Every week, InsideNU writers Josh Rosenblat and Henry Bushnell will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we'll try to stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with our big takeaways from the rest of the Big Ten. Following Northwestern's 38-17 loss to Nebraska, here's the 2014 Week 8 edition of the Weekend Rewind:
Prevailing thoughts on Northwestern
Justin Jackson is really, really, REALLY good
Almost nothing was pretty about Northwestern's loss to Nebraska on Saturday night. The only thing keeping the "almost" in that sentence is a true freshman running back named Justin Jackson.
Because of the purple numbers on the black jerseys, it was hard for me to see who the players on the field were from inside the press box. So before the snaps on many plays, I found myself wondering if Jackson or Treyvon Green had lined up next to Trevor Siemian and as soon as the ball was snapped it is so obvious who is who. Justin Jackson is one of the most fun, unique runners I have ever seen. When he runs, it looks like he's going in slow motion but then you blink and he's 10 yards down the field. He will run into a clutter of two blockers and two defenders and he will squeeze between them and come out on the other side and look ready to make a move on the next defender. Oh, and by the way, the young man had his third-straight 100-yard game, including 99 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. He has been the best and most consistent player on Northwestern's offense and it's not even close. When Northwestern needs four yards or when the team needs 10, Justin Jackson is the Wildcats' man be it with a pass or run.
- Josh Rosenblat
Should Fitz bench Siemian?
With a bye week upcoming, we'll have a full two weeks to discuss this. But after Pat Fitzgerald declared Saturday that he doesn't think quarterback Trevor Siemian is "even close to 100 percent," this is the pertinent question.
Contrary to what some seem to think, this is not at all an easy decision for Fitzgerald to make. There are two equally compelling sides.
On the one hand, this team needs to win, and it needs to win soon. While the losses of the past two weeks have been deflating, and thoughts of Indianapolis faded into the Evanston night roughly 12 hours ago, making a bowl game is still imperative. Two straight years without a bowl berth would be calamitous, so above all else, NU still needs to focus on winning three of its last five.
I do believe Trevor Siemian still gives them the best chance to do that.
If the Wildcats were to play a do-or-die, one-off game against a team the caliber of Michigan tomorrow, and a quarterback needed to be chosen, the choice is clear. Siemian is your guy. He is more experienced, hasn't turned the ball over much this season, and is a more talented passer than Oliver.
But with the future in mind, Fitzgerald seemingly has to consider turning to Oliver (or even Alviti). Not only has Siemian been poor this season, he's continuously regressed throughout his career in Evanston. Hoping for a magical turnaround, at this point, is fruitless.
Oliver might not be any better than the incumbent starter. In fact, he's probably not, and is likely a notch below Siemian. But even putting the future aside, no matter what Oliver and the other backups show in practice on a daily basis, there's something to be said for exploring the unknown.
Realistically, it's impossible to really know what any backup quarterback has in him until he gets an extended opportunity in a game situation. That's why Fitzgerald's statement that "Oliver gets a chance in practice every day" is so nonsensical.
Sure, Oliver might not have Siemian's arm. He might not have his accuracy or his decision-making ability. But until we see Oliver's abilities put to the test, we can't make those statements with any certainty; nor can Fitzgerald, no matter what he sees in practice.
In certain situations, change for the sake of change becomes necessary; an injection of something fresh and new becomes a calculated risk worth taking. Is this one of these situations?
As Siemian limps around, and Northwestern limps into its bye week with a losing record, it's becoming more and more evident that it might be. Given Fitzgerald's comments, this isn't far away from a full-blown quarterback controversy. And while Fitzgerald will never provide fans and media with any insight into the thought process behind the decision, he simply must be closer to turning to Oliver than ever.
- Henry Bushnell
Around the Big Ten
Who's the best running back in the Big Ten?
You know what's kind of funny? Justin Jackson isn't even close to being one of the top backs in the Big Ten. Yes, maybe in a few years we can look back at this, his freshman season, and say it was then that Jackson should have been compared to the greats of the 2014 Big Ten season. But right now, he's not there yet.
The top four backs in the nation in terms of total rush yards on the season are all from the Big Ten. There are five running backs in the country with over 1000 yards and four of them are from the Big Ten. Tevin Coleman, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb makeup easily the country's best crop of running backs when you look at it conference-by-conference.
So, who's the best?
I've seen Abdullah, Gordon and Cobb all play live and in-person this season but I haven't seen Coleman up close. Cobb's good but he doesn't have the explosiveness and versatility that Abdullah and Gordon have. Right now, I'd have to lean toward Gordon as the conference's top running back. When he gets the ball, the way he runs is unbelievable. He's so fast and so powerful. He sees every hole and attacks it with such burst that he will be 15 yards passed the hole by the time you realize what whole he went through. Gordon and Abdullah are both special, special players and it would be great to see them both in New York for the Heisman ceremony.
- Josh Rosenblat
Cornhuskers definitive favorites in the West
After last night's second half drubbing of Northwestern, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have become the clear frontrunners in the Big Ten West.
Sure, Minnesota is 3-0 and is better than many of us expected them to be, but they're still a very ordinary football team. A 39-38 win at home over Purdue supported that assessment. The Gophers still have four tough games remaining, including a trip to Lincoln, so there's still a lot for Jerry Kill's team to prove.
Elsewhere, Iowa stumbled on the road in a cross-division game at Maryland. Coming into the season, many thought the Hawkeyes would challenge for a West division title, but they've never really hit their stride.
Wisconsin, the other contender, had a bye.
But it's not just the teams' records and remaining schedules that make Nebraska the team to beat. It's that the Cornhuskers are a legitimately imposing foe.
Tommy Armstrong has been a pleasant surprise, that defensive front is scary, and overall, the Huskers' flaws are less egregious than those of any other team. They are far and away the class of the West, and are certainly one of the top three squads in the conference.
- Henry Bushnell
1. Michigan State
2. Ohio State
T-9. Penn State