Nebraska Football: Survival Tips for Husker Fans

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I don’t know what to tell you, Husker Fan.

I know you usually come here for a little analysis of the game and a little big-picture thinking about life as a fan. Usually it involves some pithy invocation of “in all kinds of weather” as a call to persevere.

After Nebraska’s loss to Purdue, I’m running out of things to say. Nebraska football just feels like the sequel to “Groundhog’s Day” that no one needed, where we just see the same gut-punching loss over and over and over again.

At this point, it feels like we all need a little guidance for how to get through these troubled times. We’ve heard quite a bit about what’s OK and what’s not OK, so I thought it was time to look at that in terms of how fans should respond to Nebraska’s current foibles.

A LITTLE SELF-CARE IS OK

I get it, Husker Fan. Nebraska football is an integral part of your life, especially in the autumn. Gameday really is a three day event, covering the excitement of the day before, the game itself, and the day after either reveling or mourning the result of the game.

But these aren’t normal times. Nebraska is 4-5, and all but certainly will not be going to a bowl for a third straight year. To go from the dizzying heights of this year’s off-season Kool-Aid to getting beat by 2-6 Purdue is quite a fall.

So it’s OK to give Nebraska a little space for the rest of this year. I ended up listening to most of the second half on the radio doing yardwork, and it was far, far healthier than watching the television helplessly and obsessively refreshing Twitter. Just after the game was over, I changed out of my game-day apparel and put my Nebraska flag away. I was angry and frustrated and just couldn’t bear to look at the N any more.

It worked. Pretty soon, I was able to get myself into a far more regulated state of mind. One of the great things about sports is that we care so much about things that are ultimately meaningless. But if that’s true, then for our own sanity we have to be able to remember that it is meaningless in the grander scheme of things.

So do what you have to in order to get through these next few weeks – or few months. Not holding Nebraska football quite so tight as you usually do isn’t the same thing as letting it go.

QUITTING IS NOT OK

Look, I know it’s been a painful ride these last few years. But you wouldn’t be reading this if Nebraska football wasn’t a huge part of your identity. And it’s times like these – and unfortunately, Husker Fan, you’ve seen a lot of them – that will truly try your scarlet and cream soul.

But now’s not the time to pack it in. You’ve long ago bought a ticket to this thrill ride called Nebraska football. And sure, right now the roller-coaster car is on a long, long fall – and the track is uncomfortably shaking.

Even with that, though, you had a few shots of joy and excitement. Even in this game, there were many (although, in fairness, not quite enough) get-out-of-your-seat moments that you just don’t get to feel anyplace else. Walking away from Nebraska football means you’re giving those up, and I would suggest that your life would be the poorer for it.

And there’s a bigger stake to it as well. My main thesis about Nebraska football is that it has the potential to be great almost entirely because of it’s uniquely committed fanbase. If Nebraska fans allow the current run of frustration to cool the fire that’s burned since the 1940s, then Nebraska really does run the risk of becoming nothing more than just another midwestern B1G program.

Don’t let that happen, Husker Fan. Nebraska’s football program has the kind of administrative and financial backing it hasn’t had in some time. It has a young and promising head coach – who, we need to remember, is in his fourth season as a head coach. None of that guarantees success, of course, but there’s enough there that should convince you to stay on this crazy thrill ride with the rest of us.

BEING ANGRY IS OK

You can say all the happy, positive things you want, but it’s inarguable that Nebraska’s performances this season simply haven’t been good enough. There’s enough blame to go around to both players and coaches, and I don’t have either the expertise or the energy left to figure out how to apportion those.

But you’ve got every right to be angry about what you’ve seen. You’ve got every right to expect better. You’ve got every right to ask hard questions and expect to see answers.

That anger, that frustration, isn’t negativity. It’s holding a team and a coaching staff to a higher standard.

BEING UGLY IS NOT OK

Having said that, the anger and frustration does not give you license to be abusive. It doesn’t give you license to mindlessly vent your frustration at coaches. It certainly doesn’t give you license to

Mike Schaefer of 247 Sports put it better than I could.

Be angry, yes. Be frustrated, sure. But don’t be an asshole. And if you can’t tell the difference, maybe pipe down and go do some yardwork – or scroll down a little bit and read the bit about your self-worth not being defined by your favorite team’s performance.

BEING REALISTIC IS OK

There’s a certain segment of the fanbase that cannot abide anything other than rabid homerism. And for some people, that’s how they enjoy their experience of fandom, and if that’s what works more power to them.

But not everyone is like that. I find it’s way healthier to be able to look realistically at Nebraska as it is, as best as I can tell. Saying that Nebraska is unlikely to make a bowl this year isn’t negative – and after this game, probably not even much of a hot take. Saying that Adrian Martinez, for whatever reason, isn’t the guy that gives Nebraska the best chance to win isn’t being toxic. Saying that Scott Frost looks like he doesn’t know what to do with this team isn’t showing a lack of faith.

