LINCOLN — It is a cliché and a curse word in football, and also a kind of pox. It lingers and it itches. And it is contagious. And if Nebraska skirted an epidemic of losses in years past despite being a mild infection, these Huskers didn't, and haven't, and perhaps can't.
Inconsistency. The word and all its close relatives tumbled from the mouths of Nebraska coaches and players after a 30-28 loss to Northwestern.
“There was too much inconsistency that contributed to the loss,” coach Mike Riley said.
“We're just kind of up and down — not as consistent as we need to be,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
Wideout Jordan Westerkamp went with the roller coaster metaphor.
“And we're on it right now in full force,” Westerkamp said.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong talked of finding and losing rhythm, and he's right about that. Saturday's loss featured too much bad jazz — drops, busted blocking assignments, mental mistakes, two crippling personal foul penalties — the kind that slowly depresses and empties out a club, much like Memorial Stadium emptied out as Northwestern went into victory formation, the Wildcats grinding out the final two minutes to hushed murmurs and the sights of sour, weather-beaten, Midwestern faces getting just a little tired of this.
The Huskers, clad in ink-black alternate uniforms with hard-to-read numbers, then exited to a golf clap that's really a kind of critique, if you factor in Midwestern manners. When the end-of-game reception is reduced to that patter, it is really not, around these parts, a sign of adulation. It has been five losses — three at home — by 13 points. And Nebraska kind of found a new way to lose, too.
On a day when 89,493 fans honored the 1995 Nebraska team, the 2015 version held the ball for nearly 18 more minutes than Northwestern, running 30 more plays than the Wildcats. And the Huskers still lost — dropping to 3-5 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten — for several reasons, some of them new.
Scrambles of 68 and 49 yards by Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, which set up ten first-half points and scared Nebraska enough to alter some of its schemes. Thorson accounted for 126 of the Wildcats' 156 rushing yards.
Nebraska's continued struggles in returning kicks and punts. Kick returner Jordan Stevenson returned one of his three kickoffs all of four yards — to the Nebraska 9 — while punt returner De'Mornay Pierson-El let a couple punts he should have taken roll yards down the field.
“I was really shocked,” Riley said of miscues, which included giving up a 21-yard punt return in the fourth quarter and a personal foul on a kickoff return that helped Northwestern's field position.
A second quarter pick six from Wildcat cornerback Nick VanHoose, who stepped in front of an ill-advised Armstrong pass in Northwestern territory.
“We figured Tommy would have problems if we were mixing up the defense disguises,” VanHoose said.
And, most importantly, Northwestern's total dominance of Nebraska's offensive line.
The Huskers had been averaging 195 rushing yards per game. On Saturday, they gained 82, averaging 2.15 yards per carry. Since 2008, Nebraska has only averaged fewer yards per carry two other times — in 2014 against Michigan State (1.27) and in the 2009 Big 12 Championship game against Texas (1.91).
In the first half and the first drive of the second half, NU ran the ball 15 times on first down — for 23 yards.
Fifteen carries for 23 yards.
“You're trying everything you can — and we don't want to abandon it — but it's hard,” Langsdorf said. “It's hard to feel able to mix it up with run and pass and know 'when I call this run, it's going to get four, five, ten yards.' It is hard. Rhythm was difficult.”
Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) had two sacks, nine tackles for loss, and plenty of hurries on Armstrong's 48 passes. Wildcat end Dean Lowry was a one-man wrecking crew, with both sacks and lots more harassment.
On Armstrong's biggest mistake, the interception, Nebraska offensive tackle Alex Lewis was shoved a full three yards into Armstrong's legs by a Wildcat end, Deonte Gibson, who weighs 25 pounds less than Lewis does. Armstrong fell off-balance and threw a one-footed pass right to VanHoose, who returned the pass 72 yards for a score and a 14-5 lead.
“If that hadn't happened, we would have had three points and they wouldn't have had seven,” Armstrong said, conceding his bad decision.
“Every position is all about choices,” Riley said of Armstrong's decision to throw the ball. “That wasn't a great choice. He knows it, everybody in the world knows it.”
Here's another choice, and it's right in the coaches' lap: Nebraska chose to roll with its five linemen throughout the game, never considering, Langsdorf said, any substitutions. in the past, Riley said, that's how he's done it. Lots of backs and receivers rotating in and out all the time, same five linemen, for the sake of chemistry.
"We have historically allowed the line to get in a rhythm and play together," Riley said, adding a minute later he “might” consider more rotation.
Given Nebraska's total inability to run the ball, Armstrong had to throw to win, completing 24 passes for 291 yards. He led four scoring drives — one at the end of the first half to cut Northwestern's halftime lead to 17-12 and three in the second half — almost exclusively through the air. Drops from his receivers — who also made some acrobatic catches — didn't help his cause.
The Huskers' defense forced four first-half punts, but also gave up the two Thorson scrambles; the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Northwestern quarterback rumbled by Nebraska linebackers and defensive backs who took poor angles or stood idly by.
“Our rush lanes got a little jeopardized,” said defensive end Ross Dzuris, who also sacked Thorson in the end zone for a first-quarter safety.
"We knew he had the ability to run,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said of Thorson. “We just didn't get that done."
In the second half Thorson settled in more as a passer, throwing a 37-yard touchdown to superback Dan Vitale. That gave Northwestern a 27-22 lead. The Wildcats tacked on a field goal for a 30-22 lead with 7:27 left in the game.
Armstrong led a eight-play, 75-yard touchdown march — which also included a 14-yard quarterback counter — to cut Northwestern's lead to 30-28 after he scrambled three yards in to the end zone. The Huskers had to convert a 2-point conversion to tie. Northwestern smothered the pass play, and Armstrong's pass to freshman wideout Stanley Morgan was incomplete.
So Nebraska had to force a punt on Northwestern's ensuing drive. The Huskers couldn't. On a third-and-3, Thorson hit running back Justin Jackson in the flat. Jackson juked safety Nate Gerry and ran for 28 yards. He gashed through Nebraska's defensive front for another first down on an eight-yard run. The Huskers were down to their last timeout when defensive tackle Maliek Collins was flagged for pushing a Northwestern offensive lineman — who pumped his fist in celebration — after the whistle.
“I just made a mistake and cost my team,” Collins said.
“Make better decisions!" a fan yelled to the field after the penalty. You could hear singular fans above the hush. Many Husker fans made silent exits.
Riley, asked if Nebraska’s sense of urgency and focus was mediocre after beating Minnesota, said he didn’t think so. But the offense was so out of sync, he said, that it looked like it.
“We've just got to find ways to win games at the end,” Langsdorf said.
Inconsistency often makes that necessary.
|Yards per carry||5.6||2.2|
Nebraska is 8-5 all-time against Northwestern.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
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