Nebraska remained undefeated with a 23-14 win at Northwestern on Saturday evening.
The Huskers are now 4-0 over and 1-0 in the Big Ten and will likely inch closer to the Top 15 in the polls after concluding a perfect September that not everyone saw coming.
The 24-13 victory wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was a win on the road in the conference all the same. So let’s hand out some grades, ranking each category from one star to five stars.
Offense (4 stars)
The two red zone fumbles from running backs Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo cast a pretty large shadow over this Nebraska offense.
The Huskers racked up 556 total yards, including 310 on the ground, but only managed 24 points, thanks to those two costly turnovers.
Nebraska moved the ball with relative ease, averaging 8.5 yards per pass and 6.6 yards per carry, but two fumbles within the 5-yard line are going to give coach Mike Riley headaches.
Part of the reason why Nebraska has been able to win close games this year is because of ball control, and if fumbles in the red zone continue happening, or even happen once in a big game, that could be costly. The yards are nice, but point production needs to follow.
Defense (4 stars)
For the most part, the Blackshirts played well on Saturday.
For the second straight game, the defense finished off the win with a defensive stop, this time with an interception by senior corner Josh Kalu. However, Nebraska did give up quite a few yards in the air to Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson. Thorson was 25-for-38 for 251 yards and two interceptions, and also ran for 43 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown run.
The defense gets 4 stars instead of a 3.5 only because it kept Northwestern to 137 rushing yards, and would have kept them under 100 yards had they not let Thorson scamper for that long touchdown run.
The statement being made by the run defense continues to improve, which will be essential going forward in Big Ten play.
Special teams (3 stars)
Once upon a time, Nebraska returned punts.
But now, for some reason, De’Mornay Pierson-El doesn’t seem to have enough time or room to make a return, and when he does, hesitates and calls for a fair catch. None of Northwestern’s five punts were returned Saturday night.
Freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn also was a non-fcator. He didn’t have a terrible day, pinning Northwestern deep a few times on his five punts, but he also had two balls roll into the end zone for touchbacks when he could have pinned them down at the 5-yard line or closer. He averaged on 38.6 yards per punt.
Nebraska’s special teams are becoming very hit or miss this season. Special? Not so much.
Coaching (4 stars)
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf drew up a good game plan against Northwestern, with 29 passes and 47 rushes. That ratio is where Langsdorf wanted to be, and where Nebraska seems to thrive with its run-happy balance.
On the defensive side of the ball, Nebraska needs to continue working on tackling. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker talked this week about the need to improve dynamic tackling, or stopping an offensive player’s progress all together rather than letting them roll forward a few yards. Nebraska still needs to work on that. The Cornhuskers defense played well overall, but there were stints when Northwestern had its way with the front seven.
Overall (4 stars)
There is plenty to be happy about in Lincoln. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is playing well, throwing for 246 yards and rushing for another 132. Anytime you can rush for more than 300 yards is great, as is coming up with big stops defensively to close out games.
But then again, Nebraska could have won this game by 20 points or more. The Huskers continue to leave points on the field, and that can’t continue. More positives came out of this game than negatives, so overall a decent grade is deserved for the Huskers. But there is still plenty of to clean up.