10 things we learned from Nebraska's win over Northwestern
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways following Nebraska's 13-10 victory over Northwestern on Saturday...
1. One of Nebraska’s biggest problems ended up saving the day
Nebraska’s kicker situation has been a downright disaster all season, and incumbent starter Barret Pickering missed his sixth straight game with an injury on Saturday.
But after trying to overcome a litany of kicking woes all year, that position ended up being the hero of the day with Lane McCallum’s walk-off winner.
Head coach Scott Frost said it was fitting that a crucial game for the Huskers came down to the right leg of a sophomore walk-on who had been a safety just a few weeks earlier.
McCallum knocked in his first-career field goal with a 35-yarder in the second quarter but missed his second try on a 29-yard attempt in the third. Frost said he briefly debated making a change at kicker after McCallum’s miss but decided to stick with the former Norfolk, Neb., standout.
With the game on the line, McCallum stayed focused through four-straight timeouts (three in a row by Northwestern) to lift his team with a desperately needed victory.
"I didn’t think that thing was going in when it left my foot,” McCallum said. “I looked at it and it was really low and I was like, ‘oh crud.’ I give that one to the man upstairs for sure. I didn’t know if that was going to get blocked or not…
“It’s definitely been a crazy journey, God throws you in every situation he wants you to. It’s his plan not yours, and that’s exactly what has showed in the last couple months.”
2. Robinson gave Huskers the x-factor they needed
Saturday’s game was a standoff at just about every position on either side of the ball, with hardly any separation in terms of playmaking x-factors.
The one wildcard Nebraska had that Northwestern didn’t, though, was Wan’Dale Robinson.
The dynamic true freshman provided some of the biggest plays of the game both on the ground and through the air, including a 32-yard catch in the final seconds that led to McCallum’s winning kick.
With seven catches (on eight targets) for 123 and seven rushes for 44 yards and a touchdown, Robinson ended up with 167 all-purpose yards.
Included in that production was a career-long 42-yard touchdown run, a career-long 49-yard reception, and his 32-yard grab at the end of the game.
“I mean, these are the moments you live for as a college football player,” Robinson said. “I came in wanting to make plays just like this, and I came in wanting to have a big impact like this in a game like this. Just doing what I can to help our team win is all I want to do.”
3. Vedral steps up, but Martinez’s injury looms large
Nebraska’s situation got as dicey as ever on the final play of the third quarter when starting quarterback Adrian Martinez left the game with an apparent left knee injury.
Sophomore Noah Vedral took over the entire fourth quarter and was able to do just enough to lead his team to a win. The former Wahoo standout completed 2-of-5 passes for 41 yards and rushed seven times for 33 yards.
Frost said he had total faith in Vedral to step in and take the reins, as he was arguably the most versed player on the team on Nebraska’s offense going back to his time under Frost at Central Florida and two seasons in Lincoln.
But even with Vedral’s storybook finish and Martinez’s recent struggles, Frost said he was holding out hope that Martinez would be ready to return under center for next week’s road game at undefeated Minnesota.
“Noah’s been biding his time in our program as a coaching staff for a long time,” Frost said. “It's great to see him get his chance. I wish it wasn’t under the circumstances it was under, but he made the most of it. I think he made a couple plays when we needed him to, and we'll see where we are going into next week.
"Hopefully, it's Adrian. If it isn't then Noah will be ready."
4. Spielman’s injury leaves another big question facing NU offense
Playmakers have been few and far between for Nebraska’s offense this season, and one player it can’t afford to be without is JD Spielman.
The junior wide receiver has been by far the most consistent option in the passing game all year, posting 21 catches for a team-high 410 yards (68.3 ypg) and a touchdown.
But like Martinez, Spielman was also knocked out of the game with an undisclosed injury at the end of the second quarter. He ended the day with just two receptions for 19 yards.
Frost said he didn’t think either injury to Spielman or Martinez were too serious, but any extended absence for Spielman would be a blow for whichever quarterback the Huskers roll with.
5. Washington’s situation got a little more complicated
While Nebraska was dealt some blows to a couple of its top offensive players throughout the game, there was another notable absence that was sidelined for a half entirely by Frost’s choice.
