Football: Three takeaways from Northwestern’s 38-17 loss to Nebraska

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor


1. Nebraska is better than Northwestern

Sometimes, this complicated game is just that simple. Northwestern did well to hang with the No. 19 Cornhuskers for a half under the lights Saturday. Trevor Siemian looked sharp, the defense swarmed Ameer Abdullah, and when Justin Jackson spun away from a defender and danced into the end zone, Ryan Field was as rocking as it’s been since NU took a fourth quarter lead against Ohio State so many months ago.

Then the Cornhuskers came out of the locker room and toyed with the Wildcats. It was more slow drip than blitzkrieg with Abdullah’s four one-yard touchdown runs serving as ample evidence of Nebraska’s ability to sustain long drives with few big plays. Instead, they dominated every phase of the game. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and his staff made the right adjustments, while coach Pat Fitzgerald and his made the wrong ones. Nebraska’s defense began to get to Siemian, who looked lost with his pocket collapsing around him, and limited Jackson from shaking loose. With the Cats’ defense gassed, Abdullah went to work. NU didn’t beat itself the way it sometimes does with sloppy play, dumb penalties and blown coverages. It just got manhandled in the trenches for 30 minutes by a better team.

Make no mistake, the fact that NU was outclassed by a good-but-not-great Cornhuskers squad is a microcosm of where this program is at right now and not a happy one. Division leaders two weeks ago, the Cats now likely need to finish their conference season 3-1 just to reach bowl eligibility in one of the worst divisions in the Big Five conferences.

2. The defense can’t do it alone

Against teams with a defense as solid as Nebraska’s, NU’s lack of a downfield passing game sticks out like a sore thumb. The Cornhuskers stuffed the box in the second half, daring Siemian to beat them. He couldn’t. With Christian Jones out for the season and Cameron Dickerson missing in action the last three weeks, NU doesn’t have the personnel at quarterback, offensive line or wide receiver to stretch the field vertically in the way teams need to in order to succeed offensively on a consistent basis.

That’s a major problem even when NU’s defense plays as well as it did against Penn State and Wisconsin. When an offense is consistently backed up and can’t even get one or two first downs to flip field position, it puts major pressure on the defense, which didn’t do itself any favors on third downs against the Cornhuskers, who converted eight of 15. Eventually, bend but don’t break just turns into break. Iowa, NU’s next opponent, has a defense similar in quality to Nebraska (4.7 yards per play for the Cornhuskers compared to 4.8 yards per play for the Hawkeyes). The Cats had better hope they can find some offensive magic over the bye week or that game could look like a mirror image of Saturday night’s.

3. Time to look to the future?

There is no obvious path back to national relevance for NU, which can’t seem to string together more than two games of good play, let alone wins, at a time. The Cats will almost surely lose at Notre Dame, meaning their best hope for this season is 7-5, with 6-6 or 5-7 more likely. Even a weak bowl game berth would have real value for NU, both psychologically and in the extra end-of-year practices it would give the team. But with Siemian clearly not at 100 percent and several other veterans struggling to carry the team, Fitzgerald should continue giving some of his younger guys a look. Jackson replacing Treyvon Green as the lead running back is a good start, and injuries have allowed Godwin Igwebuike and Anthony Walker to get more time than they already would have.

Siemian, a senior, will not be the starter next year. Fitzgerald insists nobody else on the roster has been good enough to take the job from him, and he’s probably right. But either Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti (or redshirting freshman Clayton Thorson) will be the starter under center next season, and each could surely use some game reps to get acclimated to what they will see from Big Ten defenses. If the Cats of the present don’t inspire much confidence, maybe the Cats of the future will.

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Twitter: @JosephDiebold