It’s easy to point fingers when a team loses, especially when said team delivers an undisciplined performance as Nebraska did in its 21-13 loss to Northwestern on Saturday afternoon.
Blame could fall on junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, who had an inefficient performance against the Wildcats. Martinez completed under 50% of his passes, going 12-of-27 for 125 yards and an interception. He did make crucial plays with his legs, though, as he was the Huskers’ leading rusher with 13 carries for 102 yards.
Redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey could also shoulder some criticism for his performance in Saturday’s contest. Head coach Scott Frost opted to turn to McCaffrey late in the third quarter with the Nebraska offense in need of a spark, and he performed admirably under immense pressure.
However, even with McCaffrey’s 93 passing yards and 43 rushing yards, he too tossed a critical interception with the Huskers looking to tie the game in the fourth quarter. On a second-and-goal from the Northwestern four yard line, a McCaffrey pass deflected off a Nebraska offensive lineman and into the hands of Wildcat senior linebacker Chris Bergin.
It was a cruel twist of fate for Nebraska, which earlier benefitted from a helmet-deflected ball — a first-half interception by redshirt freshman safety Myles Farmer that bounced off senior safety Marquel Dismuke’s helmet.
Despite the poor moments from both Husker quarterbacks, neither of them should shoulder the blame for Nebraska’s performance and 0-2 start.
That dubious honor belongs to Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. Nebraska’s offense entered Northwestern’s 30-yard line on eight separate occasions on Saturday. The Huskers were able to muster only 13 points from those attempts.
Nebraska’s first time entering Northwestern’s 30-yard line was a microcosm of the contest, one marred by self-inflicted Husker wounds.
The Huskers put together a productive opening drive, mixing in Martinez completions with a steady dose of senior running back Dedrick Mills. A Martinez rush put Nebraska within Northwestern’s 30, but back-to-back penalties by the Husker offensive line ultimately ended the drive and forced a punt.
Nebraska’s offense was rarely able to fare much better when it needed to pick up yards deep in Northwestern territory.
“We didn’t play disciplined enough, it’s inexcusable that we only had 13 points in that game,” Frost said postgame. “I told [the team] it’s my fault, it’s on me… Discipline in this program starts with me and the coaches, and we made too many mistakes against a good team.”
Martinez and the Nebraska offense mustered some production in the first half, as the Huskers’ next three ventures inside Northwestern’s 30-yard line were finished with field goal attempts from senior kicker Connor Culp.
He converted from 38 and 36 yards, but missed from 39. Nebraska had yet another red zone opportunity late in the second quarter following a long interception return from Farmer, which Mills converted to give the Huskers a 13-7 lead with 1:25 remaining in the first half.
Northwestern’s senior-led defense, like they did one week ago against Iowa, shut Nebraska’s offense out in the second half. The Huskers did cross Northwestern’s 30-yard line three more times, though, with each being more painful than the last.
After a Wildcat touchdown to open the second half followed by dueling punts from each team, two long Martinez runs set Nebraska up at the Northwestern 26-yard line. After a one yard rush, Martinez fired an errant pass into double-coverage that was intercepted.
It was Martinez’s last pass attempt of the game, as McCaffrey took over for the incumbent starter for the rest of the game.
McCaffrey’s aforementioned goal-line interception gave Northwestern the ball with six minutes remaining. Still, Nebraska’s defense, which turned in an outstanding performance and performed more than well enough to win the Huskers the game, forced a Wildcat punt to give the offense one more chance.
And for a moment, there was hope. McCaffrey showed his immense potential, extending plays with his legs and completing critical throws. Nebraska’s offense was on the move, looking to tie the game at 21. Maybe, just maybe, Nebraska’s offense could finally pull through in the red zone when the Huskers needed a score most.
Facing a fourth-and-four at the Northwestern 14-yard line with seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, McCaffrey’s final heave fell short of sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Nebraska had lost, and it had nobody to blame but itself.
Frost stressed that Saturday’s result was his fault, and his remarks are spot-on. For a team with a week off to prepare, the Huskers were undisciplined in all aspects of the game, specifically offensively. The Huskers had offensive line penalties, missed kicks and poor offensive execution. Essentially everything except Nebraska’s defense effort was severely lacking in quality.
To put it simply, a loss like this is inexcusable. Yes, Northwestern is probably one of the better defensive units in the country, but if the Huskers are to prove their mettle in Frost’s third year, they need to win games like this.
The Husker offense could not figure out how to finish a drive, which falls squarely on the coaching staff failing to put Nebraska in a position to execute and win games. Frost said as much postgame.
No matter who the quarterback is or who’s on the offensive line, the Huskers have to get better at executing when it matters most. Saturday was a sobering wakeup call for Nebraska, wasting an incredible defensive effort.
And the blame falls squarely on the coaching staff.