Northwestern pulled off the second-biggest shock of the 2011 Big Ten season, coming to Lincoln and knocking off Nebraska, 28-25. The Wildcats never gave up their lead against Nebraska, although the Cornhuskers pulled to within three points twice in the fourth quarter.
After spending the week assuming a victory, Nebraska fans spent most of the weekend recovering from the shock loss. So let's take a look, unit by unit, at Nebraska's performance to see if we can understand what happened.
Whatever issues Nebraska had in its loss to Northwestern, they didn’t come from its signal-caller. Taylor Martinez was 28-37 with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and led Nebraska on drive after drive to keep hope alive. If that Martinez shows up the rest of the season, Nebraska could have gained something very valuable in an otherwise-embarrassing loss.
Even Superman has his kryptonite. Rex Burkhead’s goal-line fumble might have been the single biggest turning point in Northwestern’s upset win over Nebraska. Burkhead’s statistics were good (22 carries for 80 yards), but the crucial fumble certainly is the standout play of the game. The freshman backs did get some playing time, although Ameer Abdullah was the only back with an official carry.
Think Taylor Martinez had a good day? Think how good the day would have been without the numerous dropped passes from his receivers. Convert a few of those darts, and maybe Nebraska pulls out an ugly win. Kudos to Brandon Kinnie for making some solid catches and helping to move the chains to keep the grade somewhat respectable.
Even Bo Pelini called out the his offensive line in the postgame press conference. Sure, the line wasn’t the whole issue, but it was clear that Nebraska wasn’t getting room to run against one of the worst rushing defenses in the Big Ten, and a team that allowed over 300 yards of rushing to the Indiana freaking Hoosiers a week before.
Given Nebraska’s success running the ball earlier in the year, it’s clear that the talent was there. As Pelini and others questioned, though, it was the “want to” that might have been a little lacking.
There was still a chance. Even with everything else that had gone wrong throughout the game, there was still a chance. Nebraska had cut the lead to 21-18 and had all the momentum in the world.
Then Northwestern went on a 13 play, 66-yard, 7:20 drive that ended in a score and all but put the game out of reach. That drive was a microcosm of Nebraska’s day, unable to slow down a rushing attack that survived the loss of do-it-all quarterback Dan Persa.
Baker Steinkuhler’s standout—maybe breakout—game against Northwestern is all that keeps the unit from getting a lower grade than it did.
The linebackers suffered from the same malaise as both the defensive line and the secondary. They were unable to consistently get stops against the run and execute their coverage responsibilities against the pass. Lavonte David’s interception and 11-tackle performance was the high point in what was a forgettable day for the newly-minted Blackshirts.
Give this to Northwestern: They knew how to keep attacking a weakness. The entire game, Northwestern’s passing attack consisted primarily of spreading Nebraska’s defense out, dragging receivers in man-to-man coverage across the field and throwing to the one who got a step on his defender.
Nebraska was never able to respond, either by pressing the receivers and getting them off their routes at the line of scrimmage or by generating a pass rush against the quarterback.
Brett Maher did his job when called on, which was far more often than expected. Even into a howling wind, Maher was able to conjure different methods (including a never-seen-before rugby kick) to get the ball downfield. Nebraska’s return game fared well, even when Northwestern made a conscious effort to avoid Ameer Abdullah on kickoffs, and the kick return defense was solid.
If you’re looking for a place to lay the primary blame for another inexplicable home loss, this is the place for it. On the more psychological level, it was clear that Nebraska was not ready to play with the same intensity that it did against Ohio State and Michigan State. Ultimately, that’s a coaching issue, especially when Nebraska once again loses to an unranked team at home.
There’s also plenty of blame to lay at the feet of the offensive game plan. In a game where you face one of the worst rushing defenses in the Big Ten and when there was a 35 MPH wind howling through Memorial Stadium, how on earth do you have 37 passing attempts and 35 rushing attempts? Shawn Watson would have been proud of the contrarian thinking, but most everyone else just thought it looked like a coaching staff outsmarting itself.
Talk about a damp squib of a game. Against Ohio State, the crowd sensed a comeback was possible at the first signs of life in the third quarter. But against Northwestern, even when Nebraska pulled to within three points twice at the end of the game, it never felt like Nebraska was going to get over the hump and pull off another miracle.
So why is the grade so (relatively) good? Two reasons. First, Nebraska is one Michigan State loss away from being in control of its destiny, and Michigan State faces a suddenly-surging Iowa team next week. Second, this loss will make sure that Bo Pelini has his team’s undivided attention for the next three games. If nothing else, you should see a much sharper performance from what it still a young team as they close out the Big Ten season.
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