If you’re a Johnny Sunshine, all-optimism fan, then you do you. But a little dose of realism in the fanbase may help all of us be a little healthier.

BEING FATALISTIC IS NOT OK

I’m going to let you in on a few secrets.

Scott Frost isn’t going to get fired. He’s not going to fire all his coaches. Nebraska will, in fact, win another game – heck, they might even find a way to win two more and go to a bowl this year.

Fatalism is a defense mechanism, and an understandable one. If you give up on hope, then you can’t be disappointed. But marinating in that negativity for too long is just toxic. If you decide that everything in awful, you run the risk of losing the ability to see anything but the awful. And pretty soon that will suck all of the joy out of what should be something fun.

IT’S OK TO TAKE IT ONE GAME AT A TIME

This classic piece of coach-speak might be the most important way to keep your sanity, especially for the rest of this season. I know part of the fun of college football is to think about how a win in each game fits into the grander conference and national scheme of things.

Well, Husker Fan, that’s not an issue for Nebraska this year. But there’s still three games left – and we only get twelve of these for a whole year. It’s time to start looking at these last three games as individual, one-game spectacles. Regardless of what it may or may not mean in the grander scheme of things, Wisconsin is still coming to Lincoln next. We still get to see Nebraska at home in Memorial Stadium – and maybe, just maybe, all the emotional investment you’ve poured into this program will pay off for at least an afternoon.

Same thing with the Maryland game on the road in a few weeks. It’s still a Nebraska gameday. It’s still your chance to get on this crazy thrill ride we’ve all bought into. Regardless of what the broader implications of the result, it’s still a game to ride the wave.

And then the season ends with Iowa. Come on now, Husker Fan, even if Nebraska is sitting at 4-7, how good would it feel to knock off your noisy neighbors to the east? It’s one more chance to feel that adrenaline in your veins, to ride the thrill ride that is Nebraska football for one more time until that long, long offseason.

IT’S NOT OK TO DEFINE YOUR SELF-WORTH BY THE SUCCESS OF YOUR FAVORITE TEAM

When I was younger, I had an epiphany walking out of Memorial Stadium, feeling terrible about myself after another loss to Oklahoma. I was so sad, and so upset, and so tired of feeling like I was a failure.

And then it hit me. All I was doing was watching a game. Why did I feel like a failure? Sure, I was sad and disappointed, but why was I letting the fortunes of a college football team over which I had precious little control govern how I felt about myself?

That realization has always helped me keep sports and fandom in some degree of perspective – although some times, not as much as it should. It’s part of what I worry about when I hear fans talk about their favorite team as “we.” Sure, it makes you feel good when your team wins.

But the dark part of that is times like this. Feeling sad and disappointed is understandable. But I think a lot of the really toxic negativity that you see from fans comes in large part because such a huge chunk of their self-worth is tied up in the success of their favorite team. So, when the team loses, they perceive it as a slight on themselves personally, and respond with anger and ugliness accordingly.

You don’t need to be embarrassed by the team you support. There’s nothing at all wrong with saying that yeah, they’re kinda garbage right now. You’ll find that you get a lot more respect – at least from some fans of other teams – by being able to take it in a good-natured way and put the sport in the perspective it deserves.

I’m not the biggest Jerry Seinfeld fan in the world, but he got it absolutely right with this.

Don’t fall into that trap, Husker Fan. If you’ve read this far, then I already know you are an amazing, wonderful human being. Don’t let Nebraska’s fortunes blind you of that fact.

Be good to each other, fellow fans. We’re gonna need it for the next few months.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Ohio State 48, Nebraska 7

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“It’s déjà vu all over again!”

– Yogi Berra

It started out like a day for history to be made. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in Lincoln, for the first time since 2007. Gabrielle Union was the celebrity picker (news flash – she picked Nebraska) and the NU program enjoyed the national spotlight. And after a gutty come-from-behind win the week before, the fanbase was ready to turn the page.

History, though, stubbornly refused to comply. Nebraska fell behind 17-0 after Ohio State’s first three possessions, and 38-0 at halftime. Adrian Martinez was, at one point, 2-for-7 with three interceptions. Nebraska fans didn’t get to release their balloons until well into the third quarter, when Dedrick Mills notched NU’s only score of the game.

So for a rough evening for Nebraska fans …

THE GOOD

Ohio State: Before we get into looking too much at Nebraska, a word needs to be said about the 2019 Buckeyes and how good they looked. J.K. Dobbins looks like an elite NFL-caliber running back, moving at a different speed than everyone else on the field. Justin Fields looked completely comfortable in his first test on the road. And Ohio State’s defense looked fast, strong, and smart.

Sure, Nebraska’s mistakes and turnovers helped grease the skids towards a blowout. But given the talent disparity, it would have taken a clean game from Nebraska and mistakes from Ohio State for the contest to be competitive. Even had Nebraska played that complete game – which Nebraska was not even close to accomplishing – Ohio State’s ruthless efficiency proved far too much for Nebraska to keep up with.

