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

DSC06372

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.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways from the Arrival of Dedrick Mills

DSC00069

On Tuesday, Nebraska’s 2019 football season got a huge boost with the news that junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills had cleared his last hurdles to join the program. According to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Mills improved his grade point average enough at Garden City Community College in Kansas to join the program on Wednesday.

The grade challenge brings to a conclusion a wild ride for Mills’ recruitment to Nebraska, including not being able to sign on signing day because he was dealing with a warrant for his arrest. Much like Maurice Washington last year, it was not at all clear that the talented running back would be available for Nebraska in the upcoming season. But like with Washington, patience and perseverance from head coach Scott Frost and his crew have paid dividends.

So what does Mills’ official addition to the program mean for Nebraska in 2019?

A replacement for Ozigbo’s production

Even though at this time last year Devine Ozigbo was an afterthought on the depth chart, by season’s end it was clear how integral he was to the offense. Ozigbo was the team’s leading rusher with 1082 yards on 155 carries. The closest production from a running back was Washington, with 455 yards on 77 carries.

More importantly, none of the backs on the roster bring the experience and the skill set that Mills does. Like Ozigbo, Mills has the size (five-foot-eleven, 215 pounds) to handle running between the tackles as well as running outside. The rest of the backs currently on the roster, like Washington and Miles Jones, really project more as outside-the-tackles pass-catchers rather than between-the-tackles thumpers. The backs with more size, such as Jaylin Bradley and Wyatt Mazour, have not showed an ability to perform at the level Nebraska will need to compete for championships.

So Mills gives Nebraska a different kind of weapon than it would have had otherwise at running back, in addition to the experience he brings.

Insurance for freshman performance

Nebraska has two freshman running backs in its 2019 class, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins. Both are highly regarded prospects, and running back is a position where players can make an immediate impact if they have the talent.

But there’s a huge difference between freshmen having an opportunity to contribute and a team counting on freshmen to contribute. Johnson certainly could be the kind of back that Nebraska could lean on to perform. Thompkins has the potential to be a combination power/speed back, but he is coming off an ACL injury and it is not at all clear that he’ll be fully ready by the start of the season.

With Mills’ arrival, the coaching staff now has the luxury of allowing Johnson and Thompkins to develop, rather than needing at least one of them to break out immediately.

Less reliance on Washington’s availability

Washington is the defendant in a disturbing criminal case out of California. The case is still pending, and of course Nebraska’s coaching staff is hoping to get at least some clarity about how the case will play out before the start of the 2019 season.

But because of the case, Washington missed a good deal of spring practice, and at this point there is still a significant question about how much of a role he will be able to play. Towards the end of the year, Washington was beginning to flash as one of Nebraska’s most dangerous offensive weapons, and it is tantalizing to think about what he could do on the field this season.

With Mills addition to the depth chart, the potential loss of Washington becomes less catastrophic for Nebraska. If Washington’s playing status is cleared before the season, then Nebraska’s arsenal of offensive weapons becomes that much more impressive. But if Washington is limited – or unavailable – for Nebraska in 2019, Mills’ addition means Nebraska still has a dependable option at running back.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Spring Football Preview

DSC00174

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, Nebraska 54, Illinois 35

DSC08041

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

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

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

THE GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against Troy? 25.5 yards per return.

THE BAD

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

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

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

AND THE NEW NORMAL

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

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

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

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

Total defense 91
Rushing defense 59
Passing defense 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: ReViewing Cornhuskers’ Win over Minnesota by the Numbers

broken+chair

Finally.

After waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting), Nebraska finally got head coach Scott Frost his first win in charge of the Huskers, an emphatic 53-28 victory over Minnesota.

Ordinarily, we at the Double Extra Point have a particular formula for game review columns. But this time, I’m going to steal a bit from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald and take some specific numbers and use them to get a little insight into how Nebraska performed in this game, and what it means for the rest of the season.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right, Sam?

3×100

Devine Ozigbo, 12 for 152. Adrian Martinez, 15 for 125. Maurice Washington, 14 for 109.

