WildcatReport - Ugly, but not quite ugly enough for Northwestern
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Ugly, but not quite ugly enough for Northwestern

Northwestern knew it would have to muck up its game against Nebraska to win. The Wildcats succeeded in that regard, transforming the matchup into a brutal slog at Memorial Stadium.

But it just wasn’t quite ugly enough.

Nebraska’s Lane McCallum kicked a 24-yard field goal on the last play of the game to give the Huskers a 13-10 win over the Wildcats. The loss was the third in a row for Northwestern and snapped a two-game winning streak against the Huskers.

In the end, Nebraska’s backup quarterback, Noah Vedral, made one more play than Northwestern’s backup quarterback, Aidan Smith. As a result, for the second year in a row in this rivalry that has produced seven one-score games in nine matchups, a walkon kicker got a ride on his teammate’s shoulders after a win. Last year, it was Northwestern backup kicker Drew Luckenbaugh; this time, McCallum was the hero, even after missing a chip-shot earlier in the game.

Here are five takeaways from the loss that drops NU’s record to 1-4 (0-3 Big Ten), the worst start of head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s career.

Smith looked okay but threw the big pick: Aidan Smith was the surprise starter in place of Hunter Johnson. WNUR reported during the game that Johnson, who sustained a knee injury late in the Wisconsin game last week, was 75% to 80% healthy. So Fitzgerald decided to go with his backup who moved the ball and scored two touchdowns late in the game against the Badgers.

Smith was, well, decent. He finished 19 of 32 for 136 yards, but he threw the crucial interception that set up McCallum’s game-winner (more about that later). Smith looked shaky early in the game, consistently throwing the ball late. But he seemed to find a better rhythm in the fourth quarter, when he was 7 of 10. Smith was most effective when running the ball -- he was the game’s leading rusher with 64 yards on 11 carries, including a four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

The bottom line was that Smith moved the ball. Northwestern gained 293 yards, more than it did in its three other games against Power Five opponents, and fewer than only the 441 posted against UNLV.

Johnson was listed on the two-deep released on Monday and wasn’t mentioned in the injury report on Thursday, so his benching was a surprise. He could be back for Northwestern’s next game against Ohio State on Oct. 18. But even if he isn’t, Smith showed that he is capable of directing the offense. It will be interesting if Johnson resumes his role as “the man” for the Wildcats, or if Fitzgerald will continue to use Smith.

Vedral made one more play than Smith in the battle of the backups: Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez hurt his ankle late in the third quarter, after a shoestring tackle by Blake Gallagher seemed to aggravate an ankle that was already causing him to limp badly. Noah Vedral, his backup and a transfer from UCF, played the entire fourth quarter. A running quarterback, Vedral did the most damage with his feet, but he made the big play his team needed: a 32-yard strike to Wandale Robinson down the sideline to the NU 16 with less than 50 seconds left to set up McCallum’s kick.

Smith, on the other hand, threw the lone interception of the game. After completing two consecutive passes for 20 yards, Smith threw a short curl to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who was bumped off his route by a defender who could have been called for pass interference. The ball bounced into the arms of Lamar Jackson to give the Huskers the ball near midfield with a minute left. Six plays later, Nebraska got the win.

The Cats were behind the chains too much: The Wildcats killed their own offense on first and second down against the Huskers, getting behind the chains and consistently putting themselves in third-and-long situations.

Northwestern converted just 5 of 16 third downs overall. They had nine or more yards to go on 10 of those 16 third downs, when facing those long-yardage situations, they converted just one time. When the numbers were big, the Wildcats faltered; when they were smaller, they did fairly well. Here is the distance they had to cover on their five made third-down conversions: 5, 9, 6, 2 and 6 yards. Here is the distance they had to cover on their failed attempts: 12, 14, 11, 10, 13, 12, 14, 9, 8 and 20.

With an anemic, sputtering offense that came into the game ranked between 120th and 130th in the nation in scoring, yards, passing and pass efficiency, manageable third downs are crucial to their success.

The defense stood tall. Again: Northwestern’s defense stymied one of the most dangerous offenses in the conference – even if the Huskers haven’t always looked like one this season.

Martinez, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, was largely neutralized, going 13 for 20 for 145 yards through the air and rushing nine times for just 26 yards on the ground. His longest run was just eight yards. Vedral went 2 for 5 for 41 yards passing, while Robinson led the Huskers with 44 yards on the ground.

There are only two criticisms you could levy against Northwestern’s defense after their effort against the Huskers.

First, they failed to produce a single turnover, something Fitzgerald pointed out after the game. In a tight, low-scoring game, a turnover meant can swing the outcome. The Wildcats committed just one – Smith’s fourth-quarter INT – and it cost them the game. And secondly, Northwestern failed to contain Robinson, who made three big plays against them: a 42-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, a 49-yard pass reception to set up a 29-yard field-goal attempt that McCallum missed, and the final dagger, the 32-yard completion before the final field goal.

The team has to pick up the pieces: The loss leaves Northwestern with an unsightly 1-4 record overall and they are winless in three Big Ten games. No one expected the defending West division champions to be in this spot after five weeks.

Ohio State, the No. 4 team in the nation that looks like a juggernaut, is up next, in two weeks. The following week, the Wildcats have a home matchup with an Iowa team that dropped its first game of the season, 10-3, to Michigan, on Saturday. At best, the Wildcats figure to come out of those next two games at 2-5, and 1-6 is just as likely. Either way, that means that they can lose no more than one game the rest of the season to make a bowl game.

Is a run like that possible? Yes. The Wildcats have remaining games with one Big Ten team that has won a conference game (Minnesota), and hapless UMass. But for a team that had aspirations of getting back to Indianapolis, scrambling to even earn a bowl berth is a bitter pill to swallow.