All Our Goals Are Still In Front Of Us: Yeah, that was no fun. But even going into the season, no one seriously thought Nebraska was on a level playing field with Ohio State. The first step for Nebraska’s return has to be competing in the B1G West. And that question is still very much open.

Nebraska’s next four games are home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, home to Indiana, and at Purdue. While nothing is for sure, these are all far more navigable waters than Ohio State. Even going 3-1 in this stretch would put Nebraska at 6-3 overall – bowl-eligible – and 4-2 in conference.

Then, Nebraska gets Wisconsin at home, at Maryland, and Iowa at home on Black Friday. If Nebraska can get to that three-game stretch at 6-3 (or better), then we get a much fairer judgment on NU’s progress in year two of Frost’s progress.

The Sea of Red: Particularly as the team struggles, Nebraska fans run the risk of breaking their collective arms patting themselves on the back, leaning into former athletic director Steve Pederson’s (!) moniker of being “the greatest fans in college football.”

Having said that, there is something pretty unique about this fanbase.

(By the way, it looks like Nebraska has found it’s answer to Wisconsin’s Jump Around, including work from local artists The Killigans.)

Earlier this year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that it’s the loyalty of the fanbase, as much as anything else, that differentiates Nebraska from other programs and raises the potential ceiling for the program regardless of the natural disadvantages of being a school from a small and rural population area.

So keep the faith, Husker Fan. You’re doing your part, and you need to have the patience and the wisdom to let the program catch up.

THE BAD

Adrian Martinez: In many ways, Nebraska’s second-half turnaround was on the back of a remarkable performance by its freshman quarterback, which masked deficiencies throughout the roster.

This year, Martinez just isn’t the same quarterback. His accuracy throwing deep is nowhere near what it was last year. His decision-making has been – put charitably – questionable. His ball security has been eerily-reminiscent of another Martinez who played quarterback at Nebraska recently.

There’s still plenty to love about Martinez. We’ve all scene the transcendent Martinez last year that came into this season as a Heisman candidate. We’ve seen flashes of that Martinez at times this year, like when Martinez led Nebraska’s comeback win against Illinois.

But even with a more manageable part of the season upcoming, Nebraska is going to need more from Martinez if it is going to avoid further disappointments.

No Guarantees: Most Nebraska fans, even after watching NU take another nationally-televised pounding, were still very much on team Frost. He’s the right guy, the prevailing wisdom amongst the fanbase held, and he just needs time to undo the damage years of neglect and malpractice had done to a once-proud program.

There’s still every reason to think that’s true, of course. But the hard thing to accept is that just because something could happen, even that it should happen, doesn’t mean that it will happen. Football is a strange game, and strange things happen – who would have ever predicted that Nebraska would be resting its placekicking hopes on a mid-season walk-on from the FC Bugeaters soccer club?

And Nebraska is still swimming in some pretty dangerous waters. Ohio State and Michigan still stand in the way of a conference title. Wisconsin and Iowa are still well-established programs who know exactly who they are and how to win consistently in the B1G. Minnesota and Purdue will continue to get better and better.

So steel yourself, Husker Fan. Frost is the guy that gives Nebraska right now the best chance to win. But if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen, then the next guy will get his shot too – just so long as you stay with the program in tough times. You know, the whole “in all kinds of weather” thing.

The Poison of Kool-Aid: It was unavoidable, all offseason. Even coming off a 4-8 season, Nebraska was a team on the rise. Nebraska was going to surprise. Nebraska should be a pre-season top-25 team. Nebraska should win the B1G West. Nebraska is a dark-horse playoff contender.

We all talked ourselves into it, didn’t we? Coming off a 4-8 season, we started by thinking that getting to a bowl would be a good sign of progress in year two. Then, as we all steeped in the Kool-Aid, the expectations rose. Eight wins became the bottom-line expectation. Then nine became the benchmark. Talk of a ten-win season became more and more common.

In retrospect, it all seems a little silly, doesn’t it? Those lofty expectations were all based on fervent hopes combined with aching desperation borne from decades of wandering in the desert of college football’s desert. They were phantoms conjured in the minds of the faithful, without any substance and based on nothing anyone actually saw on the field.

In general, there’s nothing wrong with hope and excitement for things to come. But the problem now is that the expectation of Nebraska’s fan base has become utterly divorced from reality. Steady progress, like a six-win season and a bowl game, is dismissed as a disappointment (even by Frost).

So after that long, cold, reality-check of a shower that was the Ohio State game, Husker Fan, expectations need to be recalibrated. A bowl game is a legitimate target. An eight-win season – which, let’s remember, would double their wins from each of the previous two seasons – should be celebrated. Cold showers are no fun. But they are very effective in cleaning off the sticky, artificially-sweetened Kool-Aid Nebraska fans have been bathing in for the last few months.

AND A SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE

It was a game that had been anticipated for months, a high-stakes game on the national stage. On the strength of its dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, a young team looked forward to making a mark on the national stage. But the offense sputtered, unable to keep up either offensively or defensively, and the game was decided at halftime.

