago.

Although the 'Cats certainly had their share of mistakes in this game (three turnovers and a missed field goal to name some), the play of both lines allowed NU to lead the entire game thanks to outrushing Nebraska by a significant 207-122 margin (a Husker team that came in ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game). NU also benefitted from getting some big plays in their favor (most notably the 81 yard catch and run pass from QB Kain Colter to WR Jeremy Ebert, the second longest pass play in Northwestern history) while preventing such plays from Nebraska (who had no runs of 20+ yards and just two passes longer than that: 2 for 25 yards each). This game was most certainly a team effort, especially evident with multiple injuries affecting Wildcat personnel: S Brian Peters broke his hand but continued playing, QB Dan Persa injured his shoulder after being pulled to the turf and tried to remain in the game but would come out late in the second quarter, SB Jack Konopka suffered a knee injury and would leave the game, and late in the contest CB Jeravin Matthews suffered a hit that took him out (with the DBs already dinged up to boot: S David Arnold and CB Demetrius Dugar did not play).

But, once again, Coach Fitzgerald proved that his Wildcats are always capable of pulling off the big upset, particularly after most have dismissed them, and while this season may go down as a disappointment thanks to that five game losing streak, NU has a chance to make something happen here at the end thanks to this great showing in Lincoln. Now, the 'Cats must focus on taking care of business and once again coming together as a team over the next two weeks in order to extend their school-record bowl game streak.

First Half Summary

Northwestern kicked off and many 'Cats fans certainly wondered if NU would even have a chance in this one given the performance of the NU defense in recent weeks. But, the Wildcats set the tone for the rest of the day as they wouldn't let Nebraska control the line of scrimmage and forced a punt (one of four on the day). The 'Cats promptly got the ball and began driving with the Dan Persa/Kain Colter combination at QB and were off to a nice start, into Husker territory, when Colter put the ball on the ground on an option pitch play and Nebraska recovered. It was clear that NU couldn't afford big mistakes like that against a tough team, but once again the Nothwestern D responded by forcing a punt on a three-and-out. The Wildcats would then get the ball and systematically move the ball down the field on a 13 play 80 yard drive that featured a 17 yard run (and actual feet-first slide!) from Persa to enter the red zone. NU would top it off with the first score of the game, a two yard run up the gut by Jacob Schmidt (who had 54 yards on the day), to take a 7-0 lead with 2:08 left in the first quarter - a lead they would not relenquish.

Nebraska would respond with a good drive of their own, setting up with first-and-goal at the NU five yard line after 12 plays, but once again the Northwestern defense would come up huge as they forced a fumble from the normally reliable Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead that got kicked up in the air and was recovered by the Wildcats. Then, after trading punts, NU experienced a big scare as Dan Persa was grabbed by the shoulder pads and brought to the turf hard against his left (non-throwing) shoulder right after getting off a throw-away pass to avoid the sack. Although he would stay in the game, he was obviously in pain and would later come out and remain out for the rest of the contest.

The Huskers' only score of the half came after Persa's last pass attempt on the day, which was deflected up in the air at the line and then knocked (by Persa) into the awaiting arms of Nebraska LB Lavonte David. This gave the Huskers the ball at the NU 37 yard line and although they could only move the ball 18 yards, it was enough for Nebraska kicker Brett Maher to nail the FG with the wind (which was a significant factor in the game, more on that later) to get the Huskers on the board, but NU still led 7-3. The Wildcats would pick up a couple of first downs with Colter at the helm and would be content to go into the half with the lead as they would get the ball to start the second.

Second Half Summary

The 'Cats came out and got a big boost from Venric Mark, who dropped the opening kick at the goal line but then promptly responded by returning it 41 yards to give NU good field position, and they would take advantage. With Trevor Siemian in as the "throwing QB" and once again alternating with Colter, the Wildcats quickly moved down the field and found paydirt thanks to a nifty Colter run in which he reached out and tapped the pylon with the football in his outstretched arm while somehow keeping his legs off of the white out-of-bounds paint. This put NU up 14-3 and they were already in business, particularly with the defense playing like gangbusters and virtually shutting down the Nebraska run game. NU looked like it may run away with this one after stopping Burkhead for a loss on a fourth down play and the driving down into the Nebraska red zone thanks to a 32 yard Siemian to Colter pass that once again highlighted Kain's multi-faceted abilities. But, the 'Cats would make a costly mistake as Siemian barely overshot Colter in the end zone and Nebraska DB Austin Cassidy intercepted the football and returned it to midfield. That set up a Nebraska TD-scoring drive with QB Taylor Martinez going to the air, and suddenly the Huskers had cut the lead to 14-10 after looking down and out just moments earlier.

