Grading the Wildcats

Northwestern let a late lead slip away to Nebraska and fell by a score of 29-28 at Ryan Field. PurpleWildcats hands out the postgame grades following another heartbreaking loss.

Quarterbacks

Trevor Siemian continues to play quarterback for Northwestern. At some point along the way, Pat Fitzgerald decided Siemian would take the majority of snaps under center.

There must be a reason for this, but it still seems as though the coaching staff is willing to squander the potential of Kain Colter.

Siemian had a poor start to the game, missing several open receivers – often on deep routes. His first 11 attempts went for only 20 yards, and as the NU offense sputtered in the early going, Siemian was among the primary culprits.

Siemian does not throw with enough accuracy to challenge solid corners. Nebraska entered the game ranked third in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed. That unit one-upped itself today, holding Siemian to 116 yards passing. In addition, the sophomore completed just 15 of 35 attempts. That is simply not conducive to winning football games.

There were admittedly some bright spots. His 26-yard touchdown bomb to Tony Jones showcased his potential. Unlike his performance against Penn State, Siemian avoided throwing the ball directly at defenders.

Despite the struggles, he managed to lead a solid drive that gave Jeff Budzien a chance for the win. While the overall effort was less than impressive, Siemian showed flashes. This is not to blast his performance. Siemian will one day succeed as quarterback for NU. Tonight was not his finest effort.

Colter threw twice. Right now, he functions as a wide receiver and running option. It would be inaccurate to categorize him as a quarterback at this stage of the season.

Tough stat: in the past three weeks, NU has averaged 107.7 yards passing per game. Ouch.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With Kain Colter at quarterback, Venric Mark is a different player. With two running threats, the zone read works like magic. This was the case early in the second half, when Colter handed the ball off to Mark, who promptly dashed 80 yards untouched for a score.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, that one play accounted for nearly 68 percent of his production out of the backfield – not to mention about 27 percent of the total offense.

That zone read was successful, but did not become the focal point. The offense once again opted to attempt to sling the ball downfield, with 37 total pass attempts.

Colter failed to break free, though he tried several times early on. He gained 43 yards on 14 tough carries, including a clutch fourth-and-one conversion that led to a crucial score by Mike Trumpy. His long: nine yards. Still, his presence in the backfield keeps linebackers on their toes. It would be a tough claim to say that Mark has his touchdown run with Siemian in the backfield. That two-pronged attack works wonders.

It should be noted that Mark left the game with an undisclosed injury. His absence would devastate a banged-up NU squad.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers

For perhaps the seventh straight week: some good, some bad.

Rashad Lawrence once again led the team with four grabs. After a series of weak performances last month, Lawrence has emerged as one of the team's best weapons in the passing game. The junior secured an important 24-yard catch as the Cats tried to rally late.

The team tried to integrate Christian Jones into the passing game, with poor results. Jones only had two catches for five yards, but expect him to be featured next week against Iowa.

Tony Jones broke free from the Nebraska secondary for the 26-yard strike from Siemian. He has been perhaps the most consistent target this season.

The Colter to wideout experiment? Futile. Colter hauled in three passes for 17 yards, an insubstantial effort.

Siemian missed some throws, but seven games in, we're still waiting for this unit to come along and show its depth and potential.

There were no terrible drops. The receivers just haven't been getting the chances, which is a shame.

And Demetrius Fields did not record a catch.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

You can't pin this loss on the offensive line. Siemian occasionally needed to scramble in the face of pressure. And granted, the Nebraska defensive line appeared to be less than stellar.

Still, Brandon Vitabile continues to excel at center. When's the last time you saw Northwestern botch a snap? I recall one bad exchange this season. Otherwise, the guy has been sensational alongside inexperienced youngsters.

Sophomore Jack Konopka continues his development. Seniors Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward are solid. It was not this unit's best outing, but hard to blame them in most instances. The linemen allowed a single sack, and even that one fell on Colter.

Running backs have found space throughout the season. Pass protection was sound. The O-line, considered a question mark heading into the season, has impressed even in the two losses.

Grade: B

Secondary

This might stoke some divisive responses. I don't think it's fair to write scathing remarks about the secondary this week for a number of reasons.

