Missed opportunities doom NU defense late

Missed opportunities doom NU defense late
October 21, 2012, 7:22 pm
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The Northwestern defense did just about everything right Saturday afternoon against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were held to their lowest point-total of the season (29), averaged only4.6 yards per rush and totaled 201 rushing yards, 78 below their season average. The Northwestern defense and special teams even forced three turnovers, including one inside the Wildcat 25-yard-line.
But for as good as the Wildcats defense was for 51 minutes, the last nine minutes were all too familiar for a defense that has struggled to play 60 minutes on multiple occasions this year.
After running back Mike Trumpy, filling in for the injured Venric Mark, rumbled in from 3 yards out to extend Northwestern's lead to 28-16, Taylor Martinez and Nebraska sliced through the Wildcats defense with ease on two straight possessions, scoring touchdowns on both, to take a 29-28 lead they never gave up.
In those two possessions, Martinez, the Big Ten's efficiency leader, was 10-of-13 with 143 yards and two touchdowns to Taariq Allen and Ben Cotton.
"The last two drives, they just made plays and we didnt," linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team with 12 tackles, said. "There is nothing more to be said. We were on top of every route, they just made plays and we didn't. We have to capitalize on that. We need to improve on that area of our defense."
That familiar feeling stemmed from two weeks ago, when the Wildcats allowed 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against Penn State. The week before that, Indiana scored 29 points in the second half to almost upset Northwestern before Kain Colter's heroics saved the Wildcats late.
In eight games, the Northwestern defense has allowed 63 points in the first half, but 121 after halftime.
Perhaps that's the reason that when the Nebraska offense took over, down 28-23, with 4:10 to play, Martinez was so confident in what would be the eventual outcome.
"Everyone knew we were going to score a touchdown," Martinez said. "We could feel it in our guts and throughout the offense. We knew once we have the chance, we were going to score again."
That's exactly what happened. Martinez was 5-for-5 for 74 yards (and ran once for 2 yards), including the game-winning touchdown pass to Cotton on the drive.
"I thought we battled and gave ourselves a chance to win," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "and down the stretch, just didn't make one more play that we needed to make."
The defense had a chance to make that one play. Twice, actually.
On Nebraska's first scoring drive in the fourth quarter, down 28-16, a Martinez pass was tipped by linebacker David Nwabuisi. As he went to grab it, Proby ran into him while also trying to make the catch. That sent the ball back into the air, but defensive lineman Sean McEvily couldn't pull it in.
Proby said the collision was "just one of those freak things," but he wasn't making excuses for the defense's late collapse.
"You can't leave anything in this game up to chance," he said. "We all have to fly to the ball, it's just something that happened on one play."
But the near-misses weren't over.
The very next play, safety Ibraheim Campbell undercut a route in the flat but couldn't come up with the Martinez pass. After those incompletions, Martinez would miss on only one pass the rest of the afternoon.
The Northwestern defense stopped Martinez and the Cornhusker offense most of the afternoon, relative to the firepower of Bo Pelini's group. But in the end, the cliche of having to play for 60 minutes will ring true for the Wildcats as long they fail to do so.
"I thought we were watching the Cats play volleyball, passing it back and forth," Fitzgerald said. "When you have a chance for a turnover and then you miss it, the football gods usually strike you with some lightning.
"We've got to make those plays to win."