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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern’s offense comes up empty in Lincoln as Wildcats fall 17-9 to Nebraska

Continued lack of rhythm without Ben Bryant under center.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Despite traveling out west to Lincoln, Nebraska, mistakes continued to follow and undermine Northwestern.

The Wildcats (3-4, 1-3 B1G) fell to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-3, 2-2 B1G) 17-9 on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats’ defense forced two turnovers, but the offense continued to sputter without starting QB Ben Bryant. NU never found the end zone despite having seven possessions in Nebraska territory.

Brendan Sullivan finished the day 12-of-23 for 176 yards but tossed an interception. On the ground, NU’s running backs combined for 98 yards on 20 carries. For the Huskers, Heinrich Haarberg was 8-17 for 85 yards but added 72 yards and a score on the ground.

Northwestern won the toss but deferred to the second half. On the first play of the game, Haarberg overshot his tight end, and Devin Turner leaped up and picked the ball off to give NU the ball. It was NU’s first defensive turnover since Week Two.

As soon as the Wildcats got the ball, Sullivan dropped the snap, fell on it; on the next play, he was nearly intercepted. On third down, Sullivan was dropped for a sack, and NU had to punt. In a positive note, Hunter Renner dropped a 50-yard punt down to the Cornhuskers’ 1-yard line. On Nebraska’s ensuing drive, the Wildcats forced a three-and-out, aided by a pass breakup by multiple defenders.

Staring in Huskers territory, Sullivan had the first completion on the day on a screen to A.J. Henning, but missed No. 8 deep on second down. While the ‘Cats’ QB scrambled on third down, he was well short of the sticks and the punting unit trotted onto the field for the second drive in a row.

On the Huskers’ next drive, Haarberg flicked a short pass out to Billy Kemp, but Bryce Gallagher knocked the ball free. Although UNL recovered the fumble, Northwestern capitalized on a pass off the hands of a Cornhusker, which found Rod Heard II — who returned the ball all the way into the ‘Huskers' red zone. However, the ‘Wildcats' offense was abysmal for a third straight drive, going 14 yards backward. Despite the offensive struggles, Northwestern got three points off the turnover, as Jack Olsen connected on a 45-yard field goal attempt.

After a 36-yard kickoff return, Nebraska barely got back to the line of scrimmage; however, on third down, Haarberg evaded Anto Saka off the edge, danced around and found Alex Bullock for 15 yards into NU territory. The Cornhuskers had to settle for a field goal, but Tristan Alvano hit a 47-yarder to tie the game at 3-3 with three minutes left in the first quarter.

The ‘Cats went three and out again, finishing the first quarter with zero total yards but still tied at 3-3.

At the start of the second quarter, Northwestern forced Nebraska into a third-and-13, but Haarberg scrambled for 16 yards and a fresh set of downs. However, the ‘Cats’ defense locked down, lighting Haarberg up on two straight plays and sending UNL’s punting unit back out there.

It was the Tre Tyus show on the ‘Cats’ next drive. The junior picked up 61 yards on four carries, including a 39-yard burst on a counter. Cam Porter pushed ahead for five yards for a fresh set of downs and put NU in the red zone. Inside the red area, the Wildcats were unable to get in the end zone, but Olsen converted on another field goal to put NU ahead 6-3.

Nebraska drove the ball into NU territory on its next drive, aided by a 15-yard face mask penalty. At NU’s thirty, Haarberg pulled the speed option for a 20-yard gain, but not without a bellringer from Coco Azema. Two plays later, Haarberg dove into the end zone to send UNL into the halftime locker room up 10-6. Sullivan, on a Hail Mary, threw an interception to close out the first half.

NU got the ball to start the second half. A drop by Cam Johnson set up the third and long, and Sullivan threw the hot to Porter, but a missed block by Caleb Tiernan allowed the ‘Huskers to bring Porter down before he could pick up the first down.

On the Cornhuskers' first play of the half, Josh Fleeks could not handle the exchange and lost the ball, but fell on it before a swarm of Wildcats dove into the pile. However, Haarberg made up for the mistake with his arm and legs, picking up the first down with a rush of 16. The Huskers then messed up another exchange, and after an incompletion, the ‘Cats were able to get off the field.

NU came out running the ball, handing the ball to Porter three straight plays for a first down. On the ensuing play, Sullivan underthrew a ball, but Henning made a leaping grab for a 32-yard gain. However, a 15-yard penalty on a chop block pushed the Wildcats back, and Olsen’s 54-yard field goal fell short, sending the Wildcats back to the bench empty-handed.

After the missed field goal, Haarberg missed a wide-open receiver down the sideline, and Theran Johnson broke up a pass to set up a third-and-long. On third down, NU knocked the pass down at the line of scrimmage and made Nebraska punt once again.

On the next drive, Sullivan found Kirtz for 17 yards, but missed him on the next two plays, setting up a third-and-10. Sullivan then scrambled for five yards, and NU had to send the punting unit back out there. Renner pinned the Huskers inside their own five, but a 24-yard run by Emmett Johnson moved UNL out of its own end zone. While Nebraska had to punt, Henning struggled to corral the punt and was tackled on Northwestern’s 10. At the end of the third quarter, NU still trailed 10-6.

Sullivan was sacked on third down, and on the next Nebraska play, Haarberg launched a 44-yard pass to Malachi Coleman for a walk-in touchdown, putting the Cornhuskers up 17-6.

The ‘Cats refused to go down quietly. On second-and-10, Sullivan evaded the rush and dropped a dime into the hands of Kirtz, who ran it inside the 10-yard line. Near the goal line, NU stalled out and had to settle for another field goal, cutting Nebraska’s lead to 17-9.

After the score, UNL had to punt the ball away. Sullivan converted a third-and-nine on a completion to Johnson to move the chains. Despite the positive plays, another personal foul on Gordon pushed the Wildcats back 15 yards, and a sack on Sullivan sent Renner and the punting unit back onto the field. Nebraska went three-and-out, and NU got the ball back with just over three minutes to play.

Sullivan picked up two quick first downs, one on the ground and one through the air, but a sack pushed Northwestern all the way to a third-and-16. Sullivan was nearly intercepted on third down, and on NU’s last gasp, Sullivan was taken down for the eighth time in the game, sending NU home with a 17-9 defeat.

Northwestern returns to Ryan Field next Saturday to take on the Maryland Terrapins at 11 a.m. CT.