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ThotDoc's Brain Droppings on the Northwestern Game

Northwestern is Nails at Nebraska as Cornhuskers Choke away Chances and the Season Slides South

The Northwestern Wildcats continue to own Memorial Stadium as they defeated Nebraska 31-24 in overtime securing their third win in the last four games with only a completed Hail Mary standing in the way of a sweep. The Cornhuskers have now lost three home games in a row for the first time since the Bill Jennings era in 1957. Nebraska is now 2-4 at home this season and 11-8 since Mike Riley took over. Whatever happened to Memorial Stadium being a tough place to play? The records of futility are becoming all too common with the current coaching staff and the question now becomes how much worse does it have to get before AD Moos writes the buyout check.

This game was very winnable and Nebraska was given numerous opportunities to emerge victorious, but their inability to maintain momentum and achieve any kind of consistency proved to be the fatal flaw once again. Given a gift in the first half when two Tanner Lee interceptions failed to turn into points, the Huskers were fortunate to be down by just three at intermission. The second half presented at least five chances to take control of the game.

Chance #1 - After a pick six gave Nebraska a 21-17 lead, the Huskers went on an 18-play 79-yard drive taking 9:24 off the clock before settling for a field goal instead of moving to an 11- point lead.

Chance #2 - The defense responded with a three and out, giving the offense a chance to extend their lead. Instead, the Huskers followed with a three and out of their own.

Chance#3 - The defense stopped the Wildcats again, and the Huskers had yet another opportunity to seize control. The offense took just five plays to move to the Northwestern 19-yard line and set up what came to be “the play of the game.” Already in field goal range to go up at least 10, Jerald Foster blocks no one and Lee throws his third interception. If he takes the sack or just dumps the ball off, Nebraska increases the lead to a two-score margin.

Chance #4 – If the defense can come up with another stop, the momentum shifts back to the Huskers. But, the Wildcats grind out a 13-play, 84-yard drive converting their only 3rd down of the game and tie it up at 24-24 with 5:32 to go.

Chance #5 – Needing only a field goal to win in regulation, the Huskers move the ball 48 yards and face a 1st and 10 at the NW 45-yd line. Instead of continuing to work the ball down the field and use clock, Langsdorf dials up a bomb to Stanley Morgan which he catches out of bounds. After a 5-yard completion to the 40, the OC calls the same out pattern to Spielman that was picked off earlier and almost is again. Spielman is leading the Big Ten in 3rd and 4th down conversions and Northwestern knows that as well. They were sitting on the play. At 4th and 5 with under a minute to go, the Huskers punt away their chance at a win.

The Huskers began overtime the way they started the game – FLAT. Northwestern runs the ball for seven plays to the end zone, and the Huskers yield their first sack and fail in four plays. The Huskers seemed beaten before the extra period began as the Wildcats became the first FBS team to win three straight overtime games. Northwestern becomes bowl eligible for the third year in a row, while Nebraska shares a 4-5 record with Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue.

Offensively, Tanner Lee finished the game 21-for-38 for 225 yards, with two touchdowns and three picks. His three interceptions give him 13 for the season against 17 touchdown tosses. Lee now has 2,365 yards on the season and moved from 10th to eighth on the single-season passing chart passing Zac Lee (2,143 – 2009) and Tommy Armstrong Jr. (2,180 – 2016). But records are very little solace when fans are looking for results and even though Lee had thrown 122 passes since his previous interception, the picks today were game-changers. They were also the result very poor decisions by the leader of the offense. Granted, he was often rushed and harried because the offensive line is porously putrid, but on two of the three picks he had time to throw.

