The transfer of junior phenom Wan’Dale Robinson sent shockwaves through the Nebraska fanbase. In head coach Scott Frost’s three years in charge, Nebraska has seen an inordinate amount of players – both recruited by Frost and by his predecessor – leave the program.
For the most part, fans have invested their trust in Frost, believed him when he talked about how the culture within the Nebraska football program needed to change, and that the departures were a necessary part of that culture shift. And given what Nebraska had seen under previous head coach Mike Riley, it was evident that Frost was correct.
But as the departures continued, especially departures of players Frost recruited, an unease began to crop up that the departures were less about Frost excising bad culture and more about players becoming dissatisfied with the progression of the offense and their place in the program.
Robinson’s departure brought those concerns to a head. Yes, Robinson ended up returning to his native Kentucky. Yes, there is little question that he was motivated by his mother contracting COVID and wanting to be closer to home. That’s been the motivation of many transfers this season, throughout the country.
But part of Robinson’s motivation, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, was to be in an offense that would better set him up for an NFL career.
That should send alarm bells through Nebraska’s program, as well as through the fanbase. Except maybe for Adrian Martinez, Robinson was the face of Nebraska’s program. He was the offensive archetype, the kind of player that Frost at Central Florida used to create a dazzling, dynamic offensive attack.
Unfortunately, very little of that dynamic offense has materialized in Lincoln. In Robinson’s two years, Frost seemed to struggle finding the right ways to utilize Robinson’s skills to their fullest. Last year, Robinson ended up being used as a tailback, getting carries and running between the tackles quite a bit.
While getting your most dynamic player the ball as often as possible is certainly wise in any offense, Robinson is 5 foot 9 and 180 pounds. He is not at all built to survive the rigors of a between-the-tackles running back, particularly in the B1G. And Robinson began to break down at the end of 2019, underlining the need for finding the right ways to use Robinson’s amazing skills.
The 2020 season was always going to be a challenge, playing through a pandemic with no spring football and an uncertain (to put it mildly) future for B1G football. Nebraska did find more balance in using Robinson during the 2020 season. But Nebraska’s offense on the whole was a huge disappointment this year.
While Nebraska’s defense began to find its feet, Nebraska’s offense looked lost. Frost switched between Martinez and Luke McCaffrey at quarterback, trying to find a signal-caller that could get Nebraska’s offense into rhythm, but never quite succeeding. And Robinson’s production in his second season at Nebraska suffered as a result.
Robinson clearly has designs to play in the NFL. And his electric skill set should be tailor-made for the modern NFL offense. But to get there, he’s got to be able to put what he can do on video, to make sure he can stand out from the crowd.
It’s clear that Robinson came to the conclusion that Frost was not going to be able to provide him that stage upon which to showcause his talents. That, as much as his mother’s illness, is why Robinson is no longer wearing scarlet and cream.
A smart and particularly handsome analyst said that you would know when Frost’s tenure at Nebraska was truly at risk when his recruiting started to tail off. And to be clear, we’re not there yet. In addition to Nebraska still landing a top-25 recruiting class, Nebraska landed an NFL-caliber wide receiver and running back through the transfer portal.
Nebraska’s talent level on offense should be sufficient to succeed. But almost the entire offense is an open question. Martinez, McCaffrey, or freshman Logan Smothers could all reasonably be expected to be the starting quarterback for week one of the season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning non-quarterback rusher had 24 carries last season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning receiver had 18 catches.
It’s worrying, to say the least, that Frost will be basically starting over offensively in year four. And the 2021 schedule – with games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Oklahoma, in addition to the B1G West slate – is awfully challenging for an entirely rebooted offense.
Robinson’s departure is in no way guaranteed to be the end of the Frost era. But ultimately Frost needs to maintain confidence and faith in his offensive scheme for Nebraska to be successful under his leadership. Robinson’s transfer is the first truly undeniable rejection of Frost’s vision. If that lack of faith were to take hold generally, then Robinson’s transfer really could be seen as the beginning of the end of Frost’s time in Lincoln.
So 2021 after Robinson’s departure brings a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. While Frost’s contract situation is clearly secure, the faith in his ability to succeed offensively needs proof of concept on the field desperately in this upcoming season.
After a challenging season both on and off the field, Nebraska ended its 2020 campaign with a 28-21 win over Rutgers to finish with a 3-5 record. While Nebraska certainly could have gotten into a bowl game even with its record (oh hai 3-7 mississippi state), the team voted to end the season and decline any bowl invitation. Head coach Scott Frost, after the Rutgers win, sounded like a man ready to let the 2020 season go.
Nebraska also completed its early signing period with a top-25 recruiting class, headlined by four-star tight end Thomas Fidone from Iowa (and keeping Fidone from the Hawkeyes, avoiding another Noah Fant situation). So now that an exhausting, maddening, at times cringe-inducing season is over, let’s step back and take a look where Nebraska football is right now.
A brave decision to end the season
After Nebraska’s … uneven win over Rutgers, Frost talked about how much of a toll the 2020 season had taken on both the team and the coaches, and that it would ultimately up to the players to decide if they wanted to play in a bowl.
The players decided they did not, and that ended Nebraska’s 2020 season.
Frost, of course, didn’t have to give the players that choice. And he opened himself up to the possibility of ridicule by doing so. After all, it was Frost who was a vocal as anyone before the season started wanting to play football whenever, wherever – even in Uzbekistan, if need be.
After a disappointing 3-5 season, Nebraska turning down a bowl could easily have been made to look life Frost tucking tail and shying away from further embarrassment. Frost knew that, but let his team make the decision anyway.
Recruiting still on track
It’s probably not a surprise that there is at least some buzz about Frost being on the hot seat after going 12-20 in his first three-ish years in charge. In most circumstances, there would be some truth to that.
