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B1G Rewind: Fourth-quarter woes show Nebraska's 2015 demise

Northwestern responds after pair of tough defeats

Nebraska defensive end Jack Gangwish (95) and Nebraska running back Jordan Stevenson (2) lead the team onto the field against the Northwestern Wildcats at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday. (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)
Nebraska defensive end Jack Gangwish (95) and Nebraska running back Jordan Stevenson (2) lead the team onto the field against the Northwestern Wildcats at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday. (Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports)

If football was hockey and games ended after three periods, Nebraska would sit at 6-2 and within striking distance of the Big Ten West Division lead. But Nebraska’s fourth-quarter woes — let’s call it H-E-double hockey sticks — has the potential to keep the Cornhuskers from the postseason altogether.

After falling at home 30-28 to Northwestern on Saturday, Nebraska (3-5, 1-3 Big Ten) now has five losses by a combined 13 points. Three have come in the final 10 seconds of regulation and another in overtime. In some ways that’s bad luck. However, the statistics show the real reason for futility.

Wisconsin at Illinois

The Cornhuskers have allowed 985 passing yards in the fourth quarter, worst in the country. Overall, they rank 126th against the pass at 321.1 yards per game (just ahead of Indiana and Memphis). Nebraska also is 111th nationally in penalties with 73.3 yards per game.

In their four regulation losses, the Cornhuskers were outscored 46-16 and opponents out-passed them 477-118 in the fourth quarter. Nebraska accumulated 60 penalty yards to its opponents’ 19.

Saturday, Nebraska held an 18-minute advantage in time of possession despite rushing for only 82 yards on 38 carries. Yet, Northwestern showed its resiliency and scored on four of its final six possessions.

At the end of three quarters, Nebraska held the ball for 33:11 of the 45 minutes. In Big Ten play, that usually means a team grinds out a convincing win against a tired defense. However, it appeared to have an opposite effect in this game.

Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) possessed the ball for 9:09 in the fourth quarter and converted on three of six third downs. When the Wildcats took over with 4:18 left on their 25, they ran out the clock with three first downs. That led to questions about Nebraska’s overall lack of intensity.

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“I don’t know — as a general statement about our team — if that is correct,” Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said. “Now I would say other parts of it look like that. The opening kickoff team looked like that. Offensively, we were not in sync from the get-go, we looked like that. And then you’ve got to give them a little credit. That’s a good defensive team. (They’re) solid. I think they’ve been third in the league in rush (defense), third in the league in pass (defense).”

“We’ve just got to make sure that we take care of the ball and that we’re able to move the chains,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “I felt like we weren’t able to do it on both sides; running and passing.”

Nebraska needs to win three of its final four games to go bowling. Two of its opponents — Michigan State and Iowa — are unbeaten and the games are in Lincoln. But the Cornhuskers have lost both of their Big Ten games at Memorial Stadium. The last time Nebraska was winless in conference home games was 1957.

NORTHWESTERN RALLIES

There are a few parallels in Northwestern’s last three games. Its opponent dominated time of possession with at least 37 minutes of offense. Northwestern’s passing yards ranged from 130 to 177, its opponents converted roughly half of their third-down possessions and the Wildcats’ average field position was their 25. However, rushing yards was a huge difference among the games.

Michigan rushed for 201 yards to Northwestern’s 38 in a 38-0 Wolverines’ win. Iowa smashed the Wildcats 294-51 on the ground and won 40-10. Saturday, Northwestern outrushed Nebraska 156-82 in a 30-28 Wildcats’ win. Northwestern rushed for 1.5 yards a carry against Michigan, 2.0 versus Iowa and 5.6 at Nebraska. Michigan ran for 4.4 yards a carry, Iowa 5.8 and Nebraska 2.2. It was an impressive response on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“Losing to Iowa was a very tough loss for us,” Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry said. “But we responded well and I think guys can get through tough losses and set the tone with work ethic and attitude.”

In the last part of the last decade, Northwestern handed Iowa several soul-crushing losses. That included a 17-10 upset over the 9-0 Hawkeyes in 2009 and double-digit, second-half rallies for wins in 2005, 2008 and 2010.

But since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, Northwestern’s kicks to the gut bypassed the Hawkeyes and headed straight for Lincoln. The Wildcats beat the Cornhuskers for the second time at Memorial Stadium in their three trips as league competitors. The lone Nebraska home win was on a Hail Mary pass from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp on the game’s final play in 2013.

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“This is a huge, huge home-field advantage,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “To come in here really the last three times and be within a Westerkamp ridiculous catch, we are very fortunate. I’m just really proud of our guys. I thought they battled and fought. And with our staff, I thought they did a great job and put together a good plan,”

Northwestern now is bowl eligible for the first time since 2012, but the Wildcats are concerned with more than just a postseason trip.

“It’s really exciting to be bowl eligible,” said Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose, who returned an interception for a touchdown Saturday. “There are a lot of guys in the locker room, me and a couple seniors were talking, and we have never experienced going to a bowl game. So it is great to hit that mark. But six is not what we want, obviously we want more than that.”

