Nebraska’s 3-4 record might not be entirely indicative of the season it’s played, what with all four losses coming in the final moments of those games.
But it’s not like the Huskers are playing elite football and just getting incredibly unlucky.
Nebraska ranks 12th in the Big Ten in total defense, a total that’s being almost entirely dragged down by its miserable pass defense, worst in the conference, allowing 341.7 yards through the air a game.
It would seem like something opposing quarterbacks would be able to easily exploit: Nebraska has allowed more than 300 passing yards to all but one of the teams it’s faced.
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But can Northwestern take equal advantage this weekend? After all, the Cats have struggled to get a passing attack going at all behind redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, and the team ranks dead last in the Big Ten with just 141.1 passing yards per game.
While the Huskers have provided golden opportunities for opposing quarterbacks, it’ll be interesting to see if Thorson can fare as well as others. Thorson has five touchdown passes and five interceptions on the season, and things haven’t gone well of late. Against Michigan and Iowa — teams with some very good defenses — Thorson completed just 48.4 percent of his throws and turned the ball over four times (two picks and two lost fumbles).
“I think there’s plays that he’d like to have back, like any quarterback would,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after last weekend’s 40-10 loss to Iowa. “Turnovers are killer, and when you give up those type of momentum plays against a good football team, it makes for a long day.”
But one group that can help Thorson turn his fortunes around? His receivers. The Cats have been plagued by dropped passes this season, and things looked especially ugly in that department in the loss to Iowa.
“It’s pretty good for quarterbacks when guys catch the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “Although we want to play with tempo, we have to be a ball-control offense, that’s the name of the game. We’re not set up right now to go two plays and score, we’ve got to be able to control it.”
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Fitzgerald elaborated Monday during his weekly press conference.
“I think it’s guys trying to make too much out of a simple pitch and catch,” he said. “We do a drill called circle drill where we probably throw the ball in that type of a setting a hundred times a day at a minimum. Guys just aren’t seeing the ball into the tuck and (are) trying to run after the ball touches their hands instead of securing the catch. And when you try to get some rhythm going, you try and get some continuity and consistency and you’ve got a young quarterback, that sure doesn’t help him a whole lot.”
So how does that change?
"It starts as soon as we step out of the room. We all go back and watch what we did wrong, we go back and we look at ourselves,” senior wideout Christian Jones said. “Week in week out, we’ve got to find a way to fix that, and that’s catching the ball every week, even when we’re off. And it’s personal, it’s a pride thing. Nobody wants any dropped passes. You’ve got to take each one like you just dropped five, and we didn’t do very well, I didn’t do very well at all, honestly. And we have to change our mindset. I have to change my mindset.”
The pass game becomes even more important this week because Nebraska’s rush defense is actually among the conference’s best. And with the Northwestern rushing attack struggling mightily in recent weeks — a combined 89 yards vs. Michigan and Iowa, though that was made possible in part because of large deficits that demanded a pass-heavy approach — that matchup could favor the Huskers.
Nebraska will provide an opportunity for Northwestern. Statistically, it’ll be the worst pass defense the Cats face the remainder of the season. But it comes down to what Thorson can do, what his receivers can do. Otherwise, this crucial week could turn this season even more sour for Northwestern.