The Wildcats responded with a solid nine-play drive to set them up inside the Nebraska 30 (during which NU completed just one pass, deciding to keep it on the ground), and Fitz wisely managed the clock to put off their FG attempt until the fourth quarter at which time the teams switched ends and the Wildcats could kick with the wind. Unfortunately, Jeff Budzien's kick was just wide to the left and Nebraska would get the ball with a chance to take the lead. Once again, though, the NU D came up huge with a three-and-out stop and punt to follow.

Then, after a three yard run by Colter, the 'Cats got what turned out to be the play of the game as the Cornhusker safeties were sucked into the line of scrimmage thanks to play action, and Colter dropped back and hit a perfect leading strike to Jeremy Ebert who caught the ball and ran by two Nebraska defensive backs to streak 81 yards to extend Northwestern's lead to 21-10 with the clock ticking in the fourth quarter.

Though the Huskers would score on the next drive to cut NU's lead to just three (thanks to the two-point conversion), the NU defense certainly made them work for it, as they had to go 74 yards in a whopping 12 plays, mainly relying upon the short to intermediate passing game as they had to move the ball into the wind. With 8:48 to play in regulation, the Wildcats would take over at their own 34 trying to milk a 21-18 lead against the newly minted Nebraska Blackshirt defense that had been underwhelming for much of the game but knew they had a chance to take a stand.

Instead, Northwestern put together what was likely their drive of the year, as they used Colter's shiftiness and multiple running backs to ride the ground game for over seven minutes and eventually find the end zone to take what would be the game-icing TD. The 'Cats would start the drive with three consecutive 10+ yard runs (the first two from Schmidt) and would let the clock bleed as much as possible on every play with Nebraska's Bo Pelini declining to use his timeouts for some reason. Eventually, Colter would punch it in with 1:34 to play, giving the 'Cats a 10 point lead and putting them in great position to pull off the upset.

Nebraska came out and put together a drive where they found the end zone, but they burned a good amount of clock doing so (the TD came with just 18 seconds left) and NU's previous drive forced them to rely on the passing game (Nebraska did not run the ball on that drive). And, still down by a field goal, this of course forced Nebraska to go for the onside kick; even if they did recover, the Huskers would likely have to drive a good ways down the field as they would be trying to kick the tying FG into the wind. But, they would not get that chance: after seeing something on the initial setup, Pelini called a timeout and then chose to kick to the short side of the field with just four members of each team, and NU's Charles Brown easily dove on the ball to allow NU to set up in victory formation and seal the huge road win.

Player of the Game

NU QB/WR Kain Colter (4-of-6 passing for 115 yards, 1 TD; 16 carries for 64 yards, 2 TDs after removing sacks; 3 catches for 57 yards) Once again, Colter came out as the leader of this football team even with Persa going down midway through the contest, and he showed off his skills in every aspect of the offense. Most importantly, he had his hands on NU's final three touchdowns of the day and showed off his legs during what was likely the 'Cats' most important drive of the year to ice the game and milk the clock late in the fourth quarter. Fitz rightly gave him a good amount of accolades and he certainly has a bright future as a key part of the Northwestern offense.

What Happened

"NU's defense may be overmatched in this game against Nebraska's efficient ground attack, which ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and averages 5.2 yards per carry thanks to the tandem of QB Taylor Martinez and RB Rex Burkhead... Northwestern's recipe for success here is straightforward but likely difficult to execute: contain the run, force Nebraska to pass, and take advantage by forcing punts (or, optimally, grabbing some turnovers). Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect the 'Cats to be able to shut down a team with so much talent and the ability to run the football well while hitting some home run passes (to which NU is particularly susceptible)"

The NU defense came up with their game of the year by forcing Nebraska to pass (the Huskers had 37 pass attempts to 35 rushes, and ran the ball just five times in the final quarter) and by preventing any long pass completions (Nebraska's longest completion of the day was 25 yards: the 'Cats had three of 30 or longer). NU grabbed two turnovers and forced four punts while holding Nebraska to just 3.1 yards per carry, 2.1 under their aforementioned season average. Neither Burkhead nor Martinez could crack 70 yards on the ground while the 'Cats accumulated eight tackles for loss on the day (the Huskers had just two). Eventually, Nebraska would take to the air in the form of short to intermediate passes, which was perfectly fine by the 'Cats as they looked to run clock with them holding the lead.

