Stop me if you’ve heard this one. On the cusp of finally delivering a signature win, Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers committed a catastrophic mistake which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In this case, it was quarterback Adrian Martinez’ fumble late in the fourth quarter which allowed no. 9 Michigan to escape from Lincoln on Saturday, 32-29.
Once again, Nebraska sees a chance for victory come agonizingly close. The players see it too, and are just as sick of it as the fans. Here’s defensive end Ty Robinson, courtesy of 247 Sports.
We’re so close. I mean, I’m sick and tired of hearing we’re so close.
It’s hard not to think that the Nebraska program is cursed, trapped in a time loop like Loki in the TVA. Certainly the pain of all these close losses feels the same, over and over.
So why should you keep coming back? Why should you – dare we even say it out loud – be more encouraged about Nebraska now than a month ago?
A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that before this year, Nebraska was losing heartbreakers to mediocre teams and getting blown out by good ones. This year (Illinois notwithstanding), Nebraska is beating mediocre teams and losing heartbreakers to good ones.
That’s progress! Baby steps, sure. As unsatisfying as rice cakes without peanut butter, absolutely.
But it’s progress. Nebraska hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since September of 2016 with a 35-32 win over Oregon. Since then, Nebraska is an eye-watering 0-15 against ranked opponents.
Which is terrible of course. But the margin of defeat tells a little more of the story. Here’s the list of those games.
at (11) Wisconsin
at (6) Ohio State
(9) Ohio State
at (13) Penn State
at (19) Michigan
at (16) Wisconsin
at (8) Ohio State
(5) Ohio State
at (5) Ohio State
at (3) Oklahoma
at (20) Michigan State
But take a look at the margin of victory in visual format (with the tenures of Mike Riley and Frost separated out).
Notice something at the right end of that graph? See how in 2021, the comically-bad margins of defeat evaporate? From 2016-2020, Nebraska’s average margin of defeat against ranked opponents was 25.25 (!) points.
In 2021? The average margin of defeat is 4.33 points.
Now sure, losses are losses. And 2021 is a small sample size. Ohio State is still on the schedule. And Nebraska certainly has a history of clunkers against teams it should beat.
But now for a sustained period of time, this Nebraska looks different than Nebraska of years past. And maybe that’s why you should take the rest of Robinson’s quote seriously.
But gosh darn it, we’re close. If it isn’t this game, it’s definitely going to be the next game, and we’ll move on from this and learn from our mistakes.
Never mind the fact that Robinson clearly falling prey to the gambler’s fallacy. Any human being that large who comes at you with a “gosh darn it” to the press is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
So don’t just take it on faith, Husker Fan. There’s reasons for hope. It’s no guarantee, of course. But it’s not blind faith any more, either.
Nebraska came into Norman as a 23-point underdog against the Sooners, and left with a seven-point loss and a new-found respect around the country. Penalties and an atrocious placekicking performance marred what was otherwise an impressive performance on both sides of the ball against a team that many (including me) thought would overmatch the Cornhuskers.
So, in looking back at Nebraska’s near-miss against Oklahoma …
Adrian’s In Charge. Before the season started, hopes around Nebraska’s season centered around whether quarterback Adrian Martinez could revert to his 2018 freshman form. After a disastrous first half against Illinois, it looked like those hopes would be in vain.
But since then, Martinez has been nothing short of brilliant. He’s made plays with his arm and his legs. He’s made good decisions. He’s protected the football. He’s done everything Nebraska has needed him to do for success. And absent a competent kicker (more on that later) he would have led Nebraska to its biggest win this century.
Staying On The Field. I thought this game would be a bloodbath for Nebraska in part because of the fragile mentality of the team, but mainly because I didn’t think Nebraska had the talent to compete with a team like Oklahoma. I was wrong. While the offensive line certainly struggled, Nebraska more than looked like it could compete with Oklahoma’s talent. That’s a hugely encouraging sign going forward.
Stripes! A smart and particularly handsome analyst observed this about Nebraska’s contest against Oklahoma.
Now, sure, maybe the stripes were there as an homage to the 1971 Game of the Century (which if that was the case, then varsity stripes on the shoulders plz). But the alternates last week against Buffalo also had stripes on the pants. Maybe – just maybe – Nebraska is finally realizing the grotesque mistake its stripeless yoga pants look has inflicted on the college football world.
The Dumbest Team in America. Eight penalties for 70 yards. Two unsportsmanlike penalties that helped keep Oklahoma drives alive. Former Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan called his Raiders team the “dumbest team in America” after a mistake-filled loss. And in a close-but-no-cigar match, Nebraska simply cannot afford the kind of undisciplined mistakes it made in Norman.
Kicker Conundrum. It’s really hard to blame Frost for Nebraska’s current placekicking woes. Connor Culp is the returning B1G Kicker of the Year. With all the other moving parts, it was entirely fair to think that the placekicking role was basically set.
