Post-Game Analysis: Nebraska
by Jonathan Hodges
again, Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) fans found their Wildcats in the fourth
quarter with a double-digit lead and had good reason to worry about the
end-game woes for the 'Cats, as NU gave up two touchdowns in the final
six minutes of the game to allow Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) to take home the
status of contender in the Big Ten Legends Division. The Wildcats'
offense was a mess early on as NU could not convert a third down to
save its life, but thankfully the Cornhuskers kept shooting themselves
in the foot with three first half turnovers (two muffed punts and a
fumble after a catch) which kept the 'Cats in the game. But NU couldn't
do a whole lot with those advantageous situations, turning just one of
those into a score. The Wildcats put together just one decent drive in
the half but somehow found themselves up 14-10 at halftime.
the second half, NU's offense seemed to get back on track to some
extent, hitting paydirt on a 93 yard drive on their first possession of
the half (thanks to an 80 yard Venric Mark run) and had another solid
drive spanning into the fourth quarter that featured a Kain Colter
running conversion of a fourth down at the Nebraska five yard line.
Mike Trumpy would take the ball in on the following play, giving the
'Cats a 12 point lead with 8:31 to play in regulation. Unfortunately,
that is where things went south quickly for the 'Cats as the defense
crumbled by getting no pressure on Huskers QB Taylor Martinez and the
injury-depleted secondary allowing WRs to get open. Nebraska had
touchdown drives spanning a total of 156 yards that were the daggers
that ended NU's hopes on the day. NU dropped two interceptions on the
first drive that could have virtually sealed a win. And the NU offense
had a three-and-out when they needed to bleed the clock the most when
they were up by five. NU put together one last-gasp drive that stalled
at the Nebraska 36 yard line and set up what would be a career long 53
yard try from K Jeff Budzien, who has been perfect thus far on the
season. Unfortunately, the ball flew just a bit too far to the right
although it had enough distance to clear the upright, and there went
NU's chance to control its own destiny in the division race.
course this disappointing result has led to much consternation from the
NU fans, with a lot directed at the Northwestern coaching staff as they
have been the only constant through some of NU's most disheartening
fourth quarter collapses. So, I'll break down some of what's behind
this concern and why fans should not jump off the bandwagon for good
Why Fans are So Upset
is 6-2, already bowl eligible, .500 in the conference half way through
Big Ten play, is in play for an upper tier bowl, and is essentially
playing at or above expectations for this season. The 'Cats plowed
through non-conference play and tore it up on offense against Indiana
to move to 5-0 and gain a national ranking early on. Although NU now
has two blemishes on its slate, it held late leads in both games and
barely lost against solid Big Ten competition. One could very well
argue that the Wildcats have been performing above expectations.
that early success essentially boosted fans' expectations that NU has
subsequently not met. The offense was clicking early, particularly on
the ground, but against bigger and more prepared defenses NU has
struggled. And the 'Cats have given up two fourth quarter leads where a
decent offensive drive or a defensive stop would have given them a win.
Plus, the rest of the Big Ten is certainly down, and Northwestern still
controlled its own destiny in the quest for reaching the title game in
Indianapolis. It's not often that the Wildcats find themselves in this
situation and it is understandable that fans find themselves so upset
when NU blows a chance.
Why Fans Should Calm Down
- This is still a young team.
There are underclassmen littered across the two-deep, including some
true freshmen who are getting a good amount of playing time. And this
is even more pronounced when considering injuries
at key positions: Mark left the game in the second half with what
looked to be a head injury, NU's best CB Nick VanHoose came out with a
shoulder injury, after which point Nebraska made its clutch fourth
quarter TD drives, and another key DB Quinn Evans also came out late in
the game. Looking at the long term prospects of the 'Cats, fans knew
that this squad was likely poised for more success next year than this
season when considering the age of the talent on the team. The fact is
that sometimes it takes time for players to develop and teams to learn
how to win, and though this team has overachieved to some extent they
have also left some on the field. A positive here is that they are
learning through experience and should be ready when similar situations
arise in the future.
- The NU offense is finding its way after Persa's graduation.