I do think the 'Cats have some shot in this game, unlike most observations floating around, and it will be interesting to see how this team responds after a win but with their bowl hopes still on the brink. Nebraska, meanwhile, is the frontrunner in the conference which certainly hasn't worked out too well for the team sporting that honor over the past two weeks, and in each season under Pelini the Huskers have certainly had their share of clunker games at home (last year's home loss to a sub-.500 Texas team, 2009's home loss to a bad Iowa State team, 2008's home drubbing at the hands of Missouri). I fully expect yet another entertaining contest - something the Wildcats are very good at putting on.

Though I didn't predict a Wildcat victory, this statement certainly came true: Northwestern did in fact respond very well after last week's win while Nebraska had yet another clunker at home. The game was quite entertaining and came down until the very end (as the vast majority of Wildcat games do) but NU showed that they would indeed come together as a team and pull off a win no matter how many obstacles they faced (including numerous injuries on their own side).

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

Offensive & Defensive Lines: Both lines deserve a lot of credit in this one, particularly given their success against a team known for its solid line play. On defense, the NU DL frustrated Nebraska's run game all day long: Nebraska had no runs of 20 or more yards and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, having to go to the air to stay in this one. And on the other side of the ball, the OL allowed the 'Cats to gain over 200 yards on the ground that included all 66 on NU's game-icing drive. Both lines have been rightly derided for much of this season, but in this game they really flipped things around and used the edge in the trenches to pull off the big upset road win.

WR Jeremy Ebert (6 catches for 147 yards, 1 TD) A week after catching just one ball, Ebert had a fantastic day that earned him Walter Camp national Player of the Week honors that included the play of the day: an 81 yard catch and run in which he outran two Nebraska defensive backs on the way to the end zone to extend the 'Cats lead in the fourth quarter. Ebert continues to prove that he is a very good football player and will once again contend for all-conference honors.

Tackling: After calling out the defense's poor tackling in each of the past two weeks, the D came out huge in this game, led by redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell who led the way with 13 stops that included 1 TFL and a fumble recovery. The Wildcats rarely had a missed tackle, and everyone got a chance to contribute, with 27 NU players recording stops on the day. And with significant injuries plaguing the 'Cats, it was certainly good to see everyone go out and pick up the proverbial flag.

Mental Resiliency: We've seen the Wildcats fold time after time this season, giving up a second half lead in three Big Ten games and failing to take a second half lead in two others where they had opportunities. But in this game, despite obstacles including injuries to key players that included Dan Persa, Northwestern stepped up and "finished" the game, putting up 14 fourth quarter points to extend their lead at two crucial points in the ball game.

What to Work on

Limiting Mistakes: The only reason that Nebraska was in the football game was due to NU mistakes: the Huskers' first 10 points were off of Northwestern turnovers, Siemian threw an interception in the end zone that took points off the board for the 'Cats, and NU also missed a field goal. Although some great line play and some mistakes from the Huskers (2 lost fumbles early in the game: both in the red zone) allowed NU to pull off the win, the 'Cats' mistakes almost blew their opportunity. Do credit the Wildcats for responding to each of these errors, though.

Random Observations

Fitz's Coaching Record

Pat Fitzgerald picked up win number 38 in his Northwestern coaching career to move into second place all alone and currently sits 11 wins from the NU all-time mark of 49 held by Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf; this while having more than one fewer full seasons at the helm compared to any other coach in the top eight on NU's all time win list. Also, Fitz continues to coach well on the road and late in the year: NU is 8-5 in true road games as the underdog since 2008, and is 8-4 in November (and 5-2 on the road in November) since that time.

Random Stats

This was the first game of the 2011 season that Northwestern won while failing to accumulate more sacks than its opponent (the teams tied with one sack each). NU played well on fourth down, converting both of their chances while stopping the Huskers on one of their two tries. The Wildcats won the time of possession (34:06), including dominating the second half (18:47).


NU continued to play disciplined football, racking up just two penalties for 20 yards, compared to six for 41 for Nebraska. On the year, Northwestern ranks 11th nationally and is tops in the conference with just 4.3 penalties per game (36.1 yards per game). And for the second week in a row, Northwestern put itself in an advantageous position thanks to playing with more discipline than its opponent.

Final Thought

This was certainly a huge win for this year's Wildcats and for the program as a whole as they showed that they will not be counted down and out and now have new hope for a bowl game. Despite some questionable decisions earlier in the year, Fitz was seemingly vindicated in this game thanks to some smart decision making. And with many fans questioning the talent level in this program, NU stepped up its game in all phases and just plain outplayed a highly ranked and talented Cornhusker team in order to take home a huge upset road win. While we may end up looking back and feeling disappointment over that five game losing streak and the fact that NU had a chance to win each of those games, it's time to enjoy this victory and hopefully ride the tide towards a bowl game.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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