No, not last night’s debacle for Nebraska. This was the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, when Ohio State was humbled 31-0 against Clemson.

Apart from a little schadenfreude, why bring this up? Well, a couple of reasons.

First, it’s good to remember that football is a game of emotion and momentum. Even the most talented of teams can let games get away from them and have the score balloon. Even a team like Ohio State can be on the wrong end of a blowout at times.

Second, of course Nebraska fans are going to flash back to all of the horrible and nationally-televised embarrassments of years past. And yes, never mind the score difference, there was little to distinguish the 2019 blowout against Ohio State to the 2017 version.

But it’s also not fair to say that this is what Nebraska always does in the brightest of spotlights. Last year, Nebraska had a pretty bright spotlight when it went to Columbus and nearly pulled off an upset. Last year there was a pretty bright spotlight when Nebraska went to Camp Randall and fought valiantly against an under-achieving Wisconsin squad. Last year there was a pretty bright spotlight on Black Friday, even with nothing to play for, as Nebraska came within a hair’s-breadth of knocking off the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.

Tom Osborne used to say that “big games” were the ones you lose, expressing his frustration with never getting credit from a fanbase for winning challenging games. Well, as much as Osborne would ever express frustration in public, apart from dropping an occasional “dadgumit.”

Look, I get it, Husker Fan. Y’all were jacked up and ready to finally see Nebraska announce itself on the national stage. But there’s a little of Osborne’s lament going on here. Sure, seeing Nebraska get undressed on national television is an uncomfortable reminder that it is a squad as currently constituted that is not ready for the national spotlight.

But this isn’t an all-hope-is-lost scenario. This isn’t Mike Riley 2.0, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Frost has a pedigree of success. He’s already seeing results in recruiting. He’s got an athletic administration behind him to the point where Nebraska is about to get a 155-million-dollar new athletic facility.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this is all going to end in glory for Nebraska. But there’s enough reasons to believe that the whole Scott Frost experience could work here that fans should not lose hope.

Nebraska’s got seven games left to play this season, and none of them are against Ohio State. An eight-win season is still well within Nebraska’s grasp, and achieving that off of two straight 4-8 campaigns should be viewed as a tremendous accomplishment.

So dust yourself off, Husker Fan. It’s Northwestern week.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What To Make Of Nebraska’s 34-31 Overtime Loss to Colorado

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

You heard about it all offseason, Husker Fan. Year two is the year of the turnaround. The undefeated UCF season. How much better Nebraska looked in the second half of 2018. A full year of strength and conditioning. A change in culture.

And the offseason accolades. Oh, how they came in, from far and wide. Adrian Martinez is a Heisman candidate. Nebraska is a darkhorse playoff contender. Scott Frost has brought Nebraska back.

You resisted at first. You saw Nebraska put up two straight 4-8 seasons, something that even five years ago would have seemed preposterous. You knew that there was a lot of losing to clear out of football program’s internal plumbing.

But you couldn’t help it. You had a whole offseason to swim in the Kool-Aid, to be drenched by it, to let it seep into your pores, to let it stain your otherwise-sensible Husker hearts. You wanted it to be true, that Nebraska’s long wandering in the wilderness of college football irrelevance, was finally coming to an end.

You weathered the doubt of an unimpressive win over a Sun Belt team that was 3-9 last year. You went west, overcoming high ticket prices and unfriendly locals to take over Folsom Field in Boulder.

And at halftime, it looked like you had finally been rewarded. Nebraska was leading 17-0, and was thoroughly outplaying Colorado. It looked for all the world like Nebraska had finally – finally – answered the bell and was going to make you proud, let you wear your colors with pride and excitement on Monday.

Then the second half started. The offense bogged down. The defense held heroically – until Colorado hit that flea-flicker. Admit it – as soon as that pass was completed, one thought flashed through your mind.

Oh, no, here we go again.

Here’s the thing. Those kids who wear that N on their helmet? They know what Nebraska’s been through too. They’ve been on the sharp end of those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They had to walk off Ryan Field last year when Northwestern pulled of their upset. They know how close they came to beating Ohio State and Iowa on the road last year – and still lost.

I’m no mind-reader. I’m not in that locker room. But you can’t convince me that once those kids saw that flea-flicker hit, the same thing didn’t come across their minds, too.

Oh, no, here we go again.

It’s not like they quit. Maurice Washington answered that gut-punch in the most exciting way possible. Martinez battled and fought and willed his way into the end zone for what looked like it could be the winning score.

And yet Nebraska couldn’t quite hang on, couldn’t quite close the door. In the third quarter, when Nebraska had the chance to end the game for all practical purposes with a score after halftime, the offense bogged down. The play calling got conservative. Even Brock Huard, FOX’s analyst for the game, observed Martinez’s miss of a swing pass in the red zone as being the result of him being “tight.”

Oh, no, here we go again.

