The Wildcats fell short against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ryan Field Saturday night, losing by the final score of 24-13 to open Big Ten play. Northwestern will travel to Iowa this weekend still looking for its first Big Ten win but first, its time to take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the Northwestern Wildcats’ loss to the Huskers.
Austin Carr continues to be Northwestern’s most reliable and impressive wide receiver. A former walk-on, Carr has become Clayton Thorson’ No. 1 target, topping 100 yards for the second straight week. Against the Huskers, Carr caught 8 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown, averaging just over 13 yards per catch. And on the season, Carr leads the ‘Cats in just about every single receiving category, with 26 receptions for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns.
4.3 yards per rush isn’t an awful statistic per say, and Justin Jackson did rush for 79 yards, but once again, Northwestern’s offensive line play was an absolute mess. Clayton Thorson was consistently under pressure, being sack four times and hit two more while Jackson had few holes on his 20 rushing attempts. On the season, Northwestern’s offensive line ranks among the worst in college football in stuff rate, the percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, with a 24.2 percent stuff rate that ranks 110th in the nation, and 119th with an opportunity rate of 30.4 percent, the percentage of carries in which the offensive line “does its job” and produces at least five yards of rushing for the runner.
Jack Mitchell has not had himself a good first couple of games for the Wildcats. Once termed “clutch,” Mitchell has hit just one field goal this season, missing a 27 yarder and an extra point against Nebraska. The Wildcats even attempted a fake field goal near the end of the first half instead of having Mitchell attempt a 40 yard field goal. Mitchell ranks No. 123 in the FBS with a 25.0 percentage on his field goal attempts, and after just four weeks, Pat Fitzgerald has opened up the kicking competition for the possibility of Mitchell to be replaced.
On the opposite side of the ball, for the fourth straight week, Northwestern struggled to find any sort of pass rush with just two quarterback hits and zero sacks on the night. Jaylen Prater and Anthony Walker Jr. picked up the QB hits for the ‘Cats but Tommy Armstrong Jr. had a clean pocket to work with all night, and tons of room to scamper around as well. Similar to the offense line, Northwestern’s defense ranks poorly in terms with a 14.2 percent stuff rate, good for No. 113 in the FBS, and No. 117 with a 93.3 percent power success rate, the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
Northwestern’s defense was torched, and that may be putting it lightly. Nebraska averaged 7.3 yards per play, which, for the full season, would rank as one of the top 10 offenses in the FBS. Nebraska also averaged 6.6 yards per rush and 13.7 yards per completion as they absolutely gashed Northwestern’s defense. The Cornhuskers gained 310 yards on the ground and 246 through the air, much of which came by the way of Armstrong Jr., who rushed for 132 yards on 13 carries, a 10.2 yards per carry average. The ‘Cats couldn’t stop Nebraska’s dual-threat QB, and he made them pay, in a game that could have been an even bigger blowout had the Cornhuskers not fumbled twice on the goal line.
Northwestern had 9 negative plays offensively, two holding penalties and seven negative plays – either sacks or Nebraska tackles for a loss – all of which killed drives for the Wildcats. Northwestern did not score on any of the drives on which it had a negative play, with the two holding penalties being especially killer as both came on third downs which the ‘Cats would have picked up without the penalties. Negative plays are always a killer but they have consistently killed Northwestern’s drives this season, resulting in punts and putting the defense back on the field. Northwestern’s averaging just 3.47 points per trip inside the 40, ranking No. 119 in the FBS, as Thorson and co. have just had a lot of trouble sustaining and finishing drives.