That’s three Nebraska ball-carriers with over 100 yards of rushing. Oh, by the way, Minnesota was no. 28 nationally in rushing defense coming into the contest. Sure, Nebraska fans were aching to see a win regardless of how it came. But seeing such a prolific rushing performance en route to the win had to add a little sweetness.

25-6

At 28-0 nearing the end of the first half, Memorial Stadium was rocking and, just for a moment, it felt like old times again for Nebraska fans. But Minnesota ripped off three quick scores, including a clever two-point conversion, and the Gophers had pulled to within six of Nebraska halfway through the third quarter.

So here was your challenge for Nebraska mentally. After last week’s collapse against Northwestern, and against the backdrop of a team which seemingly was conspiring to find new and achingly painful ways to lose, it was impossible to avoid the “here we go again” feeling. Could Nebraska really squander a 28-point lead, to Minnesota, at home?

Not this time. After Minnesota brought the score to 28-22, Nebraska outscored the Gophers 25-6, pulling away for a comfortable – and reassuring – victory.

81.32

For as successful as Nebraska was against Minnesota, it was a fight against field position. Nebraska’s average starting field position was its own 19 yard line (18.64, if you want to be picky, although of course there is no 18.64 yard line). Compare that to Minnesota’s average starting field position of its own 38 (!) yard line, and it makes Nebraska’s convincing victory all the more impressive.

1

That’s how many more plays Nebraska ran (73) than Minnesota (72) did. Nebraska was able to rack up 659 yards with those plays, however, compared to Minnesota’s 474 yards.

10,000

That’s how much the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, born from the union of a mascot and a parody Twitter account and given new life by a GoFundMe account raising money for the Team Jack Foundation and the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, has raised this year.

Sure, the Heroes Trophy would be awesome to bring back to Lincoln given Nebraska’s history with Iowa. But it’s still a sterile and corporate creation. And don’t get me started about the Freedom Trophy that looks to any rational observer like a sailboat.

So if nothing else, Nebraska has something to put in the trophy cabinet this year.

And if you want to donate to the cause, you can still do so here.

(Image above is from the Broken Chair GoFundMe page)

54-21

That was the score last year, with Minnesota’s mauling of Nebraska making it clear that Mike Riley would not return as head coach. While any win is euphoric (even generating an inappropriate Gatorade shower), returning the favor to Minnesota by a similar score had to be especially satisfying for anyone who made the trip to Minneapolis last year.

8/12

Coming into the game, Nebraska was no. 112 nationally in third-down conversions at 34.18 percent. That low percentage (along with penalties) is one of the prime reasons why a team that was regularly gaining over 500 yards of offense per game could be winless.

But today, Nebraska was 8-for-12 on third down conversions, helping to keep drives alive and NU’s offense on the field.

1

(Yes, I know this is the second time I’ve used a one for the number. Just pipe down and keep reading.)

In addition to third-down conversions, penalties have been Nebraska’s bugbear this year. Rather than focusing on the raw number – 6 for 43, a significant improvement – the more illustrative number might be the number of first downs – one – that Minnesota got off a penalty. That helps to understand that Nebraska didn’t give Minnesota a ton of help moving the ball and keeping drives alive – and we can see the difference in performance that results from such a change.

0

That’s the amount of originality that Iowa trolls fans had in co-opting the Cleveland Browns’ beer fridge idea. Now that Nebraska’s won, though, that nonsense is over (and Husker Fan can get a couple of free beers in the process.)

5

That’s the number of games left on Nebraska’s schedule. Three of those are home games, with road trips to Columbus and Iowa City looming.

After the Northwestern loss, the skies seemed very dark and it was hard to see how there could be any joy or hope left in Nebraska’s 2018 campaign. What a difference one game makes. Now that you’ve seen what Nebraska could like once a few things start clicking, the remainder of Nebraska’s schedule looks a little different.

After all, Purdue just demolished Ohio State, 48-20. While the likeliest outcome will be the Buckeyes coming off their bye week and being razor sharp against Nebraska in two weeks, at least now Husker Fan can dare to dream a little bit. Upset the Buckeyes in Columbus, and all of a sudden getting to six wins and a bowl game becomes a legitimate goal.

(And, yes, for the record, I did just take a win against Bethune-Cookman next week for granted. If Nebraska loses that game, y’all know whose fault it will be.)

