Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

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Nebraska’s 2018 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with Iowa kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Nebraska 31-28. Head coach Scott Frost’s squad made up a 28-13 deficit and tied the score, but wasn’t able to keep Iowa from getting into position to win the game at the end.

With the loss, Nebraska falls to 4-8 for the second straight season, and the third year without a bowl game. So as you prepare for another maddeningly-long offseason, let’s take a look back at this year’s Heroes Game.

THE GOOD

Culture change. In the last two games against Iowa, Nebraska did not respond well to Iowa’s challenge. In 2016, Nebraska entered the fourth quarter clinging to an ember of hope, down 26-10 but still within two scores. Iowa responded, though, by putting up fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points and notching an emphatic 40-10 win.

In 2017, hard as it is to remember, Nebraska and Iowa were tied 14-14 at the half. But a 28-0 explosion for Iowa in the third quarter left little doubt, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 56-14 romp in Lincoln.

This year, Iowa was pushing Nebraska around, with a gutsy fake field goal failing and leaving Nebraska within 15 points, down 28-13. This time, though, Nebraska didn’t fold. Instead, Nebraska reeled off 15 straight, tying the score and requiring Iowa to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard a whole bunch about judging the season not by wins and losses but by a nebulous concept called “culture change.” Well, Nebraska’s response against Iowa this year, compared to the previous two, is hard evidence of just what that culture change looks like.

Record-breaker. It’s hard to fathom that wide receiver Stanley Morgan is going to end his Nebraska career playing on three teams with losing records. His accomplishments have been amazing, and against Iowa he cemented his place in Nebraska’s record books.

Last week, Morgan broke Kenny Bell’s school record for total receptions. This week, Morgan passed Bell for total receiving yards in a career and became Nebraska’s first (!) 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

With Frost’s upscale offense still being installed, it’s entirely possible that Morgan’s time on top of the leaderboard may be short-lived. But that should take nothing away from a guy whose career spanned three coaches and ended in excellence.

Rivalry accomplished. Personal foul flags away from the play were flying. Tempers were flaring and the two teams were on edge. Both coaches took risks that seemed otherwise unwarranted in an attempt to win the game.

I know, Husker Fan, that for some reason you’re not wanting to dive into the rivalry pool with Iowa. Well, Nebraska junior linebacker Mo Barry disagrees with you. So does this smart and particularly handsome analyst.

Guys, that’s what a rivalry game looks like. That’s what losing a rivalry game on a walk-off field goal feels like. Embrace it, Husker Fan.

THE BAD

Physicality. Iowa ended up running for 266 yards against Nebraska’s defense, and particularly in the first half looked like it could get six to eight yards at will. While Nebraska’s defense shored up some in the second half, throughout the game Iowa’s physical dominance was never far from the surface.

Don’t believe me? Ask Frost (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald):

“Iowa’s a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”

Candid words from Nebraska’s head man, but that should also be read as a challenge to his own team as the offseason draws near.

Walkoff Woes. 2018 felt like a year where almost everything that could go wrong for Nebraska went wrong, particularly early in the season. Frost started the season talking about how things would get worse before they get better, and about a team hitting rock bottom and finding its way up.

And yet, Nebraska was the victim of two walk-off field goal losses. Flip those two razor-thin margins, and Nebraska – yes, this 2018 borderline-year-zero Nebraska – is 6-6 and going to a bowl game.

Sure, reaching bowl eligibility isn’t and shouldn’t be the benchmark of success for Nebraska (although this year might help an otherwise-rabid fanbase hold on to just a sliver of perspective about the game over the next few years). But it is a reflection of the work Frost and his staff have done to have this Nebraska team, with this level of changes that needed to be made, be that close to the postseason.

Missed Ya, JD. In a game of such fine margins, it’s hard not to wonder what Nebraska’s offense would have looked like with its most elusive playmaker, wide receiver JD Spielman. Walk-on receiver Kade Warner did an admirable job, with four receptions for 16 yards and the clutch two-point conversion reception to tie the game.

But Warner, many things that he is, ain’t Spielman. We’ll all be left wondering what that game would have looked like had it been Spielman on the field.

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

Nebraska’s contest against Iowa was in many ways the 2018 season in microcosm. It started dreadfully, with Iowa dominating Nebraska physically and pulling out to what seemed like an untouchable 15-point lead. Then, a combination of offensive wizardry and an improved defensive performance, Nebraska pulled itself back into the game. At the end though, Nebraska was left with no immediate payoff for its hard work, but with a strong belief that a firm foundation has been laid going forward.

