The first half of the 2014 Nebraska/Northwestern game was much like the previous three: a close game where Nebraska wasn't playing particularly well and Northwestern held a slim lead. Arguably, it was much like Nebraska's game against Michigan State two weeks' earlier. The stat sheet told the story:
Ameer Abdullah: 9 carries, 39 yards
Tommy Armstrong: 8 for 16 passing for 132 yards and 6 carries for 34 yards
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson: 15 carries, 99 yards
Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian: 13 for 23 passing for 148 yards.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Abdullah couldn't get out of the backfield, thanks in large measure to some less-than-stellar offensive line blocking, while Armstrong was erratic with several of his throws. The defense was schizophrenic, it seemed. Three drives where Northwestern went three-and-out, three more where they went eight or more plays and scored, and a fourth where it seemed the Wildcats were destined to score until Siemian decided to throw into triple coverage. Nebraska linebacker Trevor Roach was the poster boy for inconsistency: ten tackles to dominate the game in the first quarter, then finding himself out of position and missing tackles in the second before he was eventually benched in favor of Josh Banderas.
Just before halftime, we did get a nice outburst from De'Mornay Pierson-El as he caught a 46 yard pass in stride from Tommy Armstrong before Pierson-El and Armstrong switched roles. Pierson-El, a former high school quarterback, took a reverse pitch from Abdullah and looped a pass to a wide open Armstrong to tie the game at 14. But the quick strike left enough time for the Wildcats to drive the field and kick a field goal to give Northwestern a 17-14 halftime lead.
The second half was a completely different experience as Northwestern was held to just 28 yards of offense and three first downs. Siemian completed just five of 19 passes for 25 yards while Jackson rushed seven times for 30 yards. Siemian lost 37 yards on four sacks, so his net contribution in the second half was -12 yards. All thanks to the Blackshirts, and specifically backup defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who replaced Vincent Valentine who left with an injured elbow.
The Husker offense also turned it around in the second half: Armstrong completed 10 of 13 passes for 89 yards while Abdullah rushed 14 times for 107 yards. It all started up front, and specifically by calling on second stringers on the offensive line. Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, and Givens Price all took over the right side of the line, with Mike Moudy sliding over to left guard to spell the suddenly ineffective Jake Cotton. Nebraska took the lead in the third quarter and salted it away in the fourth.
The 38-17 victory probably doesn't reflect how close the game was most of the way; it was 21-17 at the start of the fourth. But Abdullah finally got untracked in that final quarter, and Nebraska really coasted down the stretch.
What are our takeaways from this game? Nebraska's only as good as their offensive line plays. I suspect that when Rutgers comes in, you'll see some new starters on the line. Pierson-El is becoming an offensive weapon as well as Tim Beck keeps finding ways to get him the ball. And we saw depth on the defensive line as Kevin Williams and Jack Gangwish made huge plays in the second half to take over the game.
But we also saw bad tackling on defense, Randy Gregory being helped off the field multiple times, and a revolving door at middle linebacker. And an inconsistent offense. The good Nebraska is good enough to get the Huskers back to Indianapolis; the bad Nebraska is bad enough to finish the season 0-5. Even Purdue is a threat to win now that they've switched to Austin Appleby at quarterback.
Never a dull moment for the Huskers. But that's the way college football is nowadays.