We are NU!
Good line play is kind of like good special teams: you don't always pay attention to the fact that a team has been pinned in their end of the field all game, but at the end you see that they lost even though their offense and defense turned in good performances. In the same way that special teams makes the offense and defense look better, winning the battle on the line of scrimmage makes the rest of the offense or defense look better. When the offense wins, running backs get a couple yards before they have to make a move, quarterbacks have more time to throw, and receivers can look for the ball on time. The Nebraska game exemplified this. Removing the kneeldown to end the game (though including sacks and scrambles), Northwestern ran 53 times for 209 yards (3.94 YPC). The ballcarriers weren't doing anything exceptional in the open field; Colter and Persa tied for the long run of the day with a 17 yard run for each, and Schmidt had a 14 yarder. Instead of ripping off big gains, for most of the game, especially during the 13 play, 66 yard, 7-minute drive in the fourth quarter to put NU up 28-18, the offensive line just got a decent push and the runners were able to pick up a few yards before getting hit.
The story was just the opposite on defense: Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez consistently had defenders in their face before getting to the line of scrimmage. This is borne out by comparing each team's negative plays. Only 3 of 78 NU plays lost yards: a sack on Colter to end the first half, a run by Green for a loss of three in the second half, and the kneeldown that ended the game. I won't get down on the offense for the last one. UNL, on the other hand, lost yardage on 6 of 72 plays, including a critical 4th and 2 stuff in the third quarter.
There is a reason that line play doesn't get much attention, though. Big plays by skill position players are way more exciting. So let's look at one of those after the jump!
There was only one real option for the play of the week: Jeremy Ebert's 81 yard touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter. After Nebraska got back within one score near the end of the third quarter, Northwestern drove down the field to set up a 45 yard FG attempt that would have extended the lead to 17-10. Instead, Budzien pulled the kick left, setting the stage for yet another late-game collapse. NE couldn't take advantage, going three and out, but a fantastic punt pinned NU inside their own 20. A three yard Colter run on first down brought up 2nd and 7 from the NU 19.
Northwestern comes out with two backs (Green and Schmidt) split just behind Colter. This is a formation out of which Northwestern likes to run. Either back is an option to carry the ball, while the other can either block or get into position for an option pitch. NEB is in a 4-2 front with the safeties deep and the defensive ends standing up; this alignment should be solid against the pass, though the safeties need to be ready to get into the play if NU runs the ball.
The backfield action suggests an option run: Colter meshes with Green while Schmidt heads right as though he is the pitch phase on the triple option. The safeties both charge downhill to play the run while the corners take the receivers deep. Based on the way the coverage handles the receivers, I think Nebraska has man coverage on the receivers. I'm not sure what the safeties are supposed to do; I initially thought that they had deep half zones, but the defensive left safety seems to widen when he sees Schmidt head to the flat rather than trying to get back into position to defend a deep pass. In any case, their reaction to the run fake means that there is no safety help over the top.
The receiver at the top of the screen disappears from the TV view as the camera zooms in, but Demetrius Fields at the bottom of the screen and Ebert coming out of the slot both get good inside releases. The route combination appears to be a version of three verticals (if you scroll all the way down in the link, the I-formation PA version is basically this exact play, with one back heading to the flat and the other the middle. I don't know if Ebert has a read on his route or if it is a post all the way). By the time the linebackers and safeties realize that it is a fake, Colter is already winding up to throw. I have once again circled the safeties, who are too close to the line of scrimmage to play the deep pass and flat-footed to boot.
Ebert catches the ball even with his defender but with good inside position.
The safety is still 5 yards behind the play, and Ebert is able to accelerate away from the defenders for the score, putting NU back up by 11. You can also see that Fields has a step on his man at the bottom of the screen; had Ebert been covered, Colter would have had a shot at a big play to him as well. The third receiver is off the screen, but he may have had a step on his man as well; I can't tell whose feet are whose at the top of the picture.
Before the game, some NB fans and the BTN announcers made a big deal about how the windy conditions in Lincoln might limit the NU offense. While passing is more difficult in these conditions, the Northwestern coaches have seen wind before and know how to adjust to it. In the first half, this meant more crossing routes and fewer outs and corners than NU normally throws. Though Colter in particular did some damage on these routes, Nebraska's coverage was generally good so long as the passing game stayed horizontal.
If NU was going to open up the passing game, adding a vertical element was essential. The 'Cats tried to do this a couple of times before this pass; Dunsmore had his man beat deep for a likely touchdown in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, but Colter overthrew him. Likewise, Colter had a step on his man with a safety over the top when Siemian tried to squeeze the ball in on his interception. This play-action pass was a great way to get the ball downfield in adverse conditions: the throw over the middle is relatively short, and with the safeties scrambling to get back and Ebert beating his man inside Colter just had to throw a bullet rather than lofting the ball over defenders. This is both an inherently easier throw and one less vulnerable to gusting winds. As he tends to do, Ebert proceeded to make his quarterback look good.
Score one for gut feelings over analysis: I didn't believe in a Nebraska team that had only really shown up for one game, and they didn't disappoint me. Whoever set the over/under, however, is clearly better at this than I am; I expected both of these teams to score over 30 easily.
The really impressive thing to me: NU won this game in spite of losing the turnover battle and generally making far too many mistakes. Colter's bad pitch, the deflected interception that set up the UN field goal, and Siemian's overthrow of Colter all could have been turning points in the game; instead, Nebraska fans have to look back at Burkhead's goal-line fumble as a missed opportunity. Likewise, Budzien's miss was a 45 yard field goal with the wind. While not a gimme by any means, it was a makeable field goal that NU left on the field. Likewise, Colter's overthrow at the end of the first half likely cost NU points. This was not a game where NU did everything right; it was a solid but unexceptional effort that was enough to beat a top-10 team on the road. The Northwestern offensive and defensive lines both showed up to play. If NU can get that kind of play against their remaining opponents, 7-5 is still possible.
As Fitz noted postgame, the 'Cats play their last three games at home. Rice and Minnesota are clearly teams that Northwestern should beat, while Michigan State has been up and down all year. Still, both Rice and Minnesota have shown signs of life this year with upsets against Purdue and Iowa. The team needs to stay focused and take care of business in the those two games, as there is almost no margin of error left for this team to reach bowl eligibility. If they go into the MSU game trying for 7-5 (4-4), I will be a happy man. If they need the win to reach bowl eligibility, I will be a nervous wreck. So I want to see a strong finish to the season, starting with a dominant win against Rice next week. After that, we can talk about finally winning a bowl game.