In the end, it was quiet as Communion, quiet enough that you could overhear a conversation from the 10th row of North Stadium of a man telling his friend that "you gotta win six to make a bowl," and then the friend responding, "Uh-oh."

You said it, good-natured friend. Uh-oh.

The danger here is in how normal it all feels now, as Nebraska lost 30-28 to Northwestern despite owning the ball for 86 plays and almost 39 minutes.

"That's a really disappointing game for us," said Husker head coach Mike Riley. "All those things that we talked about that we thought we were making some strides in some ways, like balance, run-pass ratio, some of that stuff, didn't look too good today."

Nebraska threw the ball 48 times, in part because it simply couldn't run it. The Huskers attempted 38 rushes, but got all of 82 yards out of it.

Northwestern's defensive line, led by big No. 94, Dean Lowry, took the lunch and dinner of Nebraska's front for much of the day. The left end had 10 tackles, two sacks and an eye-popping six tackles for loss.

"One of the biggest problems we had today was having a hard time blocking their front to run the football," Riley said. "That part of it was tough sledding."

Consider that, then add to it that Tommy Armstrong threw a pick six that was returned 72 yards, and that NU's wide receivers dropped somewhere close to 10 passes, and you see how a team loses a game despite the opponent having just 31 offensive snaps going into the fourth quarter.

"I just can't have that happen," Armstrong said of the pick, which propelled the Wildcats to a 14-5 lead. "If that wouldn't have happened, we would have three points and they wouldn't have had seven, so we would have been in a great position to win that ballgame."

Instead, Northwestern accomplished the near-impossible feat of scoring 14 points while picking up just one first down 1½ quarters into the game.

The Blackshirts, coming into the game ranked last nationally in pass defense, had given up just 16 yards in the air in the first half, yet Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was able to chew up 106 of the Wildcats' 128 yards in that half on two scramble plays, helping his team to a 17-12 halftime lead.

"Man, we played a ton of good defense," Riley said. "Lots of good plays. Gave up probably three or four big plays. That was probably the name of the game in that regard, right?"

The loss dropped the Huskers to 3-5 on the season, with those five losses coming by a combined 13 points. But coming close won't warm any hearts of a fan base that will now go more than a year without seeing Nebraska win back-to-back games.

The last time Nebraska accomplished that feat was Nov. 1 last year. Now the Huskers will have to win three of their final four, with two games against undefeated Michigan State and Iowa, just to qualify for a bowl game.

"We all have the same expectations, to win every game. That's our deal," said defensive coordinator Mark Banker. "Evaluate yourself, how you did, what you need to fix, and then get back to work. Good-character players, great competitors will do just that. That's what these young men have done week in, week out. It's tough on them, there's absolutely no doubt. It's tough for us.

"But either you're going to continue to compete or lay down and die, one or the other, and none of us are ready to lay down and die. We have the rest of our lives to lay down, you know."

But the Huskers still haven't figured out how to close the deal in games.

Despite the pick six by Armstrong, Nebraska came back on its next two possessions to drive 75 yards for touchdowns. And when Drew Brown made a 48-yard field on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Huskers had a 22-20 lead and a defense that had been on the field not even 12 minutes.

But the Husker defense, having only given up 189 yards in three quarters, allowed 144 in the fourth. Northwestern converted a third-and-10, then a third-and-5, then Thorson hit Dan Vitale for a 37-yard touchdown. The Wildcats added a field goal on their next possession and it was 30-22 with 7:27 left.

The Huskers came back, and facing fourth-and-6 from the Wildcat 40-yard line, got a leaping catch from Brandon Reilly at the 3. Armstrong ran it in two plays later. Nebraska was a two-point conversion from tying it.

Northwestern defended it well. Armstrong looked for his third option, Stanley Morgan, but a Wildcat knocked the ball away.

"It was just one of those plays where if you play the right defense, it's kind of hard to convert on it," said wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp. "It was the same play we ran against Miami."

Even with the failed attempt, the game was still out there to be grabbed. There was 4:18 left and Nebraska had all three timeouts. But the Wildcats made it look easy on the final drive, ending it in the victory formation.

On the day the 1995 national championship team was honored, the Huskers lost a game that assured they'll take a losing record into November, and will have a season with at least five losses for the first time since 2007.

Memorial Stadium was so quiet. What could anyone say?

"Well, I told (the team) we're going to coach football on Monday, and practice football on Monday, and we're going to continue to work to get better," Riley said. "Everybody that wants to do that will be there. I think that this group will be."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.