Entering the 2021 season, both Nebraska and Northwestern no-doubt had different ideas in place for their respective program’s definition of a successful season.
The Wildcats entered this season, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, needing to replace significant lost production on both sides of the ball. Northwestern won the Big Ten West in 2020, but the Wildcats’ projected preseason win total of 6.5 signified what most felt at the start of the season. Replicating their form would take a monumental effort from head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team.
Nebraska, meanwhile, entered the 2021 campaign in desperate need of a winning record under head coach Scott Frost. The Huskers returned nearly every starter on defense, welcomed in promising newcomers at the skill positions and had the benefit of an experienced quarterback in junior Adrian Martinez.
If the first month of the season has revealed anything, it’s why preseason prognostications are exactly that — prognostications. Northwestern enters Saturday night’s clash at Memorial Stadium 2-2 (0-1 Big Ten), while Nebraska is 2-3 (0-2 Big Ten).
Oh-so-close losses and moral victories aside, at least from Nebraska’s perspective, both teams have beaten similar types of opponents. Both Nebraska and Northwestern hold victories over teams from the Mid-American Conference, Buffalo and Ohio respectively, and both have beaten a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Northwestern’s losses, though, have come in convincing fashion. The Wildcats were bludgeoned by Michigan State 38-21 in Week One, and went down 27-0 to Duke in Week Three before rallying late in a 30-23 loss.
Nebraska’s defeats, meanwhile, have all been by one possession. A litany of errors and miscues have drug the Huskers to this point. Mistakes that, if avoided, could’ve led to a completely different picture painted of Frost’s squad through five games.
“We’re so close, and I’m really tired of hearing that we’re so close, I mean we can do it, we can get it done,” freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson said at Monday’s press conference. “In my opinion, we should be a 5-0 football team right now.”
Mistakes on special teams, turnovers and poor offensive line play have robbed Nebraska of a winning start through five games, and those errors revealed themselves in the worst possible fashion in last Saturday’s 23-20 overtime loss to then-No. 20 Michigan State.
The Huskers were again frequently penalized on the offensive line, had poor punts that swung momentum in Michigan State’s favor on multiple occasions and played extremely conservatively in the red zone. Despite multiple avenues to point for a scapegoat for last weekend’s loss, Nebraska’s players and coaches weren’t interested in finger pointing after the devastating defeat.
“It’s easy to create a scapegoat for the result [of the Michigan State game] and say it was that player or that play,” senior linebacker JoJo Domann said at Monday’s press conference. “Ultimately, there are hundreds of plays, thousands of moments in that game that are either for you or against you.”
Each Nebraska player and Frost himself spoke about the need to not only physically, but also mentally rebound from last weekend’s defeat, with Domann noting that each week is “testing our will to fight.”
Nebraska’s will has seemingly been worn down with three heartbreaking losses already on its resumé this season, but Frost and his coaching staff are hard at work working to ensure that those mistakes won’t happen again, particularly on the offensive line.
Junior offensive lineman Matt Sichterman spoke on Monday about his unit’s performance and the importance of cleaning things up in terms of penalties moving forward. For the second consecutive week, Martinez was oft-pressured and the offensive line was oft-penalized.
“We have maybe the most athletic quarterback in the country and he was still sacked seven times,” Frost said at Monday’s press conference, while noting the massive improvement needed from the offensive line.
At Monday’s practice, according to Sichterman, Frost spent significantly more time working with the offensive line in order to “try and get us right.” Part of that process will include, if Monday was any indication, some shake ups within the group.
“Overall, we need better play [on the offensive line]. If we’d gotten good play there, I think we’d be in a completely different spot this year,” Frost said. “We gotta find a left guard, and we’ve got to play a little bit better at right tackle.”
Junior offensive lineman Trent Hixson and freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart appeared at left guard and right tackle against the Spartans, respectively. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), both were the two lowest-graded offensive lineman in both run and pass blocking for the Huskers on the evening.
Hixson allowed a sack, four quarterback hurries and had a penalty, totaling a PFF grade of 40.6. Benhart, meanwhile, allowed three sacks, seven quarterback hurries, one quarterback hit and was penalized. His PFF grade from the Michigan State game was a brutally low 27.2, which includes a 0.0 grade in pass protection.
Along those lines, Frost mentioned that competition is open within the entire unit, and a storyline to monitor will be who emerges from that group. In addition to cleaning up special teams blunders, quality offensive line play will be needed against a Northwestern team that seems to always give Nebraska fits.
Eight of the 10 matchups between the Huskers and Wildcats since Nebraska joined the Big Ten have been decided by one score. Frost and all players made available on Monday praised how well-drilled and disciplined the Wildcats are, and have been for the entirety of Fitzgerald’s tenure, in addition to Northwestern’s physical, stout play style.
In addition, the Wildcats have an offensive structure that Nebraska’s defense will no-doubt be familiar with. Northwestern is a run-first outfit — its 214 rushing yards per game rank No. 23 in Division I. Having already successfully slowed down similar schemes against Michigan State and Buffalo, Nebraska’s defense is confident it can limit the Wildcats’ ground attack.
“[Last Saturday] we knew if we stopped No. 9 [Michigan State junior running back Kenneth Walker III], we stopped their offense,” Robinson said. “...Our defense is going to go out there and make you get your money’s worth, it doesn’t matter who’s out there.”
At any rate, there’s a very real chance that this Saturday’s game between Nebraska and Northwestern once again comes down to the wire. If the Huskers can either play a clean game or overcome in-game mistakes on the road to victory, it just might be the spark necessary to spark Frost’s squad as the second half of the season looms.