But not here. Athletic director Bill Moos has made a long-term commitment to Frost. And although Illinois and Minnesota did shake the faith of many in the fanbase, ultimately there’s little question Frost will be in Lincoln for the long-term.
If you really want a canary in the coal mine about Frost’s tenure in Lincoln, watch Nebraska’s recruiting. Last year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s recruiting ranking nationally was far out-pacing its success on the field. That over-performance was Frost’s ability to connect with recruits and get them to believe that the on-field success will be coming.
Well, the Frost Effect is still working. After the first National Signing Day, Nebraska ended up no. 25 nationally in recruiting, third in the B1G West. While that’s below both Wisconsin and Iowa this year, a top-25 class is still more than good enough for Nebraska to compete.
When Frost arrived in Lincoln, we all expected Nebraska’s offense to be fast and explosive, and its defense to struggle and be at best a complimentary piece to the offensive engine.
As we finish year three, that’s … not quite how things have worked out. Nebraska’s offense has been a mess, and there’s all kinds of different reasons as to why that is.
But Nebraska’s defense has been quietly improving. Nebraska ended 2020 no. 46 nationally in team defense, no. 66 nationally in scoring defense, and no. 52 nationally in total defense.
Sure, those numbers aren’t anything to write home about. But they show a defense that’s above-average nationally, which in Nebraska’s proof-of-concept should be more than good enough. If the offense can catch up – and that’s still very much an open question – Nebraska’s defense looks ready to do its part.
Special teams disaster
There’s lots of things that Nebraska needs to fix. But top of the list needs to be special teams, writ large. Nebraska did make a massive improvement in placekicking, going from having no functional kicker to an all-conference player in Connor Culp.
But Nebraska still cannot cover a kick return. Nebraska allowed two fake punts for first downs – in eight games – where the punter was essentially unguarded and gifted a long run. Letting that happen once is bad enough. But when it happens a second time under almost identical circumstances, it’s evidence of a systemic breakdown.
Nebraska tried to have special teams be handled by a special teams consultant this year, rather than having a coach specifically tasked with handling that role, which at least reflects an attempt to shake the system up. It hasn’t worked, clearly, but there’s little question that Nebraska needs drastic action to fix a gaping hole.
Quarterback still a question
Boy, how much fun was it to see Adrian Martinez go off against Rutgers, going 24-28 for 255 yards in the air and 157 yards on 23 carries and scoring three total touchdowns? That’s the guy we’ve been waiting for to lead Nebraska’s offense, right?
Well, that same guy – in the same game – lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions. More disturbingly, the turnovers were repeat performances of mistakes we’ve seen in the past, mistakes which have killed Nebraska in the last three years.
If there’s one weakness in Frost’s offensive concept, it’s that it needs supremely talented quarterback play. Frost’s quarterback needs to be a threat on the ground, have the ability to deliver the ball to dangerous playmakers, and stretch the field to keep defenses honest and put them in conflict. He’s got to do all that while protecting the ball and making consistent smart decisions.
Whether it’s injury or understanding, Martinez has yet to demonstrate his ability to check all those boxes – and in his defense, that’s a lot of boxes to check. Luke McCaffrey, while an exciting and dynamic athlete, has not demonstrated his ability to throw or protect the ball sufficiently for Nebraska to rely on him as a starting quarterback option.
So Nebraska comes into 2021 with questions at quarterback. It is entirely possible that, with a full offseason, that Martinez or McCaffrey could grow into the position. It’s possible that freshman Logan Smothers, after watching this season from the sideline, will be able to challenge for the position.
But we don’t know – and more importantly, Frost doesn’t know – who is going to be that guy in 2021.
After going up 14-0 in the first five minutes, Nebraska held off a surging Purdue squad, winning 37-27 for its second win of 2020. Nebraska’s defense was able to get Purdue off the field on one last stand after failing to convert on a fourth down, sealing a much-needed victory.
So in looking back at Nebraska’s win in West Lafayette …
Rush defense. Don’t look now, but the Blackshirts have put up two straight impressive performances against B1G rushing attacks. Against Iowa and Purdue combined, Nebraska has allowed a total of 127 rushing yards on 62 rushing attempts, averaging 2.05 yards allowed per rushing attempt.
Yes, that includes quarterback sacks – which is a nice problem to have. Even including that, though, that’s pretty stingy.
That’s my quarterback. It’s understandable why Adrian Martinez was benched against Northwestern. He was 12-for-27 in that game, including a bad interception. That led to Luke McCaffrey starting against Penn State, leading to Nebraska’s first win of the season. But Nebraska’s offensive limitations with McCaffrey under center were clear against a reeling Penn State – and became all-too-obvious when Illinois bullied Nebraska the following week.
Martinez came in at the end of that Illinois game and led Nebraska on a sharp (if ultimately meaningless) scoring drive. But then against Iowa and Illinois Martinez has been a combined 41-50 for 416 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers won’t knock your socks off – 8.32 yards per attempt is good but not spectacular.
But it’s efficient, and it provides far more of a threat to opposing defenses. And the lack of interceptions in two games means that Martinez has also been smart and safe with the ball.
Receiving options. In the last two weeks, Nebraska has found a groove in getting Wan’Dale Robinson involved both in the rush and the pass game. Against Iowa, Robinson was both Nebraska’s leading rusher and leading receiver. He was far less involved running the ball against Purdue, but his nine receptions for 114 yards more than made up for it.
What’s more encouraging is how freshman wideout Xavier Betts seemed to find his spot in the offense. Betts had five receptions for 36 yards, and only one of them was of the touch-pass jet sweep variety. If Nebraska is able to find a way to include a weapon like Betts into the offense, perhaps some version of the high-powered Central Florida offense can finally start to emerge.
