Following a necessary bye week and with the full second half of the season ahead of it, Northwestern football earnestly felt like it was in a rather optimistic state. At 3-3 and with a pivotal game against Nebraska looming, it seemed as if almost anything was possible — especially in the wackiness of the Big Ten West.
However, that positive momentum took a considerable hit for fans of the purple and white waking up Saturday morning. ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported that starting quarterback Ben Bryant was likely to miss his second straight game, meaning backup Brendan Sullivan would get the nod yet again. Even if the point spread didn’t shift much, cheeriness and hope certainly did.
Despite having to start the team’s QB2 on the road, the Wildcats had more than a legitimate chance to win, to move to above .500 and even their conference mark. That’s precisely what makes Saturday’s 17-9 loss that much more of a difficult pill to swallow.
It would be an understatement to proclaim that neither team played at a high level in Memorial Stadium. Neither the Wildcats nor Huskers mustered over 260 yards; only two trips to the end zone were made in 60 minutes; and the two sides combined for three turnovers and five fumbles (none of which were lost).
But, it seemed as if the Wildcats had a particularly ghastly set of mistakes — largely wasting consistent gains in momentum. In particular, three specific sequences seemed to define why Northwestern fell to Nebraska.
After picking off Heinrich Haarberg on the first play from scrimmage, NU’s first defensive takeaway since playing UTEP on Sept. 9, Northwestern’s offense featured this set of three plays: a dropped snap from Brendan Sullivan, a near interception on a late throw to an out route and a sack. The Wildcats lost seven yards despite starting in UNL territory with a clear-cut opportunity to make a statement and open a lead.
Only two drives later, Mike Bajakian’s offense again had an egregious missed shot. Rod Heard II corralled a ball in the air, notching Haarberg’s second interception of the quarter and setting the ‘Cats up at the Nebraska 13. A hold from Marshall Lang, zero-yard run from Jack Lausch, sack of Sullivan and three-yard Cam Porter run made it a loss of 14 yards on the drive. NU did kick a field goal, but that’s impressive levels of offensive ineptitude in that situation.
And, finally, maybe the most painful drive yet. Trailing 17-6 with 13:57 to go in the game, the Wildcats finally got a jolt on O courtesy of a deep ball from Sullivan to Bryce Kirtz; the receiver raced 66 yards down the near sideline before being tripped up at Nebraska’s 9. What did Northwestern do after that? A four-yard run, two-yard sack (on what should’ve been a walk-in touchdown) and a short completion in the flat.
NU’s offense lacked rhythm and explosiveness throughout the entire afternoon, but those three possessions highlight the biggest problem for the ‘Cats this year: an inability to seize momentum and avoid the team getting out of its own way.
With Ben Bryant under center, the Wildcats’ offense has still been rather stagnant; at the same time, the quarterback has shown a proclivity to hang in tough pockets, make accurate throws and largely mask a rushing attack that’s struggled to find success. With Sullivan under center, though, the layers of the operation are pulled back that much further, revealing the major issues. No matter who’s at quarterback, it’s clear that Northwestern’s red zone operation and ability to succeed past the 50 are glaring weaknesses.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Wildcats’ defense held tough for the majority of the day. Although David Braun’s unit did surrender nine plays worth at least 10 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown to Malachi Coleman to effectively ice the game, NU primarily held strong by preventing trips to the end zone and getting the ball back, either through turnovers or stops on third down.
It’s hard to critique a unit that allows only 17 points, but NU still yielded five plays of 15+ yards. In large part, that occurred due to missed tackles, which has proven cataclysmic for the Wildcats all year. There’s nobody to blame for missing one-on-one in the hole or getting bad angles in run support than Northwestern, no matter the opponent.
At 3-4, it would seem hyperbole to declare that NU’s season is already over, especially given the wide range of outcomes across five games — in the Big Ten West, with backup quarterbacks galore, no less. But, today’s result is deflating for a multitude of reasons.
To reach postseason contention, the ‘Cats will need to beat two (if not three) of Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois. That climb seems incredibly steep to make for any team this late in the season.
Beyond that, though, Saturday underscored that this Northwestern team in its present version has still not amended many of its most fundamental problems. For NU players to still commit backbreaking penalties, miss blocks and not secure ball-carriers is, ultimately, a reflection of a coaching staff that has yet to actually fix the team’s most basic downfalls. Yes, Northwestern has seemed to improve in some areas throughout this campaign, but that lack of progress seven games into a season is concerning.
On top of those inherent flaws, the Wildcats very well may not have Bryant under center for the foreseeable future. Braun was very non-committal postgame about the transfer’s availability against the Terrapins, indicating that the team hopes to “get Ben back at some point this season.”
What, then, does the gameplan look like to operate a more functional offense with Sullivan? How can Northwestern mitigate blitzes from defenses and get Sullivan comfortable in the pocket? On the flip side, can NU’s defense finally get pressure on a quarterback and keep forcing takeaways?
Until these significant questions are answered, it’s hard to have a lot of faith in Northwestern football. Sure, the Wildcats only lost 17-9 to a solid Nebraska team in front of more than 86,000 red-faced fans. But, Saturday is a microcosm of a season where David Braun’s team has yet to stack four good quarters of football, with only five games to go — largely because of its own shortcomings.