Is Nebraska going on a six-game unbeaten run after losing its first six likely? Absolutely not. Ending the season with four wins would still be a positive accomplishment after the start of 2018.

But you can’t get to a six-game win streak without winning the first one. Now Nebraska has that win, and the taste of blood in its mouth. Seeing all that faith and hard work and culture change has finally paid tangible dividends. So long as the team doesn’t think that it’s done working – and I suspect Frost will be making very sure there is no laurel-resting this week – then this could make for quite a show down the stretch.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Biggest Additions of Frost’s Overhaul of the Cornhuskers’ Roster

DSC06353.JPG

When Scott Frost was announced as Nebraska’s new head football coach, fans were understandably thrilled with visions of returning to the glory days of the nineties.

Little did they suspect that some of that nineties glory would be Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder’s junior-college-heavy roster building tactics.

Since arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska has added eight (!) junior-college transfers (as observed by Brandon Cavanaugh of Athlon Sports) and a total of 51 (!!) new players since December (according to Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star). Indeed, according to Gabriel, 36.4 percent of the 140 players currently on the roster have been added since December 2017.

That’s … a lot. And it means that Frost was serious about creating an entirely new Nebraska program. So when you see Nebraska come out of the tunnel against Akron on September 01, there will be a lot of new faces and new names to process.

You can keep track of Nebraska’s roster with our own Roster Distribution page, of course. But to help you out, here’s a list of the five biggest new additions to the roster that will help define Frost’s first year in charge.

Tre Neal (S)

Neal’s recruiting numbers won’t blow you away, being a 247 Sports composite 0.8385 as a recruit. But don’t underestimate the importance of this graduate transfer from UCF arriving in Lincoln. Neal was effective in his time with the Knights, and more importantly he has an intimate knowledge of defensive coordinator Eric Chinander’s system. Look for him to see the field right away and be critical in helping the rest of Nebraska’s secondary get on the same page.

Will Honas (ILB)

Nebraska’s linebacker depth coming into 2018 was a little shaky, to put it charitably. Mohammed Barry and Dedrick Young are clearly the class of the returners, but behind them at inside linebacker was only one other scholarship player, Avery Roberts.

So the addition of Honas provides not only depth at the position, but a player ready to start on day one, giving an instant infusion to a position of need for Nebraska.

Vaha Vainuku (DL)

The cliché in all of sports is that you can’t coach size. At six-foot-three and 295 pounds, Vainuku has the frame to fit in immediately at any role in Nebraska’s 3-4 defensive line setup. And while his skill-set may lean more ideally to defensive end, Nebraska’s lack of depth at nose tackle means Vainuku can both literally and figuratively fill a significant hole for NU in 2018.

Breon Dixon (OLB)

One team’s misfortune is always another team’s gain. With Mississippi’s NCAA troubles, their highly-regarded (and at times illegally recruited) stars became available for transfer. Dixon, a four-star linebacker, was targeted by Nebraska, and ultimately given clearance to play right away by the NCAA.

The addition of Dixon at outside linebacker gives Nebraska an instant infusion of SEC-level talent at a position of need. For a team that ranked no. 119 nationally (!) in sacks last year (according to CFB Stats), adding a talent like Dixon could make a huge difference for Frost’s version of the Blackshirts in 2018.

Maurice Washington (RB)

Yeah, I know this probably should be Greg Bell, the junior-college running back transfer that is likely your starting tailback for Nebraska in 2018. Bell’s skills are amazing, and his addition gives Nebraska an instant-impact offensive performer, especially if injuries continue to hamper Tre Bryant’s development at the position.

But I’m including Washington, a true freshman, instead both for what he brings to the field and for the nature of his recruitment. Washington was Nebraska’s third-highest rated offensive recruit (behind quarterback Adrian Martinez and tight end Cameron Jurgens) in 2018, but it looked for the longest time like he would be an academic casualty and at best need a redshirt year and burn a scholarship hole for NU.