Ending halves. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider where Nebraska’s 2020 season could be if it was better at ending the first half. Against Ohio State, Nebraska was down 17-14 in the Horseshoe with 3:14 left in the second quarter. If Nebraska could hold the ball and get into field goal range, NU could go into the half tied against the mighty Buckeyes.
Instead, Nebraska went a feeble three-and-out, and Ohio State had enough time to score a touchdown and go into the half leading 24-14. Then Ohio State took the ball to start the second half, and scored another touchdown, being up 31-14 over Nebraska before NU was able to touch the ball.
Nebraska faced a similar circumstance against Purdue. With 2:52 left in the second quarter, Nebraska had the ball and led 27-10. With Nebraska set to take the ball at the start of the second half, a score on this drive had the potential to put the game out of reach.
Instead, Nebraska went three-and-out – and then had its punt blocked, giving Purdue the ball at Nebraska’s 40. A strong defensive stand held Purdue to a field goal, but the difference between 30-10 and 27-13 is substantial.
Special teams. Yep, that punt block we just talked about is just one in an uncomfortably-large collection of special teams catastrophes that have endangered Nebraska’s chances to win. Against Iowa and Northwestern, special teams mistakes (particularly on kickoffs and kickoff returns) were a huge factor in close losses. Against Purdue, Nebraska’s special teams took a game that could have been a blowout and made it competitive into the fourth quarter.
Making it tough. This picture says it all.
This shows my heart rate during Saturday’s game. I wasn’t on a treadmill, or doing a bunch of yardwork, or anything else physically strenuous – apart from watching and being emotionally invested in a Nebraska football game.
Anyone who has been on this roller-coaster called Nebraska football for the last couple of decades knows what I am talking about. Even a game that Nebraska really had – or, more accurately, should have had – under control ended up being a cardio workout just watching.
AND THE NEXT GREAT EXPERIMENT
Hey, remember when Nebraska held on for a win over Penn State, and it felt like a turning point? Nebraska was a double-digit favorite over lowly Illinois at home, and felt good enough to go full Darth Vader with its Blackshirts alternate uniforms.
We all remember how that went.
Nebraska is now a double-digit favorite over Minnesota at home – a team that has bullied and dominated Nebraska two of the last three years the teams have played. So once again we will get an opportunity to test Nebraska’s maturity as a team by seeing how it handles success.
We have some idea of how Nebraska handles adversity – let’s face it, Nebraska’s had lots of practice with that over the last few years. What it doesn’t have a lot of practice at is handling itself when things are going well.
So if the Nebraska-Minnesota contest is able to be held (which is still in question based on Minnesota’s COVID problems), then we will see if Nebraska has learned its lesson from its lackluster and entitled performance against Illinois earlier this season.
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.
Yes, I know Husker Fan, you’ve seen this before. More often than you should have.
But we’re here again. Nebraska just got bullied, humiliated, and embarrassed on its home field – by Illinois. Not Ohio State. Not Wisconsin. Not even (shudder) Iowa. The Fighting fricking Illini just made Nebraska a laughingstock.
There’s not a ton of point in dissecting the minutiae of what just happened. There’s plenty of outlets for those. We are here to help you, Husker Fan, try to make some sense out of all of this.
Unfortunately, we’ve done this in 2017. And in 2007. But here we are again.
I know you’re hurting right now, Husker Fan. I know you’re struggling with how to respond to this team. Here’s some guidance to help you maintain your sanity.
I. THOU SHALT CARE. This might be the hardest one, other than maybe the Tenth Commandment. The rational thing to do after seeing this debacle is to detach yourself emotionally and walk away.
Caring passionately about a football team is a blessing, a gift that lets you feel emotions and experience life in a way that those who aren’t fans won’t ever understand.
I know, I know, that means you just went through all of that agony – a feeling you’ve had at some level basically for the last two decades. That’s part of it – and it’s still worth the exchange.
Following a team, being a Nebraska fan, gives you a rhythm to life, and a connection to the past. It gives you things to think about, to focus on, to be excited for. Giving that up is just too high of a price to pay.
II. THOU SHALT FIND A HEALTHY SPACE FROM YOUR FANDOM. Having said all of that from the First Commandment, it is also really important to understand the need to take care of yourself. It’s perfectly fine to put your Nebraska fandom to the side for a little bit and let yourself heal.
Things will look better tomorrow, I promise. And better the day after that. By Friday, after a nice Thanksgiving meal (properly socially distanced, of course) you might even be ready to watch the Iowa game.
Your social media account will be just fine without you doomscrolling for the next few hours. Your bulletin board will muddle through without your ALL CAPS SCREED.
Rake your leaves, walk your dog, bake some bread, play a video game. Find something else that makes you happy and engages your brain.
Nebraska football will be there when you get back. And its going to need you, healthy, to stick together in all kinds of weather.
III. THOU SHALT TURN THE OTHER CHEEK. It’s gonna be ugly, Husker Fan. Nebraska’s going to be the butt of national jokes. Opposing fans are going to revel in Nebraska’s struggles. Your Hawkeye relatives and neighbors are going to luxuriate in this. You’re even gonna get things like this.
(Honestly, well played, Illinois social media team.)
Let them. It’s OK to acknowledge that – right now – the team you love is kinda garbage.
There’s zero point in getting into a fight with someone about this. Just acknowledge that Nebraska’s a mess, and that you still love the program. There’s a level of respect you’re going to earn for acknowledging the reality of your team being bad, and you sticking with them. And I promise, the Fourth Commandment will help you get through that.
IV. THOU SHALT SEPARATE YOUR FANDOM FROM YOUR SELF-IMAGE. This might be the most important thing to remember, just to help keep yourself sane. Yes, Nebraska’s kinda garbage right now.