Stanley Morgan Jr. (4 catches for 38 yards) was not the target I had hoped and what he needed to be for the Huskers to win, as he had just one second half reception. Although, that grab was an incredible ricocheting circus catch in that long 3rd quarter drive for 10 yards. Morgan now has 101 career receptions and is the 10th Husker to reach that number. He also moved into the top 10 on the NU career receiving yardage list with 1,447 career yards, and he extended his consecutive game streak with a reception to 23 games. De’Mornay Pierson-El (4 catches for 34 yards) made a nice 16-yard reception between three defenders after his receiver’s coach gave him a spirited lecture on the importance of catching the ball. To his credit, DPE made a touchdown saving tackle after Lee threw his second pick right before the half and on the ensuing drive, the Wildcats failed to score. JD Spielman (3 catches for 48 yards) had no receptions in the first three quarters, but his 23-yard catch that set the Huskers up at the 19 should have led to a score. Spielman now has 40 receptions for 593 yards and is just shy of the NU Freshman receiving record set by Nate Smith in 2005 (45 for 641). Redshirt freshman tight end Jack Stoll (3 catches for 48 yards) had a 32-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, the first TD catch of his career. Bryan Reimers contributed with 22-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, just his second catch of the season. I was a bit surprised that after his big game last week, Tyler Hoppes only had one 8-yard catch.

The run game was still very anemic in that Nebraska netted just 112 yards, but it was an improvement over last week. Devine Ozigbo led the Husker attack 72 yards on 23 attempts. JD Spielman added 45 yards on two jet sweeps, with the highlight being a 40-yard scamper that caught the Northwestern defense by surprise. That run was the longest by a Husker this year. Lee has gotten slick with the handoff to the receiver in motion as it is almost undetectable. With his rushing and receiving yards and 102 kickoff return yards, Spielman finished with 195 all-purpose yards on the game. He now has Spielman has 1,154 all-purpose yards this season, 105 yards shy of the freshman all-purpose record of 1,259 yards by Ahman Green in 1995.

On defense, the Blackshirts gave up 475 yards with 199 of them in the first half. Northwestern actually did very little offensively in the second half other than the 84-yard 4th quarter drive and the 25-yard pounding in overtime, which was all the Wildcats needed. The Blackshirts were best on third down limiting Northwestern to 1-of-11 on that down and preventing conversions on the Wildcats’ first eight third down attempts. The defense even outscored the Husker offense in the second half 7-3. The defense was led by linebacker Chris Weber’s 11 tackles (including one for a loss). Linebacker Marcus Newby added a career tying 10 tackles, including eight solo stops and recorded his first career interception in the third quarter, returning it 49 yards for a touchdown to give Nebraska a 21-17 lead. The 49-yard interception return for a touchdown was the longest by a Husker since Larry Asante had a 74-yard interception return against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2009. Safety Joshua Kalu (2 tackles and 2 breakups) intercepted a first-quarter Northwestern pass and returned it 32 yards. This was Kalu’s seventh career interception and his second in 2017. Linebacker Dedrick Young had 9 tackles and Redshirt freshman safety Marquel Dismuke made his first career start in today’s game and contributed 7 tackles. Our cornerback play hurt us at times as Lamar Jackson held on a 3rd down that extended a drive leading to a field goal and later was flagged for hands to the face in a skirmish that gave Northwestern the ball in Husker territory, Later, Chris Jones was flagged for holding on another third down when the Huskers had forced a stop.

On special teams, Drew Brown connected on a 23-yard field goal in the third quarter for his 58th career field goal, passing his brother, Kris, and moving to second on the career list behind Alex Henery. He also had four touchbacks with the kickoff team yielding a 36-yard return on a fifth one. Caleb Lightbourn averaged 309.8 yards on five punts placing three of them inside the 20-yard line. De’Mornay Pierson-El had a decent punt return called back due to a block in the back. It’s the little mistakes that seem to add up and continue to thwart any positive momentum.

This game seemed like a turning point for the Huskers in turns of the bid toward bowl eligibility. It was likely the end of the line for Mike Riley and the players seem to know it as well as the coach who seemed resigned at his post-game presser. Next week is a very beatable Minnesota squad, but it is in Minneapolis, Then, a likely thrashing by an angry Penn State foe, before finishing against an Iowa team that wacked #6 Ohio State today 55-24. It is a sad day in Huskerville when a 4-8 or 5-7 season record are all too possible. Most fans want a change and hope the corner toward respectability can soon be turned. Go Big Red!!

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