Final take: Saturday was a microcosm of the entire season
Nebraska's 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern was a microcosm of this entire season.
Yes, there were some positive moments and plays, but the issues this football team has fought in 2017 all showed up in different ways on Saturday.
We saw three interceptions, protection issues up front in both the passing and running game, not capitalizing in the red zone, poor game management, missed tackles in the open field, a lack of pass rush and several bad penalties.
Going into this game on Saturday I didn't have a good feeling for the Huskers. That's why I picked Northwestern to win in Lincoln. Nothing from last Saturday's win at Purdue led me to believe this team was good enough to go four quarters with a team like Northwestern that just beat No. 16 ranked Michigan State and Iowa the previous two weeks.
My gut feeling was correct, and we once again learned how far away Nebraska is from competing with the top teams in the Big Ten West - Iowa's 55-24 win over Ohio State didn't help matters much. We were told the Big Ten West teams were far too inferior to go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes with lower level talent. The Hawkeyes proved that theory wrong on Saturday. They beat the Buckeyes down like it was a Council Bluffs bar fight.
The thing that made the Northwestern loss probably the most frustrating is the Huskers had victory in their grasp. Leading 21-17 in the third quarter with complete control of the game, they settled for a field goal on an 18 play, 79 yard drive that took 9:24 off the clock.
Then with the ball back leading 24-17 and a first-and-10 on the 19, the Huskers threw an interception in the fourth quarter in a moment where they could've iced the game with a touchdown or a field goal.
“That’s the deflating, disappointing part, we had our chances to take a lead that would have made them get two scores in the fourth quarter and we didn’t do it," a defeated head coach Mike Riley said following Saturday's loss.
Now it's reached a point as to what's next? What's left to play for in 2017? A bowl game is still out there, but a 2-4 home record is hard to look past. It will be the second time in three seasons NU has had a losing home record.
I don't think the expectation level from most fans is too out of line. Play a physical brand of football, contend for the Big Ten West and win or lose, make Husker fans proud of the product. I'm not seeing that right now, and my guess is Bill Moos isn't seeing it either.
Now on to the breakdown....
What I saw on Saturday
***When I was on the field for the fourth quarter and overtime, I asked a few former Husker linemen what they were seeing. Why were so many guys coming in untouched? Their take was complete communication errors. A lot of the guys blowing up plays weren't even being accounted for.
***I thought Saturday was the best game Marcus Newby played in his career at Nebraska. He played fast and physical and nearly turned the game with his pick 6 interception.
***It was good to see tight end Jack Stoll get involved in the offense. You have to think Northwestern didn't consider him a deep threat at all when he scored his 32 yard touchdown from Tanner Lee.
***You have to wonder if David Knevel will get a chance down the stretch at right tackle? I saw too many breakdowns on the right side on Saturday.
***The day just didn't feel right out of the gates for Lee. On the opening drive alone he was off the mark on his first two throws. He never looked comfortable.
***I felt like Northwestern's offense said "we are going to make you tackle and play fundamental football." The Huskers really struggled in this area on Saturday. They made the simple things seem hard on Saturday.
***Lamar Jackson had two big penalties on Saturday. One defensive holding call and another personal foul penalty. The Huskers had seven for 68 yards on Saturday.
***Things on Saturday just felt bad from the start. Even the Tunnel Walk had a technical issue out of the gates.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: C-
Nebraska was no consistent running the football on Saturday. You knew it was going to be hard to run the ball effectively on Northwestern, but JD Spielman and Devine Ozigbo stressed the Wildcats a few times. Still, there were too many missed blocks up front, and not near enough consistency running the football. You also wonder what would've happened if Danny Langsdorf just elected to run it inside the red zone on first down when up 24-17 vs. taking a chance with a pass?
Passing offense: F
Tanner Lee made some good throws on Saturday, but it's hard to look past the three interceptions, and the sack given up on a crucial screen call in overtime. You aren't going to win very many games with three interceptions, especially in the red zone. I was also disappointed with the play selection inside the 10 yard line when it was 21-17. That was a real opportunity to pull away and they settled for a field goal.
Rushing defense: D-
The Huskers seemingly had no answer for Justin Jackson, who finished with 154 yards on 31 carries. He came at the Blackshirts with a steady diet of slow developing runs, and more often than not he got the best of NU. There was a small moment in the third quarter where Nebraska had some success stopping the run, but that was really it. Jeremy Larkin also hurt Nebraska in a relief role, finishing with 69 yards on 10 carries.
Passing defense: B+
The passing defense is arguably what kept Nebraska in this game. NU forced two interceptions that gave them the momentum, including a Marcus Newby pick six that put the Huskers up 21-17 early in the third quarter. The Huskers really appeared to have Clayton Thorson off-balance for most of the game, as the Wildcats were just 1-of-11 on third down, but they manged to go 3-of-4 on fourth down.
Special teams: D
Nebraska's special teams did them no favors on Saturday. The Huskers started on the 14, 20 and 7 yard line on three of their five kickoff returns. They only crossed the 30 once with their kickoff team. They also got some costly special teams penalties that dug them in even deeper holes. Drew Brown was good on kick-offs and Caleb Lightbourn did a solid job of taking away any return opportunities. The Spielman decision to return it out of the end zone, which led to a block in the back penalty was probably the most killer play. It took away any real chance the Huskers had to win the game with a field goal and started them on the 7 yard line.
Sean Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.