That didn’t happen, though, because Washington was able to get his academics cleared and be eligible for 2018. Frost and his staff never waivered on Washington, and their perseverance helped make sure that Nebraska has a potentially game-changing tailback in the mix this season. And with the new redshirt rules that allow players to participate in up to four games without losing redshirt eligibility, it is even more likely that Washington will get an opportunity to show his skills for Nebraska in 2018.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football – Pre-Spring Game Offensive Preview

DSC00174

The problem – well, one of the problems – with missing a bowl game is how long you as a fan have to wait to see football. In an ordinary, bowl-game-including season, the longest wait for Nebraska football is from the Spring Game until kickoff of the new season.

But after Nebraska’s 4-8 campaign in 2017, the firing of Mike Riley, and the hiring of Scott Frost, the wait from the end of the 2017 season to the 2018 Spring Game will be even longer. So if it seems like that ugly loss to Iowa on Black Friday was a long time ago, well, it actually was.

Even with snow still on the ground in April, then, spring football is here, and it’s time to start getting ready for what life will be like under Frost. Let’s take a look at the offense first, to get somewhat of an idea of what to expect.

Quarterback – Three schollies and a lot of questions

There’s a whole bunch of unknowns for Nebraska coming into 2018. But one of the biggest unknowns is who will be Nebraska’s signal-caller to start the season.

Nebraska’s two returning scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. O’Brien has the only returning experience, playing in three games including the entirety of Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota. Both O’Brien and Gebbia were recruited to play former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, quite different from Frost’s no-huddle, up-tempo attack.

That doesn’t mean O’Brien or Gebbia couldn’t run Frost’s offense, though. As O’Brien told the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“I’ve been paying attention,” O’Brien said of the Knights. “Their offense is really fast, and they’re a good team. It’s going to be exciting for us to run that here. I feel like I fit in it pretty good. I ran something pretty similar to it in high school, and I feel like it fits my skill set, so I’m just ready to go.”

Also competing for the position will be true freshman Adrian Martinez, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. Frost was not shy about his praise of Martinez, according to Land of 10.

“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost said. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country. Once we took the Nebraska job, we got a hold of him right away and we’re thrilled to have him on campus.”

So yes, Husker fan, at some point in the near future you’ll have a Martinez slinging the ball around Memorial Stadium. Get ready for your flashbacks.

It’s tempting to thing that Martinez will get the nod when Nebraska tees it up against Akron in September. At Central Florida, Frost didn’t hesitate to play a freshman quarterback in McKenzie Milton. But don’t discount the experience and athleticism of both O’Brien and Gebbia.

It’s likely that Frost and co. will want Martinez to show up ready and win the job. But it’s very unlikely that a true freshman will be able to pull of that feat. Look for O’Brien or Gebbia to get the nod, at least to start the season.

I-Back – Questions about the guys coming back, and the guys showing up

Nebraska looked like it had a real answer at I-back with Tre Bryant. For two games, Bryant looked to be the go-to back Nebraska had been hoping for since Ameer Abdullah,  averaging 5.86 yards per carry and 149.5 yards per game.

But lingering injuries sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season, and he remains a question mark as to what he will be able to contribute in 2018. Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon will be the backs returning with the most experience. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley flashed some potential, as well, in the limited opportunity he got towards the end of the season. And with the demise of the fullback, it’s likely that Ben Miles will look for his ability to contribute as an I-back, if not on special teams – if he remains part of the program.

This year’s recruiting class, however, has put some new faces into the mix. Junior college transfer Greg Bell was a jewel of the class, and with two years of eligibility left it’s hard not to see Bell competing hard for playing time right away. And on signing day (well, old school signing day anyway), one of Nebraska’s big wins was four-star running back Maurice Washington.

What the I-back position will look like in Frost’s new offense is still an open question. And given the new and returning faces in the room, who will be filling the role next season is just as much of an open question.

Wide Receiver – Stan’s squad

One of the best pieces of news Frost got upon taking the job in Lincoln was learning that wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr was returning for his senior season. Morgan’s offensive output last year – 61 catches, 987 yards, 10 touchdowns – was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2017 season. Indeed, while Morgan did break Johnny Rogers’ 1972 single-season receiving record, his chase for 1,000 receiving yards ended up being about the only compelling thing to watch for Nebraska fans as the season wore down.

