Oops. I guess Northwestern gets to be "NU" for a while longer. Nebraska will have to go with "UN" - as in unmotivated, unprepared, uninspired, unamusing, unconcerned, and underwhelming.
These are the losses I hate - the ones where you lose to a team that you know you could beat 8 or 9 times out of 10, and you only have yourself to blame. Don't get me wrong - full credit to Coach Fitzgerald and the Wildcats for executing their game plan on both sides of the ball, but if this were a video game, I'd be looking for the Reset button.
This is the kind of loss that makes you question a lot of things, especially in the shadows of a very complete win against Michigan State. What is Nebraska's true identity? Are they the team who got rolled by Wisconsin, lost to Northwestern, and looked average against several other opponents? Or are they the team who drilled Michigan State, beat an improving Ohio State team, and has shown flashes of brilliance? Quite frankly, I don't know. And I don't think we can know the full answer until the regular season ends.
So what did we learn?
Nebraska is not good enough to just show up and collect a "W". Back in the glory years, Nebraska was a good enough that they were seemingly up by 10 points when the coin was flipped. Not anymore. Between the increasing parity in college football and the struggles of the last 10 years, few teams are intimidated by the red N on the helmets. Northwestern is a decent team, but let's face it: Nebraska should have won convincingly.
The defense can spark the offense. The offense was flat, stagnant, and self-destructing on many opportunities. Then, the defense gets a big turnover and the offense comes on the field and rolls down the field. We saw it against Ohio State, and we saw it again on Saturday. I'd sure like to see the offense be self-starting, but it is nice to know that their teammates can provide a spark.
So what don't we know?
Can Nebraska stop a mobile quarterback? Nebraska struggled against Ohio State when Braxton Miller was healthy. Once he was replaced by a human statue at QB, the defense started clicking. Against Michigan State, Kirk Cousins' lack of mobility made him a sitting duck, and the defense looked great. And with Northwestern having two mobile QBs trading snaps, Nebraska struggled to contain Dan Persa and Kain Colter. These struggles are nothing new - Nebraska has had issues with mobile QBs for years (Brad Smith, Michael Bishop, and pretty much every QB Oklahoma had during the 1980s, to name a few). With Dennard Robinson waiting in the wings, Nebraska needs to get this figured out.
Where have all the freshmen gone? Remember all of the true freshmen who played in the first few weeks of the season? Braylon Heard, Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah, Mauro Bondi, Tyler Moore, Jamal Turner all contributed to wins in the first half of the season. On Saturday, four of the six saw the field (the participation chart does not list former starter Tyler Moore or Bondi). Of those four, Abdullah had the best day: he fair caught a punt and rushed once for zero yards. The others did not touch the ball and played sparingly. It would be nice to see some more contribution out of the youngsters.
Where does the rollercoaster go next? The collective opinion and mood of the fan base towards their beloved Huskers has been like the stock market: up and down and wildly different from week to week. This will definitely be a down week. The big question is what happens next? Does Nebraska bounce back against Penn State, or do they go into a tailspin? Stay tuned...
5 Players I Loved
- Baker Steinkuhler. I'm not one for excessive hyperbole, but Baker's performance was Suh-ian. Seven solo tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, and a pass breakup that lead to Lavonte David's interception. He blew up several plays by simply plowing the offensive lineman into backfield - including his impressive sack. This was easily Baker's best game as a Husker, and was easily the bright spot of an otherwise ugly defensive effort.
- Taylor Martinez. I haven't been the biggest defender of Martinez in the past, but if anybody tries to blame this loss on Martinez, they will need to answer to me. He was impressive in the passing game (28-37 for 289 yards and 2 touchdowns). The majority of his passes were crisp, threaded through coverage, and hit his receivers in stride, despite a gusty 25 mph wind. Yeah, he still needs work on the option game, and a couple of those throws were very risky, but #3 had a very good game.
- Austin Cassidy. He was in the right place at the right time for a critical 3rd Quarter interception. At the time it looked like another key moment ala Lavonte David's strip/recovery against Ohio State. Equally as impressive was the 50 yard return that put Nebraska in great position for their first touchdown. The former high school QB made some nice moves and read his blocks well.
- Brandon Kinnie. That is what we expect out of the big senior WR. BK was a big target, made some tough catches (including his first, an impressive diving effort), and was elusive in getting up field for extra yardage. Now he just needs to eliminate the drops.
- Kenny Bell. Between his reliable hands and lightning quick speed, it is easy to see why he is asserting himself as a top receiving target in this offense. It was also great to see him back returning kicks alongside Ameer Abdullah, where he used his speed to average 28 yards on four returns. On a related topic: I got a kick out of the student shown on HuskerVision who was wearing a blue t-shirt with a white "80" and a giant Afro wig. Well done, sir.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Lance Thorell. Oh the joys of being a defensive back. One week you are a hero in a big win, collecting a key interception. The next week you are a goat as an offense attacks you mercilessly. The senior walk-on from Loomis had a very long day.
- Fumbles. Twice in the 2nd Quarter, Nebraska took drives into the Northwestern red zone. Twice, Nebraska came away empty-handed after losing fumbles. While the fumblitis didn't turn into a repeat of the 2009 Iowa State game, they were costly turnovers. Just think if Nebraska turns one of those drives into a field goal...
- Offensive Line. Coming into the game, Northwestern had one of the worst rush defenses in the conference. The popular think was Rex Burkhead would come in, get his 100 yards and let the freshmen take over. One small problem: the offensive line had big problems blocking Northwestern on running plays. What makes this even more frustrating was Northwestern generated almost no pass rush, so the line was being very effective on passing downs.
- Eric Martin's temper. I love Eric Martin. I love his fire, his passion, and the physicality of his game. But he was very, very lucky on Saturday. Twice he could have (and probably should have) been called for personal fouls for his actions after the play. Once he shoved a Northwestern player well after the whistle. Later on a kickoff, he was double teamed, became frustrated, and threw the opposing player to the ground in front of the Northwestern bench.
- Halftime Hot Dog. I quite often enjoy one of Fairbury's finest franks during halftime, and did so again on Saturday. My first clue should have been the fact that I needed a flare gun to get the vendor's attention (despite being 2 feet in front of her). She tried to charge me $7 for a $3 dog, but that was not the worst part. This dog was a crazy mix of everything that could be wrong with a hot dog. One side of the bun was somewhere between crusty French bread and petrified wood. The other side was soggy like it had been dipped in water. The dog itself was slighty cold, and the whole thing tasted like a leftover from the 1995 Pacific game. Next time: pizza.