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The Morning After: Northwestern

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We round up the goods that you may have missed last night after the Huskers were victorious against the Wildcats in Chicago.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sipple/Lincoln Journal-Star: Armstrong responds to Beck's Halftime Challenge.

Nebraska, in improving to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten, showed a high degree of mental and physical toughness in defeating an intelligent and rugged Northwestern outfit. NU perhaps needed to prove it indeed possessed those qualities after coming out flat against Michigan State two weeks ago.

Nebraska seemed the better-conditioned team late in this game. The Huskers played the second half at a level befitting a top-15 squad.

Nebraska, in all three phases, looked like a team eminently capable of capturing the Big Ten West Division. In the end, it only enhanced its status as favorite.

'Tommy Armstrong Jr, in that impressive second half, looked like a quarterback capable of taking the Huskers there, particularly during the third-quarter touchdown drive that put his team ahead for good at 21-17.

He completed two third-down throws — a bullet over the middle to Kenny Bell and nicely placed completion to De'Mornay Pierson-El at the Northwestern 1.

He also converted a third down with a 7-yard run.

"It's stuff he can do," Beck said. "We know he can do it. It's just getting him to relax and see things and calm down and see the coverage and know (where to throw) based on coverage.

"He just missed them early. We were able to calm him down."

Beck challenged Armstrong at halftime.

"He's a competitor and he's a winner, and he needs to play like it," the coach said. "He needs to make sure he has that demeanor, that this is his football team. That was part of it.

"But schematically, too, I just sat him down (about) things we did. I don't really want to disclose that stuff."

Tom Shatel/Omaha World-Herald: In a tale of two halves, Nebraska winds up celebrating - and that's a good thing.

Nebraska players jogged off the field and their fans were waiting for them. Alex Lewis walked by. Husker fans cheered. Bo Pelini waved to the crowd. They roared. Ameer Abdullah ran to them. He high-fived them. They went nuts.

You could ask, is this what it’s come to — celebrating a win over Northwestern? But that would be missing the obvious point.

A win is a win is a win for this Nebraska team, now 6-1.

With the way the Big Ten West Division is acting week to week, any win is a good win.

And if you’ve done your Nebraska-Northwestern history assignment, you understand that this 38-17 victory was Pelini’s first comfortable win over the Wildcats. No breathless fourth-quarter comeback. No Hail Westerkamps.

This is the most overanalyzed 9-4 program in the country, and this one will get picked apart down in the media and fan bunkers, but there was a lot to feel good about here, before you go feeling worried.

"We just needed to win a football game," Pelini said, when asked how big this was coming off a loss at Michigan State. "I don’t want to read too much into it."

That was the bottom line, on a night that was Northwestern’s homecoming but sounded so much more like a Husker home game.

Brandon Vogel/Hail Varsity: Defense makes "The Decision"

Choose whichever answer you like. Fact is it worked. After giving up 262 yards and 17 points in the first half, Nebraska gave up 28 yards and zero points in the second, which was closer to the defense I thought I was seeing through the occasional cracks for most of the first two quarters, pretty close to the unit that held Michigan State in check for the most part two weeks ago too.

There are still issues, sure. But as the offense has found some tougher sledding here in conference play, the defense play appears to be getting more consistent. The numbers may not necessarily show it – the Huskers’ yardage numbers have gone up as the quality of opponent has increased – but Nebraska’s defense has put the team in pretty good spots overall since the start of Big Ten play.

"We’re definitely growing," Collins said, citing Nate Gerry’s second-quarter interception as evidence. The only takeaway on either side in this game came one play after Gerry was flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty, giving the Wildcats the ball at Nebraska’s 41-yard line. It’s the sort of play that can snowball if a team lets it. Instead, the Huskers made a big play on the next available opportunity.

"That was huge. A couple of weeks ago, we wouldn’t have done that," Collins said.

Dirk Chatelain/Omaha W-H: Tim Beck's new weapon is catching on.

The freshman from Virginia is Beck’s favorite new toy. And suddenly, a key to Nebraska’s Big Ten championship hopes. Case in point: Nebraska’s two-minute drill in the second quarter.

NU trailed 14-7 with 1:52 left when the offense took the field. On first down, Pierson-El broke free behind the linebackers and took Tommy Armstrong’s pass 46 yards in the blink of an eye.

After an Ameer Abdullah 11-yard run, Beck doubled down on DPE.

"Texas," he called.