OSU RB HITS STRIDE

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott earned his second straight season over 1,000 yards and extended his streak of 100-plus rushing games to 13 in the top-ranked Buckeyes’ 49-7 domination of Rutgers. The last Big Ten running back to rush for at least 100 yards in 13 consecutive games was Iowa’s Shonn Greene in 2008.

OSU started quarterback J.T. Barrett, which led to better offensive balance (297 rushing yards to 247 passing yards) for the Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0). Elliott ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries despite being Rutgers’ focal point.

“They were doing a good job,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said. “They were loading the box. You have to take shots down the field. I should rephrase that, we have to complete shots down the field. Now we’re completing them. There’s some conflict on the defense, you take away Zeke you are going to see some guys singled out.”

RANKING GAME

In the USA Today/Coaches poll, Ohio State stayed No. 1, Michigan State fell from fourth to fifth, Iowa rose to 11th from 13th and Michigan stayed at 17th. Wisconsin and Northwestern received votes. In the AP poll, Ohio State remained No. 1, Michigan State jumped to sixth from seventh, Iowa moved to No. 10 from 12 and Michigan stayed at No. 15. Wisconsin and Northwestern received votes.

THUMBS UPS

Penn State generated 11 tackles for loss against Maryland. ... Wisconsin converted 9 of 16 third-down chances. ... Ohio State has scored on 18 of 21 red-zone opportunities in Big Ten play with 15 touchdowns and 3 field goals. ... Northwestern overcame a 38:58-21:02 disadvantage in time of possession. ... Michigan State churned 540 yards on 96 plays.

THUMBS DOWNS

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Maryland threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. ... Illinois rushed for only 55 yards on 13 attempts. ... Rutgers generated just 203 yards before its final drive against OSU reserves. ... Nebraska ran for 82 yards on 38 carries. ... Indiana held the ball for only 21:01 and had 36 fewer offensive plays than Michigan State.

WEEKEND STARS

Michigan State QB Connor Cook passed for 398 yards and four TDs. ... Wisconsin wide receiver Alex Erickson ran four times for 81 yards and caught 10 passes for 96 yards and a TD. ... Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 142 yards and two TDs on 19 carries to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. ... Northwestern DE Dean Lowry had 10 tackles, including six for loss.

NOTEWORTHY

Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell had six tackles, including. 3.5 for loss, and a forced fumble. ... Maryland quarterback Perry Hills rushed for 124 yards and a TD, and passed for 225 yards and a score. ... Illinois WR Geronimo Allison caught eight passes for 99 yards. ... Rutgers LB Steve Longa had 19 tackles. ... Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp caught five passes for 92 yards. ... Indiana middle linebacker T.J. Simmons had 15 tackles, including four for loss (2.5 sacks).

POWER RANKINGS

1. Ohio State (1) 8-0 4-0

Showed what it’s capable of doing

2A. Iowa (2A) 7-0 3-0

If healed up, could run the table

2B. Michigan State (2B) 8-0 4-0

QB proved he’s a difference maker

4. Michigan (4) 5-2 2-1

Still not out of Big Ten title discussion

5. Wisconsin (5) 6-2 3-1

Penn State vs. Maryland

Could win rest of games with Clement’s arrival

6. Northwestern (7) 6-2 2-2

Nice response after blowout losses

7. Penn State (8) 6-2 3-1

Series with Maryland appears to have rivalry flavor

8. Illinois (6) 4-3 1-2

Still improved and has bowl potential

9. Nebraska (9) 3-5 1-3

Rutgers called and wants its uniforms back

10. Minnesota (10) 4-3 1-2

Survival the primary goal the next 3 weeks

11. Rutgers (11) 3-4 1-3

Overwhelmed but capable of knocking off someone

12. Indiana (12) 4-4 0-4

Tough loss to top-10 team was a footnote to “Hoosier Hysteria”

13. Maryland (14) 2-5 0-3

How will the Terps respond after tough “rivalry” loss?

14. Purdue (13) 1-6 0-3

Disappointed Nebraska’s loss cost it a fuller stadium

STANDINGS

WEST DIVISION

Iowa 7-0 3-0

Wisconsin 6-2 3-1

Northwestern 6-2 2-2

Illinois 4-3 1-2

Minnesota 4-3 1-2

Nebraska 3-5 1-3

Purdue 1-6 0-3

EAST DIVISION

Michigan State 8-0 4-0

Ohio State 8-0 4-0

Penn State 6-2 3-1

Michigan 5-2 2-1

Rutgers 3-4 1-3

Maryland 2-5 0-3

Indiana 4-4 0-4

SATURDAY’S RESULTS

Northwestern 30, Nebraska 28

Wisconsin 24, Illinois 13

Michigan State 52, Indiana 26

Penn State 31, Maryland 30

Ohio State 49, Rutgers 7

Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue idle

NEXT SATURDAY

Maryland at Iowa, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)

Rutgers at Wisconsin, 11 a.m. (BTN)

Illinois at Penn State, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)

Nebraska at Purdue, 11 a.m. (ESPNU)

Michigan at Minnesota, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

l Comments: (319) 339-3169; scott.dochterman@thegazette.com

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