Final take: Just a typical Nebraska vs. Northwestern game
EVANSTON, Ill. - I said going into this game "expect the unexpected" when Nebraska plays Northwestern, and we definitely got a good dose of that again on Saturday.
The No. 20th ranked Huskers (4-0, 1-0) edged out a 24-13 victory over the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1) that featured two NU fumbles through the end zone that resulted in touchbacks leaving 14 points off the scoreboard.
There was also some sloppy play on defense that let Northwestern hang around in a game that should've probably been decided by halftime. There was really never that moment where the Huskers finished off the Wildcats, which allowed it to be a game all the way until the final minutes.
In the end, it was a Big Ten road game. It was step 1 of a 9 week road that leads to Indianapolis. It was a victory over a team that beat NU a year ago in Lincoln. A team that held them to just 82 yards rushing.
"When we walked in for practice on Tuesday Coach (Mike) Cavanaugh had it written on the board we averaged 2.2 yards (a carry)," senior offensive lineman Dylan Utter said. "That was our emphasis that that can't happen otherwise we'll lose again."
It was also a special night for quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who had a career day running the ball and another solid performance through the air. Armstrong finished with a 132 yards rushing and 246 yards passing. He wasn't sacked and he didn't throw an interception. He's thrown just one pick in four games.
If Armstrong can give the Huskers this type of play throughout Big Ten play look out. This offense has a chance to be very dangerous.
"That's Tommy Armstrong just being Tommy Armstrong," sophomore wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. said. "He's a great leader and I love him."
With the win in Evanston, Nebraska improved to 7-1 over their last 8 games dating back to Michigan State in 2015.
It's clear head coach Mike Riley has found a formula for this offense that works. Even on what was an "off day type performance" they still took care of business against a team that beat them a year ago. If you can put up 556 total yards on your off day, I'd hate to see what this offense will look like on their best days.
"I didn't even know that, so that's good to know," Williams said of the Huskers 7-1 run. "We are just focused. I'm not saying last year we weren't focused, but we just have a new sense of urgency and when we go out it's 'lets do the best to go make a play.' That's coming out of everybody's mouth."
Now on to the breakdown....
WHAT I SAW ON SATURDAY
***This Nebraska running attack is so hard to defend. On Saturday we saw Danny Langsdorf give the ball to the running backs, quarterback, receivers and tight ends. I really liked the play calling balance on Saturday.
***If Tommy Armstrong continues to play like he did against Northwestern, this offense is going to be very hard to stop. Armstrong put up offensive numbers on Saturday worthy to be Big Ten offensive player of the week.
***Nebraska's linebacker play still remains a concern for me. They just haven't played with a physical presence and guys like Dedrick Young, Marcus Newby and Josh Banderas have been quiet this season through four games.
***The pass rush also was also inconsistent at times on Saturday. Nebraska had a very hard time getting pressure on Northwestern with a four man rush. I did think defensive tackle Kevin Maurice had a solid game leading the Huskers with two quarterback sacks. Going into tonight he had just 1.5 sacks in his career.
***For those that have been calling to see more of running back Mikale Wilbon, he finally got the call from the bull pen and gave the Husker offense a nice spark. It will be interesting to see how they handle the running back position going forward next week.
****Of the 40,000 in attendance on Saturday night, easily over half where Nebraska fans. It was unbelievable to see this kind of support for the Huskers in Evanston. Mark Banker told me after the game he's never seen anything like that before in all his years coaching on the road.
"It reminded me a lot of last year's Rutgers game where it's a smaller venue and our fans just stand out," Banker said. "They are the most incredible fans I've ever seen. I'm sure there are other Universities, but it just makes you proud to be part of this one with the kind of fan support you have. It just brings some home cooking with you."
THE FINAL GRADES
Rushing offense: A-
The Huskers got 310 rushing yards on 47 carries on Saturday. The Huskers are 7-0 under Riley when they rush for 200 yards or more. The only thing keeping them from an A was the early fumble and struggles they had, but overall it was a solid night. The Huskers got production from the quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end in the ground attack.
Passing offense: A-
Armstrong finished the night 18-of-29 for 246 yards. Most importantly he wasn't sacked and he didn't throw an interception. He also got into a very good rhythm with on his short 10 to 12 yard hitch routes.
Rushing defense: C
Northwestern gave Nebraska problems at times in the running game, as Clayton Thorson got 60 positive yards on six attempts when you take away the four plays he was sacked on. Justin Jackson also gave Nebraska some problems gaining 79 yards on 20 carries. The linebacker play still needs to improve going forward.
Passing defense: C+
The Blackshirts forced two interceptions, but Thorson still completed 64.8 of his passes and Austin Carr had 109 yards on eight catches to lead the Wildcats. The pass rush was inconsistent at times, but Nebraska finished with four sacks led by Maurice who had two.
Special teams: C
This was really a non factor on Saturday. Neither team had any game changing returns, Caleb Lightbourn was solid and Drew Brown made his lone field goal attempt. The Huskers also sniffed out a big fake field goal by the Wildcats as well. I would've liked to have seen the Huskers set up some blocking for a return from De'Mornay Pierson-El, but they played it safe to guard against the fake.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Up Tuesday's at 7 pm.