Post-Game Analysis: Nebraska
by Jonathan Hodges

Once 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.

In 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.

Of 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 just yet.

Why Fans are So Upset

Northwestern 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.

But, 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 graduation).

- 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.

There 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.

One 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 fault.

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:
Passing Offense: 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.

Go 'Cats!!!

Jonathan Hodges
Contributor, HailToPurple
Web: http://www.hailtopurple.com/jhodges/
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Email: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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