Sure, a win over Nebraska’s rival to the east would have been a sweet way to cap off a sour season. But somehow this sendoff to 2018 seems to fit better. Now Nebraska will go into another long offseason knowing just how close it was – to a win over a rival, to a bowl game, to being the kind of team Frost envisioned – but that it isn’t there yet.

That feels like the kind of sour sendoff that will put a little extra fire into offseason work. Every Nebraska player coming back next year can feel like the difference between how 2018 turned out and a championship run might be an extra set of reps, an extra mile run, an extra hour of film each day.

It worked for Nebraska in 1994, when the team adopted an “Unfinished Business” motto after 1993’s disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment of 2018’s 4-8 campaign and 1993’s national title near-miss are two very different things.

But the motivational power of disappointment remains the same. So yeah, Husker Fan, that wasn’t a fun end to the season (particularly to those of us who experienced it in Hawkeye country).

However, if that disappointment ends up being the spark that lights the fire of a 2019 campaign, then it will all be worth it for you.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

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Nebraska’s alternate uniforms were a throwback to 1923, but the game in which the uniforms were worn was very much a creature of the 21st century, with Nebraska winning a shootout over Illinois, 54-35.

Nebraska’s offense was humming, notching 606 total yards, while the defense struggled some, surrendering 509 yards. But Nebraska was plus-three in turnover margin, which helped NU avoid any risk of an upset bid from the Illini.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s third win of the 2018 season …

THE GOOD

Divine Devine. Hey, remember when this dope looked at senior I-back Devine Ozigbo and just saw him and Mikale Wilbon as “returning with the most experience?”

Well, Ozigbo proved that dope wrong. He’s currently no. 25 nationally in rushing yards per game at 95.8. He’s been both the chain-mover and the homerun threat out of the backfield that Nebraska has been needing. He’s been a revelation and, as head coach Scott Frost said, looks very much like a Sunday kind of guy next year.

Nine-Tenths of the Law. One of the fears about Nebraska’s tempo spread attack is whether NU would be able to protect its struggling defense by possessing the ball. Early in the season, that was an active question when Nebraska was in position to win.

But in the last two games, Nebraska was able to execute clock-chewing drives. Against Ohio State, in the second quarter Nebraska had a 10-play, 64 yard drive taking 4:00, and an eight-play, 47 yard drive taking 3:54, both resulting in touchdowns. Against Illinois, in the third quarter Nebraska had a seventeen-play (!), 82 yard drive for a touchdown that took a full 7:48 (!!) off the clock – and included three fourth-down conversions.

Those time of possession numbers aren’t mind-boggling, but they are evidence that Nebraska’s offense does have the ability to keep its defense off the field for at least a little while, minimizing the stress being put on an already thin unit. Seeing this kind of complimentary football is both reassuring and encouraging going forward.

Special Teams. Against Bethune-Cookman, Nebraska returned a punt for a touchdown. This week, Nebraska blocked a punt. More importantly though, it looks like Nebraska has solved to a large degree its issue with kickoff return coverage. Against Illinois, Nebraska averaged 13.8 yards per return, and only 9.3 yards per return against Ohio State.

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

Homecoming. Welcome home, AJ Bush. After a couple of stops, the Nebraska transfer started a game at quarterback in Memorial Stadium, but for Illinois. And he had himself a game, rushing for 187 (!) yards on 25 attempts with three (!!) touchdowns. He added in 126 yards through the air, but on an 11-for-25 day with two interceptions (although, in fairness, his receivers didn’t exactly help him out).

For Nebraska fans with a sentimental streak, it was the best of both worlds. A former Husker got to have his day in the sun and put up some numbers, while Nebraska was still able to notch a win. That, of course, is easier to say after the game as opposed to when Bush was running wild and answering Nebraska score-for-score.

Walking Wounded. Both receiver JD Spielman and I-back Maurice Washington appeared to suffer injuries against Illinois. Washington has struggled with staying on the field all year, which is not a huge surprise for a true freshman with a slight frame. But losing both – and losing Spielman, in particular – against a stout Michigan State defense would be a huge challenge for Nebraska.

AND THE NEW NORMAL

Blackshirts. Tradition of Toughness. Throw the Bones. In the nineties, much of Nebraska’s identity was defined by defensive prowess. If you play word-association with “Nebraska football,” one of the first images you’ll get is a gleeful Nebraska defender crossing his arms and screaming after a sack.