But that doesn’t mean that you are kinda garbage.
You as a human being are awesome (of course you are, you’re a Double Extra Point reader)! Your friends and family don’t love you any less because your favorite team is bad. Please, please, please don’t let those streams get crossed.
Because if you’re able to remember that your team being bad doesn’t mean you are bad, that will help you keep things in perspective (see the Ninth Commandment) and stay healthy.
V. THOU SHALT NOT STRIKE YOUR COLORS. No hiding, Husker Fan. This is the time when you really earn your respect as a fan. It’s easy to be a fan when your team is good.
Now’s the time you earn your respect, Husker Fan. Wear your colors with pride, even at Thanksgiving with your Hawkeye relatives (over Zoom, of course) and let them take their shots.
I promise you, Husker Fan, not only will you earn respect, but you’ll feel better about yourself too.
VI. THOU SHALT ACCEPT REALITY. You guys, Nebraska’s bad. And there’s plenty of ways this could get worse. Both this year and looking forward.
That’s got to be your starting point. And it’s OK. What is now is no guarantee that it is what will be, whether that’s next week, next month, or next year. More on keeping faith alive in the Tenth Commandment, I promise.
But denying reality is the heart of quite a few problems we are laboring under in 2020. You will do yourself no favors cocooning yourself in a fantasy world. Accept where things are right now – good, bad, and ugly – and ride the wave out with the rest of us here in reality.
VII. THOU SHALT TAKE THE LONG VIEW. When we’ve been at these turning points before, it was pretty obvious that a coaching change was coming and that was a source of long-term hope. That’s – probably – not coming now. Frost almost assuredly isn’t going anywhere, even if Nebraska ends this strange, pandemic-influenced year 1-7.
So you gotta dig in for the long haul, Husker Fan. Yes, it looks bad now, but losing to Illinois doesn’t mean that Nebraska can’t be successful under Frost. Failure under Frost is far from a guarantee.
Of course, success under Frost is far from a guarantee too.
Nebraska football as a program is bigger than one coach – yes, even Frost. Maybe he’s not the right guy for the job. Maybe it’s the next guy that comes in that gets Nebraska back to the promised land.
Nebraska has played college football since 1890. Memorial Stadium was built in 1923. Nebraska fans have been, well, Nebraska fans, swarming to follow the scarlet and cream to its first Rose Bowl in 1941.
Nebraska football will be there after Frost is gone – whether he’s fired after abject failure or after winning national championships. That’s why being a Nebraska fan is so powerful – because it connects you to that history, that tradition, that rhythm of life that was there before you were here and will be there once you’re gone.
Don’t give up on that, Husker Fan, even though it’s not a ton of fun right now.
VIII. THOU SHALT TAKE IT ONE WEEK AT A TIME. I know, it’s hard to think that there’s a benefit of being a fan of a bad team. But one of the benefits is that you can take each game as a discrete, week-by-week experience without worrying about how it fits into the “bigger picture” of things.
College football is beautiful in large part for its weirdness. Nebraska gets Iowa next week, and the scoreboard will start at 0-0 regardless of how ugly this loss to Illinois was.
So take these gifts for what they are Husker Fan. Yeah, it doesn’t seem likely right now, but maybe things click right and Nebraska finally gets a win over Iowa on Black Friday. Or maybe they play a great game against Purdue. Or maybe they thump Minnesota.
Or, maybe none of that happens. But sports is the ultimate in reality television, and you’ll never know unless you watch. So do your best, Husker Fan, to silo off each week’s contest as a one-off rather than seeing it as a bigger picture. It’ll help you feel better, I promise.
IX. THOU SHALT MAINTAIN PERSPECTIVE. I know, I know, “it’s just a game” is loser talk.
But, really, it is just a game. And that’s the beauty of it. One of the reasons sports is such an important part of life is that it gives us a chance to feel passionately human emotions – happiness, excitement, fear, joy, anguish – about something that is ultimately meaningless.
Feeling those emotions – all those emotions, good and bad – is part of what it means to be alive, to be human. And having this big, loud, ridiculous spectacle to funnel those emotions through without (for the most part) anyone getting hurt is a tremendous blessing.
So yeah, Husker Fan, this sucks to feel like you’re back in the wilderness again, stuck there for the better part of two decades. Don’t dismiss or denigrate how bad or sad or mad you feel right now.
But if you remember that, ultimately, it is just a game, then you’re going to be well on your way to finding the strength to do all those other things that will keep you strong, healthy, and sane – well, as sane as a Nebraska fan can be, anyway.
X. THOU SHALT KEEP THE FAITH. Here’s the biggie, Husker Fan. Faith is tough, because it’s a belief in the unseen, the unproven. Faith is holding on to something even when there’s no reasonable explanation for doing so. Faith is looking into the teeth of a frightening, uncertain future and deciding to still believe in a better tomorrow.
Faith is hearing the whispers of doubt, of despair, of apathy, whispering in your ear to take the easy way out – and gently, firmly, saying no.
Faith isn’t something inherent, something you’re born with. It’s a choice. And (because it’s important to stay On Brand with this site) it’s best described by Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Lt. Commander Data : Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android – nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form; however, I realized that if I was simply a machine, I could never be anything else. I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept, so I chose to believe… that I was a person, that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors. It is a belief which I still hold.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Rightful Heir,” Season 6, Episode 23
You’ve done that as long as you’ve worn scarlet and cream, Husker Fan. Many of you made that leap after Nebraska was mauled by Colorado in 2001. Or Kansas in 2007. Or Wisconsin in 2012.
