Things were not pretty.
Following a thrilling 23-20 homecoming victory against Howard, Northwestern headed into its bye week to prepare for the second half of its season, which features five opponents from the competitive Big Ten West. To kick off this slate of in-conference matchups, the Wildcats traveled to Lincoln on Saturday to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a showdown with huge implications for the division title.
Northwestern was without starting quarterback Ben Bryant for the second straight week as he continues to recover from an upper body injury he sustained against Penn State. Despite his absence, however, the team had high hopes to come out with a victory against a Nebraska squad that’s had its own share of struggles. But despite a strong defensive performance, the offense proved pitiful as the Wildcats mustered just 9 points. Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s deflating loss against Nebraska.
1. The offensive line continues to struggle
Could we try and bring back Rashawn Slater or Peter Skoronski? The offensive line has been woeful this year, but its performance against Nebraska has to be the worst to date. The unit gave up 8 sacks, which is Northwestern’s most in one game since 2000. That brings the season total to 30, meaning the Wildcats are giving up more than four sacks a game. Sure, Brendan Sullivan wasn’t completely blameless in the loss, but how can he even take time to think when he’s instantly being bombarded by Nebraska’s front seven?
Additionally, six of the eight penalties called against Northwestern can be attributed to an offensive lineman, the most egregious being a 4th quarter false start called on Caleb Tiernan on 3rd-and-3 when the Wildcats were only down 10-6. Careless mistakes like those are inexcusable in a game that close against an in-conference opponent. Northwestern needs its offensive line to perform if it wants to salvage its season, especially with formidable defensive units like Iowa coming up on the schedule.
2. Is this team scared of good field position?
In what has seemed to become their specialty, the Wildcats failed to capitalize on several instances in which they were gifted outstanding field position. On the first play of the game, Heinrich Haarberg’s pass was intercepted, putting the Wildcats around midfield to begin their first offensive drive. They promptly went three-and-out in a drive that included a Brendan Sullivan fumble and a subsequent sack. A few minutes later, the Wildcats picked off Haarberg again, putting the offense on the Nebraska 13 with a great chance to score. What ensued, however, was a holding penalty and another sack, forcing Jack Olsen to kick a 45-yard field goal.
In the fourth quarter, following a 66-yard pass to Bryce Kirtz, the offense once again went three-and-out and had to settle for another field goal after a promising trip to the red zone. Simply put, the offense’s failure to take advantage of prime opportunities cost the team the game. The offense could have put up 21 points as a result of the three aforementioned drives. Instead, they scored six. This has been a recurring problem all season, and if the Wildcats even want to think about a bowl game, they need to address this glaring issue.
3. Ben Bryant, please come back soon
As I said before, Brendan Sullivan wasn’t exactly getting any help from his teammates. And yes, he did show some flashes of talent, including the 66-yard bomb to Bryce Kirtz in the fourth quarter. With all that being said, Sullivan’s performance against the Cornhuskers was pretty lackluster. Throughout the first half, he repeatedly left the pocket too quickly, which resulted in a fumble that was fortunately recovered. Add on to that an unflattering interception and a completion percentage barely above 50%, and it becomes evident that Saturday’s performance was one to forget for the junior quarterback.
Now, all of this is not to say that Ben Bryant has been this team’s hero, but with the fifth-year under center, the offense certainly would’ve been in a much better position to capitalize on some of the opportunities provided by the defense. Bryant has more experience, and more importantly, better chemistry with some of the team’s most dangerous weapons, including wide receiver A.J. Henning, who returned this week from injury. Brendan Sullivan is certainly capable of leading the team to victory, as evidenced by his performance at Ryan Field against Howard, but Ben Bryant is a much safer bet.
4. What a day for the defense
Much of the talk about Saturday’s game has revolved around the dormant offense, but can we give the defense some credit? Sure, it gave up its fair share of big plays, but it was generally quite effective in stymying Nebraska’s offense. The Wildcats held Haarberg to 85 yards of passing and picked off two of his passes to set the offense up in enviable field position. The unit could have been more effective in stopping the run and rushing Haarberg, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to blame the loss on a defensive squad that only allowed 17 points.
Given the state of the offense this season and the uncertainty surrounding Ben Bryant’s availability in the coming weeks, it will be imperative for the defense to continue competing at a high level to keep Northwestern in games. If they let up even a little bit, Northwestern fans are in for an ugly finish to the season.
5. It’s still too early to give up hope
Was Nebraska an important game to win? Yes. Did the team fail to show any signs of life? Yes. Does that mean the season’s gone? No.
It would be a total overreaction to declare the season over at this point. At 3-4, the Wildcats are still in the thick of a fierce competition for the Big Ten West division title. As it stands right now, they are two games out of first with five games to go. Yes, the competition will be tough. To qualify for a bowl game, the Wildcats will have to beat at least three teams between Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois. Those first three in particular will be pesky opponents. However, Purdue and Illinois are very manageable, and with Iowa just losing a close game to Minnesota, it’s clear that the Hawkeyes are not invincible either. There’s still a viable path to a bowl game, and potentially even the Big Ten West title. NU fans should be cautiously optimistic about the weeks to come.