Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
In a back and forth game that went to the last possession, Iowa made one more play than Nebraska and came away with a win in the Heroes Game, knocking off NU 26-20.
This time, the one play Iowa made was a sack of Adrian Martinez as Nebraska was driving for a winning touchdown, knocking the ball loose for Zach VanValkenburg (how did Wisconsin miss signing this kid?) to scoop up and end the game.
After last week’s debacle, Nebraska has gone from embarrassing back to maddening, so – progress? So in looking back at this game …
Closing time. Adrian Martinez looks to have taken back his starting job at quarterback decisively, going 18-20 for 174 and no interceptions. Yes, Martinez gave up the game-sealing sack fumble. But let’s be honest, that was far more on his offensive line than on the quarterback.
More importantly, with Martinez Nebraska showed at least some semblance of a downfield passing threat. While certainly nothing that looks like a finished product, at the very least the threat of Martinez throwing downfield seemed to – at times – allow the offense to get in some semblance of a rhythm.
Luke McCaffrey is still a remarkable talent and head coach Scott Frost still refers to him as the future of Nebraska. But from where the two are now, it seems clear that Martinez as the signal-caller gives Nebraska’s offense its best chance to succeed.
Blackshirts are back. Be honest. After what you saw against Illinois, you were expecting an Iowa squad that bullied Minnesota and Penn State to run roughshod.
Instead, the Blackshirts held Iowa’s vaunted rushing attack to 2.9 yards per carry. Had Nebraska been sharper in other aspects of the game, that kind of performance should have been enough to win. At the very least, it showed Nebraska ready to stand toe-to-toe with Iowa physically – at least until Nebraska shoots itself in that toe it’s standing with.
Wan’Dale. I mean, what can you say about a guy who leads the team in rushing (six carries for 42 yards) and receiving (nine receptions for 75 yards)? It does seem like Nebraska has finally figured out ways to get Robinson the ball in ways that don’t involve lining him up at running back and smashing him against a B1G defensive line 15 times a game.
Add to it this quote after the game when asked about Nebraska fans doubting the team’s progress (as reported by Evan Bland of the Omaha World-Herald).
Keep doubting us. We’re going to get over the hump eventually. I know there’s a couple of us who will make sure that happens.
That’s the kind of leader you want in that locker room, Husker Fan. There’s plenty of ink spilled about quarterbacks and centers and coaches. But number 1 on offense might very well be the most important person in the room.
The third phase. For the second year in a row, poor special teams play cost Nebraska a game against Iowa. Last year, it was long kick returns. This year, it was the punt game, between allowing sizable returns and Cam Taylor-Britt’s muffed punt.
It’s as good a metaphor as any for where Nebraska is as a program. Special teams, more than offense and defense, is less about athletic talent and more about execution and attention to detail. Northwestern and Iowa have great special teams units. Nebraska’s has been varying degrees of a tire fire for the last two years.
The center experiment. Early on, Frost made a bold move, taking a highly-regarded tight end prospect and converting him to center. Last year, particularly early in the season, Nebraska struggled with the growing pains as Cameron Jurgens adjusted to his new duties and struggled delivering accurate shotgun snaps.
Against Iowa, Jurgens struggled again – and whatever effect Iowa’s clapping coaches had was about tenth on the list of things Jurgens struggled with. Nebraska had four drives that had snap issues. On three of those, Nebraska failed to score.
In a game of fine margins – and Nebraska is nowhere near good enough to win a game with anything less – that’s the difference between victory and defeat. As good as Jurgens is in other aspects of offensive line play – and he’s very good at a number of other aspects – Nebraska can simply not afford to continue to give away drives, possessions, and points based on inconsistent center snaps.
Field position. 54. 46. 55. 66. 30. 19.
Nebraska outgained Iowa, 338-322. Nebraska gained an average of 5.4 yards per play, compared to Iowa’s 4.3. So how did Iowa end up winning?
In large part, because those six numbers were the length of Iowa’s six scoring drives. That means all but one of those scoring drives started further out than the Iowa 45-yard line. And, back-breakingly, the two scoring drives that put Iowa ahead were only 30 and 19 yards long respectively.
To the credit of Nebraska’s defense, four of those six short scoring drives ended in field goals rather than touchdowns. But between turnovers and poor special teams play (see supra), Nebraska helped Iowa by giving it short fields to work with. And in a game of fine margins, that makes all the difference.
AND THE POVERTY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS
Last week’s loss to Illinois was enough to shake Nebraska fans to their core. It appeared that Nebraska had reverted back to where it was at the end of 2017, when it was simply and embarrassingly bullied and intimidated physically by mid-tier B1G competition. With that taste in your mouth, it was hard not to see Nebraska’s future – short-term and long-term – as anything other than bleak.
Nebraska’s performance against Iowa was, then, somewhat of a reassurance. The Illinois game, not the Iowa game or the Northwestern game, was the aberration. Take heart, Husker Fan, Nebraska is not the team that gets shoved off the field by Illinois. Instead, it’s the team that can outgain and either outplay or at least stand even with the best in the B1G West – and then find ways to lose.
That’s … cold comfort, to be sure. Nebraska’s future does not seem to be as hopeless as it did last week. But – as been repeated here many times – winning begets winning and losing begets losing. Nebraska as a program does not have the maturity to handle success, either in the micro or in the macro.
Bust a big run to get the ball within field goal range to tie the game? Holding penalty.
Get a three-and-out with Iowa inside its 30? Muff the punt and give up another field goal.
Get the ball inside Iowa’s 40 on a drive to win the game? Give up a sack through the A-gap and fumble away a sixth straight game.
Get a win against a team full of five-star recruits? Come out the following week with the worst loss in a decade for the program – and this is a team that lost at home to Troy, fer cryin’ out loud.
So yes, Nebraska has stopped the rot from last week at least. But Nebraska is guaranteed to have its fourth losing regular season in five years. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst was right in that Nebraska fans should focus on one game at a time, it is hard not to notice just how far NU still is from what it was and what it aspires to be.