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What We Learned from Northwestern’s 24-13 loss to Nebraska

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska started things off as easily as they could, breaking down Northwestern’s defense. It hit its zenith when Terrell Newby broke through the line and found his way down the sideline. The defense closed in and Newby dove for the end zone.

But he left something. The ball slipped out of his hands and out the back of the endzone. Northwestern received its touchback from Week One back. Something was amiss. The Wildcats would have a chance.

There was a bend-don’t-break knack for the Wildcats defense. They kept on making stops when they had to or the Cornhuskers kept making mistakes to give the Cats new life. Nebraska fumbled another one in the end zone for NU to take advantage of.

The Wildcats though could not keep this up for long. The offense had sparks of life, but holding penalties and the same general inconsistencies that have plagued the offense. The moments of clarity were quickly snuffed.

So, yes, Clayton Thorson looked stronger and more confident. He found Austin Carr time and time again and spread the ball around, getting into a rhythm and picking the pace up offensively. Even Justin Jackson seemed able to escape. But it was enough only for 13 points — two scores really, with a missed field goal for good measure.

His counterpart, Tommy Armstrong was able to get loose time and time again. Northwestern corralled him but not in key moments. Armstrong always had another player up his sleeve for Nebraska. And Northwestern was unable to give its defense time to rest.

The Cornhuskers were steamrolling the Wildcats by the end. And it was a relatively comfortable 11-point deficit. The Wildcats were still never coming back from this one.

Here is what we learned from Saturday’s loss, sending NU to 1-3 this season.

Northwestern’s offense does show signs of life

The Northwestern offense has been a source of frustration and anger for Northwestern fans for the better part of three seasons now. That has not subsided this season.

The offense for Northwestern is far from fine, scoring only 13 points. There were plenty of drives where the Wildcats needed to sustain some momentum and pick up a few first downs to give the defense a breather and they could not.

Still, Clayton Thorson looked confident firing from the pocket and was able to get the offense moving. He again showed his wheels on a 47-yard touchdown run for Northwestern’s first score. But he also spread the ball out.

He completed 24 of 37 passes for 249 yards, his second straight game passing for 200-plus yards. Considering where Northwestern’s offense was last year, that low bar is a big one to get over.

Austin Carr continued his stellar receiving run with eight receptions for 109 yards. Flynn Nagel got in on the fun with five catches for 48 yards. The Wildcats had some weapons from their receivers.

That freed up some space for Justin Jackson, even in the second half. Jackson rushed for 79 yards on 20 carries. The Wildcats just could not get over the hump and score.

Something would always put them behind the chains. That is still a problem with play calling. It can still be too predictable — run, run, pass sequences to start drives are still incredibly infuriating. And the Wildcats always seemed unable to execute a play they absolutely had to make.

Clayton Thorson still stares his receivers down a lot and that compounds matters when Northwestern does pass.

Still the Wildcats offense is creeping on, at least, occasional competence. The team may look like it just left training camp four games into the season, but at least there is some progress. That may not be enough to get to a bowl game — a massive disappointment — but the offense appears to be inching toward being better.

Defense susceptible to break down

One thing the Wildcats had to bank on though was their defense. And so far, Northwestern’s defense has struggled to deliver.

The Wildcats defense had its moments for sure. The team was able to fly around some and fill gaps to prevent the run. Nebraska got stalled on several occasions. The Wildcats can bend pretty far without breaking.

Eventually though, a good player like Tommy Armstrong is going to break through. And that opens everything up.

Armstrong threw for 246 yards and rushed for 132 yards. The Wildcats would corral him in at times and force him into tough throws. And then Armstrong would escape and burst through the line for a big play.

There was not the typical Tommy Armstrong mistake that would keep Northwestern in it and give the team a chance — although he nearly threw a pick-6 to Anthony Walker early in the fourth quarter in a two-score game.

Armstrong managed the game well and made big plays when he had to.

That is not something that would have happened with last year’s defense. They missed tackles, played well off receivers and gave up big plays. Northwestern’s defense got beat by a marquee player at quarterback. He was able to do whatever he wanted, even more proof of the Wildcats’ hard fall on that end.

Special teams undergoing change

There will be changes to special teams next week. that much seems clear.

Jack Mitchell missed a short field goal bad and then missed an extra point. Northwestern tried a fake to hide him some, but the writing is on the wall. There will be a new kicker for the Wildcats next week.

If the Wildcats had needed a field goal or an extra point they would have switched to Matt Miccucci.

It is hard to say whether switching to Miccucci would have changed much in the game. Northwestern’s missed field goal would have only tied the game at 3 and the missed extra point only played a factor should the Wildcats have gotten into field goal range.

Northwestern was never in those situations — or really close — as they trailed in the second half.

As the team moves forward this year, though, change seems to be coming for a frustrated special teams group.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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