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Northwestern-Nebraska recap: Player grades from the Wildcats' 30-28 road victory

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

After getting blown out in back-to-back weeks, Northwestern was able to get back on track Saturday with a victory over Nebraska, their first win at Memorial Stadium in four years.

Throughout the entire week leading up to Saturday's game against Nebraska, the attitude toward this Northwestern football team had shifted dramatically. After two disappointing performances, many had lost hope in the Wildcats heading into the rest of the season. On Saturday, Northwestern managed to temporarily silence doubters in an impressive road victory against Nebraska.

After starting slow, Northwestern's offense came alive. In the second half, the Wildcats came away with points on three separate drives, punted only once and, most importantly, ran the clock out with a two-point lead and 4:32 seconds to go.

Here are our grades from Saturday's 30-28 victory:

Clayton Thorson

Grade: B+

Stats: 13/28, 177 yards, 1 TDs, 0 INT; 9 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD

While he showed some flaws on Saturday, Thorson is the reason that Northwestern won this game. The freshman quarterback stayed poised on the road in front of over 89,000 fans, and broke off multiple big plays using his feet throughout the day. Early on, Thorson struggled to make throws in the pocket under pressure and, as a result, the Wildcats' passing game was practically non-existent.

But Thorson still managed to give Northwestern the lead heading into halftime thanks to two long runs of 68 and 49 yards that set up a touchdown and a field goal respectively. Thorson also executed well on several important throws as the game progressed, including a beautifully-thrown 37-yard touchdown to Dan Vitale to give the Wildcats the lead in the fourth quarter, and a well-thrown pass to Christian Jones near the end of the first half that should have been caught (more on that below). The bottom line is that while Thorson certainly wasn't perfect on Saturday, he added another element to his game by using his speed and scrambling ability. As a result, Northwestern's offense looked more explosive than it had all year.

Justin Jackson

Grade: C

Stats: 14 carries, 40 yards; 2 receptions, 55 yards

It was another below average day for Jackson as he received just 14 carries and failed to break any explosive runs. In the first half, the run blocking was inconsistent and Jackson recorded only four rushing yards. While he was able to have more of an impact in the second half, Jackson still finished the day with just 40 yards, with a long run of 8. He did, however, have two big plays in the passing game, as he caught two passes for 55 yards. It's the third week in a row that Jackson received fewer than 15 carries and failed to eclipse 50 yards on the ground. Jackson still looks good at times, and a lot of his struggles likely have to do with the players around him, namely the offensive linemen. But he hasn't been anywhere near his best recently.


Grade: D+

Once again, Northwestern's receivers didn't do any favors for Thorson on Saturday, as they continued to drop passes and struggle getting separation from the Nebraska corners. Although there were several bright spots — Mike McHugh's 22-yard reception in the third quarter, Dan Vitale's solid overall play, the unit struggled, as per usual. Perhaps the most disappointing performance was that of Christian Jones. After being thought of as the apparent leader of the Northwestern receiving corps, Jones failed to catch a pass all game, and dropped a crucial pass in the end zone with three seconds left in the first half. The play would have been a huge momentum swing for the Wildcats heading into halftime, and it was a play that a senior leader like Jones needs to be able to make when Thorson did an excellent job putting the ball where it needed to be.

Nick VanHoose

Grade: B+

Stats: 5 total tackles, 2 passes broken up, 72-yard interception return for TD

VanHoose made one of the biggest plays of the game, as he intercepted an errant Tommy Armstrong pass and took it back 72 yards for a touchdown to put Northwestern up 14-5 in the second quarter. This pick six came at a point in the game when Northwestern's offense was struggling to move the ball. Although he did get burned on a few routes later on in the game, VanHoose appeared to be the most consistent in coverage for the Wildcats, and helped compensate for the loss of Matt Harris, who remains out with an injury.

Dean Lowry

Grade: A

Stats: 13 total tackles, 2 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss

After getting manhandled last week by the Iowa offensive line, Lowry and the rest of the Northwestern defensive line had a bounce back week against Nebraska. The line pressured Armstrong all day long and forced him out of the pocket. Lowry finished with 13 total tackles, two sacks and a Northwestern record six tackles for a loss. After the game, Lowry said the defense focused this week on trying to stop the run on first down so they could eventually get more pressure on the quarterback. The defense did a good job of that today as it held Nebraska to just 82 rushing yards and just 2.2 yards per carry.

Special Teams

Grade: D-

The special teams struggled once again today, especially in the punting game. Hunter Niswander, with the exception of a 56-yard punt in the second half, was underwhelming, as he averaged just over 31 yards on his other three punts.

On the receiving end of punts... oh...