QB Trevor Siemian can shoulder a decent share of the blame for NU's
lackluster performances over the past three weeks. He's throwing at a
completion rate under 50% which is unacceptable in NU's offensive
system. He's been locking onto receivers, overthrowing targets, and
sometimes making very ill-advised throws. But, he hasn't necessarily
been put in the best of situations, routinely coming in for
third-and-long situations when Colter was unsuccessful moving the
chains through the first two downs, and teams know exactly what is
coming on such plays: a pass. They can therefore send the pass rush
without worrying about a Colter-like scramble and can also focus on
clamping down on the WRs. Also, another significant factor that many
casual fans don't consider is that Colter and Siemian split practice reps at QB therefore
leaving neither fully in sync with their WR corps come game time. OC
Mick McCall and the coaching staff clearly saw how effective the 2QB
system could be through the first part of the season, particularly
during the record-setting day against Indiana, and stuck with that
through the last three weeks. Unfortunately, opponents have adjusted
(stacking the box against Colter, sending the pass-rush after Siemian,
and clamping down on the WRs with press coverage), and now is the time
for the coaching staff to put in the next wrinkle to help out. Also,
the fact is that NU misses Persa
who set an NCAA Div. I career record in completion rate; Siemian is
certainly underperforming, but sometimes fans don't realize what they
have until it's gone, and that seems to be the case with the
ever-accurate Dan Persa (somewhat like the long line of NFL-caliber
running backs the 'Cats had from the mid-1990's through Tyrell Sutton's
- NU still has three very win-able games remaining.
The game at Michigan looks to be the most difficult NU has remaining;
Iowa just got its doors blown off at home against a PSU squad that NU
fought hard in Happy valley, Michigan State's offense continues to
sputter, and then there's basement dweller Illinois. The Wildcats still
have a reasonable shot to hit nine wins, and a solid shot at eight,
which would be above most preseason estimates for this squad (including
my own). And although NU doesn't control its own destiny in the
division, things could still fall their way (although this would
certainly require the 'Cats to win out).
- There are two teams playing in every game.
This is something fans seem to loose sight of when yielding a lead
late: both teams are out there trying to win and have their share of
talent on the field. Looking at this past game as a whole, Nebraska
certainly deserved to win given its production throughout the game and
was only behind thanks to self-inflicted wounds. And looking at NU's
two losses, those game to two of the most storied programs in the
conference and the nation who are continuously stocked with top shelf
talent. The 'Cats were this close
to winning both of those games. In both games NU was stymied for most
of the contest but found ways to stay in and then take the lead in both
games. Previous NU squads may very well have been blown out in games
where there were being out-gained most of the way.
is still half of Big Ten play remaining for NU, and they will have
chances to play themselves into a higher tier bowl game and to still
make an impact in the division race. Wildcat fans should not lose hope
and should not lose faith in the coaching staff that has brought the
'Cats this far, which while short of expectations of a division crown,
is still much higher than NU's past.
final note: I haven't heard anyone do it, but I certainly hope nobody
pins the loss on Budzien, who put up a valiant kick on that
game-deciding attempt as his 53-yarder went just to the right of the
upright with enough distance to be good. The offense completely
dissolved once they got inside the 40 yard line giving Budzien no real
help. Hopefully he gets a better chance to redeem himself soon.
Player of the Game: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez (27-of-39 passing for 342 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT; 18 carries for 65 yards, 1 TD)
Although that throwing motion still isn't pretty, it was more than
effective against the 'Cats, especially in clutch time when he led two
huge TD drives to give them the win. He made some timely runs as well
as he kept the NU defense off-balance for most of the day. And
seemingly for once, the turnover issues that Nebraska had were not his
Northwestern Honorable Mentions: NU
RB/KR/PR Venric Mark (16 carries for 118 yards, 1 TD; 2 punt returns
for 21 yards; 2 kick returns for 39 yards), S Ibraheim Campbell (9
tackles, 3 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble).
What to Work on:
As mentioned earlier, the 2QB system is no longer working, mostly
thanks to Siemian's inaccuracy. It's time to either make the commitment
to one QB or the other so that the offense can get in sync. Colter
seems like the favorite option of fans given what he can do with his
legs, though Siemian may look better after getting more practice time
with the first team and being put in more manageable game situations.
Fourth Quarter Performance:
This almost goes without saying, but the defense needs to focus on
making that one last stop needed to finish off its opponent while the
offense can certainly put together a drive or two to burn clock,
especially in clutch situations.
Get Secondary Healthy:
The secondary suffered two huge setbacks with VanHoose and Evans coming
out (Dugar was already sidelined with an injury), and NU needs one or
both of them to get back in to survive down the stretch.
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