LINCOLN — Nebraska's turnovers at Northwestern hurt, stopping one drive and keeping two others from even starting.
Three offensive penalties pushed the Huskers back as well, including a pair of 5-yarders simply for being lined up incorrectly.
But there was another reason Nebraska was sitting with 10 points late in the third quarter — and it points to another problem to fix before Michigan visits Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
The Huskers were 1 for 6 before their game-winning drive when facing third-and-3 or fourth-and-3 and shorter. Three of the five failings came on possessions where they already had at least two first downs and appeared to have momentum.
“We talked about it as an offense, that we've got to convert those … the money downs,” NU tight end Kyler Reed said. “If we want to score, we've got to keep the drives going.”
Reed said the work started Monday during practice with a heavier emphasis on third down, even before the Huskers had their game plan fully installed for Michigan. But NU has also included a little self-reflection on what went wrong in Evanston.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he didn't want to elaborate too much — so as not to give away plans — but said the Huskers probably should have done some things differently in those situations.
“I was trying to break some tendencies,” Beck said. “Any good team — if they know what you're doing — sooner or later, they're going to stop you. You have to make sure you're keeping people off-balance and keep changing what you're doing.
“But on the same token, you've got to make sure you're doing it where you can be successful. That's the fine line you have to walk.”
The failed conversions included I-backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah getting stopped for no gain and 1 yard, respectively, on a pair of third-and-2s. Taylor Martinez rolled out on a third-and-3 where it appeared that the quarterback could have run to the first-down marker but instead tried to pass to tight end Ben Cotton on the sideline.
Martinez was swarmed on a play-action bootleg on a third-and-1, dumped a pass to Abdullah and Northwestern tackled him for no gain.
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“Maybe I did a little bit too much,” Beck said. “Some of that's on me for sure. But we've got to execute well in those situations, too.”
Beck said players went the wrong way on one short-yardage play and got the wrong call on the other. Reed took the blame for the latter, and it led to him running into two pulling linemen as Martinez was creamed on a keeper on fourth-and-3.
“Sometimes it's lack of discipline, and you can't just pick one guy,” left guard Seung Hoon Choi said. “As a team, we've just got to be all on the same page and do the same job. We've just got to learn the lesson and (know) why it happened, and what we can do to get better as a unit.”
The short-yardage shortcomings at Northwestern contrasted with NU's effective work in those situations in its first two Big Ten games.
Against Wisconsin and Ohio State combined, the Huskers converted 8 of 9 chances inside of third-and-3 or fourth-and-2, or third-and-goal inside the 3-yard line.
Nebraska did convert one of its most important third downs late against Northwestern, when Martinez found Quincy Enunwa for a 6-yard gain on third-and-3. That helped keep alive the go-ahead drive in the 29-28 victory.
Cotton said it was “fight” that allowed the Huskers to finish the two scoring drives in the final six minutes. Choi said Nebraska might have started to wear down Northwestern.
But converting some earlier opportunities — finishing a block, reading the right hole, making the correct decision — and taking better care of the football wouldn't have left the Huskers in the dire situation they faced.
“A lot of us made a lot of mistakes that we shouldn't be making,” Cotton said. “We've got to be sharp at all times, or we're not going to be happy with what happens.”
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