Empty Husks: Classic B1G Football

(Photo by John S. Peterson)

Before we talk about what happened on the field this week, I’d like to dispel a common notion. Many people believe that Northwestern is a sound football team. A team that doesn’t make many mistakes. A team that patiently waits for you to make a mistake, and then pounces on it. That may have been the case in years past, but this is not your standard Northwestern football team.

Northwestern had 6 penalties on Saturday, fumbled twice (and was lucky to recover both), and threw a pick. Through 5 games, Northwestern is averaging 5.8 penalties/game. That’s nearly double their average at this time last year. They gave up just 5 turnovers before October a year ago. This year they’ve already tallied 11. So let’s stop pretending this is the same Northwestern team that doesn’t beat themselves. Rant over.

Let’s Blame The Refs

Saturday’s game was a poorly officiated game all around. Obvious false starts and offsides penalties were missed all game. Refs ignored blatant holding 10 yards in front of them. On the lone turnover of the game, the refs missed an obvious PI by Nebraska to set up the interception. Many people will point to the last example as the most important, but again, this was happening all game. No one, single missed call – or bad call – decided this game.

Lamar Jackson ends NW’s final drive early with a critical interception (photo: Francis Gardler/Journal Star)

Struggling Offenses

Entering this game, everyone knew what to expect from Northwestern’s offense. They came into Lincoln with one passing touchdown this year and only five on the ground. They are statistically atrocious, and I have to own up to my bad prediction from last week. I didn’t give either defense enough credit when I predicted that 70 points would be scored in this game. The real question was, would a struggling, inconsistent Nebraska offense be able to function against a shockingly good Northwestern defense? The answer was, sort of.

Nebraska played without Maurice Washington for the first half, due to some internal issues that earned him a half-game suspension. JD Spielman, Nebraska’s leading WR, went down with an injury toward the end of the first half. Adrian Martinez also left the game with an injury at the end of the third quarter. With the game tied at 10 entering the 4th quarter, Nebraska was without 3 of its best playmakers. Luckily, they still had one Wan’Dale Robinson.

Robinson had another impressive day amidst all the muck. He caught 7 passes for 123 yards, and rushed for 44 more, averaging 6.3 ypc on the ground. The true freshman from Kentucky had four plays of over 20 yards, and two of those went for 40+. He scored one rushing TD, set the team up for a field goal late (a 29-yarder that Lane McCallum narrowly missed), and broke several ankles along the way.

Wan’Dale Robinson catches a 32 yard pass from Noah Vedral to set up the game winning field goal (photo: Francis Gardler/Journal Star)

The Luckiest Kick

This series has already talked enough about Nebraska’s kicking issues. They’re currently on their 4th string kicker, more or less. That 4th string kicker missed a 29 yard chip shot on a blustery day in Memorial Stadium this week. In a game with 23 total points, that’s a critical opportunity. Fortunately, Northwestern’s kicker also missed an easy field goal a few drives later. Either score could have granted a lead in what was never more than a one score game.

We’ve Seen This Movie

It was all shaping up to be a familiar story. Northwestern uglies the game up, keeps it close, and wins on a walk-off field goal. Or wins in overtime. Or wins in double overtime. As a Nebraska fan, the Northwestern game is one of the worst every year. As much as we want Wisconsin, or even Iowa, to be our rivals, the other NU is the one who has our number. But this year, something crazy happened. Nebraska went 3-and-out with 2:13 left to play. Northwestern did something they hadn’t done all day, collecting multiple first downs in a row, and going 32 yards in 4 plays. For this offense, that was unbelievable. Just as I had resigned myself to a heartbreaking, last-second loss, Lamar Jackson picked off Aiden Smith.

…Or Maybe Not!

Jackson’s INT set Nebraska up with 1:00 to go at midfield. All the offense had to do was move the ball 20-30 yards and kick a field goal. Just 20-30 yards, on the arm of your backup QB, without your top WR or your most explosive RB. It seemed unlikely at best. Then Noah Vedral hit a 32 yard bomb to Robinson. Suddenly, Nebraska was in field goal range with a chance to win. Nebraska scrounged up a few more yards, but failed to convert a 3rd and 6. With 0:03 on the clock, the game rested on Nebraska’s 4th string, walk-on kicker hitting a 19 yard field goal. The ball sailed between the hands of two different defenders on its journey through the uprights. It was a kick that had no business crossing the goal line, and it won the game.

Heading North

Nebraska heads to Minnesota next week to take on the 5-0 Golden Gophers. Minnesota is among the most unimpressive unbeatens this year, winning their first four games against the likes of South Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, and Purdue by a combined 20 points. SDSU is a top-tier FCS program, and Fresno State and Georgia Southern combined for 22 wins last year. Those last two appear to have taken a significant step back this year, but they’re still no pushovers. This week, Minnesota routed Illinois 40-17.

This is a game Nebraska can win, but they’ll need to repeat their turnover-free performance from this week. They’ll also need to clean up some of the penalties after losing a season-high 74 yards against Northwestern. Minnesota has shown a gutty determination to win close games this year, and in a night game at TCF Bank Stadium, they certainly have a strong advantage. If Nebraska has Martinez and Spielman back, this could be a thriller.

Minnesota 28, Nebraska 24

Christian is a co-host of Between The Numbers, a weekly podcast recapping the best college football news from around the country and offering smokin’ hot takes.

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