Nebraska football scored 13 points in the second quarter to take a six-point halftime lead against Northwestern on Saturday, but the Wildcats stepped up in the second half to take a 21-13 win.
For the third straight game, Northwestern held its opponent scoreless in the second half, while the Huskers turned the ball over twice for the second consecutive game.
Here are three takeaways from the loss.
Offensive mishaps doom Nebraska … again
Once again, this is the most obvious takeaway. Against Ohio State, two fumbles and other offensive mistakes took the Huskers out of the game. This time around, Nebraska was in the game for all four quarters, but self-inflicted errors destroyed any chance it had of winning.
Nebraska had at least one penalty on each of its first three drives. On the opening drive of the game, the Huskers moved into Northwestern territory before being set back by a false start and a holding penalty. This moved Nebraska out of field goal range, and it eventually punted.
The Huskers also went three-and-out on their next two drives. They started the first with a false start penalty, and received a holding penalty on the next. However, these mistakes didn’t stop Nebraska from taking a 13-7 halftime lead.
The second half failures were what resulted in the loss. Late in the third quarter, down 14-13, Nebraska drove down inside the Northwestern 30-yard line. On second down, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez waited too long to throw and threw an interception in the endzone. This was the last time Martinez saw the field, as head coach Scott Frost opted to use redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey for the remainder of the contest.
Nebraska continued to shoot themselves in the foot after that. The Blackshirts forced a punt on Northwestern’s next drive, but sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson muffed it before falling on the ball, and Nebraska was forced to start at its own 10-yard line.
The ensuing possession featured McCaffrey taking a sack, which was followed by a false start. After the Huskers punted and Northwestern took a 21-13 lead, McCaffrey led a drive down to the Wildcats’ 2-yard line. Despite the great positioning, the next two plays were a rush for a loss of two yards by senior running back Dedrick Mills and an interception from McCaffrey.
Even with two interceptions and nine penalties, Nebraska had a chance to tie in the end. That being said, without some of those mistakes, the Huskers could have been in a better position throughout the second half.
The 442 total yards Nebraska picked up were encouraging, but that level of ball movement has to result in more than 13 points if it wants to come out with a win.
Defensive consistency is needed
Without two starting defensive backs, Nebraska’s defense looked great in the first half. Outside of a 41-yard touchdown by Northwestern sophomore running back Drake Anderson, the Blackshirts did well to contain the Wildcats.
Excluding Anderson’s run, Nebraska held Northwestern to 42 rushing yards on 16 carries. Of course, that run can’t be completely ignored, but it skews the picture of how well Nebraska’s defense did in the first half.
In the second quarter, the Blackshirts shut down Northwestern. The Wildcats had just 23 yards, while Nebraska had two interceptions and a strip-sack that Northwestern recovered.
This didn’t hold into the second half. In the first two quarters, Northwestern graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 6-of-13 passes for 51 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In the final two periods, Ramsey went 10-of-14 for 118 yards and two touchdowns. The Blackshirts also failed to get a sack in the second half.
Northwestern didn’t do an incredible amount of damage offensively throughout the game, but the difference between halves is big enough to be noted. Turnovers and secondary play have been considered the strengths of Nebraska’s defense, and neither showed up in the second half.
Nebraska’s direction moving forward is unclear
Out of the first four games on Nebraska’s schedule, the road contest with Northwestern was considered its lightest matchup. That may not be true anymore depending on how you feel about Penn State, but this loss is still a bit alarming. It’s hard to understand where exactly this program is heading.
In a season shortened by a pandemic and full of unexpected events, it isn’t easy to get a grasp on most Big Ten teams. However, Nebraska is raising a lot more questions than it’s answering.
The Huskers have five games remaining on their regular season schedule, not counting the week nine crossover game against a to-be-determined opponent. Those matchups are against Penn State, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. None of these games seem to absolutely be unwinnable, but none seem like surefire victories at this point either.
Nebraska undoubtedly has been recruiting better talent under head coach Scott Frost, but that hasn’t translated to victories yet. There isn’t a whole lot of reason to believe that the program is in the process of turning the corner.
On top of that, the starting quarterback spot is back in question. Martinez struggled throughout the game, and McCaffrey showed flashes of quality in the fourth quarter. Both quarterbacks should have some sort of role in the offense, but I’m not convinced that Martinez is the best starting option.
At this point, any hopes for a Big Ten Championship appearance seem slim. After Penn State, Nebraska’s schedule will lighten up quite a bit, but a third straight losing season under Frost is seeming more and more likely. If Nebraska wants to avoid that, it’ll have to figure things out quickly.