EVANSTON, Ill. — Clean up in aisle. …
That's the thing. The difficulty for the Huskers comes in knowing in exactly which aisle to put the mop down.
After pulling out a dramatic 29-28 comeback win over Northwestern on Saturday that brought a blend of jubilance and relief, Nebraska players and coaches were open about the fact that there's been a pattern of sloppiness — whether it's penalties, turnovers or mental gaffes — that has kept them from being the team they wish to be.
The difficulty, defensive coordinator John Papuchis pointed out, is that it's sometimes hard to put a finger on any one issue or player in particular. Because right when one leak appears to get covered up — the defense finding its groove this weekend, for example — another one appears somewhere else.
"It's like it's different every week," Papuchis said after the win. "Today we fumble two punts. And other weeks we give up big plays defensively. Other times it's turnovers on the offensive side. It's not always the same thing and the same people doing it."
While Husker coach Bo Pelini was not about to apologize for a road win that keeps Nebraska in the thick of the Big Ten race, he knew the Huskers put themselves in a tight game situation they didn't need to be in against a team they outgained 543 yards to 301.
But three turnovers, eight penalties for 62 yards (several coming at crucial times), and a failing to execute offensively on third down (3-of-14) had Nebraska in danger of a loss that would have dropped its record to 4-3.
"A lot of the issues we had were self-induced," Pelini said. "I know you guys have heard it before. We have to play cleaner football. We're not always going to be able to … make that kind of comeback."
Sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah, who had 101 yards rushing but also fumbled a punt return at Nebraska's 14, said it was "very frustrating" game until Nebraska's final push.
"Because I felt like we knew what to do but we just weren't doing it," Abdullah said. "We weren't practicing what we were preaching. We knew exactly where to hit them, exactly what was going to work. But we get out there, and we just weren't executing. The lack of execution, we've got to pick that up. We really just got to knuckle down and focus on what the essentials are of executing plays."
Nebraska probably can't survive such miscues Saturday night when Michigan comes to town. A win and the Huskers would be considered the frontrunner in the Legends Division heading into November. A loss and the goal of winning the conference would all but be squashed, with the Wolverines owning a two-game edge and the tiebreaker.
Of course, it's a lot easier for Nebraska to get ready for that game coming off a win.
For all the missteps, Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck was proud of the resiliency shown by the team despite being down 12 with just eight minutes to go.
"I think it's something you can ride momentum from," Beck said. "I really do."
When the Huskers got out of their own way on offense on those final two crucial drives, they showed the possibilities, driving 80 yards and then 76 yards for touchdowns.
"They got really focused really well when they needed to be," Beck said. "We had no penalties, no drops, no missed routes, we didn't have anything in those last couple of drives. The question is, 'Why doesn't it happen earlier? Why can't we play like that right out of the gate?' That's what I got to figure out: What's going on and why's that not happening?"