Make it again, Husker Fan. I promise you, it’ll be worth it. Stick with us. Just listen to this smart and particularly handsome analyst from 2007 – who admittedly might have been just a bit hyperbolic (and even, ew, used the word “haters”) in his younger days.
We must stand firm, and stand together. We must care for and respect each other, even when we disagree. We must remember that we all want the same thing. And we must believe – nay, we must know – that brighter days are ahead. Nebraska will rise again, because we the people will demand it, and will not rest until we are delivered. Let the haters crow and enjoy our time in darkness. We will rise above them, and we will once again be the insufferably polite fans who cheer as our team dominates all opponents.
Nebraska fans were over the moon in the first half, watching NU out-play Penn State and take a 27-6 lead into the half. Then, the familiar second-half doldrums and catastrophic defensive breakdown came back, and Nebraska gave Penn State two legit shots to send the game into overtime.
But the defense held both times, keeping the Lions off the board in two first-and-goal situations, and salting away head coach Scott Frost’s first win in 2020.
So in reviewing Nebraska’s nail-biter against Penn State …
Luke’s Team. Frost made a bold choice in benching Adrian Martinez for Luke McCaffrey – although given Martinez’s struggles going back to last year, it would have been hard to make any other decision. The decision paid off, with McCaffrey delivering decisiveness, footspeed, accuracy, and good decision-making
Special Teams. Hey, remember last year when Nebraska was literally pulling people off the street to fill in kicking roles? This year, both spots have been manned well, with Connor Culp as placekicker and Will Pryztup at punter. Culp didn’t do anything remarkable, but was incredibly reliable, going 3-for-3 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points. Even though none of the field goals were longer than 30 yards, the point is that he made them all … and kept Penn State at sufficient arms’ length to avoid yet another devastating collapse.
And when Nebraska’s offense went three-and-out late in the game and was set to give Penn State the ball back with a chance to tie, Pryztup uncorked a 53-yard punt that required a fair catch, making the Lions go 69 yards to tie the game. As we saw, Penn State was able to get most of that distance – but not all of it.
Last year, that wasn’t the case. And not having those quietly competent specialists could easily have been the difference between victory and defeat in a game like this for Nebraska.
Meaningless Stat. Penn State had 501 total yards to Nebraska’s 298 – and lost by seven. Last week, Nebraska had 442 yards to Northwestern’s 317 last week – and lost by eight.
It’s almost like total yardage is a pretty meaningless statistic. It’s not quite like a Win in baseball, but please keep in mind that total yardage can be incredibly misleading. In many ways, Nebraska beat Penn State in the same manner that Northwestern beat Nebraska last week – by forcing the opponent to be methodical down the field, and preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Second Half Struggles. Nebraska has played three games in 2020. It has scored six points – in total – in the second half. That works out to 0.067 points per minute. Nebraska’s run a total of 95 second-half plays, yielding 0.063 points per play.
That’s … bad.
Thankfully Nebraska had a big enough first half lead to survive the second half offensive power outage – as well as facing an opponent somehow worse in the red zone than NU. While a win like this is critical for the team’s psyche, Nebraska can’t just cede the second half offensively if it wants to turn that mythical corner.
Staying Sharp. Nebraska’s still struggling with getting correct personnel in on offense, even coming out of stoppages of play. It wasn’t nearly the struggle it had been in weeks past, but those are the kinds of mistakes that just simply shouldn’t happen at all.
Converting. Much like last week, third down and red zone conversions for Nebraska were anemic. Nebraska was 4-for-12 on third downs, and 1-for-4 in touchdowns scored in the red zone. Both of those statistics are a big reason why Penn State was able to mount a comeback and – almost – snatch a victory away from Nebraska.
AND THE FOOT IN THE GROUND
Well, there it is, Husker Fan. We’ve talked a lot here about how winning begets winning. Now – finally – Nebraska has gotten a payoff for all its hard work. Now there’s some confidence that can build from a win over a marquee team.
Yes, I know Penn State is 0-4, but it’s still Penn State. There’s still NFL guys – a bunch of them – that were on the field trying to muster that comeback. And, finally, Nebraska was in a tight spot and made the winning play instead of having the winning play made against it.
The closest thing Nebraska had to that kind of a result was last year’s 13-10 thriller over Northwestern. Given how anemic Nebraska’s offense was in that game, it was hard to see it as a turning point – and with Nebraska getting bullied by Minnesota the following week, 34-7, it clearly wasn’t.
This feels a little different. Nebraska really dominated Penn State in the first half. Then, the calamitous find-a-way-to-lose Nebraska showed up in the second half. But the defense bowed up, again and again, and made two goal line stands to preserve a win.
So, let’s see if this is when Nebraska as a program finally puts a metaphorical foot in the ground to change direction. Next week Illinois comes to town, coming off its first win of the season after handing the starting quarterback job to dual threat freshman Isaiah Williams.
The opportunity is there for Nebraska to get only its fourth back-to-back winning streak in Frost’s tenure. A win over Illinois – a team that Nebraska has the talent to beat – puts Nebraska at .500 going into Black Friday against Iowa.
Nebraska got the win it desperately needed, to put confidence and hope into a battered program. Let’s see if that foot in the ground holds, and Nebraska can build on this victory to change the direction of the program.
Nebraska came to Evanston with an opportunity to put itself right in the mix for the B1G West title. In a pandemic-shortened season, and with division heavyweight Wisconsin in question, the door was wide open.
And, as we have seen time and time (and time, and time, and time) again, Nebraska ran face-first into that mythical door as opposed to kicking it open.
Nebraska outgained Northwestern in total yardage, 442-317. Nebraska gained more yards per play, 5.02 to 4.88. Nebraska ran far more plays than Northwestern, 88-65. Nebraska was even with Northwestern in turnovers, with two apiece.
