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Northwestern's goal line struggles on offense

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A couple of near misses at the goal line kept Northwestern out of the end zone before the half

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Panic Level: High

MTPanicChart

Big Picture

Northwestern's defense wasn't as good in the first half as the stats suggested. Worse, those stats weren't very good: 227 yards and 14 points on 34 plays (6.7 yards per play). Still, while Nebraska held themselves back by dropping balls on third down (going 1-6 in the half), Northwestern also got off to a good start against the Nebraska run game, keeping Ameer Abdullah from breaking off any big gains. But when Nebraska started catching the ball after the break, things went downhill quickly: Nebraska scored on 4 straight drives starting in the third quarter, and Abdullah found his stride, breaking off a spectacular 50 yard run.

The defense was basically the same unit throughout the game; the offense was the source of the dramatic turnaround: after tallying 260 yards and 17 points in the first half, they only managed 30 yards in the second. After a decent start, Trevor Siemian collapsed, turning in his worst performance of the year by completing less than 50% of his passes for 4.4 yards per attempt and an ugly interception. The full picture is even uglier, as he took 4 sacks and scrambled 3 more times; all told, on 46 dropbacks, Northwestern gained 3.2 yards per play, turned the ball over on an interception, and fumbled once. The QB situation is not good, and as good as Justin Jackson has been in conference play, he can't carry the offense on his own.

Plays

At the end of the first half, Northwestern's two-minute drill drove from their own 34 to the Nebraska 13, setting up a first and ten.

After Nebraska called timeout, Northwestern comes out with trips bunch left and a lone receiver right. Nebraska puts a press corner on the single receiver side and shades the rest of the defense towards the bunch.

NUvsUNL2014DickersonCornerScramblePresnap

At the snap, Nebraska rushes four while the Northwestern receivers get into their routes. Cameron Dickerson slips and falls when he plants on some sort of hitch or shallow crossing route.

NUvsUNL2014DickersonCornerScrambleSlip

With the four man rush breaking into the pocket, Siemian escapes to his left; Dickerson, seeing his quarterback scrambling, heads deep as soon as he gets back up.

NUvsUNL2014DickersonCornerScrambleEscape

Siemian sees his receiver break for the corner and delivers a great ball on the run.

NUvsUNL2014DickersonCornerScrambleDive

Dickerson lays out, but he can't haul in the pass.

It's hard to fault either Dickerson or Siemian too much on this play; Siemian recognized pressure, got outside, and delivered the ball the only place it had a chance. Dickerson gave a great effort to some separation in the end zone and just couldn't finish what would have been a spectacular diving catch.

On the next down, Northwestern empties out the backfield; Nebraska keeps six defenders inside, threatening a blitz.

NUvsUNL2014ShulerEndzoneDropPresnap

At the snap, Nebraska sends six (though one linebacker reverses course when he sees a lineman setting up to pick him up), leaving their secondary in man across the board and giving the pass rush a free rusher. Miles Shuler, lined up in the left slot, immediately establishes inside position on his man and heads for the end zone.

NUvsUNL2014ShulerEndzoneDropPosition

With the free rusher in his face, Siemian delivers the ball while falling away; he still puts it in a catchable position, but it is low and behind Shuler.

NUvsUNL2014ShulerEndzoneDropFinish

Shuler can't make an adjustment, and he only gets one hand on the ball as it falls incomplete.

Neither of these were anywhere close to the most egregious errors in the pass game, from either Siemian or the receivers; indeed, I think the Dickerson play was pretty good on both ends, ending with a good attempt at the most catchable ball available in the situation. But they do illustrate another problem with the Northwestern pass offense: a lack of upside plays. Northwestern is OK on routine plays, where the receivers are open and the ball is on time and on target; their struggles are most evident when the defense disrupts things a bit and the offense falls apart.

Looking Ahead

Northwestern needs to win three of the last five to go to a bowl; with upsetting Notre Dame looking like a pipe dream, that probably means going 3-1 against Iowa, Michigan, Purdue, and Illinois. Iowa will be favored, Michigan and Purdue are bad but not hopeless, and Illinois is still Illinois. Three wins is doable, but the team will need to come out focused every week to make it happen.