Nebraska football’s past three games against Northwestern had been decided on the final play. That was not the case this season, as Nebraska reversed its fortunes against the Wildcats, demolishing Northwestern 56-7. The win tied the largest margin of victory ever for Nebraska over Northwestern.
The Huskers stayed perfect at home, treating the fans to a resounding win.
Here are five takeaways from Nebraska’s first conference victory of the season:
Good things happen when you don’t make mistakes
Nebraska’s season had been bogged with mistakes. Among them a multitude of special teams errors spotting the opponent points at inopportune times, an inability to convert drives to touchdowns and penalty numbers that would make any coach furious.
On Saturday, the Huskers replicated none of those mistakes, and it showed in the results. The starting offense only committed one penalty all game long, keeping the Husker offense’s momentum going.
When the Husker starters were on the field, seven of their eight offensive drives found its way into the end zone. That’s not entirely a coincidence. Positive things lead to more positive things, and that’s something the Huskers found in a big way on Saturday.
The special teams’ mistakes were easily rectified by the offensive success. An easy way to avoid disasters on punts is by not punting. Similarly with special teams, the field goal kicking problem is non-existent if the offense never settles for a field goal. Nebraska also made necessary adjustments to avoid disaster in punt returns, opting with fair catches every potential return from junior wide receiver Oliver Martin, who fielded every kick cleanly.
The clean game the Huskers played contributed greatly to the lopsided final result, showing good signs going forward if they can continue to avoid their mistakes.
Defense showed how to bend but not break
After Nebraska took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, the Northwestern offense got exactly what it needed: a 7-play, 82-yard touchdown drive. The Husker offense answered, but so did Northwestern’s, driving 65 yards down to the Nebraska 1-yard line.
From there, the game looked like it was teetering on the brink of a shootout, but Nebraska held strong, stopping a quarterback sneak on first-and-goal.
Still, Northwestern had three more plays to gain a yard and cut the lead back to two possessions. A shootout seemed in the cards until senior linebacker JoJo Domann and junior defensive lineman Deontre Thomas burst through the line on second-and-goal, forcing a fumble on a Northwestern handoff and stopping all Wildcat momentum in its tracks.
From there, the Nebraska defense continued its recent dominance, not allowing Northwestern back in the red zone. In its only two trips back into Husker territory, the Nebraska defense trapped Northwestern’s offense into fourth-and-long situations, leading to turnovers on downs.
The offensive line found its spark
Coming off a performance where it allowed seven sacks against Michigan State, the Nebraska offensive line needed positive momentum desperately. Bringing in two new starters to the offensive line, freshman offensive lineman Teddy Prochazka and sophomore offensive lineman Nouredin Nouili went to left tackle and left guard respectively. Freshman offensive lineman Turner Corcoran, once the starting left tackle, shifted to right tackle.
The reshuffled Husker offensive line turned in its finest performance yet.
The run offense reached a season-high 434 rushing yards with the offensive line being instrumental in that performance, giving freshman running backs Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant some of their largest holes to run through.
Just as impressive was the pass protection, with Martinez getting sacked zero times, and no instances of Martinez dodging defenders in the backfield after a protection collapse.
The line also corrected its earlier mistakes with penalties, with no false starts coming from the starting offensive line, a far cry from the previous weeks’ four and five false starts from the position’s starters.
With a Michigan defense giving up just 12.8 points per game coming to town next Saturday, the offensive line will look to build off the newfound momentum against Northwestern.
The offense played how its supposed to
“One of the keys for our offense is, if we can generate the run game, everything else works.” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said postgame.
The offense’s performance against Northwestern executed that plan to a tee. Getting its most consistent ground performance of the season, the Nebraska offense had no problem moving the ball against Northwestern. Averaging a season-high 8.1 yards per carry, the ground game was the catalyst for the team’s most efficient and productive offensive performance to date.
Yant had his breakout game as a Husker, rushing for 127 yards, including a 64-yard rumble that set the Huskers up with a first-and-goal on Nebraska’s second drive. Johnson played solid in his role as the lead back, consistently gaining yards to keep the defense respecting the run, leading to opportunities for big plays.
The Husker offense took full advantage of those opportunities, with six plays going for 25-or-more yards.
In the Huskers’ first possession of the second half, freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts showcased his breakaway speed, racing past the Northwestern defense for an 83-yard score, the Huskers’ longest play of the season. In their second possession of the half, the Huskers went deep to senior wide receiver Samori Toure, extending their lead on a 38-yard touchdown pass.
The Huskers have struggled to establish their offensive identity, but on Saturday they showed the full potential of what the offense could be.
This is a different team than it was in August
After losing 30-22 to an unheralded Illinois team, most perceptions of the Nebraska football team were very low, with little sense of improvement on the horizon. After winning the expected non-conference games, and losing heartbreaking, close games against ranked teams, the team looked improved from its Week Zero loss.
However, doubt still remained that it could climb its way out of the bottom of the conference based on the Illinois loss and the repeated mistakes since. Those doubts went away on Saturday, as the Huskers dominated a lower-tier Big Ten opponent, something many fans were expecting to see against Illinois.
The steady improvement week-to-week had been seen in the Oklahoma and Michigan State games, but all the progress finally translated into a win. The Huskers jumped on top within the first minute, and never gave Northwestern much hope of a comeback the rest of the way.
Nebraska played its best football game of the season against Northwestern, showing all the promise and getting the results that were absent from its earlier games. Many of its toughest challenges still loom ahead on the schedule, but the Nebraska team facing them will be in its best form yet, visibly different from the team who let a 2-4 Illinois team control the game against it.