Those are numbers that should point to a win. But those numbers cover the game as a whole. When Nebraska’s offense was called upon to produce when it mattered, it fell flat. Nebraska was 4-for-16 (!) on third-down conversions. Nebraska only scored one touchdown in six trips to the red zone – and turned the ball over twice in Northwestern’s end zone.
Indeed, the second interception – Luke McCaffrey bouncing a pass off his lineman’s helmet and having it flutter softly into the hands of an opposing defender for an interception – feels like a distillation of Nebraska football over the last five years.
And, really, that’s the ball game. If Nebraska puts the ball in the end zone, rather than turning it over, that’s a fourteen-point swing in a game Nebraska lost by eight.
So stop me if you’ve heard this one. Nebraska’s own ill-discipline and inability to perform at the crucial moment was the difference between victory and defeat.
Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.
Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.
That’s what’s terrifying, isn’t it Husker Fan? Terrifying that the self-destruction in Evanston, the interception bounced off an offensive lineman’s helmet in the opponent’s end zone, is what this Nebraska team is going to be. It’s probably a little hyperbolic (not to mention pedantic) to be reminded of George Orwell’s “1984” quote about how a seeing the future is to “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”
But sometimes that’s what it feels like to be a Nebraska fan. When Scott Frost arrived in Lincoln, he was able to unite the fanbase around the hope of a dynamic offense and a tough-minded attitude. But what we have seen since his arrival in 2018 is exactly what we’d seen before – a team with flashes of potential that was utterly unable to get out of its own way.
Now, in year three, we’ve seen a re-run of the same movie that has all but foreclosed Nebraska’s chances of winning a wide-open B1G West division. And fans are running out of reasons for hope.
Winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. I do think Frost was right in that when Nebraska turns the corner, it will happen quickly. I’ve just become fairly certain that “when” in that sentence is doing a lot of work.
Frost ain’t going anywhere, and his inclusion on any hot-seat rankings is silly talk. He’s just signed a multi-year extension, he’s still recruiting at a high level, and making any judgments about a program in this pandemic-altered season is folly. If you’re looking for true danger signals about Frost’s tenure, watch to see if the recruiting rankings start to slip.
Until then, Frost is the guy, and he should be. He’s got every chance to get the gigantic ocean-liner U.S.S. Nebraska Football Program turned away from its current course into the Cove Of College Football Irrelevance.
But the Northwestern game felt like a turning point, at least for me – and it seemed like a lot of Nebraska fans as well. Everyone is, of course, still hoping Nebraska will turn that mythical corner and start to be a contender in the B1G West.
The certainty that Nebraska will turn that corner under Frost, though, feels like it died in the long Evanston grass on Saturday morning. Now we’re back to where we were in late-era Pelini and the entire Riley era – going full Missourian and waiting for Nebraska to “show me” before investing any kind of confidence in future competitiveness.
Penn State is coming to Lincoln this weekend. How are you approaching this game, Husker Fan? Excited at the chance for (at least on paper) Nebraska to finally get a marquee win? Or resigned to watching a game that you hope like heck Nebraska wins but holding your breath and waiting to see what borderline-comical way Nebraska finds to lose?
The answer says a lot about where you’re at 26 games into Frost’s tenure in charge.
After a strong start, Nebraska fell victim to both its own mistakes and a top-flight Ohio State squad, losing its 2020 season opener to the Buckeyes, 52-17. The game was more than competitive throughout the first half, but a flurry of chances taken advantage of by Ohio State put the game beyond doubt early in the second half. So, in looking back at week one of the B1G 3.0 schedule for 2020 …
Signs of Life: That first half felt pretty good, didn’t it Husker Fan? You could see it, starting to take shape, that proof-of-concept of what head coach Scott Frost is trying to build. You could see Nebraska competitive in a way that we haven’t seen for a while.
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s second half looked a lot like what we’ve seen earlier in terms of NU hurting itself. But after last year’s humiliation, to see Nebraska at least be able to be on the same field with Ohio State
Bringing Heat: Nebraska sacked Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields three times. Given how much Nebraska struggled with generating a pass rush last year, and that the entire defensive line was replaced, it’s an encouraging sign that Nebraska is able to generate enough of a pass rush even against an offensive line like Ohio State.
Competent Kicking: Placekicker Connor Culp wasn’t asked to do a lot, but looked like a competent FBS kicker. That in and of itself is a massive difference from last season. Remember, with a league-average placekicker, Nebraska last year is likely 7-5 with a win over Iowa. So that box, at the very least, is checked for Nebraska.
Self-Destruction: Nebraska was down 17-14 with three minutes to go in the first half and the ball. If Nebraska scores, they go into half with the lead. If they at least bleed the clock, they are within three points at the half.
Instead, Nebraska took a delay of game penalty to start the drive (!), went backwards on three plays, and punted the ball back to Ohio State at midfield. The Buckeyes punched in a touchdown, then scored on the first play of the second half, and all of a sudden it was 31-17.
That kind of summarized the second half. Penalties and turnovers helped snowball the game and let it get away from Nebraska. Ohio State is very, very good, probably College Football Playoff good. But Nebraska gave the Buckeyes a ton of help in the defeat.
Lack of Deep Threat: Nebraska’s quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey had a total of 290 yards of total offense – out of Nebraska’s total of 377. Wan’Dale Robinson was the only receiver with any catches (outside of garbage time), logging six grabs for 49 yards. I am not sure Nebraska threw more than one pass more than thirty yards downfield.
That’s not going to get it done against anyone, much less Ohio State. Junior college transfer Omar Manning wasn’t able to get into the game, which might have made a difference. But Nebraska’s got to find a way to manufacture some kind of deep threat or the offense is going to struggle.
