LINCOLN — The Nebraska blood was pumping again Saturday in Lincoln, but the life has gone out of this program.
Nothing like a good overtime game to keep Husker butts in the seat, mostly, but in the end Nebraska's 2017 descent continued in a 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern.
As the Wildcats put together a scoring drive on their first possession at Memorial Stadium, this familiar sinking feeling and a lot of heavy questions lingered.
Would Nebraska come to play?
You could see fans just waiting to leave. Instead, they were treated to a decent effort by the Huskers.
In the end, the lack of a consistent run game and mistakes all over the field cost Nebraska dearly.
NU came out playing with a home hangover, then a defensive player made a play — safety Josh Kalu intercepted a pass in the first quarter — seemingly waking Nebraska from its slumber.
That play did seem to jump start this team a bit.
To start the second half, another defender made a play — linebacker Marcus Newby picked off a Clayton Thorson pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to give Nebraska a 21-17 lead.
The last time Nebraska played at home it showed no will to fight and fans walked away at halftime.
You can say this was about a team fighting for its head coach's job, and maybe that's true. Maybe it's too late.
Regardless of the outcome, Nebraska played hard during what are tough times for the program. This team deserves kudos on that front.
A bowl game still is a possibility, albeit a bit slim now.
Nebraska must win two of its final three games, including matchu-ps at Penn State and at home against Iowa.
I kind of thought with Northwestern coming off of two-consecutive overtime games that Nebraska might pull away in the fourth quarter.
Instead, the Wildcats displayed an admirable trait — the ability to gut it out.
The Huskers extended the lead to 24-17 with a Drew Brown field goal near the end of the third quarter, following an 18-play drive. At that point it appeared the Wildcats were losing steam.
What isn't so good is this Nebraska team can't generate a ground game by lining up and going right at opponents. The defense continues to see breakdowns in this the ninth game of the season.
Northwestern tied the game at 24-24 on a 10-yard run by Thorson with 5:32 to play.
Nebraska got the ball back with three timeouts left, feeling pretty good about its chances to drive 93 yards for even a field goal. Again, this Nebraska team's lack of a ground game led the offense to stall with no points.
Instead, you saw a worn down Nebraska defense unable to stop Northwestern in OT.
Though Tanner Lee threw two picks early on and a third midway through the fourth quarter, it's safe to say the junior from New Orleans has been having to shoulder this offense way too much against teams Nebraska should be able to run against.
He led Nebraska on a game-tying 61-yard drive that ate up more than five minutes in the first half.
Lee connected with Brian Reimers for a 22-yard touchdown pass on what was a big-league throw over a defender to make it 7-7 heading into the second quarter.
Lee finished the game with 225 yards passing and two touchdowns. But Lee has thrown 88 pass attempts in the past two games, while Nebraska has rushed for just 152 yards on 58 attempts.
This is one way to get your quarterback killed, and to put your program on a downward slide.
Though Lee's interception disease seems incurable at this point, the kid does have the Teflon exterior a team needs at that position.
No doubt the ongoing speculation about the future of the program is weighing on Lee.
"You know, it is tough and I think that it has been alright because of the team we have," Lee said.
"I think I have been able to rally behind my teammates and I think we've all been able to help each other when things like that are going on because it is tough when you're having a tough season."
What Nebraska lacked, and I repeat — the ability to generate a consistent run game — Northwestern backs made up for in cutting through an over-pursuing Husker defense for big plays.
Justin Jackson finished with 154 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown. Northwestern averaged 5.2 yards a rush. That's how you win in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats grabbed the lead at 14-7 midway through the second quarter, when freshman running back Jeremy Larkin cut back on a 24-yard run. Nebraska defenders had a hard time getting a visual on ball carriers all game long.
Nebraska responded in a big way on a two-play 72-yard drive that included a 40-yard run by J.D. Spielman on a jet sweep, and a 32-yard touchdown pass from Lee to tight end Jack Stoll to tie the game at 14-14.
Northwestern took a 17-14 lead into the half on a late field goal.
Just putting this out there — how about moving Spielman to running back? Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf tried the jet sweep with De'Mornay Pierson-El and Tyjon Lindsey, with little success.
At this point, Nebraska has nothing to lose.
While we're at it, probably time to pull out all the stops with the offensive line and play guys who have been under the radar. The struggles in this unit may be the sad story line of the 2017 season.
The case could be made that injuries there make the running game just an afterthought. The freshman tandem of Matt Farniok and Brenden Jaimes on the right side just couldn't generate a push, nor were they allowed to as offensive coaches never really tried to establish an inside ground attack.
The problems up front won't be fixed this season — not much of anything will be repaired.
As maddening as all of the mistakes were, it was good to see this Nebraska team play hard again.
To start the year I thought it would be a success if Nebraska won 7 or 8 games.
Now, that seems like nothing more than a pipe dream.
Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley sums up the frustration well: "Very disappointing loss, probably lots of things to look back on and talk about in that game. But, had an opportunity to win and let that slip away and couldn't respond in overtime."
What else is new?