CHICAGO — You get to thinking when it's midnight in a dimly lit train station, and some panhandler's playing Alicia Keys' “Fallin” on a green electric guitar while he drinks beer through the red straw of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup.
Mostly, you think: Some Nebraska fans, like you, spent roughly three hours Saturday in lurching train cars on the Red and Purple Lines. Staring hopefully, like you, at the stops on colorful maps or at train doors that wouldn't close, listening to girls in skintight jeans bust out pop songs in front of homeless men who stuffed everything they own into cloth Aldi bags.
You realize it's a good thing that in between the train crawls, the Huskers managed to steal a win from under Northwestern's pillow. For if 20,000-plus Nebraska fans had to inch back downtown with a clown show rattling around in their heads, the Purple Line might have turned white hot. Collectively, it would have been a $150,000 investment in tickets down the drain.
Understand: You had to be there. Sometimes, it's better on TV. Not Saturday. You felt momentum twist and sway six different times. You felt Nebraska's collective energy, worried but hopeful. In a little more than 160 plays, the Huskers probably beat the Wildcats on 120 of them.
If this is basketball, Nebraska wins going away. But it's not. The Huskers needed help. And locked in a small window of plays in the third quarter, Northwestern gave it to them.
From the 8:47 mark to the end of the quarter, the Wildcats threw seven passes and didn't complete one. Northwestern drew a pass-interference penalty, but that was it. The Wildcats had possessions of 2:16, 46 seconds and one minute even. You want to know why eight minutes still remained for the Huskers' dramatic comeback in the fourth quarter, and why Nebraska's depleted defense still had some juice in it? That's why.
By calling fruitless, low-percentage go-routes up the field, Northwestern's coaches fell into the same go-stop-go-stop tendencies as those trains. They gassed their own defense. They created little offensive momentum. Even the Wildcats' final touchdown felt more like a frantic accident than a plan.
And Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck was ready to attack weaknesses he'd spent all game exposing. On Twitter during the game, I called Beck's early play-calling curious. That's secret smarmspeak for “bad.” But Beck's plan turned out to be clever.
He said Northwestern's corners liked to play tight against receivers for better run support. So he called a glut of passes — mostly play action — to push them back.
“We tried to get them off us early by throwing some deep balls,” Beck said. “Because they're well-coached — they play very hard — and they chase the football and support the run really well ... we tried to get those guys to loosen up on us. Create some run game.”
Beck hit the perimeter run game hard from the second quarter forward, especially with quarterback Taylor Martinez on the short-side counter play. Because Northwestern's safeties played deep — to accommodate the corners' tight play — Beck called for the deep post twice on the final two drives. Martinez checked into another when he saw a safety cheat toward the sideline. Throw it on a line, Beck told Martinez. Not too high. Martinez did just that, and threw a proper end zone corner route to boot.
It looked, well, sublime. The way it should look. The coordinator, quarterback and receivers in sync. And those fans in red got their money's worth. Maybe they even tipped the various station performers all over the city. Nebraska wins. Big Gulp guy wins, too.
Here comes Michigan with a better quarterback, better coaches, better athletes. Michigan. Michigan. Michigan. Get ready to hear that word 12,873 times this week. The Big Ten's blue blood has 900 wins in its loot bag. Nebraska fans may think Iowa and Wisconsin are rivals. But I suspect they're about the meet the object of their disaffection.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
>> Ameer Abdullah: At running back, he's starting to feel the holes and the pursuit angles defenders like to take at him. When a kid shows second-level instincts like that, it's time to sit senior Rex Burkhead until he's completely healthy. If that's Iowa, so be it. If it's the bowl game, so be it. Let Burkhead heal entirely.
>> Tight end Ben Cotton: Doesn't drop the ball. That's why Martinez finds him once per game. That's why Cotton will find an NFL job.
>> Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa: A terrific physical performance from the junior, who made two long fourth-quarter catches to set up touchdowns.
>> Nickel back Ciante Evans: He arguably played his best game of the year, often shadowing Kain Colter when the Northwestern athlete lined up at wide receiver. If Bo Pelini picks you out as “phenomenal” in his defense, take it to the bank.
>> Center Justin Jackson: Had to pull a lot on those outside runs, and he handled it well without compromising the snap to Martinez.
>> Corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste: The Wildcats repeatedly tested the lanky junior on deep passes and beat him only once.
>> Martinez: Considering the stakes and the sheer number of plays Nebraska asked the quarterback to make, it was his best game.
>> Defensive end Cameron Meredith: Pulled double duty at end and at defensive tackle because of the Huskers' injuries at both spots. He and end Jason Ankrah consistently attacked the dive play on the zone read.
>> Gut-punch penalties: Lining up too far in the backfield — especially after you're warned not to do it — is the cover photo of Nebraska's album of inconsistency. If the offensive line felt more confident about its pass blocking, maybe it would line up a little better.
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>> Defensive depth: Kudos to Meredith for banging around in the trenches, but the Huskers need Chase Rome (concussion) and Kevin Williams back for next week. Thad Randle's knees would appreciate it. Where are Aaron Curry, Jay Guy and Todd Peat? Are they not ready for a handful of snaps? Was the defensive tackle's assignment Saturday so particular or precise that none of them could pitch in?