Running back Maurice Washington, who came into the game as NU’s leading rusher and one of its most electric playmakers, was benched for the entire first half. Frost said it was his decision to sit Washington.
Washington started the third quarter and ended up getting the ball on five of the Huskers’ first seven plays of second half. But he totaled zero yards during that workload and touched the ball one time the rest of the day – a three-yard rush at the end of the third quarter.
Washington has been a roller coaster case all year, and until Saturday his play on game day had been enough for the staff to justify whatever off-the-field issues come with him.
After his worst game of the season, will that still hold true?
“I held him out of the first half because of internal things and rules,” Frost said. “Mo is such a special player, but we need to be able to rely on him all the time. And that was my decision to hold him out the first time.”
6. Penalties continue to be a thorn in NU’s side
Nebraska needed to play a nearly flawless game in order get past a fundamentally sound Northwestern team. While it accomplished the most important goal of not turning the ball over, penalties were another story.
The Huskers were flagged eight times for 74 yards on Saturday, including three times in the first seven snaps of the game.
The penalties may not have cost them the game, but they continued a concerning trend of NU’s inability to play a full clean game yet this year.
The Huskers are now averaging nearly seven penalties for 58 yards per game, ranking them near the bottom of the Big Ten in both categories.
7. The snapping issues are still a problem
Now six games into the season, Nebraska’s issues with simply snapping the ball consistently continue to be an obvious problem.
Center Cam Jurgens was once again snapping the ball high at a concerning rate, something he’s struggling with all year. Even when his snaps were on the mark, Martinez was often jumping unnecessarily as if he were expecting the snap to be off-target.
When Vedral had snap issues right away when he took over in the fourth quarter, bobbling one that hit him in the hands and another sailing over his head in a near disaster play for the Huskers.
One would think that those issues would start to be corrected by the midway point of the season, but they clearly are just as much of an issue as they were in Week 1.
8. Quarterback run game turned into a strength for Northwestern
If there was one thing Northwestern’s quarterbacks hadn’t done all season, it was posing any sort of a threat in the run game.
That was until Saturday, at least.
The Wildcats went with Aidan Smith as their starter against Nebraska, and the Blackshirts made him look like a legitimate dual-threat weapon.
Smith came into the game having carried the ball 13 times for 37 yards on the year. On Saturday, he rushed a team-high 16 times for 64 yards and a touchdown.
Maybe it was a result of NU not factoring in the quarterback run game into their defensive game plan during the week, or maybe it was just poor execution from its outside contain on the zone-read options.
Either way, the Huskers let the Wildcats take advantage of a wrinkle that hadn’t been there whatsoever through the first five weeks.
9. Nebraska had to go deep into its defensive line rotation
Even before all of the key injuries, Nebraska was without one of its best defensive linemen following the one-game suspension of Khalil Davis.
The senior defensive end was reprimanded by the Big Ten earlier this week for an incident during the loss to Ohio State. As a result, Ben Stille got the start against Northwestern and several other d-lineman saw notable snaps in Davis’ absence.
Sophomore Deontre Thomas got some of the most extensive playing time of his young career and finished with two tackles. Freshman Casey Rogers also had his biggest role of a Husker.
The defensive line depth was needed even more when senior Carlos Davis temporarily left the game with an injury. In all, seven d-lineman saw the field on Saturday.
10. Nebraska got a win it desperately needed
One could make the argument that Saturday was a potentially season-defining game for both Nebraska and Northwestern.
At 3-2 and just coming off an ugly home loss to Ohio State, the Huskers had to get some positivity back on their side. For the Wildcats, avoiding a 1-4 start would be imperative to keeping alive whatever goals that were still on the table.
In the end, NU made a handful of big plays more than Northwestern, and now the Huskers are 4-2 overall, 2-1 in conference play, and still at least in the conversation of the Big Ten West race.
There wasn’t anything pretty about it, but Nebraska found a way to get it done. Survive and advance is an adage that fit this game perfectly.
“I think it helps a lot with our character,” senior nose guard Darrion Daniels said. “Just the ability for us to hit a wall and then not turn away from it but keep fighting it and pushing through. I think that that's huge for all of us in all three phases of the game.
"It helped build character and it was a tough win. It was something that we had to dig out and we got through. It was just another obstacle that we overcame, and it helps us later on down the road."