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Defense implodes in embarrassing loss to Nebraska

Adrian Martinez scored four touchdowns for the Huskers.
Adrian Martinez scored four touchdowns for the Huskers. (AP)

LINCOLN-It’s happened in early games and late ones. At home and on the road. When the ball is kicked off at the start of the game, Northwestern is just not ready to play.

Especially its defense.

Exhibit C for the 2021 season was the Wildcats’ embarrassing 56-7 loss to Nebraska on Saturday night in Lincoln. The Huskers led 7-0 after 50 seconds, 14-0 after 5:41 and 21-0 after 10:46. They scored touchdowns the first four times they had the ball and built a 28-7 lead by the 2:23 mark in the second quarter.

If this was a high school game, a running clock could have been instituted. But this is college, and they had to play the required 60 minutes even though the outcome was decided in about five.

That horror show of a start is nothing new for Northwestern, of course. It’s become habitual.

The Wildcats trailed by two touchdowns by the midway point of the first quarter in their other two games against Power Five opponents, too. And once again, the Wildcats were knocked on their heels by a haymaker on their first defensive snap of the game.

Against Michigan State, it was a 75-yard run. Against Duke, a 50-yard pass. On Nebraska’s first offensive play, Adrian Martinez rolled out of the pocket to elude the rush and hit Samari Toure down the middle of the field for a 70-yard gain to the Northwestern 5-yard line. Toure adjusted to the underthrown ball while two Wildcats didn’t, and then ran to the NU 5-yard line before Cam Mitchell caught him from behind.

Two plays later, Martinez ran it in from the one for his first of three first-quarter touchdown runs.

From there, the explosion plays just kept popping, like the fireworks from the Huskers scoreboard on the north end of the stadium.

On Nebraska’s second possession, Jaquez Yant took an outside zone play and cut it back to the middle, rumbling 64 yards to the NU 4-yard line before AJ Hampton bumped him out of bounds.

On the third TD drive, Martinez was left uncovered on an option and sprinted 25 yards to the end zone.

Early in the second quarter, a 28-yard Martinez-to-Omar Manning pass was the big blow on a 10-play drive capped by a Rahmir Johnson 5-yard TD run.

On every drive, the Huskers had a play of 25 or more yards, and everyone ended in a touchdown. By halftime, Nebraska had five touchdowns on 405 yards of total offense, 241 of them on the ground.

Jaquez Yant had a 64-yard run in the first quarter.
Jaquez Yant had a 64-yard run in the first quarter. (AP)

And if you were looking for another comeback like the one the Wildcats mounted against Duke, you came to the wrong place. On their first offensive play of the second half, wide receiver Zavier Betts took a jet sweep 83 yards down the sideline for a touchdown and a 42-7 lead.

The next time they got the ball, Martinez hit Toure for a 38-yard touchdown pass.

Nebraska finished with more than 600 yards of total offense, including more than 400 rushing. Martinez threw for 202 yards and a TD and added 57 yards and three scores on the ground before getting pulled before the end of the third quarter. Yant led all rushers with 127 yards on just 13 carries.

If you want to look for silver linings, there was one: the play of quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who threw some darts and looked sharp in his first Big Ten start. In the first half, while the defense was crumbling, he connected on three pass plays for 25 or more yards.

Trailing 21-0, Hilinski went 4-for-5 on the Wildcats’ TD drive at the end of the first quarter. His last two passes, both to Stephon Robinson Jr., were good for 60 yards, including a 28-yard TD.

On Northwestern’s next possession, he threw a long out to Malik Washington, who took it down the sideline for a 43-yard gain. The Wildcats got down to the 1-yard line, but Hilinski fumbled and Deontre Thomas recovered it at the 10-yard line to end the threat.

For the first half, Hilinski went 16-for-21 for 189 yards and a touchdown. In the second, he was forced to throw on just about every down and finished the game 25 of 39 for 238 yards. He was also sacked four times.

While Hilinski’s performance didn’t impact Saturday’s game whatsoever, the Wildcats search for their quarterback of the future may be over; Hilinski has two more years after this one.

But the defense is another story. Northwestern has gotten blown out several times under Fitzgerald, and some have been laughers. But this one was especially galling in the utter inability for the Wildcats to stop anything Nebraska did offensively.

Yes, the Wildcats have a new defensive coordinator and a new system, and several new faces on the starting unit that finished fifth in the nation in scoring a year ago. But we’re almost at the halfway point of the 2021 season, and the defense is still getting gashed for big plays and letting ballcarriers and receivers run unmolested through its secondary with alarming frequency.

To add injury to insult, this game was also very costly for Northwestern's offensive line, which lost three of its top four guards -- Josh Priebe, Conrad Rowley and Ben Wrather -- as well as center Sam Gerak to injury. None of them returned to action.

The loss dropped the defending Big Ten West champion Wildcats to 0-2 in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald orchestrated remarkable turnarounds from terrible starts in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. But with a defense like this one, it’s difficult to imagine that Fitzgerald can work his magic again.