Let's take a look back at some of the good and not so good plays vs. Northwestern. There were plenty of both.
A win is a win, especially if it's a conference road game. Well, quasi-road game since Northwestern's stadium was over half red.
This Nebraska team is so maddening. The defense can look outstanding one week (vs. Wisconsin), terrible the next (vs. Ohio St.), and excellent again the next (vs. Northwestern).
The same can be said for Taylor Martinez. At times he is flawless and brilliant, directing a deadly offensive attack where seemingly no deficit is out of reach. At other times, he's coughing up four turnovers in a road game. I give him credit for always bouncing back.
I know college football teams can't always be perfect, but the 2012 Nebraska Cornhuskers need to find a level of consistency and discipline. And let's be frank here: this isn't a young team. These aren't freshman making the mistakes. These are junior and senior leaders, guys like Daimion Stafford, Kyler Reed, and Jeremiah Sirles. Penalties. Turnovers. Botched 3rd and 4th downs. Seven games into the season I don't think we can deny this is part of their identity. They simply will have to overcome the mistakes, because as we've seen time and time again, the mistakes will happen. Beware, though, if these same miscues happen this Saturday, Nebraska can kiss the West Division Title and a chance at the B1G Championship and Rose Bowl goodbye.
Please don't misinterpret this as I'm ragging on them as I did after the Ohio St. debacle. I'm extremely proud of how they didn't give up and kept fighting, but it's mind boggling what a rollercoaster this year has been.
Three Good Plays
I had penciled in Kenny Bell's 37 yard catch and run for a touchdown in the 2nd quarter, but I'm going with Taariq Allen's pivotal eight yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Talk about clutch, from both Allen and Martinez. On 2nd and Goal, after just missing an open Ameer Abdullah in the flat, Nebraska comes out in the shotgun with Abdullah next to Martinez and a three wide receiver set, two to the right and Allen to the left.
Allen runs a beautiful short flag, or in-and-slant-out route, and hauls in the perfect pass from Martinez. The pass, pass protection, route, and catch had to be perfect, and they were. Nebraska had to get in the end zone on that drive. At that point, I think the team knew they were going to win the game.
Kudos to the Blackshirts, especially the thin interior. With very few exceptions, they bottled up Northwestern's rushing attack. I could pick many crucial third down stops throughout the game, in particular during the nail-biting 4th quarter, but I'm going with a play that stood out because it's a dimension the Blackshirts have been missing most of the year. With about 7:00 to go in the 2nd quarter, Northwestern had a first -and-ten in decent field position. Kain Colter runs an option to the left, David Santos recognizes it early and reacts in a flash. He darted underneath a pulling lineman and shot through the gap and made a nice one-on-one tackle on Colter for a two yard loss. His speed and explosiveness were evident. We will need plays like this to disrupt Michigan's run game.
Brett Maher helped flip field position multiple times in the second half. Three times he pinned them inside the 10, once with the help of an excellent play by Kenny Bell. He angled his kicks in order to limit their returns, and with 4:25 left in the third quarter he rolled one to the five yard line. He previously booted one out of bounds inside the ten. Maher can still be a difference maker on special teams.
Three Not So Good Plays
I was going to go with the disastrous series with about 13:00 to go in the fourth quarter where Nebraska converted two 3rd and longs deep in their own territory only to be negated by penalties that eventually forced a punt, but I'll go with the other obvious play. With 8:47 to go in the fourth quarter Nebraska had a 4th and 3 inside the Northwestern 30.
I didn't have a problem with Pelini going for it, and in fact wish he would go for more of the 4th and shorts around mid-field, but it was a disaster from the get-go. I didn't mind the play call, as the quarterback sweep had been successful most of the day, but it failed miserably this time. Part of the blame goes to Kyler Reed for going the wrong way, but Northwestern had plenty of other penetration on the play. The game looked bleak after this turnover on downs.
There wasn't a lot to choose from here. The cornerbacks did a great job, for the most part, locking down the Northwestern receivers in tight man-to-man coverage, and they had to earn every yard they got, with the exception of one play.
Early in the third quarter, Northwestern runs a zone read play. Will Compton took himself out of the play (the explanation being they blocked it different so Compton read it wrong), Eric Martin was blocked out, Thad Randle was stuffed inside, and Damion Stafford was out of position. They watched Venric Mark, who is very speedy, race for an 80 yard touchdown run. That was the only gaping hole I saw all night.
However, where are the takeaways?
Oh my goodness. (Jon's Editor's note: "Oh my goodness"? I wish my responses were so even-tempered!) With the exception of kickoff coverage, special teams had been a huge advantage for Nebraska the past few years. Where to start from Saturday's game? Abdullah's muffed punt in the first quarter? Kenny Bell's muffed punt in the second quarter?
No, I'm going with Stafford's personal foul penalty with 6:00 to go in the first quarter. Instead of recovering Northwestern's muffed punt at the ten yard line with a chance to go up 10-0 early in the game, Stafford's senseless penalty gives Northwestern new life. It really exemplifies the season and this team up to this point. Without that call, I think this is a completely different game.