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Five takeaways from Northwestern’s 21-13 victory over Nebraska

Can we just fast forward to the AP poll’s release already?

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Following a nail-biter in Iowa City, Northwestern mounted another comeback, buoyed by another second-half shutout from its defense. Here are five takeaways from Northwestern’s win over Nebraska.

The jury is still out on Peyton Ramsey

Ramsey is far better than any Northwestern quarterback option from last season. He raises the play at the position from bottom of the Big Ten to somewhere in the middle. At this point, it’s unclear if he is better than the average conference quarterback. Ramsey finished Saturday’s game 16-for-27 for 169 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran the ball nine times for 28 yards.

With a rock solid defense, Ramsey is more than a capable game manager, and that is all NU needs to contend in the West. He has kept the Wildcats more than in every game. After the Maryland blowout, there was a sense he might be the second coming of Otto Graham, but that might have skewed expectations. With significant games looming against Purdue and Wisconsin, we will find out whether Peyton Ramsey is capable of winning a game against the West’s toughest challengers.

Northwestern needs to clean up slow starts

After jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead, Northwestern had a prime opportunity to put Nebraska in a hole. The Wildcat defense forced a punt on its second possession of the game, and the offense subsequently faced third-and-3 from the NU 46 yard line. Running back Evan Hull picked up only one yard. Earlier on that series, Ramsey found a wide open Bryce Kirtz for what would have been a ~20-yard catch, but Kirtz couldn’t haul it in. The defense once again forced a three-and-out, marking Nebraska’s third punt in as many possessions. The Wildcat offense marched into field goal range, but Charlie Kuhbander pushed right a 42-yarder. Nebraska rode this momentum to 13 straight points and a halftime lead after what could have been a comfortable half from NU.

These early execution issues repeat some of what we saw at Iowa. The Wildcats had individual breakdowns (two fumbles) that led to an early 17-0 deficit. The early woes did not come back to haunt the Wildcats in either game, but moving forward, Northwestern cannot afford gaffes or the squandering of opportunities. NU can only survive its inability to stomp on opponents’ necks for so long, right?

Mike Bajakian’s play calling is an upgrade over Mick McCall’s

This is probably more an indictment of McCall than Bajakian. I went back and looked at last season’s abhorrent offensive performance against Nebraska last year. As it turns out, Northwestern had fewer three-and-outs (three) last season against Nebraska, than the team did in yesterday’s contest (four). The good news is that three-and-outs are not the most indicative statistic of offensive output.

One complaint of Wildcat fans last season related to McCall’s constant run-run-pass sequence. NU followed that sequence eight times last year in Lincoln. Yesterday, NU followed it five times, but two of them can be discounted due to a Nebraska offsides and late-game clock management. In general, Bajakian’s play calling is a breath of fresh air. His plays fully develop, he likes to go up-tempo and he has his go-to calls that generally work. Some of the inside runs he called with Anderson weren’t great, but without Isaiah Bowser this offense showed it was A okay.

This defense is really good. It may be a pass rush away from being great.

It’s hard to criticize a defense that is yet to give up a point in the second half this season. Still, the Wildcat defense did whiff on quite a few tackles yesterday and generated only one sack. On the bright side, it registered two crucial interceptions yesterday, bringing its total to eight through three games.

Entering the season, many felt Northwestern’s defense achilles’ heel was the secondary. The defensive backs have far exceeded those expectations, primarily due to the emergence of Brandon Joseph and solid play from a host of cornerbacks. The linebackers have been tackling machines. But the defensive line could use improvement, though it isn’t all their fault. They’ve dealt with opt outs and injuries and have still held up against the run, but a pass rush as quiet as theirs might not cut it the entire season.

Northwestern controls its West division destiny

The Wildcats now hold the best record in the Big Ten West at 3-0. The only other undefeateds are Purdue and Wisconsin, but these teams may all end up playing a different number of games. The winner of next week’s matchup between the Wildcats and Boilermakers instantly gains the inside track to Indianapolis. Should the Badgers have another game canceled and the league average more than six games played per team, they cannot qualify for the Big Ten Championship game.

A win over Purdue next week would not only put the Wildcats at 4-0 and as the frontrunner in the Big Ten West, but it would also give them a spotlight. With the Badgers having played just one game so far, ESPN’s signature CFB show will probably head to Columbus for a marquee East division showdown featuring the Buckeyes and Indiana.