Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Huskers Still Searching for 'The Finish'

October 8, 2017
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Nebraska entered halftime trailing by just seven points against Wisconsin on Saturday night, but wound up falling 38-17 after getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter. After the game, the phrase “finish,” which has sounded somewhat like a broken record, reverberated throughout the entire team.

“Some things just click with some people and we’re trying to get 'finish' to be one thing that clicks for everyone on the team,” tailback Devine Ozigbo said. “We need to continue to want to be better finishers and stronger finishers.”

In a home loss to Northern Illinois on Sep. 16, the Huskers took a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter only to see it immediately disappear on the Huskies' next drive. “We need to finish,” the defense said after an eventual 21-17 loss. After a too-close-for-comfort 27-17 win over Rutgers a week later, the Husker offense wanted to finish drives and not leave scoring opportunities on the field. Against Wisconsin on Saturday night, things came to a head. Nebraska didn’t finish plays, it didn’t finish drives, and it didn’t finish a game that should have been closer than it was.

“We just gave them too many opportunities and didn’t take advantage of ours,” head coach Mike Riley said.

Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor erupted for 249 yards and two scores on 25 carries. Wisconsin’s offensive line was effective opening up holes for Taylor to dart through, but once he got to the second level of the Nebraska defense, the Blackshirts missed tackles.

In the third quarter, nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg shot up the middle only to whiff on Taylor at the line of scrimmage. Taylor bounced it outside and made cornerback Lamar Jackson miss to pick up a Wisconsin first down. Both players came off the field right after the play, almost as if to say that won’t be tolerated, but the defense was leaky throughout most of the evening.

Cornerback Eric Lee Jr. missed tackles. Safety Aaron Williams missed tackles. Linebacker Luke Gifford missed tackles. It was contagious, and Wisconsin made Nebraska pay for failing to put away plays.

“It’s something we knew within their gameplan all week, we knew they were going to come downhill and we knew as a secondary we were going to have to come tackle,” Lee said after the game. “I just felt like we weren’t as disciplined as we were in the first half.”

The Nebraska offense ran 29 of its 61 plays in Wisconsin territory and had eight of its 12 drives reach the positive side of the 50-yard-line, yet only had 10 offensive points to show for the effort. Senior kicker Drew Brown missed a chip shot from 33 yards away. Quarterback Tanner Lee tossed his fourth pick-six in the last four games with the Huskers moving the ball at will on the game’s opening drive. While the defense was struggling to put plays away, the offense was struggling to put drives away.

“We’ve got to finish drives with points,” Lee said. “They kept us from doing that today. They were a solid defense just like we knew they were going to be and I think we played them well, just didn’t come out with the win.”

As the game wore on, Wisconsin began to impose its will on the Huskers in the trenches and linebacker Luke Gifford felt like things broke down.

“They threw a lot of looks at us, but it’s like in years past, when they found something that worked they kept going to it and we’ve just got to be able to stop it and we didn’t,” Gifford said.

When safety Aaron Williams intercepted an Alex Hornibrook pass to tie the game at 17 all in the third quarter, Wisconsin ripped off a 10-play, 93-yard drive on its next possession.

“When you’re playing a top-10 team in the country, you can’t give that up,” linebacker Chris Weber said.

Did the Huskers just get tired down the stretch? Gifford said they didn’t, and it was more gap assignment mistakes than anything else. Weber said he wasn’t going to use fatigue as an excuse but the defense was on the field for nearly 22 minutes in the second half. Wisconsin was a near-perfect 5-for-6 on third downs and Gifford said the team couldn’t get off the field on the critical plays.

Weber said things have to improve, and it has to start with the Huskers’ mindset.

“It’s got to be a mindset when we’re in practice and we’re making a tackle, even finishing practice,” he said. “It’s not going to define our season, we’re going to get better.”

When right tackle Brenden Jaimes was asked how specifically the Huskers need to go about fixing what’s broken right now before No. 10 Ohio State (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) comes to town next week, his answer was blunt.

“Just finish.”

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