The first play of Northwestern’s game-tying drive a year ago against Nebraska, the drive that covered 99 yards in just 1 minute, 53 seconds to eventually set the Huskers up for their school-record sixth straight loss to begin a season, was an incomplete pass.
Except Nebraska defensive end Carlos Davis was flagged for roughing the passer in the end zone, giving the Wildcats a 15-yard jump-start that preceded modest completions of 5, 11 and 5 yards before Clayton Thorson hit Flynn Nagel for 32 and 27 yards on back-to-back snaps, and then JJ Jefferson for perhaps the most unlikely touchdown against the Huskers all year.
Head coach Scott Frost said after the game he was "running out of words" to describe what was happening to his team, which gave up 13 points in the final 2:27 of regulation and overtime to lose a game it had mostly dominated.
The way Nagel ripped Nebraska up on that drive and in that game — he finished with 12 catches for 220 yards and a pair of scores — stuck in the craw even after Frost's team turned the tide the following week and finished 4-2 down the stretch.
Asked this spring what he was thinking over the course of that drive, secondary coach Travis Fisher didn’t mince words.
Steve Sipple and Parker Gabriel share insights on Northwestern's offense from Husker defensive coaches on Oct. 1, 2019.
“I wanted to ask Frost could I put some (expletive) pads on and go out and do it, man. Golly, man,” Fisher said. “That game, if there’s one game that bothers me the most, it’s that game. Because that game was right down my alley. I had to apologize to (defensive coordinator) Coach (Erik) Chinander after that game because that game was right down my alley. That game was one of those games where, what you’re asking me to do and what I have my guys doing in the (defensive backs) room, I’m good at it. And you just wish you had the guys to make the plays when they came to them because the plays came to them but they didn’t make them that game.
“It’s one of those games where, damn, man, I wish I could have that one back.”
Junior inside linebacker Will Honas was not on the trip, instead watching the game from Lincoln during the early stages of his rehabilitation from season-ending knee surgery.
“That last drive was just heartbreaking,” Honas said. “We’ve had some tough losses, but I would say that one was probably the toughest one I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Nebraska doesn’t get the chance back, of course, but it does get another shot at Northwestern this weekend.
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“A lot have happened since the last time we played this team and in a lot of ways we’ve got so much better since the last time we played this team,” Fisher said.
The Wildcats, of course, went 8-1 in Big Ten play in 2018 and won the West by three games despite finishing No. 100 nationally in scoring offense (24.2) and No. 124 in yards per play (4.74). They did it by being among the least penalized teams in the country (25.9 yards per game), being good in the turnover department (plus-7) and generally playing well in tight games.
Against Nebraska, the Wildcats were plus-1 in the turnover department and had one penalty for 5 yards compared with nine for 89 for the Huskers.
“They seem to be a very similar team to the one I was at last year,” said Husker defensive line coach Tony Tuioti, who spent the past two seasons at California. “Try to take care of the football, move the ball, try to win the field position and make the other team make mistakes. Try to keep it a close game and win it that way.”
This year, though, those categories have not been as kind to the Wildcats. Their offensive numbers through four games are even worse (No. 128 in scoring at 15.5 points per game and tied for last nationally in yards per play at 3.93), their penalty yardage has jumped to 48.3 per game and they are minus-3 in the turnover department.
It’s no surprise, then, that despite another stingy defensive unit put together by Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankowitz, Northwestern is off to a 1-3 start.
Players and coaches this week have talked about the critical nature of discipline and not causing self-inflicted harm against a team that’s typically good in both areas. It’s of particular note this week, considering Nebraska has turned the ball over seven times in the past two weeks and has had 57 or more penalty yards in four of five games this fall.
“They’ve been a well-coached team ever since coach (Pat) Fitzgerald’s been there. Most offenses aren’t patient enough to go the length of the field, but they are one,” Nebraska inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “I think a lot of times the most disciplined team on the field is going to be the most successful one.”