If anything holds true in Northwestern football, it’s that no lead is a safe lead for the Wildcats. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) proved it again today in their 29-28 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-2, 2-1), squandering a 12-point lead with eight minutes left to play.
For much of the game, the Wildcats' inability to advance the ball was only relieved by the Huskers' lack of discipline and chronic inability to hold onto the ball.
The 'Cats started off with the ball in the 1st quarter and went three-and-out on their first four drives. Nebraska drove up to the Northwestern 10-yard line, but was held to a field goal. At the tail end of the 1st quarter, a punt from Northwestern's Brandon Williams was fumbled by Ameer Abdullah and recovered by Nick VanHoose at the Nebraska 14. Quarterback Trevor Siemian (15 for 35, 116 yards, 2 TD) connected with superback Dan Vitale for a 10-yard touchdown to give Northwestern a 7-3 lead.
The touchdown pass made up one-third of Northwestern's offensive production in the 1st quarter, as team only advanced the ball 30 yards on 15 plays in 9:34 of possesion.
The 2nd quarter wasn't much better for either side. Nebraska scored their first touchdown on a 36-yard pass from quarterback Taylor Martinez to wide receiver Kenny Bell and Northwestern scored their second on a 26-yard pass from Siemian to wide receiver Tony Jones.
Things began to turn around for the 'Cats in the second half. After holding off the Huskers on their first drive of the 3rd quarter, Northwestern scored on an explosive 80-yard rush from running back Venric Mark (118 yards, 1 TD, 7.4 average). Nebraska scored on a 3-yard rush from Martinez, but failed on a two-point conversion.
The 4th quarter opened up with an abysmal drive from the Huskers, who comiited three penalties on two plays, and a strong showing from the Northwestern defense, which forced Nebaska to punt from their own 14-yard line on a 4th-and-26. Quarterback Kain Colter and Siemian pieced together a 52-yard scoring drive on 11 plays capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run from running back Mike Trumpy to give NU a 28-16 lead.
Then things began to unravel, as they always do.
It took only 10 plays and 2:33 for Nebraska travel 80 yards and pull within five points of Northwestern after a Martinez touchdown pass to wide receiver Taariq Allen with 5:55 left in the game. Then, at the worst possible time, the Northwesern offense stalled again with another three-and-out.
With 4:10 left in the game, Martinez opened up another scoring drive with a 31-yard pass to wide receiver Quincy Enunwa. The Huskers scored again on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Ben Cotton and failed on another two-point conversion to take the 29-28 lead.
Northwestern got the ball back with 2:08 left and Siemian was able to take the team 39 yards before two near-intercerptions forced kicker Jeff Budzien to try for a 53-yard field goal with just more than minute left. His first miss of the season just tapered away from the bottom-right corner of the uprights and Nebraska took back the ball. After punting, the Huskers were able to stop Northwestern's last-ditch effort to salvage the game and walked away victorious.
What we learned
The two quarterback system is officially busted
There is a reason why you don't see many successful teams with two starting quarterbacks: It is an inherently flawed system. While it worked for Northwestern during the first five games of the season, these flaws have cost the 'Cats two of the their last three games and barely secured a win against an injury-laden Minnesota squad last weekend. While the system apparently has its perks, every single one has been disproven in the past three weeks.
One supposed bright side of the tandem starters is that teams have to prepare for two different offensive strategies. However, this also means that Northwestern needs to implement and prepare two different offensive strategies, plans that become glaringly obvious when the two quarterbacks are switched around.
Yes, Colter and Mark make a powerful option team, but when Colter only throws two pass attempt the entire game, it's not hard to predict what's coming down the pipe when he is under center. And when Siemian is in, there is no secret Northwestern is passing.
Offense is also all about rhythm and when you have two quarterbacks constantly rotating, it is literally impossible for that to be established. It might have worked against teams like South Dakota and Indiana, but it hasn't been working for three weeks.
Unless Coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff can figure out a new way to get the Colter-Siemian combo to function effectivley, it is time for the charade to end. Northwestern must pick one starting quarterback if they hope to make it to anything better than the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.
Northwestern can no longer win games on chance
While the clock hasn't run out on Northwestern's BCS bowl journey, the luck that's helped them go 6-2 thus far has.
Between two near interceptions by Northwestern safety Ibrahiem Campbell and linebackers Damien Proby and David Nwabusi, and Budzien's missed field goal, Northwestern had three separate instances in the 4th quarter where they could have won the game. In earlier weeks, these plays might have worked for the Wildcats, but now they aren't.
You can't explain luck, but it's clear that Northwestern will have to start earning these victories the hard way now.
Things are looking too much like last year
Blowing late leads? Shoddy secondary defense? Injuries left and right? If you were thinking of the 2011 Wildcats (6-7), you're only half-right. With injuries to cornerback Nick VanHoose and running back Venric Mark, along with the late blown lead and 342 passing yards surrendered, this year's squad is beginning to suffer from the same symptoms that brought down last year's team.
Injuries are obviously up to chance, but to prevent a dismal finish from marring an otherwise outstanding season, Fitz and his team must look back on what went wrong last season to keep this season on the right course.
Next weekend is homecoming in Evanston and Northwestern will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (4-3, 2-1) at 11 a.m. Iowa comes to Evanston on the heels of a 38-14 loss at Penn State.
Last year, the Hawkeyes beat Northwestern 41-31 in Iowa City. Iowa blew and then regained a 17-point lead as the 'Cats dropped their fifth straight game of the season.
While Iowa has struggled to maintain consistency this season, the Wildcats can't afford to sleep on them. Because of the loss against Nebraska, this game, and every game after it, is critical to Northwestern's postseason success.