It isn’t. Culp is 3-8 (!) on field goal attempts and 13-16 (!!) on extra points in 2021. Culp’s two missed field goals and the blocked extra point returned for a two-point conversion adds up to an eight-point swing in Oklahoma’s favor.
Oklahoma won by seven.
This sounds like a reprise from 2019, but Nebraska was a competent placekicker away from pulling off the program’s biggest win of the century in Norman.
(In an utterly bewildering statistic I had to check to believe, Nebraska’s opponents are a combined 1-7 in field goal attempts. One for seven! How is that even possible?)
The Rough Road Ahead. You guys, Michigan State is good. The Spartans looked like a pretty soft opponent at the start of the season, but new head coach Mel Tucker has Sparty off to a 3-0 start and a no. 20 ranking nationally after an impressive 38-17 win against the Hurricanes in Miami.
Take a look, if you dare, at the rest of Nebraska’s schedule. Michigan State is now ranked. Michigan will be ranked. Ohio State will be ranked. Wisconsin will be ranked. Iowa will be ranked. Shoot, Minnesota will probably be ranked.
That will make at least six, likely seven of Nebraska’s opponents in 2021 being ranked. It is likely that at least three (Oklahoma, Ohio State, Iowa) and maybe more (Michigan, Wisconsin) will be ranked in the top 10.
That’s quite a gauntlet. Frost’s results for this season have to be graded on a curve accordingly.
AND THE MORAL VICTORY
I’ll admit it, I thought this game would be a slaughter for Nebraska. So much so that this is how I spent my Saturday afternoon.
You may commence your mocking of me in the comments below (although I did tie for third in the tournament!)
Nebraska’s players are certainly saying the right things after the close loss, about how being close isn’t good enough and that they want to win. And having an unfinished business mindset will be the best possible way to prepare for a smart and tough Michigan State team on the road.
But the fans? Heck, moral victories are for fans. After the Illinois debacle, a good chunk of the Nebraska fanbase was ready to fold the tent on the Frost era and start looking ahead to another rebuild. Nebraska’s spirited performance against Oklahoma offered the briefest of glimpse at the tantalizing possibility that Nebraska could be … good again?
FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who called the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, had this to say about where the Nebraska program is after seeing the contest.
Between a really solid performance against Buffalo and last week’s effort against Oklahoma, there’s reason to be hopeful from the Nebraska fanbase. At the very least, the Frost-on-the-hot-seat talk should die down some.
In a sneaky-huge challenge for Scott Frost, Nebraska comfortably beat Buffalo at home, 28-3. While the score stubbornly stayed close until a Luke Reimer interception set up Nebraska for an insurance touchdown, NU avoided the catastrophic errors that had plagued it for years and never gave the Bulls the momentum and opportunity to stage an upset.
So for Nebraska’s win over Buffalo …
Adrian’s Back? One of the enduring mysteries of Nebraska in the Frost era has been the inconsistency – which might be a more polite way to say regression – of quarterback Adrian Martinez. His inaccuracy and critical turnover against Illinois was a huge factor in Nebraska’s upset loss to open the season.
Martinez shone against Fordham last week but, let’s be honest, it was Fordham. Buffalo has been the best of Nebraska’s first three opponents, so the question was how Martinez would fare.
He answered the bell. His long run after surviving a jailbreak pass rush was the spark that seemed to start Nebraska’s offense. He began to make plays, including an improvised forward flip. After having watched Martinez throughout his career, that flip prompted this response from a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst.
That catastrophe, of course, never came. Martinez continued to make plays and, far more importantly, make good decisions and protect the football. Even though Nebraska didn’t really pull away from Buffalo until late, Martinez’ smart play never created a scenario where Buffalo could feel life coming back into the game.
Resiliency. Nebraska had two touchdowns taken off the board on … questionable refereeing decisions. Nebraska’s all-conference placekicker went 0-3 on field goals, meaning Nebraska came away with no points on three scoring opportunities.
As fragile as Nebraska’s confidence has been, little things like that have been enough to start the team spiraling and unable to respond to challenges. But at least for this week, Nebraska was able to weather the storm and keep fighting, ultimately getting a comfortable win.
Stripes. Sure, they were hard to see on the super-sharp alternate uniforms. But the stripes on the pants were back. It’s a welcome sight, and at least a glimmer of hope that the powers that be will finally see the light and end the unfortunate era of yoga pants for the scarlet and cream.
The Question of the Year. What’s happened to Nebraska’s offensive line? The Pipeline was supposed to be a source of strength, but over the first quarter of the season it has been anything but. Against inferior talent, Nebraska has been unable to generate any consistent rushing attack between the tackles. Martinez played brilliantly but was running for his life almost immediately upon getting the snap.
The defenses Nebraska will face the rest of this year are significantly better, on the whole, from what its seen so far. If the offensive line can’t find its feet – and quickly – any chance of a resurgence for Nebraska this year is unlikely.
