LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 5: Northwestern Wildcats' head coach Pat Firzgerald celebrates with his team during their game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium November 5, 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Northwestern beat Nebraska 28-25. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Against all odds, Northwestern managed to win at Nebraska despite losing Dan Persa to an injury in the second quarter. Lots of the players stepped up and had the best games of their careers, including the entire offensive line, and the entire defensive line. But Northwestern couldn't have won it without excellent coaching from Pat Fitzgerald, offensive coordinator Mick McCall, and much-maligned defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. In fact, all three guys have been maligned pretty thoroughly during the disastrous five game losing streak, so it was nice to see all of them step up and lead Northwestern to victory.
Hit the jump for the breakdown...
Decision Point 1: ~7:00 left in the third quarter, Northwestern leading 14-3, 4th and 6 at the Nebraska 21: This was the first of many bold moves Pat Fitzgerald and McCall made, choosing to go for the conversion rather than attempt a 38 yard field goal into a strong wind. Kain Colter made a perfect throw to Jeremy Ebert on an out pattern, and Northwestern converted the first down. It's difficult to quantify this decision with math because I wasn't at the stadium and thus can't analyze just how bad the wind was, but converting the first down seems about as likely as making the field goal, making going for it a far superior decision.
Unfortunately, Northwestern didn't get points on this drive because Trevor Siemian was intercepted in the end zone on the next play, setting up a Nebraska touchdown. Even though the play didn't work out, I still liked the decision to go for the touchdown; Colter was open on the post route and a good throw would have resulted in a touchdown. Northwestern had run the ball pretty consistently on first down since Dan Persa's injury, and it's important to avoid being predictable.
Decision Point 2: ~14:30 left in the fourth quarter, Northwestern leading 14-10, 4th and 3 at the Nebraska 28: This was the one time in the second half where I think the coaching staff made a mistake. On the previous 3rd and 5, Northwestern chose to run Jacob Schmidt, a decision that only makes sense if your intention is to set up 4th and short; while Schmidt had another solid day running the ball he is certainly unlikely to gain 5+ yards. Instead, Fitzgerald elected to send out Jeff Budzien for a 45 yard field goal. Even downwind, a 45 yard field goal is a fairly low percentage play for a college kicker, and given how well Northwestern was moving the ball, going for the first down was pretty clearly the right play. Budzien missed the field goal and Nebraska took over.
Decision Point 3: ~12:30 left in the fourth quarter, Northwestern leading 21-10, 2nd and 7 at the Northwestern 19: This obviously isn't a fourth down decision but I wanted to highlight the play call. With Colter in at quarterback, Northwestern had been running almost exclusively, so Mick McCall dialed up the play action, the Nebraska safeties bit, and Colter found Ebert for an 81 yard touchdown. MountainTiger highlighted this as his play of the week, read more here.
Decision Point 4: 5:05 left in the fourth quarter, Northwestern leading 21-18, 4th and 1 at the Nebraska 18: In my book, this was by far the biggest decision of the game. If Fitzgerald had elected to kick a field goal here, Northwestern probably loses this game. Once Nebraska went away from the run and turned Taylor Martinez loose through the air, the porous Northwestern secondary had shown no ability to stop the Nebraska passing game. And even a made field goal (far from a guarantee) would have meant Nebraska could take the lead with a touchdown.
After calling a timeout to think things over, Fitzgerald made the decision to go for it, and Kain Colter managed to pick up the first down. Three and half minutes later (thanks in part to Bo Pelini foolishly refusing to use his timeouts), Colter was in the end zone and the game was all but decided.
The coaching staff also deserves a large amount of credit for the defensive game plan. The plan was similar to the one used against Illinois: stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run and force the opponent to beat them through the air. The difference was that unlike the Illinois game where the secondary continually broke down and left Illini receivers wide open for big plays, yesterday the Northwestern secondary was at least able to keep receivers in front of them and prevent long touchdowns. Martinez had an excellent game passing, completing 28 of 37 passes for 289 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he wasn't unleashed until after Northwestern had the lead and it was too late for him do anything about it.
It's funny; Fitzgerald and Hanwitz managed to turn the high powered Husker offense into the solid but frustrating Northwestern offenses we've seen the last few years: Nebraska relied too much on an ineffective running game and while the passing game moved the ball reasonably well with short throws they were unable to make big plays through the air. Kudos all around.