Nebraska beat Northwestern, 29-28, breaking a three-game road losing streak and staying alive in the race for the Big Ten Legends Division race. But it didn’t come easily.
Three turnovers and a host of ill-timed penalties helped Northwestern take a 28-16 lead over Nebraska with 8:16 left to play. Up stepped Taylor Martinez to lead Nebraska on two scoring drives put Nebraska into the lead with 2:08 left to go, and a 53-yard Northwestern field goal attempt sailing just wide right sealed the comeback win.
So let’s take a look at who were the winners and losers in Nebraska’s heart-stopping adventure in Evanston.
Hey, remember that guy a couple of weeks ago who went into Columbus and melted down under pressure, throwing three interceptions, losing a fumble and looking for all the world like the guy who led Nebraska to embarrassing losses away from home against Wisconsin, Michigan and South Carolina last year?
Yeah, Taylor Martinez doesn’t either. Even with Nebraska being negative-three in turnover margin against Northwestern, Martinez played a nearly flawless game. With Nebraska down 28-16 halfway through the fourth quarter, Martinez put Nebraska on his shoulders and dragged it to an amazing victory.
It’s tough to pick an individual as a defensive winner, given how well the entire unit bounced back against another dangerous mobile quarterback threat. But Nebraska’s struggles against Ohio State were keyed in part when Ciante Evans went out injured.
Against Northwestern, Evans played almost the entire game and did a great job in helping neutralize Kain Colter when he lined up as a receiver. Evans’ return was a big reason why Nebraska’s defense had such an impressive performance.
It’s even harder to pick a winner amongst Nebraska’s receiving corps than it was to pick one from the defense. Qunicy Enunwa had a phenomenal afternoon, with six catches for 110 yards. Kenny Bell went six for 77, including an amazing touchdown run through the defense. Taariq Allen and Ben Cotton had touchdown grabs. And Jamal Turner got involved as well, with three catches for 56 yards.
When Nebraska’s receivers as a whole have a good game, Nebraska’s offense is far more dangerous.
Yeah, I know this is an extra winner, but this one has to be included (and not because a certain particularly smart and handsome analyst was part of the crowd). Nebraska fans dominated Ryan Field in Evanston, at least matching, if not exceeding, the fan support for the Purples.
And it got worse. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter admitted after the game that the Purples had to use a silent count after Nebraska took the lead in the fourth quarter due to the crowd noise.
Remember, this is the home team quarterback saying crowd noise forced a team into a silent count. Big ups to the Children of the Corn who made the trek to the Windy City.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Superman. At the start of the season, a lot of people (but not this dope) thought that Burkhead could be a dark-horse candidate for a Heisman Trophy. But Burkhead went down with a knee injury early in Nebraska’s opening game against Southern Mississippi. He didn’t return until a cameo appearance against Idaho State two games later.
He was able to get through the Wisconsin game without incident, but left against Ohio State without being able to return. Against Northwestern, Burkhead was only able to make it four carries before the knee injury returned and forced him out of the game.
Burkhead’s status for next week against Michigan is still uncertain, but there’s no question that his nagging knee injury will cast a shadow on his entire season.
Nebraska outgained Northwestern 543 yards to 301, and that includes an 80-yard busted coverage run from Venric Mark to help pad the Purples’ stats. Nebraska had 26 first downs to Northwestern’s 14. Nebraska had the ball for 32:25, while Northwestern only had it for 27:35.
So if Nebraska dominated the game as much as the statistics suggested, why did it have to work so hard for a win?
Two turnovers on punt returns—on back-to-back punts—coupled with an off-and-on performance from Brett Maher was a huge factor in Northwestern being able to take the lead. And bonehead penalties from Daimion Stafford and Conor McDermott cost Nebraska huge chunks of field position.
Special teams has not been a strength for Nebraska all year. But against Northwestern, that weakness very nearly cost Nebraska a game and a chance to win the Big Ten.
I will admit that I thought Nebraska’s decision to go for two with 1:09 left in the third quarter was the correct call. The game seemed to be quickly winding down, and Nebraska looked to all the world like it desperately needed points in a hurry. The attempt failed and left Nebraska chasing points throughout the fourth-quarter comeback.
It ultimately put Nebraska in a situation where, had Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien’s 53-yard field goal attempt been a hair to the left, the Purples would have stolen the game back from Nebraska.
I’ve learned my lesson. Until the situation is very clear regarding the number of possessions you have left in the game, kick the extra point.
After the Ohio State loss, the long knives began to come out from some members of the fan base for Bo Pelini. Some fans are ready to move on from the Pelini era already. Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald lays out a compelling case as to why Nebraska’s heroic win over Northwestern papers over a number of cracks in the foundation of the football program.
But Nebraska is now 5-2 and 2-1 in the Big Ten. A win over Michigan next week at home, and Nebraska will be in the driver’s seat to win the Legends Division and make a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship.
There may be big-time concerns about the status and direction of Nebraska’s football program under Pelini’s leadership. But winning—even an ugly win like against Northwestern—is the ultimate disinfectant.
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