First, and most importantly, Taylor Martinez was outstanding for the Cornhuskers. He gunned the ball to receivers in the open field, made correct reads and owned the role of a pass-first quarterback capable of making plays with his feet.

Second, this unit has practically no depth. The loss of Nick VanHoose – who wore a sling on the sidelines – will deal a major blow to this unit. Late in the game, with VanHoose out, Martinez tossed the ball around at will. Not only that, Quinn Evans was hobbled near the end of the game and sat out the final two touchdown drives.

Daniel Jones struggled in the fourth quarter, but tackled well and covered receivers with poise for the majority of the game. C.J. Bryant has seen very little action at cornerback this season. Thrust into the game during a crucial stretch, he faced a quarterback on a tear. It's hard to blame the young guys here.

So the performance was not good. But Martinez hit his ceiling, and any injury to this unit is especially costly.

Also: moving forward, it will be very difficult for NU to win games without VanHoose and Evans. Hopefully for Fitzgerald and the team, their injuries will prove to be minor.

Hard to give them a respectable grade, but as is appropriate, give credit to Martinez for a fine game.

Grade: C

Linebackers I thought for the first time this season there was a sharp divide between the play of individual linebackers.

From my vantage point, David Nwabuisi had one of the best games of his career. He helped to bottle up the running game and showcased exceptional tackling ability. There were three or four plays where Nwabuisi made tackles that average Big Ten linebackers would have missed. Add to his line a pair of pass breakups, though one should have been an interception.

Chi Chi Ariguzo has struggled to replicate his early-season performances, in which he consistently forced turnovers and altered games. He was solid but unspectacular.

Damien Proby – who I would argue is the slowest of the starters – had his weakest outing of the season. On several occasions, he narrowly missed Martinez or Ameer Abdullah in the open field. Although he led the team in tackles and made a pair of stops in the backfield, Proby was the least consistent. Stats, as usual, fail to tell the whole story.

Much of the struggles to slow the run can be attributed to the linebackers. While they made solid plays, Abdullah went for more than 100 yards and Martinez broke free multiple times. This unit can certainly do better, but it was hardly a nightmare. As Fitzgerald pointed out in his postgame press conference, Nebraska's 29 points marked its lowest scoring output this season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The regression continues. We might be talking about a different outcome if the front four wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. The talented unit dictated terms in early-season wins – namely the Vanderbilt game – but cooled off this afternoon.

Where was Deonte Gibson? The talented redshirt freshman seemed absent throughout much of the game. Brian Arnfelt had one sack, but was otherwise absent. Quentin Williams made some plays at the line of scrimmage.

But it's fair to expect more from this unit, so I'll out them in particular. Martinez sat comfortably in the pocket for most of the afternoon in a brilliant outing. Abdullah danced through holes at the line.

NU, as a whole, prides itself on physicality. Time for this unit to return to its early-season success, beginning against Iowa.

Grade: C

Special Teams

Remember when media members scoffed every time Budzien lined up for a difficult kick? Not anymore. Budzien missed a potential game-winner from 53 out by about a foot. The stadium erupted in applause before realizing the kick had just missed.

Brandon Williams punted 12 times, one short of the team record set by J.J. Standring in 1998. He was excellent throughout, landing four inside the 20. Also, Nebraska lost fumbles on two punts. Whatever Williams did was working on Saturday.

Mark almost made a costly gaffe, muffing a punt early in the game. Mercifully for him, it was negated by a Nebraska penalty.

Grade: B

Coaches

Three things:

One: the team came ready to play. NU played sound, fundamental football. The Cats did not turn the ball over, tackled well for the most part and challenged Nebraska to a thriller. The coaching staff deserves credit for the team's ability to hang tight in games and remain in striking distance regardless against tough opponents.

Two: Kain Colter needs the ball. He is an incredible athlete relegated to backup status. He has proven capable of making throws. As Siemian continues to struggle, it's hard to say Colter deserves to pine away at wideout.

Three: for about 50 minutes, it seemed as though Fitzgerald outcoached Bo Pelini. NU looked as though it was "coached up" and held strong against a talented Nebraska outfit. You can beat up on the offensive game plan any week, but other than that, it's hard to complain about the coaching staff. Expect a focused team heading to Iowa.

Grade: B+


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