Now all that Kool-Aid soaked giddiness of the offseason is gone, burned away in the fire of another agonizing defeat. A hurt and disappointed fanbase took to Twitter and to the radio airwaves and went after Frost in a manner that would have been unthinkable even two weeks ago.

So now what?

Here’s the thing, Husker Fan. Learning how to win – and believing that you’re going to win – is a real thing. And no amount of offseason work or team chemistry or weightlifting in May can teach you how to do that.

Right now, Nebraska’s football team is haunted by the ghosts of losses past. And with each agonizing close-but-no-cigar defeat, those ghosts descend over the football souls of the kids in scarlet and cream, their whispers in times of challenge growing louder with each loss.

Oh, no, here we go again.

With a little time and perspective, Husker Fan, you’re going to see that this Nebraska team is in such a better place than it was twelve months ago. Last year, two games in Nebraska was 0-2 with a home loss to Troy. Last year, you didn’t see the kind of defensive performance that you saw from this group of Blackshirts, at least until they got gassed in the second half. Last year, you didn’t see the bevy of offensive potential waiting to be tapped.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Nebraska’s guaranteed to turn the ship around. Northern Illinois, Nebraska’s next opponent, gave Utah all it could handle. And Utah is probably better than Nebraska right now. Plus – as you will of course recall – Northern Illinois beat Nebraska in Memorial Stadium two years ago.

So yeah, there’s a disturbingly plausible scenario where the 2019 campaign goes dreadfully off the rails. But we know the kind of coach Frost is – you don’t have the success at both Oregon and UCF that he had by accident. We know how talented this offensive group is – at least, before the ghosts start whispering in their ears and in their coaching headsets.

Losing begets losing, and that’s the trap Nebraska is caught in right now. There’s only one way out of that trap, one way to exorcise those ghosts haunting Nebraska.

Win.

Turn oh no, here we go again, into we did it – and we can do it again. Because winning begets winning, too.

Nebraska has the talent and the coaching in place to make it foreseeable. As long as the team can keep things together mentally long enough to keep pounding on that door, eventually it’s going to crack and open.

Hopefully – maybe even probably – it’ll come this year. This team sure feels set up to have that breakthrough in a way that Nebraska teams in years past haven’t. If Martinez’s demeanor in his post-game interview was anything to judge off of, Northern Illinois should face a remarkably focused and intense Nebraska squad – one with unfinished business.

But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this year falls far short of your fond offseason dreams, Husker Fan. What do you do if that happens?

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

So keep the faith, Husker Fan. Yes, this loss will test the strength of your resolve. Yes, you’ll want to cast it all aside in your agony. Yes, you’ll wonder why you do this to yourself, over and over. Yes, your anger and frustration will want to make you lash out and walk away.

Keep the faith. You do this for a reason. You are fortunate enough to be part of this fanbase, fortunate enough to be able to cheer for these young men who literally give their blood and sweat for you. You are fortunate enough to have the kind of emotions – both good and bad – that those poor souls who aren’t fans never get to experience.

One of the amazing things about sports is that ability to feel such intense emotion about something that is ultimately meaningless. You can get the same kind of experiences in politics, or finance, or medicine, or law, or any number of other real-life endeavors. But failure in those have real consequences, where real harm is suffered by real people.

With sports? You have to put up with a little razzing from your Hawkeye neighbors.

Husker Fan, stay with us. Be frustrated, of course. Be angry, sure. Complain and criticize and scream and cry, do whatever you must to get by.

But don’t stop caring. Come back next week. Come back next year. Come back to watch Frost – or the next guy, if it isn’t Frost –  proceed in contest and in victory. Keep the faith that the payoff is coming, that all of this pain and disappointment will repay you with the unrivaled joy and excitement that comes from victory and glory.

And in the meantime, if not enjoy the experience then at least have some observation how bleeding scarlet and cream gives you a rhythm to your life, and a bond with all of your fellow denizens of Husker Nation who are riding the same crazy emotional thrill ride you’re on. Feel those feelings – good and bad – that your friends and neighbors who aren’t fortunate enough to be infected with this particular virus never get a chance to feel.

Because on Monday, it’s Northern Illinois week.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 35, South Alabama 21

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“Sit down,

[EXPLETIVE DELETED] be humble”

– Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

After a Kool-aid soaked offseason, Nebraska fans didn’t quite get the relaxing blowout they expected to start year two of the Scott Frost Experience. An opportunistic defense along with a special teams touchdown helped Nebraska surprise a shockingly-anemic offensive performance and survive the Jaguars 35-21.

Even though Nebraska survived and advanced, the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was eerily similar to after the Northern Illinois loss in 2017. So let’s look back at the newly-minted 1-0 Cornhusker football squad and see what we see.

THE GOOD

Defense to Offense. Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has long preached that he wants to see his defense turn into offense for NU to be successful. Well, mission accomplished in week one. Eric Lee’s pick-six to open the second half gave life to Memorial Stadium and looked to be the spark to revitalize a stumbling Nebraska squad.

