EVANSTON, Ill. — There's a tunnel at the bottom of Ryan Field that leads from the visiting team's locker room to a door that opens to the parking lot holding the team buses.
Behind that door is a black curtain, allowing a certain level of privacy as players and coaches come and go.
When the door is closed, it's pretty dark. When its opened, even the light is obscured by that black curtain.
That's a long way to go for a metaphor, but the Nebraska defense, even when it sees some light, still has trouble moving that curtain out of the way.
The examples were all around on a crisp Saturday in the Chicago suburbs.
Leading 28-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, Nebraska's defense took the field and promptly gave up a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel. Up by 10 with less than six minutes to go, the Huskers allowed a 15-play, 62-yard drive that got Northwestern within seven.
And in the most ideal of situations, leading by seven, two minutes left, and Northwestern pushed up against its own goal line, the Blackshirts bent, then broke.
"It doesn’t get any better than that (for a defense)," sophomore defensive lineman Ben Stille said of Northwestern needing to go 99 yards just to tie the game. "It was a long drive, obviously, but it’s kind of a bend, don’t break mentality. Any play you could end the drive. It only takes one, and that’s got to be your mentality out there."
Whether it was mentality, whether it was mistakes, whether it was some other supernatural force that lords over this football team like a spiritual wet blanket, Nebraska's defense came up short, again, no matter how much progress was made.
And there did appear, at times, to be progress. Antonio Reed made a nice break on a deep throw early in the third quarter for his second career interception. With the Huskers holding a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Tre Neal came up with a pick of his own on a tipped pass that eventually led to a field goal and a 10-point lead.
"I feel like we took a step together. This was the first game I feel like we actually played together and played our assignments. Everybody did their own jobs, and when you do that the defense works perfectly," Reed said. "But if somebody goes out of their way to try and do somebody else’s job, that’s when we have problems. And we didn’t have that today."
What Nebraska did have was trouble getting one last stop, even when it was crystal clear what was coming.
Every single one of Northwestern's final 37 plays in regulation was a pass play, including every play of the fourth quarter. Nebraska came up with one sack and one interception in that span.
"We knew coming in they weren't a big run team. We were planning to keep it that way and get after them," Stille said. "I think we're good enough to win. We have the talent. We've got to find a way to put it together and figure out a way to get it done."