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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s crushing Week 6 loss to Nebraska

Through five games, virtually all of Northwestern’s preseason goals are gone.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Northwestern lost another tough game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. This may sound like an unfamiliar script, but the defense was stout and the offense struggled to move the football. Here are the five main takeaways from yesterday’s game:

There is no clarity at the quarterback position

After suffering an injury last week at Wisconsin, Hunter Johnson did not start or play at all against Nebraska. After the game, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Johnson was held out due to injury, although he was left off of the Week 6 injury report. Redshirt junior Aidan Smith got his first career college start and fared okay in Lincoln. Smith did not add an explosive dimension to this offense (nothing new), but he moved the ball decently well with his feet as he led all NU rushers with 64 yards on 16 carries.

Moving forward, we have little to no answers as to who will be starting for this Northwestern team. Pat Fitzgerald is sure to keep Hunter Johnson’s injury status on the down low through the bye week after we learned that he was roughly 75-80 percent healthy on Saturday and that’s why he didn’t play. Smith probably didn’t show enough to take the starting spot away from Johnson heading into Ohio State, but as far as we know, it could be either of them taking the field against the Buckeyes in two weeks.

Northwestern needs to establish a running game in order to win

For whatever reason, this team refuses to throw the ball downfield. NU threw for just 136 yards on Saturday against a Nebraska defense that had been letting up 218 yards per game in the air.

It is abundantly clear that Northwestern’s only offensive game plan revolves around establishing a solid rushing offense. It feels like nearly every first and second down is a halfback dive up the middle, and that is the issue. By running the ball up the middle on the same downs as often as NU does, opposing defenses can easily predict the play and stack the box. Until Northwestern adds some variance to its play calling, the rushing offense will not take off (and it is evident NU needs a sound rushing attack for the offense to score).

In the first possession of the second half, NU’s best possession of the day, the ‘Cats beat Nebraska’s defense with the duo of Smith and Anderson running the zone read. On that lone touchdown scoring drive, the Wildcats threw the ball once and it resulted in a pass interference that moved the ball to the two-yard line. Northwestern’s offense is at its best when the running game works, so Mick McCall needs to change his play calling to open the running game.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Every level of the defense is starting to peak

Simply put, this defense is awesome.

Yesterday, the defensive line had its best performance of the season. The Miller brothers were excellent and Joe Gaziano was a monster once again. The line put consistent pressure on the quarterback and limited Adrian Martinez to big plays only when he escaped a collapsing pocket. The linebacking corps, per usual, also looked fantastic. Strong-side backer Chris Bergin especially stood out with exceptional speed and open field tackling on Saturday.

And last but not least, the secondary was also impressive once again. Cameron Ruiz was outstanding in place of Trae Williams, and JR Pace and Travis Whillock held down the fort in the backline like they have all season. Unfortunately, Ruiz was injured after his touchdown saving tackle on Nebraska’s 49-yard shovel pass.

The Wildcats had 10 (!) TFLs yesterday, which is incredible, but this stat tells the story of Northwestern’s 2019 season thus far.

Turnovers are killing this team

Against Stanford, the game came to a close as Hunter Johnson was stripped and sacked for a Stanford touchdown to seal the game. Against Wisconsin, Johnson was sacked and stripped for a touchdown in the second half to put the ‘Cats down 14-3. The play essentially iced the game for the Badgers. If that didn’t end it for NU, then Aidan Smith’s pick six later in the quarter to put the ‘Cats down 21-3 finished it off. Wisconsin’s defense nearly outscored the Northwestern offense last weekend, all thanks to crucial turnovers.

While Smith’s interception on the final offensive possession should’ve been called back thanks to a terrible missed PI call, it ended up costing the Wildcats the game. Northwestern’s offense needs to execute better in key situations to win games. Smith’ turnover yesterday was the first takeaway of the game for either team, thus winning Nebraska, who came into the game at -4 in this stat, the turnover battle.

Northwestern has won that statistic in just one game this season: its sole win against UNLV.

Last season, when the turnovers in a game featuring Northwestern were not even, the team with more takeaways went 8-3. Northwestern won the turnover margin six times last season and went 5-1 in those games. It is clear the team needs to take care of the football offensively and generate turnovers defensively in order to win.

Pat Fitzgerald’s preseason goals are gone

After spending the offseason flaunting the Big Ten West title and Holiday Bowl victory, NU seemed prepared to take the next step this season. The team set its eyes on winning the Big Ten Championship. With the loss to Nebraska, it is now all but certain that the Wildcats will not be playing a 13th game this season in Indianapolis, and even a bowl appearance looks to be in serious jeopardy after this tough stretch of games.

The team is 1-4, and has little room for error as the difficult opponents continue to line up. With Ohio State and Iowa up next, this team could very well be winless in conference play until November.

This team had much higher hopes than a Quick Lane bowl appearance, but the way things are trending, this team will needs to turn things around quickly in order to even have a chance at a spot in Detroit this winter. That kind of failure necessitates a hard inward look at the program, and especially the coaching staff.