Unfortunately, a lack of offensive performance allowed South Alabama back in the game, having the ball down 28-21. But after Cam Taylor blind-side sacked USA quarterback Cephus Johnson and knocked the ball loose, Alex Davis fell on it in the end zone and gave Nebraska a 35-21 lead.

Without those two defensive scores, given how invisible the offense was, it’s easy to see a scenario where Nebraska loses this game.

The Hype is Real. All eyes were on electric true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson to see if he could live up to the hype. Although he muffed the opening kickoff (which could have been an eerie foreshadowing of things to come), Nebraska’s offense still found plenty of ways to get the talented receiver the ball in space. Robinson ended up with four carries for 21 yards and three receptions for 33 yards, along with 77 kick return yards. In the process, he showed the speed and elusiveness that earned him a starting spot as a true freshman.

Robinson and Martinez also just missed hooking up on two touchdown passes, with the receiver and the quarterback clearly not on the same page with regards to the route. So in his first game, we saw from Robinson plenty already, with the promise of more to come.

The Book of Eli. An injury to safety Deontai Williams pressed the rest of the depth chart into action, including walkon safety Eli Sullivan. He took advantage of his opportunity, recording four tackles and finding himself all over the field in the second half. While a speedy recovery for Williams would be best for Nebraska’s defense, Sullivan’s performance has to be an encouraging sign.

THE BAD

Up The Middle. If you didn’t know anything else, you’d think that a team with two walkon guards and a center who never played center would be a huge problem in the middle of the offensive line, one that could make a running game struggle and throw the rhythm of an entire offense off.

Well …

While it was exciting to see redshirt freshman Cameron Juergens be able to start at center, it soon became exciting in a very different way when he was forcing Martinez to reach or jump for almost every other shotgun snap. The worst-case scenario was a snap that flew over Martinez’ head, ending up with a “best case” scenario of Martinez recovering it for what would ultimately be a 24-yard sack.

Juergens was replaced in the second half by Will Farniok, and the snaps certainly improved. But Juergens’ superior athleticism was evident, as Nebraska struggled even more trying to run between the tackles. Nebraska pretty much had no running success at all (44 carries, 98 yards, 2.2 yards per carry), but what they were able to get was manufactured on the outside.

In his postgame interviews, Frost talked about a lack of execution. Nebraska fans best hope that’s the case, because if that’s the offensive line play NU has this year, it’s hard to see how they win in the B1G.

Who Was That Guy And What Did He Do With Adrian Martinez? Nebraska’s opening drive was a thing of beauty, nine plays for 81 yards, with Martinez taking advantage of tight end Jack Stoll down the seams.

After that, Nebraska only had 195 yards of total offense. Against South Alabama.

Throughout the rest of the game, Martinez looked tentative both running and throwing. His one interception – and he should have had about three – was a bad underthrow into a whole host of Jaguar defenders. On the bad snap, Martinez was able to pick the ball up and make a play – but ended up falling on the ball rather than take advantage of what seemed to be an opportunity to throw it away.

Martinez still is a sophomore, of course, and expectations for his performance may have been unrealistic. Everyone, even Martinez, can have a bad day at the office. But if Nebraska gets this guy instead of last year’s Martinez, then this could be a long year for the scarlet and cream faithful.

College Football Is Dumb and Wonderful. Purdue lost to Nevada. Minnesota struggled at home against FCS South Dakota State. Florida State lost at home to Boise State. Tennessee lost at home to Georgia State. Iowa State needed three overtimes to beat Northern Iowa at home. Kansas needed a miracle to beat Indiana State at home. West Virginia labored to beat James Madison at home.

The point being is that college football is a game played by college kids, which means it is subject to wild, unpredictable, seemingly random results, especially early in the year. It’s why the sport is such a glorious mess, and something that you can’t possibly stop watching.

AND THE READJUSTMENT OF EXPECTATIONS

All this offseason, the Nebraska fanbase got itself all worked up thinking that NU was on the cusp of its return to greatness. Visions of playoffs danced in their minds, and Nebraska was a trendy darkhorse pick even to win a national title.

While that was fun for the offseason, there always was a danger that the reality may not match the expectation. And with a fanbase that has been promised and let down so much over the last two decades, there was always a danger of a backlash.

Now, let’s be clear. Nebraska is 1-0, and all those dreams are still alive. But after watching Nebraska labor to beat a Sun Belt team that went 3-9 last year, a few fewer tickets to Pasadena may be purchased in the Cornhusker state.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Watching Nebraska against South Alabama felt much more like NU in the last five years as opposed to a redux of the nineties. And that’s a good thing. Nebraska is still a team coming off two 4-8 seasons. While there’s lots of promise, a game like this shows that there’s plenty of work for Nebraska still to do.

But if you’re down, Husker Fan, think about this. There wasn’t anyone in Memorial Stadium watching this game that didn’t think it felt like Northern Illinois in 2017, or any of the other myriad of games against outmatched opponents Nebraska would find a way to lose.