Also returning is JD Spielman, who had a breakout freshman campaign with 55 receptions, 830 yards, and two touchdowns. Spielman’s game would seem to translate well to Frost’s speed-based offense, and his year of experience should set him up well to contribute next year.

Tyjon Lindsey, one of the prize recruits from last year’s class, also returns with a year of experience. Lindsey struggled to find his place in the offense last year, but he remains one of the players for whom a year of experience and a change in system might pay the biggest rewards.

Nebraska’s also got some returning question marks, including Jaevon McQuitty coming off of an injury, and Keyan Williams looking for an opportunity to make his contribution. There was also a swell of receiving talent arriving in this year’s recruiting class, including junior college transfers like the speedy Jaron Woodyard and big-bodied Mike Williams. Incoming freshmen Miles Jones, Dominick Watt, and Andre Hunt will also find themselves competing for playing time in 2018.

Tight End – Spoiled for choices

Nebraska has one returning tight end with any experience, sophomore Jack Stoll, who hauled in eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in 2017.

So, there’s some holes to fill for Nebraska at the position. The tight end is another position that looks to undergo some big changes in Frost’s offense, and the advantage Frost has is that he’ll have some options to choose from.

Stoll, as the only returning contributor, likely has an advantage in competing for playing time. But he’ll be fighting with oft-injured Matt Snyder, as well as highly-recruited Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. And don’t be surprised if Nebraska native David Engelhaupt is in the mix this season as well.

This year’s recruiting class also brought in three big-bodied, move-style tight end weapons in Cameron Jurgens, Katerian Lagrone, and Justin McGriff. So while Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, at the very least it will have a lot of options from which to choose.

Offensive Line – The perennial question

Nebraska should feel comfortable with returning talent at guard, as Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster, and Brendan Jaimes will all be back. At center, Michael Decker and Cole Conrad will likely be competing for the spot, but both have injury issues that will limit their participation in spring practice.

Tackle is by far the biggest question on Nebraska’s offensive line – and that’s a big position at which to have a question. Matt Farniok will get a shot to slide out to tackle, and it also is time for Broc Bando and Christian Gaylord to step up and make their mark.

Nebraska has some additional line depth – Chris Walker, Boe Wilson, Jalin Barnett, and Matt Sichtermann will all have their opportunities. Freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty will be coming to Lincoln, but it’s always a challenge for freshmen linemen to play.

(h/t to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald for his offensive line preview)

GBR, baby.

All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated.

Nebraska Football: Three Takeaways From Cornhuskers’ 2018 Recruiting Class (Plus a Super Six!)

DSC06372

On Tuesday, Nebraska’s new head coach Scott Frost signed his first recruiting class. With 24 signees, including five junior-college transfers, Nebraska’s 2018 class was rated no. 22 nationally and no. 4 in the B1G by 247 Sports. So what did we learn from Frost’s first full class for Nebraska?

A lot accomplished in a short time

Frost had his work cut out for him when he took the job on December 02, 2017. Much of the class assembled by former head coach Mike Riley was unraveling, and by late December Nebraska’s national recruiting ranking had dipped into the nineties nationally. Mix that in with Frost and his staff coaching Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, and that left Nebraska’s recruiting in a huge hole.

But Frost and his staff dug in and made remarkable progress. A top-25 class for Nebraska in a transition year would be impressive regardless, but to achieve that goal while also coaching Central Florida to a win over Auburn is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s fair to observe that some of Frost’s recruiting ability was drafting off his 13-0 season at Central Florida and the national attention he received from his work in Orlando. Going forward, his accomplishments at UCF will mean far less than what he is – or is not – able to do at Nebraska.

Of course, it’s also fair to observe that next year Frost and his staff won’t be recruiting for one team while preparing another team to compete in a bowl game. So this year will likely be an outlier in terms of the surrounding circumstances – but it’s hard not to come away being impressed with the recruiting haul Frost and his staff were able to bring back to Lincoln.

Success in recruiting hotbeds

In this year’s class, Nebraska got eight (!) recruits from Florida, three from California, two from Georgia, and two from Texas. Those are good places to make inroads, and it appears that Frost’s ties in the Sunshine State from his time at UCF are paying initial dividends.