That’s not where Nebraska is now. Nebraska is currently no. nationally in scoring defense, no. 90 nationally in rushing defense, and no. 101 nationally in passing defense.

Sure, some of that is a transition year, and likely has to do with a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball. But some of it is structural, too.

Take a look at the national rankings of UCF’s defensive performance last year, when the Knights went 13-0 (and won the national championship, amirite?)

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

That’s better than Nebraska’s rankings this year, of course. But it’s not elite. At best it’s middle-of-the-pack good. And that’s in a year where UCF went undefeated.

Ultimately, a football team reflects the nature of its coach. Under a defensive-minded coach like Bo Pelini, Nebraska would take its cues from its defense, and Nebraska’s 10-3 upset of Oklahoma should be looked at as a model for how Pelini’s teams would win.

Frost is, schematically, the opposite of Pelini. He’s an offensive mind who wants to outscore you – and is perfectly content to let you score a few points in the process. UCF’s 62-55 overtime win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game might have been an extreme version of it, but it still fits into the template of how Frost’s teams win games.

This isn’t to say that Nebraska fans shouldn’t expect – shouldn’t demand – better defensive play. Overall, Nebraska’s defense has not been good enough and needs to be better both this year and going forward. But expectations need to be calibrated for the Blackshirts.

If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get his unit into the top-50 nationally defensively, in combination with what Frost’s offense, that should be enough for Nebraska to win a lot of games. But it’s going to look different from what winning Nebraska teams have looked in the recent past.

In other words, Husker Fan, get used to seeing a lot of points on the scoreboard – for both teams. My guess is that as long as Nebraska has more of those points most of the time, though, y’all should be fine.

GBR, baby.

An Essay on Moral Victories: NU ReView, Ohio State 36, Nebraska 31

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At the start of the season, Nebraska fans had chalked up the Ohio State game as an ugly loss and were looking at games around it on the schedule. A drubbing at Michigan, in what head coach Scott Frost called the bottom of the program’s descent, seemed to reinforce that expectation.

But that’s not what we got. Nebraska went toe-for-toe against Ohio State for four quarters, leading at halftime, before falling to the Buckeyes 36-31. So as we look back on Nebraska’s unexpectedly game showing in Columbus …

THE GOOD

A Glimpse of the Future. There were times when freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez looked like the eighteen-year-old true freshman he is, staring up at the big lights of Ohio Stadium. But there were plenty of times where Martinez looked like a true playmaker – the second coming of Russell Wilson, plus about three inches and twenty pounds, I’m telling ya – and should fill Husker hearts with hope.

Martinez ended the game 22-for-32 in the air for 266 yards and a touchdown, adding in 107 yards on 20 carries with two red-zone touchdowns.

But what might have been most impressive is his resilience. After a truly cringe-worthy decision that denied Nebraska a scoring opportunity in the red zone, there was every opportunity for him to respond like a freshman and melt. He didn’t. He responded with calm and poise, continuing to lead Nebraska on its upset bit.

More than the gaudy stats and flashy moves, that kind of maturity and resilience is what should make Nebraska fans excited to see Martinez’s growth in the future.

Blackshirt Resurgence. The statistics weren’t exactly glittering. But given how Nebraska’s defense has struggled recently, there were clear signs of life in the Blackshirts. While Ohio State’s running game was able to get on track – which isn’t a huge surprise, given the talent on the Buckeyes’ offensive line and in their backfield, combined with a bye week to prepare – Nebraska was still able to hold Ohio State’s offense under 500 yards.

Throwing the ball, Heisman candidate Dwayne Haskins only completed fifty percent of his passes, was intercepted once, and was sacked once. Nebraska turned Ohio State over three times, and scored 14 points off of those turnovers.

Heck, Nebraska even made Ohio State punt. Three times!

Kickoff Coverage. Yeah, in general the special teams was still atrocious. Poor Caleb Lightborne now has a second meme-worthy GIF to be remembered (and not in a good way) for the 2018 season. Ohio State had three kickoff return opportunities against Nebraska, and only got an average of 9.3 yards per return.

Yes, that’s baby steps. But given what a tire fire Nebraska’s special teams in general has been, finding an improvement in any area is an accomplishment.

THE BAD

Missed Opportunities. Yeah, it was fun to see a competitive game against Ohio State in the fourth quarter. But it was oh, so close, to being something more than that. Say Stanley Morgan gets an extra half yard in the fourth quarter to keep a drive alive. Say JD Spielman comes up with that catch, which in almost all certainty would have been a long touchdown. Say Martinez doesn’t have his freshman moment and eats the ball, allowing Nebraska to kick a field goal and keep the score closer.