And yet Nebraska didn’t lose. Nebraska found a way to win. It was a way that no one really expected. But there’s no style points listed in the standings – 1-0 is still 1-0, regardless of how ugly it was.

Maybe that’s part of the culture change Frost is trying to establish. Instead of underperforming and finding a way to lose, Nebraska opened 2019 underperforming and finding a way to win.

Baby steps, Husker Fan.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Could Fail to Live Up to the Hype in 2019

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For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.

That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.

But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.

Center

One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.

That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.

That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.

If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.

In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.

And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.

Inside Linebacker

There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.

But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.

After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.

Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.

Unlearning the Past

This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.

In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.

That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.

And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.

In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?

This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: The Most Important Quote from Adrian Martinez at B1G Media Days

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Last week, the college football season unofficially started with B1G Media Days in Chicago. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez was one of Nebraska’s three player representatives, and got a lot of attention from the local and national media.

Martinez is mature, almost preternaturally so, in his interactions with the media, and it was remarkable to see him hold court. But one thing he said stuck with me as having the potential to be the most significant insight about Nebraska in 2019, in response to a question about NU’s rematch with Colorado (as reported by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

“First things first, we definitely have to focus on South Alabama. They’re going to be a tough team and that’s going to be a big one for us.”

Now, on the one hand, the “one game at a time” mantra is a classic example of Crash Davis’ advice to learn your clichés as an athlete. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Over the last decade, one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges has been avoiding the head-scratching poor performances against sub-par opposition. Take a look (if you dare) at the times Nebraska has stubbed its collective toe in unexpected ways:

Date Opponent Score
Sept. 15, 2018 Troy L 19-24
Sept. 17, 2017 Northern Illinois L 17-21
Oct. 03, 2015 at Illinois L 13-14
Sept. 06, 2014 McNeese State W 31-24
Nov. 22, 2014 Minnesota L 24-28
Oct. 26, 2013 at Minnesota L 23-34
Nov. 05, 2011 at Northwestern L 25-28
Oct. 24, 2009 Iowa State L 7-9
Sept. 22, 2007 Ball State W 41-40

I included Ball State to show that the history of underperforming goes all the way back to the Callahan era, with Nebraska needing a miracle defensive play to avoid an upset to Ball State at home. And for the Pelini era, the McNeese State win is also included because Nebraska absolutely should have lost at home to an FCS team absent a miraculous game-saving touchdown from Ameer Abdullah.

For over a decade now, Nebraska has baked underperformances and losses to inferior teams into its football culture. Head coach Scott Frost couldn’t magically change that with his arrival, as last year’s loss to Troy (!) proves.

This year, expectations for Nebraska are sky-high, especially coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. While the schedule does set up favorably, to meet those expectations Nebraska will have to break losing streaks against teams like Ohio State (four straight), Wisconsin (six straight), Iowa (four straight), and Northwestern (two straight) to reach those lofty goals.

Just as important, though, to Nebraska finally turning that proverbial corner is to avoid embarrassing itself. Beating a team like Ohio State or Wisconsin loses a lot of juice if Nebraska doesn’t take care of business against a team like South Alabama or Northern Illinois – and NU’s history over the last decade or so suggests NU is vulnerable to such a sub-par performance.

So it’s a very good sign that Martinez is talking about South Alabama instead of taking the bait and looking ahead to Nebraska’s rematch in Boulder. Rebuilding a winning culture (or, dare I say, a winning tradition) includes taking care of business against the minnows as much as it means winning the marquee games.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Spring Football Preview

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On Monday, Nebraska started spring practice in its second year under head coach Scott Frost. Unseasonably frigid temperatures kept work inside as the squad opened preparation for the Spring Game on April 13.

This is now Nebraska’s second straight season without a bowl game, meaning a second long winter of waiting for Nebraska football. So spring practice should bring a welcome relief for Nebraska fans weathering yet another cold winter of discontent. Here’s what to keep an eye on as spring practice begins.

OFFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Quarterback. There is little doubt that Adrian Martinez is the biggest reason for Nebraska’s optimism in 2019. Martinez’s accomplishments last season have at least one Las Vegas sports book listing him as third-favorite for the Heisman next year. That might be a little optimistic, but at least Nebraska is coming into next year’s campaign with its situation at signal-caller settled.
  • Y and Z Receivers. JD Spielman is clearly Nebraska’s most dangerous receiving threat returning next season, and incoming freshman Wandale Robinson looks perfectly set to excel in the slot. While not every receiving position is clear (see infra), Nebraska does have a lot to lean on at receiver.
  • Tight End. Jack Stoll could very well be one of the team leaders next season, and Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen both saw increased playing time towards the end of 2018. Kateriene Legrone should also have an opportunity to see the field, giving Nebraska at least four dangerous options to create mismatch opportunities and challenge the middle of the field.