Nebraska's defensive line played well enough, clearly. But three physical teams — Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — await. How does Nebraska hang in?
>> Short-yardage play calling and execution woes: If you wondered why Beck called a couple of play-action passes on third-and-short — plus a long-developing quarterback counter on fourth-and-short — take note that Nebraska ran power on three third-and-short plays and converted one of them. If you can't trust your line and fullback to make the hole for the running back, you have to call fancier stuff. Like a double option on a two-point conversion.
Maybe Beck could work into his menu a jet sweep to Jamal Turner, who runs well laterally.
>> Did kick and punt return units catch the mistake bug from the kick and punt coverage units? Opponents seem to have figured out how to snuff Nebraska's kickoff return. And two lost fumbles on punt returns? Ross Els has to spruce up these units quickly. As in Monday.
>> Is it time for Blackshirts? Of course. I would have passed them out after the Ohio State game. Now — how many? I vote for 13. Eleven starters and two situational subs.
>> Is the Big 12 really that much better than the Big Ten? The polls tell you it is. Does the eye test? Every pundit has a different eye for a different thing. I prefer more defense than most Big 12 teams like to play.
But if you're looking for some signature win that screams how good the Big 12 is, here are the nonconference opponents of Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia through Oct. 20: Arizona, Florida A&M, Grambling, James Madison, Louisiana-Lafayette, Marshall, Maryland, Miami (Fla.), Missouri State, New Mexico, North Texas, Northwestern State, Savannah State, SMU, Texas State, UTEP and Virginia.
Here are the nonconference opponents of Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa: Air Force, Alabama, Arkansas State, California, Central Florida, Central Michigan, Idaho State, Iowa State, Massachusetts, Miami (Ohio), Navy, Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa (twice), Notre Dame, Ohio, Oregon State, Southern Mississippi, Temple, UAB, UCLA, Utah State, UTEP and Virginia.
One of those lists has four undefeated, Top 25 teams in it. One doesn't — until Saturday, when Oklahoma plays the Fighting Irish.
You'd hope the playoff selection committee solves some of this. But here's a little mini-playoff between the leagues to consider: Ohio State vs. Kansas State; Oklahoma vs. Michigan; Texas Tech vs. Penn State; Oklahoma State vs. Wisconsin; TCU vs. Nebraska; West Virginia vs. Iowa; Texas vs. Northwestern; Iowa State vs. Michigan State.
Who wins? I'll take Kansas State, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas for the Big 12, and Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska for the Big Ten. The toss-up is Michigan State vs. Iowa State.
>> 13: Lost fumbles — dead last in the country. The Huskers have 20 fumbles overall, so their lost fumble rate is 65 percent. That's 95th in the country. In 2011, Nebraska ranked 11th in lost fumble rate at 34.38 percent. Translation: The Huskers were lucky last year to recover 21 of 32 fumbles. This year, they're getting the bad luck they probably deserve for fumbling so much.
>> 67.03 percent: Martinez's completion rate through seven games. His quarterback rating (162.79) leads the Big Ten, and is ahead of two guys he trained with this summer, Nevada's Cody Fajardo (151.66) and Washington's Keith Price (111.61).
How much difference does Martinez's improved passing motion make? Some, but his understanding of Beck's offense — plus consistent wide receivers — is more crucial. Kansas State's Collin Klein has as ugly of a passing motion as you'll ever see, but he's a perfect fit for Bill Snyder's offense. And he can run.
>> 49.47 percent: Michigan's third-down conversion rate, tops in the Big Ten and 18th in the country. Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson has run 20 times on third down, and picked up 13 first downs. Last year, Michigan converted eight of 18 third downs on Nebraska. It's the down to watch Saturday.
Iowa cut the cord on its own Big Ten title hopes with a 38-14 loss to Penn State. At home. At night. During the Hawkeyes' biggest recruiting weekend of the year. PSU outgained Iowa 504-209, in part because running back Mark Weisman wasn't healthy enough to tote the ball more than a few times. A walk-on who played previously at Air Force is now the linchpin to the Hawkeyes' attack.
Quarterback James Vandenberg, who Nebraska and Shawn Watson once offered, just never got better in his career. He's completing 55.8 percent of his passes this year, down from 58.7 percent last year, and he too often throws too high and wide of his targets. And because Kirk Ferentz apparently refuses to embrace a quarterback run game — it's failing miserably at Florida, Oregon, Kansas State, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, right? — there is no Plan B offense. No switch-up attack.
What's the word for it? Negligence. Unless you have Alabama's line or USC's wide receivers or you're Penn State's Bill O'Brien, who's trying to duplicate the New England Patriots' offense because it's one thing he can sell to recruits in the next four years, it's negligent not to have at least a Wildcat quarterback on the roster. You have 85 scholarships. Spend one. Spend two. It's not the NFL.
Variable temperatures. Partly sunny. Perhaps clouds for the weekend. Or maybe it clears up.
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