The Outs: Every time Nebraska went to a single-high look, Nebraska’s secondary gave monstrous cushions to the outside receivers and left easy completions for 8-15 yards. For the most part, Nebraska’s defense held up fairly well (relative to Ohio State). And with both starting safeties for Nebraska missing the first half against Wisconsin for targeting calls.
Against Illinois (I know, I know), Wisconsin’s freshman quarterback Graham Mertz took advantage of soft outside coverage on the same kind of outs the whole game. If Nebraska is going to recover from this beating and compete against Wisconsin, that’s got to be fixed.
AND THE LONG VIEW
Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress. Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.
Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.
Wisconsin looked sharp in a comfortable win over Illinois on Friday. The Badgers clearly aren’t the same team without talents like Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus. But like Wisconsin teams of the past, the Badgers know exactly who they are and will punish Nebraska if it can’t play cleaner.
So the season is off the ground. But next week, in many ways, the season really begins.
OK, so now for the third time this year, here’s our official predictions for Nebraska’s 2020 season. As always, we will be using the following technique for season predictions, breaking games down into four categories.
Win all games in the category
Win more than half the games in the category
Win less than half the games in the category
Win no games in the category
In addition, as always, we’ll include a Fearless Forecast of the game’s score, primarily to give us a second bite at the apple to get the season record right.
(Kidding, of course, the Fearless Forecast one doesn’t count for the Double Extra Point’s “official” prediction.)
It’s shorter this year, but with everything that’s gone into getting here, it might be sweeter.
OHIO STATE (away, Oct. 24)
In 2018, a freshman Adrian Martinez took Nebraska into the Horseshoe and nearly pulled off a remarkable upset against the juggernaut Buckeyes.
In 2019, Ohio State had a new head coach and Nebraska had the momentum of ESPN Game Day being in Lincoln for the game – and got throttled by one of the best college football teams to play in Memorial Stadium, period.
It’s a weird year, and this is the first game back after a long, long layoff. If there’s gonna be a freaky result to happen, this would be the time.
Having said that, Husker Fan, expect a bad outcome for Nebraska. Just remember that the Buckeyes aren’t the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress – at least not yet.
Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 54, Nebraska 24
WISCONSIN (home, Oct. 31)
OK, we’re cheating a little bit, as this is being written after the first half of the Wisconsin-Illinois game. Quarterback Jack Cohn will be sidelined for the Badgers for some time, but freshman phenom Graham Mertz looks every bit the part to fit in nicely – at least against Illinois’ secondary.
In this pandemic-shortened sort-of season, it’s tempting to think the whole thing could be a mulligan. But Nebraska went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin last year, until a kick return for a touchdown broke the dam open.
Wisconsin without Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephas is not the same offense of course. But Wisconsin has been the best team in the B1G West for some time. I’ll believe Nebraska beats Sconnie when I see it, not before.
Besides, if Nebraska wins, we’re stuck having to house this monstrosity of a trophy for a whole year.
Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 23
NORTHWESTERN (away, Nov. 7)
The Purples always give Nebraska fits. With the overgrown grass at Ryan Field to slow down Nebraska’s speed, and with Northwestern’s discipline and toughness, the Purples are laboratory-built to keep games close. Last year, Nebraska got a walk-off (and super shaky) field goal to notch a win.
Look for a better performance for Nebraska this year. This is definitely a canary-in-the-coal-mine game, meaning if Nebraska doesn’t win relatively comfortably, then it bodes ill for the rest of the season.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Northwestern 14
PENN STATE (home, Nov. 14)
The Nittany Lions come to Lincoln with a more talented roster than Nebraska. But they come without uber-talented running back Journey Brown and linebacker Micah Parsons. Omaha World-Herald reporter Sam McKewon is convinced Penn State is a winnable game for Nebraska.
Maybe. But I’ll believe it when I see it with a talent game like this.
Fearless Forecast: Penn State 35, Nebraska 21
ILLINOIS (away, Nov. 21)
Look, Illinois went to a bowl last year and Nebraska didn’t. And Illinois is now reaping the benefit of head coach Lovie Smith’s decision to go with a massive youth project a couple of years ago, and now boasts an incredibly veteran squad.
It’s just … not a terribly talented veteran squad. Now, maybe Nebraska’s gauntlet of a schedule start takes it out of the team’s psyche and NU isn’t able to answer the bell. But this game, both because of the talent difference and because of where it is on the schedule, is the only game that goes in this category.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Illinois 17
IOWA (away, Nov. 27)
Well, if it takes a pandemic to get Nebraska-Iowa back to Black Friday …
Yes, it’s great that Nebraska and Iowa is back on Black Friday. And yes, Husker Fan, you need to embrace the rivalry with Iowa. Believe me, they hate you regardless and have for generations, and this conference is a lot more fun if you hate them back.
In the last two years, Iowa has beaten Nebraska on last-second field goals. Iowa this year will be breaking in a new quarterback, although by this time of the season that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Nebraska outplayed Iowa last year and gave the game away at the end.
Which, fair play to Iowa, was taken advantage of by the Hawkeyes. In 2018, Iowa outplayed Nebraska and let NU back in and nearly steal the contest. Regardless, the two teams are clearly neck-and-neck with each other.
So maybe it’s a little bit of the Gambler’s Fallacy, but Nebraska’s due.
Fearless forecast: Nebraska 27, Iowa 24 (with at least one blown kiss by an NU specialist to the empty stands)
PURDUE (away, Dec. 5)
Nebraska hasn’t beaten Purdue since a last-second touchdown from Tanner Lee (remember that guy?) to Stanley Morgan in 2017 – which was Mike Riley’s last win as Nebraska’s head coach. Purdue is still a well-coached team and will probably have all-everything tailback Rondale Moore at its disposal. Plus, a trip to West Lafayette is not ideal, even without fans.