The Other Question of the Year. How is it possible that Nebraska’s special teams can continue to be this comically bad? Yes, Nebraska’s kickoff coverage is worlds better than it was last year. But that’s really it. Other than one punt, Daniel Cerni has been underwhelming in terms of both punting distance and accuracy. Placekicker Connor Culp, as discussed earlier, has been nothing short of a disaster. And Cam Taylor-Britt has fumbled at least one punt return in each of Nebraska’s first three games. Yes, it’s not entirely fair to charge this week’s fumble on Taylor-Britt, but the fact that Nebraska’s punt return unit is good for at least one fumble per game is unacceptable.
Much like with the offensive line, being this bad on special teams is enough on its own to kill any chance of Nebraska turning a corner in 2021.
Where Was This In Champaign? Since beating Nebraska, Illinois has lost by 7 to the UTSA Roadrunners and by 28 (!) to Virginia. Nebraska’s performance against Buffalo – which, again, would likely be favored over Illinois on neutral ground – was its most complete since a 54-7 win over Maryland in 2019.
Had Nebraska put this performance on in Champaign against the Illini, it’s hard not to see that NU would be 3-0 and with a far different vibe preparing for a trip to Norman.
AND THE PROOF OF CONCEPT
Oh, that’s what it’s like when Nebraska doesn’t beat Nebraska. Even with the struggles running the ball between the tackles (even against a six-man box), Martinez’s ability to go over the top and attack the edges with a nifty option package let Nebraska’s offense thrive.
And Nebraska’s defense finally looked on point for four quarters. Against a sturdy rushing attack and quick-pass offense, the Blackshirts stood tall and kept Buffalo from ever really threatening to get back into the contest.
Nebraska beat the best team its faced by 25, and absent to questionable-to-ridiculous official calls would have won by 40. Sure, Oklahoma’s next, and Nebraska looks dramatically overmatched. But after Oklahoma is a well-coached Michigan State squad and a struggling Northwestern team at home. Should Nebraska survive its trip to Norman, physically and emotionally, then there are two winnable games on the schedule.
A 4-2 record after the first half of the season is certainly on the cards, which seemed a million miles away after the loss in Champaign.
Following Nebraska football has never been relaxing. This summer started two of Nebraska’s best offensive players leaving the program, and ended with a new athletic director and an NCAA investigation.
This has made Nebraska in general and Frost in particular the source of yet another round of bad publicity nationally, which is never helpful for a struggling program. And given the struggles Nebraska has gone through in the last few years, it seems like there’s a million problems to fix.
But really, there’s just one. Fix this, and everything else pretty much falls into place.
What’s this silver bullet, you ask? Well (assuming you didn’t read the headline and spoil it), just stop putting up bad losses.
In this context, I’m defining a bad loss as a team that Nebraska – even as currently constituted – should be beating more often than not. Take a walk with me over the last three years at the bad losses Nebraska has piled up – if you dare
Colorado 33, Nebraska 28. The Buffaloes were coming off a dreadful season, and Nebraska gave new head coach Mel Tucker a gift.
Troy 24, Nebraska 19. I don’t care that Adrian Martinez was hurt. I don’t care that Troy is one of the better G5 programs, especially in 2018. Losing to a Sun Belt team at home is always a bad loss.
Purdue 42, Nebraska 28. A team that needed every win to reach a bowl game coming into Lincoln and winning by double digits still is a head-scratcher.
Colorado 34, Nebraska 31. Boy did this game have every chance to be the iconic moment of Frost’s tenure to date, with Nebraska fans painting Folsom Field red. But Nebraska’s chronic inability to close a game out soured the day, and in some ways the season.
Indiana 38, Nebraska 31. Yes, I know the whole Indiana program will be offended to be included in this list. And to be honest, 2021 Indiana wouldn’t count as a bad loss. But 2019 Indiana – especially at home – most certainly did.
Purdue 31, Nebraska 27. Nebraska caught a huge break in playing Purdue without phenom Rondale Moore – and lost anyway.
Illinois 43, Nebraska 21. Possibly the ugliest loss in the Frost era – and that includes a loss to Troy. Nebraska was bullied and intimidated by an Illini squad that fired its coach at season’s end.
Minnesota 24, Nebraska 17. A comically-undermanned Minnesota team (thanks to COVID) rolled into Lincoln and ended up beating a Nebraska squad that had clearly had enough football for the year. If the Illinois loss was Frost’s ugliest, this was his most unforgivable.
That’s … a big list. But let’s just imagine what Nebraska’s program would look like if everything stayed the same – blowout losses, frustration against Iowa and Wisconsin notwithstanding.
That would mean, of course, that Nebraska would have been to a bowl for three straight years too. How much better would you feel about the status of the program if this was Frost’s resume instead of what it currently is?
So really, that’s the hill Nebraska needs to climb right now. Not beating the Buckeyes in Columbus. Not even (shudder) beating Iowa. Just stop losing to Sun Belt teams and teams about to fire coaches and teams that can barely field a full roster.
If Frost can accomplish that – and the fact that it’s a question is quite the indictment of the program – then Nebraska’s program should be on far better footing moving forward.
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.
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.
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.