It’s a true state of the program to recognize that being disappointed at a five-point loss is in some ways a good feeling. But it was just a couple of plays away from being much, much more.

Still a Freshman. Martinez continues to amaze, but he’s far from perfect. The backward-pass turnover to Spielman that killed a scoring drive was the clearest example of a kid who can still let the moment become too big for him. But it wasn’t Martinez’s only mistake. There were throws he missed and running lanes he could have taken to improve his performance and Nebraska’s chance to win.

To his credit, he said as much in the post-game press conference, talking about his mistakes and what he needed to improve. That level of maturity is what makes it difficult to remember how young and inexperienced Martinez is leading a big-time college football program. So when those freshman mistakes happen, keep that in mind.

Special Teams. OK, fine, the kickoff coverage was good. That pretty much covers the good stuff. The blocked punt (which punter Isaac Armstrong could have done nothing to avoid) not only got the Buckeyes on the board, it got the crowd into the game after Nebraska had scored and stopped Ohio State on a fourth down conversion.

And that was after Lightborne’s moment of madness when he almost entirely missed the ball on a snap onside kick, ending up handing Ohio State amazing field position.

Both of those plays served to help kick start Ohio State, a team that was reeling after an ugly loss to Purdue. Had those plays not happened – or, had Nebraska pulled off the onside kick, which looked like it had a real shot if the kick was executed properly – then Nebraska could have held onto the early momentum and taken advantage of what looks to be a fragile Ohio State confidence.

AND THE MORAL VICTORY

I know what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say that there’s no such thing as moral victories. You’re supposed to say that a loss is a loss and anything less than a victory can’t ever be accepted.

I get it. And for a coach and a player, that’s absolutely the right thing to say. Being satisfied with coming close is a recipe for mediocrity. In a game of such fine margins, having anything less than intolerance for defeat is a fatal flaw.

But I’m going to guess that most of you reading this aren’t coaches or players. You’re just fans, watching from the outside, trying to figure out the status of this program to which you have hitched your emotions.

So as one of those interested outside observers, let’s be honest with each other. Saturday’s performance in Columbus was a moral victory.

Sure, this isn’t a vintage Ohio State team. Sure, the Buckeyes made tons of mistakes that helped Nebraska stay in the game.

But it’s not like Nebraska didn’t make its own mistakes as well. A strong case can be made that Nebraska could have – maybe even should have – won this game had it played cleaner and sharper.

And therein lies the difference. After Saturday’s game, more than anything I found myself disappointed after Nebraska’s five-point loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus, with a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity.

That’s … a much better feeling than most Nebraska fans expected to have. Sherman, set the WayBack machine for October 14, 2017. Ohio State was coming to Lincoln, and there wasn’t a Nebraska fan who thought NU could stay within three touchdowns of the Buckeyes. They weren’t wrong, as Nebraska was outclassed in the contest, 56-14.

Now, let’s set the WayBack Machine to November 05, 2016. Nebraska was 7-1, rated no. 10 in the nation and getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll.

(Yes, Virginia, it was only two years ago that Nebraska was a top-10 team)

As Nebraska fans had seen countless times before against top-tier opponents in a marquee matchup, Nebraska melted in the spotlight. The final score was 62-3, and somehow that score doesn’t convey how thoroughly Nebraska was handled by Ohio State.

With Frost’s arrival, Nebraska fans thought that the days of those embarrassing losses were behind them. Then Nebraska traveled to Ann Arbor and were humbled by Michigan, 56-10. After the game, Frost said that it was the low point of his program, and many observers and fans cynically replied by thinking “wait until you go to Columbus.”

Well, look what happened. Nebraska played a four-quarter contest against Ohio State in the Horseshoe. Nebraska faced off against an opponent with elite talent and stood toe-to-toe with a chance to win. Nebraska fans – and players – now have that image in their memory banks, which they can draw on for confidence.

That’s the moral victory. The narrative of Nebraska’s humiliation against college football’s royalty is – for now – rewritten. The opportunity is there for Nebraska now to redefine itself and establish a foothold on the national stage.

I know November 04, 2016, seems like a million years ago. But it is now two years to the date of the writing of this column since Nebraska was a top-10 team getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll. A lot can change in a short period of time in college football – Frost and his coaching staff are banking on that in 2019.

GBR, baby.