It’s a dangerous game for Nebraska, but one where NU’s underlying talent advantage should help break the streak.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Purdue 21
MINNESOTA (home, Dec, 12)
A young, highly-touted coach falls victim to a punishing running attack, suffering a blowout loss on the road.
Yep, that’s what happened in 2018, when P.J. Fleck rowed the boat to Lincoln and Minnesota lost to Nebraska 53-28.
Look, Minnesota’s 2019 campaign was nothing short of remarkable. But why one season vaults Goldy up to the level of Wisconsin and Iowa in the upper echelon of the B1G West still escapes me. Yes, Minnesota should be good this year. But I’m waiting to see if 2019 was the rule or the exception before I will give Minnesota the same due that Sconnie or Iowa get.
Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 28, Minnesota 21
OK, let’s take a look and see what our system tells us about how Nebraska’s season will go
2020 Season Projection
A 4-4 mark for Nebraska would reflect steady progress, particularly with noticing a win over one of Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota. It’s not going to be challenging for a division title, but it should be enough proof-of-concept that Scott Frost’s scheme and vision can be successful in the B1G.
The Fearless Forecast is more optimistic, with a 5-3 mark – and, more importantly, notching wins over Iowa and Minnesota. This season would have to be viewed as nothing but a great success, getting Nebraska a good matchup in the Championship Week positional postseason game against the B1G East and a good bowl opponent.
So enjoy this strangest of seasons, Husker Fan. Any games we get in the midst of this pandemic are a blessing, so take them in that spirit.
Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. That’s hard to process when it’s seen in black and white. And while three years isn’t forever, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for feeling like it has been.
But there’s reason to think that, even in this pandemic-shortened season, Nebraska can finally show that it is turning that metaphorical corner. Here’s five reasons why you should be hopeful as the new season dawns.
If there was one specific area of disappointment for Nebraska in 2019, it was a lack of offensive performance. But towards the end of the season, as Nebraska’s offensive line began performing well, NU began leaning on downhill running with Dedrick Mills.
In the seventh through ninth games of the season, Mills never had more than ten carries in a game, and never averaged more than 3.75 yards per carry. But against Wisconsin and Iowa (two of the last three games), Mills had 17 and 24 carries, and averaged over 11 (!) yards per carry against the Badgers’ defense.
This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is starting from a much better place than last year. In 2019, the middle of Nebraska’s offensive line consisted of two walk-ons and a center who never played center. This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is both more experienced and more talented, and have a proven between-the-tackles thumper in Mills.
The second reason is related to the first. Last year, freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson was the most dynamic, dangerous part of Nebraska’s offense. Indeed, with the departure of Maurice Washington, the struggles of Adrian Martinez, and the injuries to J.D. Spielman, Robinson was the only offensive weapon.
The problem with that was it put so much pressure on Nebraska to over-use their best weapon. Robinson is five-foot-nine and 185 pounds. Robinson had games with 19, 22, and 14 carries. That’s too many for a player of his size, and we saw Robinson suffer from injury and diminished proportions.
In many ways, Robinson’s use last year echoed how De’mornay Pierson-El was used in 2016 and 2017. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was a diminutive, dynamic offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was at many times Nebraska’s only legitimate offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was exposed to far too much punishment from over-use, suffered injury, and ultimately never was able to realize his potential.
If Nebraska is able to establish more of a downhill attack, and has more weapons (see below), then Robinson will be able to be used properly, not over-used, and have a chance to fulfill his potential.
OPTIONS FOR MARTINEZ
Last year, receiver was an underwhelming position for Nebraska. Again, Robinson ended up being Nebraska’s only consistent weapon, particularly with Spielman’s injury.
This year, Nebraska has a number of tantalizing possibilities at receiver. Junior college transfer Omar Manning’s size and body type is tantalizing, although his injuries have limited his availability at least at the start of the season. Freshman Xavier Betts brings a similar size, and Alante Brown has possibility as a playmaking receiver.
Tight end has always been a little bit like Lucy with the football for Nebraska, as the possible talent always seems to be present but never quite materializes (otherwise known as the Mike McNeil effect). But this year could be different. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek has all the attributes to be a dangerous offensive weapon, and Chris Hickman is now listed at wide receiver but is functionally a move tight end as well. Particularly with the uncertainty at wide receiver, tight end might take up the slack to provide additional weapons, and maybe force a second safety back and open up running lanes between the tackles as well.
Deontai Williams’ freshman year offered a tantalizing look at an immensely talented defensive back. At safety, Williams displayed the kind of talent and instincts that can be game-changing for a defense. Unfortunately, he struggled to carve out a role as a freshman, and was looking at his sophomore campaign to start making his mark.
An injury in the season opener derailed his entire 2019 season. But now he is back, healthy, and looks set to lead an experience secondary. While Nebraska might struggle with generating pressure, if Williams and the rest of the secondary can overachieve then Nebraska’s defense has a chance to shine.
Yeah, last year was a rousing disappointment. But you can point to discrete events in a number of games – Wisconsin and Iowa being the most obvious – where even a competent placekicker would have either won the game or at least kept it very competitive. If that’s the only variable that changed, how would you look back on a 7-5 record with wins over Wisconsin and Iowa last year, Husker Fan?
Nebraska made sure it wouldn’t be in the same situation this year, having four (!) punters and five (!!) placekickers on the 2020 roster. Michigan State transfer William Prystup will be the starting punter, and Connor Culp will be the starting placekicker. Specifically Culp, an LSU transfer who went 11-16 for field goals and 20-23 for extra points in 2017, will at least provide Nebraska with a legitimate FBS kicking option – something that was lacking last year. And just having that option will prevent Nebraska’s offense from being hamstrung as it was last year.