The Wildcats are going bowling! With their 30-28 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium, Northwestern is 6-2 and headed to a bowl game for the first time since 2012. The Wildcats pulled off the upset (yes, Nebraska was favored) over the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, ending their two-game losing streak and moving to 2-2 in Big Ten play. Northwestern didn’t play incredibly well, but they were able to eke out the victory with the help of Clayton Thorson’s legs and strong play from the defensive line. So let’s take a look at the numbers behind Northwestern’s win over the Cornhuskers.
In what probably was Thorson’s best game of the season so far, the freshman quarterback rushed for 126 yards including runs of 49 and 68 yards. Thorson’s production was the Wildcats’ only offense for much of the first half, leading the team to its first touchdown drive and helping it get into the red zone near the end of the first half. Not only was Thorson great on the ground, he was competent through the air, completing 46.4 percent of his passes for 177 yards and a touchdown. While his accuracy could use some work — and receivers’ drops haven’t helped — Thorson got the job done and now his team will play in a bowl this winter.
Dean Lowry set a school record with six tackles for a loss to go along with his 10 total tackles and two sacks. After getting beaten in the trenches against Michigan and Iowa, Northwestern’s defensive line consistently got into the Cornhuskers’ backfield, slowing down Nebraska’s run game. No Nebraska running back had more than 53 yards of rushing and, as a team, the Wildcats had nine tackles for a loss. Behind Lowry, the Northwestern defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, as it did in the first five victories, helping Northwestern to a much-needed win.
While Northwestern’s run defense performed admirably, the pass defense did not. The Cornhuskers averaged 12.2 yards per reception as Tommy Armstrong Jr. continually found holes in the Northwestern secondary, hitting wide open receiver after wide open receiver. The Wildcats, playing zone with Matthew Harris out, struggled in coverage, letting receivers find space and catch long passes. Nebraska’s wideouts caught passes of 20, 30 and 37 yards, and if not for a few drops, the Cornhuskers could have had a few longer completions.
Besides Thorson’s success on the ground, another huge benefit for the Wildcats was that they did not turn the ball over on Saturday. As stagnant as the offense was at times, it was able to make big plays and avoid letting Nebraska’s defense score. Thorson’s ability to make good decisions and hang on to the ball allowed Northwestern to keep up with the Cornhuskers’ scoring despite running 30 fewer plays on offense and having nearly 20 fewer minutes of possession time. It’s relatively unsurprising, but the Wildcats have yet to lose a game this season in which they don’t commit a turnover.
Northwestern has struggled in the red zone all season, and Saturday was no exception. The Wildcats had one red zone touchdown all game — a Thorson one-yard sneak into the end zone in the first quarter– in four such opportunities (not including the team’s trip inside the Nebraska 20 before running out the clock at the end of the game). The two other Wildcat touchdowns came on big plays, but getting seven points instead of three inside the red zone would have padded Northwestern’s lead and made Saturday’s win more comfortable. Those crucial mistakes were correctable ones, too; a wide open Christian Jones dropped a would-be touchdown just before halftime and Thorson, Jackson and company were unable to punch the ball in from the one-yard line in the third quarter. Even improving that ratio marginally would be huge for the Wildcats going forward.
Another issue that the Wildcats encountered on Saturday was one of the team’s biggest strengths early on in the season: third down defense. The Huskers converted four of five third downs of 10 or more yards (9-of-20 overall), as well as a 37-yard completion on fourth down late in the game. Northwestern was one of the best statistical teams in terms of third down defense early in the season, so seeing Nebraska convert long third downs with ease was unsettling for Northwestern fans. As mentioned earlier, Matt Harris’ injury has something to do with that, but the secondary will need to make adjustments heading into a matchup with Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg-led offense.