Pierson-El laughed when he first saw the gadget last week. Yes, he was a high school quarterback, but he hadn’t thrown a serious pass in about a year. And Nebraska practiced the new play only four or five times this week.

It was enough for Beck.

"I was a little nervous about where he called it," Bo Pelini said, "because that wasn’t quite the area of the field we were actually gonna run it on. But that’s why Tim calls the plays and I don’t."

The problem wasn’t field position, it was Pierson-El. He jogged to the sideline after Abdullah’s first-down run, thinking he was out of the game.

When he turned and trotted back to the left side of the formation, he lined up on the flank. Another problem: He was in the wrong spot. Jordan Westerkamp ran to him and alerted him: "No, it’s Texas!"

(Credit Pelini for not calling timeout amid the confusion.)

Pierson-El switched to the slot. He barely had time to get set when Armstrong took the shotgun snap, handed to Abdullah, who flipped the ball to Pierson-El on a reverse. He took five steps and threw a perfect pass to Armstrong for the touchdown.

"He’s got pretty good hands," Pierson-El said. "He could be a receiver."

What about DPE? Is there anything he can’t do?

Teddy Greenstein/Chicago Tribune: Northwestern unravels late in loss to Nebraska

Northwestern and Nebraska, it seemed, were incapable of playing a lopsided game. Their previous three meetings resulted in victories decided by three points, one point and a last-second Hail Mary.

The Saturday night gathering at soggy Ryan Field had the requisite drama — but only until the Cornhuskers seized control in the fourth quarter.

Nebraska rallied for a 38-17 victory after trailing 17-14 at the half. Northwestern (3-4, 2-2 Big Ten) will have to scramble for bowl eligibility.

"They made great adjustments at halftime," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald called it. "They loaded the box, and we had to throw to win. We obviously didn't do that."

The game turned on a 50-yard rush by Ameer Abdullah. To that point, the Wildcats had contained the prime candidate for the Tribune Silver Football award. Jimmy Hall hustled to take down Abdullah just before he crossed the goal line, but he scored on the next play.

Nebraska (6-1, 2-1) went ahead 35-17 on a dominant nine-play drive that featured nothing but runs.

"We didn't show up the way we should have in the second half," safety Traveon Henry said. "It's on us to get the job done — be better with our fits and have more pride."

For the game, the Huskers rushed for 234 yards — 146 by Abdullah, who scored four touchdowns — to Northwestern's 117.

"He's a senior, right? That's terrific," Fitzgerald said of Abdullah. "I'm going to send him a present for his graduation."

Is Matt Aliviti that bad that Fitzgerald won't play him or any other NU quarterback besides Siemian? If your offense line is leaky, maybe try a mobile QB instead of sticking with an immobile QB like Siemian. I'm really surprised Siemian has taken all the snaps. He's a good player...

Justin Jackson did top the 100-yard mark for the third straight game, but Trevor Siemian (18-for-39, 173 yards) had little chance playing behind a leaky line. The Wildcats gained just 28 yards on 26 second-half plays.

Fitzgerald praised the Huskers all week, saying safety Nate Gerry "jumps out on tape" and that he expected punt-returner/receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El to play a larger role in the offense, given that the Huskers had an extra week to prepare.

Kevin Dukovic/Inside NU: Northwestern/Nebraska Rapid Reaction

-It really was a tale of two haves for Northwestern, especially in the rushing game. The Cats gave up 79 yards on the ground in the first half and 155 rushing yards in the second half. And NU gained a net total of just three rushing yards in the second half. The Northwestern defense clearly tired out in the second period. The Huskers continued to run with Abdullah, despite his limited success in the first half, and sure enough holes opened up in the Wildcat defense.

- With that said, NU's defense is not completely to blame for the loss. Northwestern's offense sputtered down the stretch. In the first half Trevor Siemian looked sharp. He had time to throw and completed more intermediate passes than usual. 11 of his first 13 completed passes went for eight or more yards, which is almost unprecedented for this Wildcats offense. So what went wrong in the second half?

-Protection. Siemian had no time. He was hurried often and took a beating. Protection is even more important since Siemian is limited with an ankle injury and can't evade the rush at all right now. Moreover, The running game also faltered. The Northwestern offensive line really struggled in the second half and that really showed.

-There are major questions that need answering right now for this team, especially at the offensive line and quarterback positions. Still, Northwestern didn't play its best game and it's important to remember that Nebraska is really good. The Huskers are probably the best team in the West and the Wildcats just ran into a better team.