When I think of the Big Ten West, the first things that come to mind are strong defenses, low-scoring games, lots of punting and ultimate chaos. That is exactly what the Wildcats’ game against Nebraska felt like last Saturday.
Northwestern went into Lincoln with a chance to reach an above .500 record for the first time this season. In the perfect representation of the Big Ten West, the ‘Cats went back and forth with losses and wins through their first six games of the year. That streak continued with a 17-9 loss to the Cornhuskers.
The question of how to evaluate this team is an interesting one. If you told me before the season that Northwestern would be 3-4 through seven games this season, I would have been ecstatic. However, after watching the game on Saturday, I’m no longer sure that’s how I feel. Nebraska was arguably one of the more winnable games left on the schedule and with the way the defense performed, the Wildcats should have ended up with the victory.
There were positives and negatives from the game, which also encapsulates the entire season. The defense held Nebraska to 17 points and should have been good enough to win the game. In terms of turnovers, Northwestern recorded two interceptions from Rod Heard II and Devin Turner, both occurring within the first three drives of the game. A strong start like that should also lead to a victory. Nebraska was also held to 248 total yards of offense, the fewest number of yards given up by the Wildcats this season.
The defense combined with a strong special teams performance also led to the Wildcats having a better starting field position than the Cornhuskers for the majority of the game. Hunter Renner averaged 43.5 yards on six punts including four dropped within the 20, forcing Nebraska’s lackluster offense to drive even further. Jack Olsen was also strong on field goal attempts, making three of his four attempts, with the lone miss being from 54 yards.
Despite the defensive success, the offensive struggles were the reason for the loss. Ultimately, the offensive line was not good enough and prevented Brendan Sullivan from having nearly enough time to make anything happen. Sullivan was sacked eight times while going 12-of-23 for 176 yards. This led to the entire offense being made up of three field goals, while failing to convert in the red zone.
This type of game from Northwestern was the epitome of a Big Ten West game. The Wildcats did their best Iowa impression with the low scoring offense, strong defense and high volume of punts. The ‘Cats limited ability to throw the football also fit right in.
Overall, this game left more questions than answers. With Ben Bryant missing a second straight game due to injury, it’s very clear that the offense takes a hit when he’s not behind center. While Sullivan provides the mobility to deal with a poor offensive line, the offense clicks better with Bryant. The question surrounding Bryant’s health is a massive one that will follow this team.
Even with the questions at quarterback, the offense needs to get the run game going. The ‘Cats were able to pick up rushing yards towards the later part of the first half against Nebraska, but it quickly went cold in the second half. A better rushing attack would help open up the passing game and make it easier for Sullivan or Bryant to work, but so far this year, that has not been the case.
The biggest takeaway from this game was clearly the dominance of the defense. David Braun has clearly shown that he knows how to coach a defense. Most importantly, Braun deserves a lot of credit for the improvement that the defense has shown in nearly every game so far. With Maryland coming to Evanston this upcoming Saturday, the unit will have a tough road ahead against a Terrapin offense that averages over 30 points per game. While Northwestern has turned out three consecutive strong defensive performances, there are still questions about whether it can be done consistently.
Looking towards the rest of the season, a bowl game is not out of reach for the Wildcats, words that might have seemed crazy to write two months ago. Northwestern will have opportunities to pick up wins if they can continue to be solid defensively, the type of game plan that will be conducive to winning in the chaos of the Big Ten West.