Biggest Questions

  • Offensive Line. Nebraska does have quite a bit of returning talent, but it’s not entirely certain how it is going to fit together. And center for Nebraska is one of the biggest open questions, which is always a challenge. There’s enough talent for Nebraska’s offensive line to be successful, but it is still unproven.
  • X Receiver. Nebraska will be looking for a true no. 1, go-to receiver to make catches that get first downs as well as threaten downfield. Stanley Morgan’s leadership and production will be a huge challenge for Nebraska to replace, and while there is significant depth at receiver, it is unclear who (if any) in that room will be able to fill that role.
  • Running Back. At this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Devine Ozigbo’s graduation would be one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges going into 2019, but here we are. Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, Nebraska’s two returning backs with any playing time from 2018, are huge question marks for different reasons. The incoming backs, Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, and Ronald Thompkins, all have potential but are unproven.

Players to Watch

  • Jaylin Bradley. Ozigbo is gone. The competition for running back carries won’t arrive until fall camp. So this spring, Bradley will be competing with Wyatt Mazour and the other walk-on running backs for a chance to get the carries that Ozigbo had last year. Bradley didn’t see the field last year, and with the other backs coming, this spring may be Bradley’s last, best chance to really make an impact and earn a spot on the depth chart.
  • Cameron Jurgens. One of the biggest open positions for Nebraska in 2019 is center, and Jurgens has taken a strange path to the position. Jurgens was a four-star prospect in Nebraska’s 2018 class (.9227 composite, according to 247 Sports) – as a tight end. But after a redshirt year, Jurgens switched positions from tight end to offensive line and looks to be competing for a spot at center. Given his composite ranking, Jurgens’ athletic prowess is unquestioned. If he can make the switch in positions – and make no mistake, it’s a massive switch – then Nebraska could get a quick infusion of talent in the middle of the offensive line.
  • Jaevon McQuitty. Much like with Bradley, there is an opening in the depth chart at X receiver, and McQuitty has his best opportunity to take advantage and seize a spot. He’ll have some competition from players like Mike Williams and Andre Hunt, in addition to the freshmen receivers coming in the fall. So this spring is the time for McQuitty to make his move, if it’s going to happen.

DEFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Defensive Line. The returning experience is there. Particularly with the addition of graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, Nebraska front should have both experience and depth coming back. The production of that front last year, of course, wasn’t what anyone thought (no. 96 nationally in rush defense and no. 76 nationally in sacks, according to com). But after a year in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system (and, in all candor, a year removed from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), perhaps the unit we thought would be a strength in 2018 will actually become one in 2019.
  • Secondary Starters. Three of Nebraska’s four starters in the secondary should be decided going into spring football. Dicaprio Bootle was Nebraska’s best and most consistent cornerback throughout 2018, and Lamar Jackson responded to his benching early in the season to solidify himself as a starter. At safety, neither starter returns, but Deontai Williams showed such athleticism and natural ability that it would be stunning not to see him on the top line of the depth chart this year.
  • Mohammed Barry. Martinez is arguably Nebraska’s most important player, but it’s hard to overstate the leadership Barry brings not only to the defense but to the team in general. With a number of Nebraska’s vocal leaders from last season graduating, the mantle looks to fall to Barry to take on that role in 2019.

Biggest Questions

  • Secondary Depth. After the three likely starters, there’s little proven talent in the secondary. There is a tremendous amount of potential, but all unproven. That should be enough to keep Chinander up at night, but also provides an opportunity for someone to stand out.
  • Pass Rush. A pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend, and Nebraska’s pass rush struggled last season. With no obvious pass rush specialist being recruited in this year’s class, Nebraska will be looking to manufacture a rush from the talent already on the roster. A healthy JoJo Doman staying at outside linebacker should help, and a return to 2017 form for Ben Stille may be part of the answer.
  • Run Defense. Take another look at Nebraska’s performance against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa – if you can stomach it. Wisconsin averaged 7.7 yards per carry against Nebraska, while Iowa averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Nebraska simply will be able to win the B1G West if it cannot significantly improve how it defends power running teams.

Players to Watch

  • Breon Dixon. After transferring from Mississippi, last year it looked like Dixon might be the kind of immediate infusion of SEC talent that could give Nebraska’s defense an instant jolt. But it didn’t happen for Dixon last year, who saw very little of the field and was unable to make an impact. With a year in the system, 2019 is the time for Dixon to make his move.
  • Avery Anderson/Eric Lee. Yeah, I know it’s cheating to list two guys here. But Anderson and Lee were both highly regarded recruits, now in their last year at Nebraska. With the questions remaining about depth in the secondary, these two seniors have a door open to see the field and leave an impact in 2019.
  • Collin Miller. Will Honas came in as a junior college transfer last year and looked to be part of the puzzle for Nebraska’s transition on defense. But an injury against Purdue knocked Honas out for the season, and is still recovering from that injury. So outside of incoming freshman Jackson Hannah, Miller has the opportunity this spring to solidify a starting position at inside linebacker.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

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

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND THE MORAL VICTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.