NU's Siemian struggles through the air continue

NU's Siemian struggles through the air continue
October 22, 2012, 12:03 am
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Both Northwestern's and Nebraska's offense expected to see stout run defense against their highly-successful ground games. Bo Pelini's group entered Saturday's affair as the top rushing team in the Big Ten, running for 292.0 yards per game. The Wildcats also had attacked via the ground game through seven weeks, rushing for 229.9 yards per game, fourth best in the Big Ten.
And, for the most part, both offenses were limited on the ground.
Led by Damien Proby's 12 tackles, Northwestern held Nebraska to 44 rushes for 201 yards, its lowest rushing total this season. The Wildcats rushed 38 times for 180 yards, their third lowest total of the year and second lowest total in Big Ten play.
But the difference Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field was that one team, Northwestern, couldn't make up for the low run totals through the air in the Cornhuskers' 29-28 win at Ryan Field.
Nebraska was the 15th best pass defense in the country when they entered Evanston on Saturday, and ranked behind only Michigan and Minnesota in the Big Ten. Pelini's group used that to their advantage, constantly stacking the box against Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter.
The response was simple: attack the box against eight- or nine-man fronts, or try and attack the Nebraska cornerbacks one-on-one with little safety help over the top.
"Schematically you knew they were really going to load the box and we were going to have to take some shots down the field," Fitzgerald said.
The Widcats did a little bit of both, but couldn't rely on the latter to balance out the attack.
Northwestern's Trevor Siemian finished 15-of-35 for 116 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Toby Jones, who beat single coverage down the right sideline to give the Wildcats a late second quarter lead.
Siemian's other touchdown pass, a 10-yard strike to Dan Vitale, came on the heels of a muffed punt return by Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. The Wildcats recovered on the Huskers' 14, giving Siemian a short field to work with.
But the second half was a nightmare for Siemian. Though he was never sacked and had relatively good protection, the junior signal caller finished was 6-of-18 for 57 yards after halftime. At one point he threw incomplete on six straight passes in the third quarter.
The plan, coach Pat Fitzgerald said, was to take chances on the outside and see if the Wildcat wide receivers could win those one-on-one battles. It happened once with Jones, but they needed one more play from the skill players they never received.
"If we make one of those catches and throws it's a different game. We ended up making one for the touchdown pass, but there were about four or five other ones that, if they're gonna go out and play one-on-one, we've got to take advantage of it," Fitzgerald said, "and we just couldn't make those plays."
Credit must be given to the Cornhuskers' secondary, which played aggressive and confident throughout the game. On his own, cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste broke up five passes, more than half of the nine Nebraska compiled as a team.
The heavy run support was also meant to shut down Kain Colter, who finished with just 57 all-purpose yards, easily his lowest output of the season. He was a non-factor much of the afternoon, especially compared to his performance last season against the Cornhuskers, when he had 229 all-purpose yards in the Wildcats' 28-25 win.
But even without the luxury of Colter and Venric Mark, who left with an undisclosed injury in the fourth quarter, Siemian almost made up for his sluggish second half. On Northwestern's final drive, completing three straight passes for 32 yards to get inside the Nebraska 40 yard-line trailing by one.
That range was close enough for kicker Jeff Budzien, but Siemian threw an incomplete pass, tucked and ran for three yards on second down, and threw incomplete again on 3rd and 7 in an attempt to get closer. Budzein missed the 53-yard attempt wide right.
"We were in position to make a few plays there down the stretch and we didn't make them," Fitzgerald said.
On the other end, Taylor Martinez made up Northwestern's tough run defense with his arm, throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns. The Big Ten's most efficient passer got better as the afternoon went on, scoring three second half touchdowns, including two passes in the final seven minutes.
In the end there was more than one reason Northwestern failed to take down the Huskers in a crucial Legends Divison game. But if teams continue to key in on the run, knowing Siemian will struggle throwing the ball, Saturday afternoon could be a trend for the Wildcats.
"We gave ourselves every opportunity to do it, but we didn't make plays down the stretch," Fitzgerald said, "and we give credit to Nebraska for doing that. We ended up on the short end."