Football: Game-winning play eludes Northwestern against Nebraska

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Mariam Gomaa/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian throws the ball to sophomore Christian Jones. Siemian finished 15-of-35 passing and failed to connect on several deep throws.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

Most one-point games come down to one play. On Saturday, Northwestern failed to make the one play necessary to beat Nebraska.

The Wildcats had plenty of opportunities: three turnovers, numerous close calls on interceptions and a field goal to take the lead at the end. They just couldn’t put everything together to convert any of these chances into a momentum-changing moment.

“We gave ourselves every opportunity to do it, but we didn’t make plays down the stretch,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Tough pill to swallow, but as a competitor that’s a reality sometimes when we don’t get our guys to make those plays. Heck of a battle, we just ended up one play short.”

NU recovered three fumbles in the first half yet only scored seven points off those takeaways. The sole touchdown came off the first muffed punt, when the Cats used three plays to score and give themselves a 7-3 edge. The other two drives following takeaways featured a combined six plays and -12 yards.

The NU offense performed atrociously in the first half, running 38 plays for 107 yards in the first 30 minutes — less than three yards per play. The Cats were 3-of-12 on third-down conversions and made only two plays of more than 10 yards. Junior quarterback Kain Colter said the offense did not play up to expectations Saturday.

“We didn’t get a first down,” Colter said. “Offense is all about getting in a rhythm and it’s tough to get in a rhythm when you’re going three-and-out and you’re not converting first downs. The way we played today wasn’t really acceptable to our standards.”

NU was also unable to come up with a crucial turnover in pressure situations. Leading by 12 points with eight and a half minutes to play, the Cats dropped two interceptions that would have given them an opportunity to ice the game. Nebraska ended up scoring its first of two fourth-quarter touchdowns on the drive.

The first near-pick came on the third play of the 10-play scoring drive. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez’s pass fluttered in the air, and both junior linebacker Damien Proby and senior linebacker David Nwabuisi went for the pick. The two collided, and a ball that looked easily catchable fell haplessly to the turf. Fitzgerald said witnessing the play was like watching a volleyball game, and said NU couldn’t let those opportunities slip by without some punishment.

“When you have a chance for a turnover and you miss it, the football gods normally strike you with some lightning,” Fitzgerald said. “Two on one drive, that’s not good. You get some lightning and some thunder.”

On the very next play, sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell made an excellent break on a Martinez pass to Jamal Turner. Campbell’s diving attempt at the interception went unrewarded as the ball hit the ground. These two plays could have been disheartening for the Cats, but instead they were confidence builders, Proby said.

“I would never call being around the ball to make a play demoralizing,” Proby said. “We just know that we’re there. We know that those plays will land for us. If we keep focusing and keep practicing the way we’ve been practicing, those balls will fall in our laps.”

NU’s final reasonable chance at taking the lead came with just more than 1 minute and 10 seconds on the clock. Facing fourth-and-seven from the Nebraska 36-yard line, Fitzgerald sent out junior kicker Jeff Budzien for a 53-yard field goal. The kick sailed to the right, missing the uprights by about a foot, and NU never earned another realistic chance at winning. 

Fitzgerald said he was confident in Budzien’s ability to make the kick. He admitted it was one of the longer field goals he was willing to try with the junior, but said he was comfortable with his decision.

“I feel pretty good with Jeff, especially since there was no wind in the building, from about 55 (yards),” Fitzgerald said. “It was toward the top of his yardage there, but I felt confident in his distance and his ability to make that kick.”

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