According to the box score, Nebraska dominated Northwestern. The Huskers had 543 yards to the Wildcats’ 301, 26 first downs against 14, 8.8 yards per pass versus 3.3. But a review of the coaches’ tape reveals how one-sided stat lines can result in one-point wins.
Removing the turnover narrative – which is still crushing — here are five key plays that best tell the story (Note: I couldn’t find satisfactory highlights from this game. A shaky version, with all the plays mentioned is here. The official Nebraska highlights are below):
1) 1st Quarter, 3:40, Martinez throws incomplete to avoid a safety: After a gorgeous punt – it was a great day for punters in this game – and two unsuccessful runs, Nebraska faces a third-and-8 from its own 3-yard line. According to our coach, one of the old defensive maxims in coaching when teams start insider their own 5-yard line is “1-in-3,” meaning be prepared for the offense to take a shot deep down field on one of the first three downs. The thinking offensively is that maybe you’ll catch the defense napping. If you don’t, a long interception is likely preferable to having to punt out of your own end zone.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck calls a – shall we say bold? – fake toss play action pass. The offensive line blocks to the right on the toss fake, giving Northwestern’s outside linebacker a clear path to Taylor Martinez. The Wildcats’ left defensive end gets a good jam on Ben Cotton, which hangs him up in traffic over the middle. If he gets off cleanly – or at least cleaner than he did – maybe this works but it’s asking a lot.
Instead, Martinez shovels it out of there at the last second and, thanks to the officials’ beneficence, doesn’t get flagged for intentional grounding because Cotton is about five yards away from where the pass landed. It probably should have been a safety.
2) 2nd Quarter, 8:34, Bell 37-yard touchdown catch: This sort of passing play is quickly becoming a staple of Beck’s offense. Nebraska comes out in a shotgun, two tight end set with Bell in the slot on the left and Enunwa out wide. Northwestern is in nickel with the nickel back up in run support and one deep safety. The right tight end, Jake Long, stays in to block and the corner on that side is slow to read play action. He never gets deep enough to influence the play. That leaves Ben Cotton, running a post route, wide open near the sideline. So is Kenny Bell, also running a post route against man coverage, near the middle of the field.
Northwestern’s safety is playing a deep half and he’s sunk. He has to try to cover both Cotton and Bell. He takes a few steps towards Cotton before seeing the throw, but that’s enough of a crease for Bell, who directs traffic and slams into the end zone.
3) 2nd Quarter, 1:37, Jones 26-yard touchdown catch : It was his second consecutive start, but this was not Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s best game. On Monday Quincy Enunwa called Jean-Baptiste the toughest physical match-up he’s had against a corner, teammate or opponent, and there’s a lot to like about the former wide receiver but he displayed some technique issues on Saturday.
On Siemian’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Tony Jones, Jean-Baptiste is in press coverage on Jones. Nebraska’s in nickel and, at the snap, moves to a one-high safety look – Stafford’s got deep middle, Smith has short middle, Compton has the back out of the backfield. That means two things: 1) Any safety help over the top on a pass to the sidelines is going to be a long time coming, and 2) That makes Jean-Baptiste’s jam everything.
It isn’t an easy assignment but Jean-Baptiste makes it harder, jumping to the inside immediately, with his feet way to wide to get a good bump. Within a yard he’s beat. Cornerback Play 101 says his job now is to put his head down and try to catch-up. Make a play on the ball when you see the receiver’s hands go up. Instead Jean-Baptiste is looking back the entire time. This happened on a couple of occasions on Saturday but Northwestern, despite repeated attempts, didn’t have the athletes to take advantage.
“He got outside of himself technique-wise for whatever reason,” Pelini said of Jean-Baptiste on Monday. “He didn’t play with the technique that is going to allow him to have success. For whatever reason he got off-kilter and did some things we don’t teach and don’t want him to do.”
And here’s the thing about the touchdown pass to Jones: Jean-Baptiste, despite everything above, was still almost long enough to tip that pass away. Physically, that’s why he plays, but it will be interesting to see this week if some of those technique flaws limit his role.
4) 3rd Quarter, 8:51, Martinez dropped for a loss on fourth-and-3: You can debate the merits of going for it here, on the Northwestern 29-yard line, but you can’t debate this: Nebraska simply can’t have communication breakdowns like this on fourth down.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened here but Kyler Reed turned to pull left and ran smack into two other pulling Huskers – Spencer Long and Justin Jackson — going right. It was supposed to be similar to the designed quarterback run Nebraska had run for seven yards on third down but nobody pulled on that play. Reed clearly got mixed up on the following one.
5) 4th Quarter, 6:30, Enunwa 30-yard reception: Nebraska got burned by less than ideal secondary play on Jones’ touchdown catch, but they arguably got it back here. On first-and-10 from the 38-yard line, Nebraska comes out in the same set – shotgun, two tight ends, two receivers to the right – that it used on the Bell touchdown earlier in the game. Northwestern is again in nickel but this time Nebraska runs the double post with the slot (Bell) and wide out (Enunwa).
Martinez has all sorts of time and chooses to make perhaps the most difficult pass available. Enunwa has his corner beat but two safeties within five yards of him. The strong side safety is in position to deliver a hit, the weak side safety should be in position to play the ball. Strangely, he doesn’t, bending behind Enunwa and actually getting more of a lick on his fellow safety. It was a big time catch by Enunwa but this play – if not for a minor technique breakdown – was very close to snuffing out Nebraska’s comeback before it even started. (Cue the Peace With Inches speech.)
Defensively, Nebraska could use a similar plan this week against Michigan. The Huskers committed to stopping the run when Kain Colter was in the game and played a lot of press coverage when facing Trevor Siemian to take away Northwestern’s short passing game. That left Nebraska in a lot of one-on-one situations on the outside — some they won, some they didn’t – but it forced the Wildcats into low-percentage throws deep down field.
Papuchis and Pelini might ask Denard Robinson to do the same but, as everyone knows, Robinson and the Michigan receiving corps is drastically more talented than what Nebraska faced on Saturday.