Additionally, Nebraska is competing at a recruiting level against the level of competition it needs to be. One of the recruits Nebraska just missed on, Javonte Jean-Baptiste, looks like he was going to pick Nebraska over Ohio State were it not for a snowstorm that delayed his decision.

Obviously, Nebraska needs to win those battles at some point. But given how quickly Frost had to get his class up to speed, even being in the running at this point for a talent like that is an encouraging sign.

Recruiting at a championship level

Frost’s return to Nebraska has certainly re-energized the fanbase with visions of returning to old glories. Heck, even the Spring Game is now sold out, demonstrating how desperately hungry the fanbase is for a taste of success.

But Frost’s return also brings out the recruiting skeptics. You know, the ones who believe that all it takes is good coaching and determination to win big in modern college football.

That’s understandable, after Nebraska fans have felt burned by two coaches (Riley and Bill Callahan) who focused heavily on recruiting and did not deliver results on the field.

It’s at this point that I will remind you – again – that there’s no escaping the importance of recruiting. Jason Kirk from SB Nation produced one of the best explanations of why recruiting matters, regardless of the romanticism surrounding all the try-hards in college football. The TL;DR is that if a school doesn’t recruit at an elite level, it’s very difficult to win at an elite level. Here’s what Stuart Mandel had to say on Fox Sports (back when they did more than just video) about the link between recruiting and winning.

Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.

By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.

So, sure, you can win with a bunch of two- and three-stars, a lot of coaching, and a lot of pride. But you are far, far more likely to have sustained success if you can recruit at least within the top twenty nationwide.

Nebraska finished it’s 2018 class rated no. 22 nationally, and that’s with a short window and the additional responsibility of Peach Bowl coaching for UCF. If Frost can keep Nebraska at that level of recruiting, then the talent level should be present for Nebraska to compete for conference (and ultimately national) titles.

More importantly, let’s take a look at how Nebraska’s 2018 class stacks up to the rest of the B1G. Nebraska’s B1G West division-mates are listed in italics.

School National Recruiting Rank
Ohio State 2
Penn State 5
Michigan 21
Nebraska 22
Maryland 28
Michigan State 32
Minnesota 37
Iowa 40
Wisconsin 44
Indiana 48
Purdue 49
Illinois 54
Rutgers 57
Northwestern 59

As you can see, Nebraska has significantly out-recruited the rest of the B1G West. If that trend continues, that should give Nebraska a significant talent advantage over all of its divisional rivals.

Of course, talent advantages alone aren’t enough to win games. Nebraska has out-recruited Iowa for years, and has lost its last two games to the Hawkeyes by an aggregate score of 96-24.

Scheme matters. Coaching matters. Development matters. All of those things have been in short supply in Lincoln over the last few years.

But recruiting matters, too. With his first class, Frost has demonstrated he can recruit at Nebraska to the level that he would need to give the fans what they ache for – conference titles and national relevance.

2018 Super Six

(6) Jaron Woodyard (WR). Frost’s offense is built on speed, and no one in this class – and maybe on this roster – has the kind of speed Woodyard possesses. His ability to take the top off defenses changes how Nebraska can attack on offense.

(5) Cam’Ron Jones (S). Not only is he likely the best of a talented group of defensive backs, but Jones could very well get offensive Wildcat-like packages designed to get him on the field.

(4) Will Honas (ILB). Plug-and-play ready to be in the middle of the defense. It’ll be an upset if he’s not a starter when Nebraska plays Akron in September.

(3) Maurice Washington (IB). Nebraska hasn’t had a true home-run threat in the backfield since Ameer Abdullah. In Washington, that streak may have ended. Given the nature of the position, Washington has a great chance to see significant playing time as a freshman.

(2) Caleb Tannor (DE). Yeah, Washington is the flashy guy and he really could be a lot of fun to watch. But Nebraska desperately needs to find a pass rush, and that’s Tannor’s specialty. He and Martinez were the two had-to-get positions in this class.

(1) Adrian Martinez (QB). Sure, it’s the obvious choice. But the fact remains that Frost’s high-speed attack really needs a dual-threat quarterback, and Martinez has been Frost’s choice since he arrived in Lincoln. Don’t be shocked if he sees the field in 2018.

GBR, baby.