Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Missed Opportunities Haunt Huskers

By Brian Rosenthal

Did you really expect nothing less than a down-to-the-wire football game between Nebraska and Northwestern?

Or maybe Husker fans would be feeling better Saturday evening had the Huskers capitalized on numerous opportunities against their Big Ten Conference West Division nemesis at Memorial Stadium.

Instead, we’re talking about a bizarre series in which the visiting team has now won six of seven games.

Northwestern scored first in overtime and held Nebraska without a first down to claim a 31-24 victory Saturday before 89,721 fans.

The previous three games in Lincoln between these teams had been decided by three or fewer points, including the lone Nebraska victory in that stretch on a Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary reception.

This game, too, came down to the final play, but the looks on the faces of Nebraska’s players and coaches postgame would tell you it shouldn’t have.

“We had an opportunity to win,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said, “but let it slip away.”

Riley got a queasy feeling in the third quarter when the Huskers (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) had to settle on a 23-yard field goal by Drew Brown. It gave Nebraska a 24-17 lead, but came after the Huskers had worked and grinded 18 plays to cover 79 years, only to stall in the red zone.

“That frankly did worry me when we didn’t score a touchdown right there,” Riley said. “I thought that would’ve been a perfect drive to capitalize with a touchdown instead of three. That was disappointing.”

Sure enough, Northwestern (6-3, 4-2) eventually tied the game with 5:32 remaining in regulation when quarterback Clayton Thorson ran 7 yards for a touchdown to complete a 13-play, 84-yard drive.

Nebraska drove from its 7-yard line to the Northwestern 40 and took timeout on third-and-5 with 1 minute remaining. But quarterback Tanner Lee’s pass was long, and the Huskers punted.

Any discussion of going for the first down?

“Eh, not a ton,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “With the time and the ability to pin them deep, Coach wanted to go for the third down and then punt it. I think if you roll the dice there and don’t get it, you give them good field position with not a long way to go.”

The decision worked, at least as far as forcing overtime. The Wildcats got no closer than the Nebraska 42-yard line as regulation time expired.

The Huskers had other chances, too, but Lee threw three interceptions, including a batted ball on a busted play after Nebraska had advanced to the Northwestern 19-yard line.

“We had what we thought was a real good play call,” Riley said, “turn into a real bad play call.”

Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike caught the ball that had been intended for an open J.D. Spielman, but Lee was hit as he threw the ball under pressure.

“We had a seven-man protection and he got hit on the throw,” Langsdorf said. “He’s throwing to J.D. for a completion, and the guy covering him was way inside and not close to covering him. He gets hit, the ball flutters up in the air and it’s picked.”

Either a field goal or a touchdown would’ve given the Huskers a two-possession lead. Instead, Northwestern took over and drove for the tying touchdown.

“It’s a big deal. A big part of the drive,” Langsdorf said. “I thought we had been moving the ball, got down there pretty good, and felt really good about where we were at with the situation we were in. It happens. Very frustrated.”

Lee finished 21-of-38 passing for 225 yards and two touchdowns, both in the first half. The Huskers’ only touchdown in the second half came when linebacker Marcus Newby intercepted Thorson and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown.

As for Lee’s three interceptions, one resulted from the protect bust, Langsdorf, and another, Lee didn’t read the safety.

“And I put him in a bad positon on the first one,” Langsdorf said. “It’s in the middle of the field and kind of tight windows to the boundary side, so that first one wasn’t a good call for him.

“Obviously, in a game like that, we couldn’t afford the turnovers. That’s something we had talked about going into the game, was making sure we were clean on penalties (the Huskers had seven for 68) and turnovers, and I don’t think either one of them was probably a good stat for us.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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