LINCOLN — When a ball hawk like Paddy Fisher can’t create a turnover, the frustration elevates for everyone on the Northwestern sideline.
The junior linebacker from Katy, Texas, entered Saturday’s game as the nation’s active leader in forced fumbles (10).
The Wildcats had to figure they would get the Huskers to cough up the ball at least once, given that Nebraska ranked 110th in turnover margin.
But the Huskers avoided mistakes that have plagued them in previous losses — and a couple of victories — this season and found a way to eke out a 13-10 victory.
“That was the difference in the game,” Fisher said. “We didn’t have a takeaway, I missed an opportunity for a big play in the first series, and you never know what that could have sparked in the game. That’s on me and on the entire defense.”
Fisher, coach Pat Fitzgerald and defensive end Joe Gaziano all mentioned their frustrations with the Wildcats’ inability to force turnovers and do the little things needed to win a close game for the second straight week.
None of them, however, were ready to give up on each other despite a 1-4 start and No. 4 Ohio State the next opponent for the Wildcats after their second bye week of the season.
“We typically win this type of game when we don’t beat ourselves,” Fitzgerald said. “You roll your sleeves up, you go to work. It starts with my attitude that permeates through the whole program. I’ll just be absolutely relentless in the way I’m going about being positive.”
Seven of the nine games Northwestern has played against Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011 have been decided by one score or less. The Huskers had lost the past three of those close games, including two straight that went to overtime.
At the start of the game, it didn’t look like this would be close as Nebraska drove 70 yards in eight plays on its second series of the game. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson went the final 42 yards around left end for what turned out to be Nebraska’s only touchdown.
“Explosive athletes. Nebraska used him in multiple formations and multiple situations,” Fisher said. “Going into the game we only had a little bit of knowledge on him, game plan-wise, and the rest was just adjustments.”
While Northwestern’s defense kept the Huskers out of the end zone for the final 49-plus minutes, Nebraska’s defense gave plenty of new looks to the offense that was piloted by junior Aidan Smith in his first start.
“They showed plenty of new wrinkles, which compliment them, they did a nice job,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we settled in and found some solutions and some answers probably midway through the second quarter, of exactly what they were doing and how they were doing it.
“I thought Aidan gave us some stuff today. I thought he played very hard, and I can’t blame him for that last interception.”
That interception was the lone turnover of the game by the Wildcats, and it came with one minute remaining in regulation. Some on the Northwestern side thought there was pass interference.
But no flags were thrown, and the Huskers drove 42 yards in 57 seconds for the winning field goal. Gaziano, a senior defensive end, said having to face a Noah Vedral-led offense after starting quarterback Adrian Martinez left with an injury wasn’t a hindrance for the Wildcats.
“I think we approached a quarterback that we haven’t seen before as if he’s the best quarterback we’ve faced yet,” Gaziano said. “We respect the scramble, no matter who it is. If it’s a bigger quarterback, a smaller quarterback, you have to respect the scramble, and that’s something we prepared for this week with Martinez in the game.”
But once the winning field goal by Lane McCallum traveled on what Fitzgerald called a “pretty low trajectory” through the goal post, sticking together to reverse the season’s course was top priority for the Wildcats. Especially when it comes to winning the close games.
“You wish it was the other way around, but we just need to practice harder, we need to execute better on the field, and that starts with tomorrow and watching film,” Gaziano said. “We have to have the mentality that the next game is of the utmost importance.”