Northwestern defenders jump at the line of scrimmage while trying to block a Nebraska field goal during the two teams' game in 2020. In one of the worst losses in the Pat Fitzgerald era, the Wildcats gave up 56 points and over 627 yards of offense, causing concerns over the rest of their season. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

If one was to drive from Evanston – home of the Northwestern Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 B1G) – to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers play (3-3, 1-2 B1G), it would take them approximately eight hours; sixteen if they were making a round trip. As a result, making this kind of trip would require extreme commitment, dedication to the team, and perhaps a little bit of craziness to endure it all, all in hope of a ’Cats win.

So for the few Northwestern fans in attendance – as well as the few NBN Sports Editors – at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, they must have been incredibly disappointed: in both themselves for making the trip, and in the team for possibly one of the most disheartening performances in recent memory.

The ’Cats lost 56-7 to Nebraska Saturday night, in one of the most disheartening losses in recent program history. Allowing 56 points to an unranked Husker squad, it was the second-most points a Pat Fitzgerald-coached defense had allowed in his time with the program, and the 657 offensive yards Nebraska gained set a new record for Northwestern’s head coach, a notion he hopes to put behind the team quickly.

“Obviously not our night; credit to Nebraska, they played incredibly well, and were able to execute their option plays in the first half,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “We're not where we want to be, and I told the guys after the game, when we land at O'Hare tonight, this game is over, and we're moving on. Sometimes it's just not your night, and tonight was not our night. So really disappointed, but [there] are a lot of things that we have to fix first and foremost as coaches.”

Nebraska was led in their efforts by a legendary performance by junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, who threw for 202 yards and a touchdown on 11-for-17 passing, and rushed eight times for 50 yards and three touchdowns, enough to be relieved in the third quarter. Flanking Martinez were first-year running backs Rahmir Johnson, who carried the ball 12 times for 74 yards and two touchdowns, and Jaquez Yant, who led all players with 127 rushing yards.

In the losing effort, Northwestern sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski did his best to carry the team in his second career start, throwing for 256 yards on 25-for-39 passing, as well as a first quarter touchdown. Despite Hilinski’s efforts, the offense struggled against the Huskers, converting just 5-for-14 on third down and picking up just 17 first downs.

“I think the thing that we’ve got to do right now is stick together,” Hilinski said postgame. “There's two ways this can go: we can have a miserable rest of the season, or we can have a great rest of the season and have a blast, win all the rest of our games… As an offensive leader, I think the biggest thing that I wanted to show them tonight is that I never wanted to give up. I'll never give up on them because that's just not what a Northwestern Wildcat is.”

Like other games this season – see the losses to Michigan State and Duke – it seemed like the ’Cats doomed themselves from the start, giving up huge plays at the very beginning of the game. On the first play from scrimmage, Martinez shook defenders from the pocket and hauled it deep to senior receiver Samori Toure, a 70-yard gain that got the stadium shaking early.

From there, it was almost too easy for Martinez, taking the option and running it in for the touchdown. Northwestern’s offense once again struggled early, and stalled out on two quick drives, failing to get any momentum behind them. The Huskers took plenty of advantage, rushing the ball down the Wildcats’ throats and picking up two more touchdowns – both by Martinez – to put the Huskers up 21-0 with just 10 minutes played in the game.

“We had an opportunity to make a big play in the first play of the game on defense, and they made the play, and we didn’t.  I think that it kind of snowballed a little bit from there,” Fitzgerald said postgame. “[We also had] self-inflicted wounds a little bit offensively… we've kind of been a little Jekyll and Hyde. We’ve started fast in a couple games, we haven't in others and we've got to get that fixed to be the consistent winning team.”

Despite the early deficit, the ’Cats offense was not discouraged, and began plugging away at the Husker defense. Hilinski, keeping his cool, set up two long drives with help from graduate wideout Stephon Robinson Jr, including a 28-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-7, and looked to keep the game close with a drive that ended up on Nebraska’s 1-yard line. Of course, nothing could really go right for the ’Cats this weekend, and on a handoff to Evan Hull, Hilinski fumbled the ball and sent Nebraska into a frenzy.

Nebraska would enter the locker room at halftime up 35-7, and much to Northwestern’s chagrin, the Husker faithful was not ready to go quietly just yet.

It was an almost immediate reaction. After the offense once again stalled out after three plays, Nebraska took the ball back and extinguished any hopes of a comeback, as first-year wide receiver Zavier Betts took his only carry of the night 83 yards to the house.

At that point, it was just rinse and repeat for both teams. Northwestern’s offense couldn’t kick anything into high gear, and the Huskers were content to sit on the ball and move for more touchdowns, even entering their second-string squad to pick up a score. With the game completely decided by halfway through the third quarter, there was almost nothing left to do but wait, and wonder how the team would respond.

“Number one, we’ve got to get a better plan,” Fitzgerald said postgame. “Number two, we got to practice well; three, we’ve got to execute the game plan; four we’ve got to adjust; five, we’ve got to keep the ball inside and in front, and can't give up explosive plays; and then, we’ve just got to adjust as they adjust. So it's really that simplistic. It's kind of how you go about it.”

While there’s not much to be positive about from this one, ’Cats fans should at least take away two things: Ryan Hilinski was consistent enough to cause a threat in a competitive game, and the team will have two weeks to adjust before homecoming, where they’ll take on an upstart squad in Rutgers (3-2, 0-2 B1G).

“We owe it to Coach Fitz, we owe it to our coaches, we owe it to our families, we owe it to each other,” Hilinski said postgame. “[It’s] not in our repertoire to quit, and that's just not what we're gonna do. I know the guys will respond, and I know we'll go into this week trying to get healthy… we’ll have our 24 hours, and then we’ll have all smiles on our face, and we'll keep going back to competing.”

No eight-hour drive is worth that kind of loss. Let’s not make that mistake again.

"We owe it to each other." Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern