Nebraska Football: Frost’s Comments Put Pressure Squarely on Martinez

DSC09165

In the offseason, most of us are used to non-descript, happy-talk, coach-speak interviews talking about how this year’s squad has never practiced so well, never been so together, and all the other cotton candy gobbledygook we usually get.

In other words, college football coaches have taken a page from Crash Davis’ playbook.

“You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.”

  • Crash Davis, “Bull Durham”

Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost apparently never saw the movie. In an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Frost was talking about why quarterback Adrian Martinez struggled last season. We knew about his injury issues, and that he had surgery in the offseason. But then Frost told us – or at least confirmed to us – something we didn’t know before.

Year 2, because of the situation, I think he was able to put it in cruise control a little more, and I think that showed up on the field a little bit. That’s not to put everything on him. There’s a lot of things he couldn’t control. But I don’t think he’ll be lax in his preparation ever again.

Stop. Read that paragraph again. Let it sink in.

Frost just told us that last year Martinez was “in cruise control.” That Martinez was “lax in his preparation” last season.

That’s a heck of a thing to say about your junior quarterback, your incumbent starter. That’s putting a heck of a lot of pressure on his shoulders. You know if he struggles next season, both Martinez and Frost will be peppered with questions about Martinez’s preparation and effort level.

So why would Frost say something like that?

Well, first of all, likely because it’s true. Martinez didn’t really have a legitimate challenger for his job last year. Noah Vedral is a great story and a competent athlete, but there’s a reason he’s playing at Rutgers this year. Luke McCaffrey is an electric athlete and certainly would have been a serious contender – if it wasn’t crystal clear that Frost had decided he was not going to burn McCaffrey’s redshirt season by playing him more than four games last season.

(ed. note: an earlier version reflected Vedral transferring to Northern Illinois, and the error has been corrected)

But even if it’s true, Frost didn’t have to say it out loud. So the clearest answer has to be that he’s sending a message to Martinez. The starting quarterback’s job is his to win – but Nebraska has other options if Martinez isn’t able to answer the bell.

This year, McCaffrey will have every ability to challenge for the starting job (although I still think he’s likely to be Nebraska’s version of Taysom Hill). And true freshman Logan Smothers looks every bit the part of a kid who could come in and win a starting quarterback job as a true freshman in Frost’s offense – just like Martinez did in 2018.

We still really don’t know what the 2020 season is going to look like under the specter of the coronavirus pandemic. But Nebraska is coming off three straight losing seasons, and facing a murderous schedule. Frost knows that – while he’s certainly not on the hot seat – the clock is ticking for him to turn Nebraska into a winning program again.

When Martinez is right – physically and mentally – he’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the nation. We knew he wasn’t right physically last year, and now we know he wasn’t right mentally either. Clearly Frost must be confident of Martinez being ready physically, or he would not have laid down such a public challenge to him mentally.

We will see in September (hopefully) the fruits of Frost’s decision. Either Martinez will return to the form we saw as a freshman – or we could see a new signal-caller for Nebraska.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Why Frank Solich was Better at Nebraska than Bo Pelini

It’s May, and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic that have pretty much shut down all live sports and made us all consider how many times we can re-wear a pair of sweatpants before they absolutely, positively have to be washed (spoiler alert: it’s nine, absent an unfortunate incident with the nacho cheese dip).

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise when Nebraska fans lost their collective minds for a bit when Sports Illustrated posted an article called “Bo Pelini Unfiltered” in which he … said some things about his time in Lincoln.

I’m kinda done litigating Pelini the coach at Nebraska. He had some amazing successes and strong support from many of his players, but also had his glaring failings and unforgivable immaturity.

But in all the hullabaloo, I was scrolling through Twitter (which, I know, is bad for your health) and saw a Nebraska skeptic admonishing the fanbase to appreciate Pelini as the best Nebraska coach not named Osborne or Devaney. My immediate reaction (because it’s Twitter, duh) was “Frank Solich on line 2 for you.”

That got me to thinking, though. Is that a defensible position? Was Solich’s time at Nebraska’s better than Pelini’s? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

SolichPelini
Years in charge67 (plus one game in 2003)
Record58-1958-23
Win percentage.753.716
Bowl appearances57
Bowl record2-34-3
Conference titles10
Nat’l Championship appearances10

I thought it was amazing that when you added in the one extra game Pelini coached as an interim, both Pelini and Solich won the same number of games – Solich in six years, Pelini in seven plus a game.

In the one stat that really matters, then, wins-and-losses, Solich was fairly significantly better than Pelini. But, Pelini defenders will argue (after they finish swearing at you) the program was in a much different place when Pelini took over than when Solich did.

And at some level, that’s fair. Solich was handed the keys to a national championship program and finished his last two seasons with a 16-10 record. Pelini took over a program scarred by the tenure of Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan, and inherited a fanbase still bitterly divided over Solich’s firing.

Having said that, though, it’s not like Solich didn’t have his own problems. Imagine trying to take over from a legend like Tom Osborne. That’s an impossible task for almost anyone to achieve – which makes Osborne’s success that much more remarkable after succeeding Bob Devaney.

And it’s not like the cupboards were bare when Pelini took over. Callahan had his flaws as a head coach, but he was the best pure recruiter Nebraska’s ever had (although Scott Frost might give him a run for his money if things turn around for him on the field). While Pelini’s tenure was marked by a maddening stability in the win and the loss column (which might be the only time you’ll see the phrase “Pelini’s tenure” and “stability” in the same sentence), Nebraska’s talent level dropped as Callahan’s recruits graduated and Pelini’s recruits took over.

So both Solich and Pelini had their challenges and had their advantages when taking over in Lincoln. And the hard, cold numbers show that Solich did better with his time in charge than Pelini did. Solich had a better win percentage than Pelini. Solich, not Pelini, is responsible for Nebraska’s last conference title. Solich, not Pelini, got Nebraska to a national title game. Sure, the Miami national title game was ugly for Nebraska, but Pelini’s appearance in a conference title game was oh god Melvin Gordon just scored again.

Then, we come to the final act for both Solich and Pelini at Nebraska. When Solich was fired, much of the Nebraska fanbase was irate and outraged. Solich had a perfect opportunity to play the martyr and get back at an athletic department that I am sure he felt did him wrong. Instead, he chose to respond with grace and dignity, not rubbing salt in the wounds of his alma mater.

Pelini? Not so much. Really, not so much.

 (I really hate linking to what is now Zombie Deadspin, but this article was from 2013 when the site still was something to admire. At least that’s how I’m rationalizing it.)

And I think that counts in judging between the two men. One acted for the good of others and minimized the damage done to the players formerly in his charge. One acted selfishly and childishly, poisoning the well for the coach that would next lead the players formerly in his charge.

That is, at least in part, why Solich has become a stable and respected head coach at Ohio, while Pelini has spent the last thirteen years of his career to end up … right where he was before he took the Nebraska job in 2007.

I’ll lay my cards on the table, I thought it was the right decision to fire both Solich and Pelini at the time. Solich’s team was clearly falling behind in recruiting, and neither the team nor the fanbase could survive Pelini’s toxicity without trophies to show for it.

But in looking back at their tenures in Lincoln, I think it’s pretty clear that Solich’s tenure in Lincoln was better than Pelini’s. Take that, Twitter.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The impacts of Noah Vedral’s departure

DSC09320

Junior quarterback Noah Vedral has entered the transfer portal, according to reports from the Omaha World-Herald. Because he is on track to graduate in May, Vedral will have two full seasons of eligibility left. Let’s take a look at how Vedral’s departure will affect the squad going forward.

Vedral likely would have entered the season competing with redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey as the backup to Adrian Martinez. With Vedral’s departure, McCaffrey – as the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience other than Martinez – likely vaults to an undisputed second-string quarterback.

This development has a couple of knock-on effects. First of all, if McCaffrey does become the clear-cut backup, then he will likely get more practice reps at quarterback. This will, in all likelihood, cut down on the amount of time McCaffrey will get working on packages at wide receiver or other gimmick packages. In other words, Vedral’s departure means we are likely to see far less of McCaffrey in the Taysom Hill-like role we saw him last season.

The other significant development from Vedral’s departure has to do with true freshman quarterback Logan Smothers. With both Vedral and McCaffrey in a backup role to Martinez, Smothers was looking at a true redshirt campaign absent a significant run of injuries at quarterback. Now, the relative paucity of depth at quarterback means Smothers could very well see playing time in 2020.

Vedral’s departure is also the end of an era for Frost in Lincoln. Vedral was the last holdover on the Nebraska roster of Frost’s time at UCF. The last ties to Frost’s glory run with the Knights are now officially severed, and now his squad in Lincoln is entirely Nebraska.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Reviewing the 2020 Recruiting Class (and a Super Six!)

DSC06372

Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class ended no. 20 nationally, no. 4 in the B1G, and no. 1 in the B1G West, according to 247 Sports. Let’s take a look at how the class breaks down, position-by-position. The “Composite” category is the 247 Composite star ranking. Players in bold are junior-college transfers, and players in italics are early-enrollees.

Quarterback

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Logan Smothers 6’2” 190 .8976 (4 star) DUAL

As long as Scott Frost is in Lincoln, Nebraska will likely be attempting to sign a highly-rated quarterback to fit his offensive system each year. Smothers certainly fits the bill, and looks to be as close to a clone of Adrian Martinez (at least freshman Adrian) that we’ve seen. He’s lightning-quick on the ground and a legitimate threat with his arm.

Running Back

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Sevion Morrison 5’11 ½” 196 .8941 (4 star) RB
Marvin Scott III 5’9” 203 .8647 (3 star) RB

Other than placekicker, perhaps no position suffered more at Nebraska in 2019 than running back, with Maurice Washington’s drama before his departure and Dedrick Mills’ slow start. Add to that Frost’s somewhat baffling use of Rahmir Johnson’s four-game redshirt, and Nebraska’s running back room was pretty thin.

Next year’s depth should be much better, with Mills and Johnson returning along with whatever Ronald Thompkins can offer after a year of recovering from injury. Morrison looks to have the skills of an all-around back, while Scott profiles as a between-the-tackles thumper.

Receivers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Zavier Betts 6’2” 189 .9506 (4 star) WR
Marcus Fleming 5”9 ½” 160 .9075 (4 star) WR
Omar Manning 6’4” 225 .9053 (4 star) WR
Alante Brown 6’0” 190 .8976 (3 star) WR
William Nixon 5’11” 185 .8647 (3 star) WR

Yeah, I know I just got done talking about how Nebraska’s running back depth was the worst. I kinda forgot about how dreadful the wide receiver room looked. Even if JD Spielman does return to Lincoln for his junior season (which is an open question), Nebraska will still likely be looking to walk-on Kade Warner to fill out a third receiving option in addition to Wan’Dale Robinson.

So it’s no surprise that receiver was such a significant target in this year’s class. If they’re able to make grades, Betts and Manning look to be ready to contribute right away (particularly Manning, given his previous experience at the collegiate level), and Brown’s speed (along with him enrolling early) give him a chance to contribute right away as well.

Offensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Turner Corcoran 6’6” 280 .9751 (4 star) OT
Alex Conn 6’6” 280 .8647 (3 star) OT

For all the talk of Frost’s offense being gimmicky and finesse, it’s no accident that the highest-rated prospect in 2020 is an offensive lineman. After last year’s recruiting haul, Nebraska definitely had the luxury of choosing quality over quantity in 2020. Offensive line is an area that needs patience to see fruits on the field, but the combination of Nebraska’s 2019 and 2020 classes have done quite a bit to lay  a new foundation.

Defensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Blaise Gunnerson 6’5” 250 .8801 (3 star) SDE
Jordon Riley 6’5” 330 .8524 (3 star) SDE
Nash Huntmacher 6’5” 285 .8722 (3 star) DT
Jimari Butler 6’5” 217 .8621 (3 star) WDE
Marquis Black 6’4” 280 .8614 (3 star) DT
Nico Cooper 6’5” 220 .8594 (3 star) WDE
Pheldarius Payne 6’3” 270 .8541 (3 star) SDE

Nebraska’s defensive line was one of its strengths in 2019. Which is a problem in 2020, as all three starters (Khalil Davis, Darrion Daniels and maybe Carlos Davis) look to be on NFL rosters next year. So restocking the cupboard on the defensive line was a priority in 2020. Like the offensive line, defensive line is difficult to contribute right away, but Nebraska does have a couple of candidates in junior college transfers Riley and Payne.

Linebackers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Keyshawn Greene 6’3” 195 .9387 (4 star) OLB
Eteva Mauga-Clemens 6’2” 218 .8688 (3 star) OLB

Another quality over quantity position, Nebraska was looking for weapons to bolster an anemic pass rush. Clemens, as a junior college transfer, should provide some immediate depth, and Greene as a signing-day decision was one of the players that got Husker Twitter very excited.

Secondary

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Henry Gray 6’0” 172 .9064 (4 star) S
Jaiden Francois 6’0” 184 .9047 (4 star) S
Isaac Gifford 6’0” 175 .8434 (3 star) S
Tamon Lynum 6’2” 165 .8375 (3 star) CB
Ronald Delancey III 5’11” 160 .8551 CB

The easiest way to improve a pass rush is, of course, to get better pass rushers. But improving the secondary is an indirect way to accomplish the same goal. Nebraska’s talent haul in the secondary might be the sneakiest addition in the class, with Gray and Francois talented enough to compete for playing time as freshmen.

Super Six for 2020

6. Sevion Morrison (RB). Mills finally looked to get some momentum (not to mention carries) towards the end of 2019, and looks set to enter next season as Nebraska’s bell-cow. And while Johnson definitely flashed, Morrison showed at the high school level that he has the skills needed to be an all-around running back.

5. Henry Gray (S). It would have been just as easy to put Francois here as Gray, as adding four-star talent to the secondary will reap benefits. But Gray is also a prolific peer recruiter, at least as seen on his Twitter account, and the value of such peer recruiting can’t be ignored.

4. Keyshawn Greene (OLB). Nebraska’s linebacker corps, particularly at outside linebacker, definitely needed an infusion of talent, and Greene looks to be an effective pass rushing weapon. Just as importantly, Greene’s decision to pick Nebraska on signing day shows Frost still has the credibility amongst incoming high school players to close on recruits.

3. Turner Corcoran (OL). The highest-rated prospect probably has to be on the list somewhere, and here he is. Nothing on any offense works without and offensive line to make it work. And last year’s offensive struggles can be explained in part by having two walk-on guards and a center who never played center before. Corcoran, along with the recruiting work done in 2019, looks to upgrade the athleticism and talent level on the pipeline.

2. Logan Smothers (QB). Other than perhaps goalkeeper in hockey, no position is more important than quarterback. Smothers has all the tools Frost wants to run his offense – speed, arm talent, and leadership. If Martinez continues to struggle, and Luke McCaffrey is not able to grow in his ability to throw the ball, it’s not a silly prospect to thing Smothers could win the starting job at some point in 2020.

1. Omar Manning (WR). Nebraska needed – not wanted, needed – immediate help at receiver. Manning’s arrival not only provides an immediate starter, it gives Nebraska something it didn’t really have last year – a prototypical no. 1 receiver with the size to win contested balls as well as the speed and route running to get open. Manning’s arrival – assuming he makes grades – will have the single biggest effect on Nebraska’s 2020 squad.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Chill Out About the Top-25 Rankings, Husker Fan

MVIMG_20190413_130052

Last week, two different analytics-based top 25 rankings for 2020 came out, and Nebraska made the cut in both. ESPN’s Bill Connelly has his SP+ ranking put Nebraska at no. 25, and ESPN’s Football Power Index listed Nebraska at no. 22.

Nebraska fans, to their undying credit, freaked out – by being upset that NU doesn’t deserve the hype. Last year, Nebraska was the darling of the college football world, picked in everyone’s top 25, even made a sleeper playoff team. That reality came crashing down pretty quickly, and a smart and particularly handsome analyst talked about the poison of Kool-Aid on a fanbase.

Well, good job, Husker Fan, y’all were listening. Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald pointed out that the response to Nebraska’s top 25 rankings from fans has been to be upset that NU is getting pre-season hype.

In general, that’s the right result. Coming off three losing seasons and with a brutal 2020 schedule, it’s going to be critical for Nebraska fans’ collective sanity to keep expectations reasonable. A 7-5 season for this team, with this schedule, should be viewed as a success – regardless how foreign that sounds to Nebraska fans.

Having said that, though, these two particular top 25 rankings shouldn’t freak Nebraska fans out. Both SP+ and the FPI are data-driven, as opposed to subjective opinions about what’s going to happen. And one of the biggest components in both metrics is returning offensive production, which Nebraska has in spades this season.

Nebraska’s got a returning two-year starter at quarterback (ok, fine all you Luke McCaffrey stans, most likely). Nebraska’s starting running back, two top wide receivers, and top tight end will be coming back. Most of Nebraska’s offensive line returns. And Nebraska’s head coach returns for his third season in charge.

Those returning starters are a significant part of the formula both SP+ and the FPI use in the preseason to rank teams. And the advantage of data-driven rankings is that they take subjectivity out of the analysis. Given Nebraska’s faceplant last season, it’s only natural to resist ranking NU highly the following season. It’s certainly natural (although, in all candor, a bit unexpected) for Nebraska fans to resist the “woo we’ll be awesome this year” impulse.

But analytics don’t care about any of that. The numbers say what they say, and the algorithms that spit out those numbers are tuned year in and year out to find which data points are most correlative to future results. It worked that way last year, when the analytic rankings were predicting Nebraska to win five to six games, regardless of their pre-season hype.

Of course, there’s no guarantees. Like Connelly says, analytics are the start of a conversation, not the end of one. And just from a survival skill perspective, it’s understandable – even healthy – for Nebraska fans to be skeptical of anything that looks like unearned glory.

So don’t freak out, Husker Fan. There’s good reason to think Nebraska’s offense in particular might very well be significantly better than last year. If you can find a way to acknowledge that possibility without going right to “Adrian Martinez gonna win the Heisman yo,” then the 2020 season might not quite be the chewing-broken-glass ordeal the last few years have been for the scarlet and cream faithful.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Taysom Hill a Blueprint for Luke McCaffrey

DSC09320

On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in a wild card playoff game on a disturbingly familiar official’s decision. But the Saints’ controversial loss hides a remarkable performance from New Orleans’ backup quarterback Taysom Hill.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Hill is the Saints’ backup quarterback/running back/wide receiver/kick coverage specialist. While Hill may be the heir apparent to Drew Brees, Saints head coach Sean Payton has been very creative in finding ways to use Hill’s talents even with Brees under center.

Against the Vikings, here’s Hill’s stats. There’s … a lot going on.

Passing 1/1, 50 yards, TD
Rushing 4 carries, 50 yards (led team in rushing)
Receiving 2 catches, 3 targets, 25 yards, TD
Defensive 1 tackle

Watching this game, it’s hard not to let your mind wander a little bit and wonder if Scott Frost is watching too. Because Luke McCaffrey bears a lot of resemblance to Hill, and not just because they both wear number 7.

Hill is six-foot-two and 220 pounds. McCaffrey is six-foot-two and 200 pounds. Hill put up a 4.44 40-yard-dash time at the NFL combine. McCaffrey has put up a 4.5 40-yard-dash. Hill was a dual-threat weapon at quarterback in college. McCaffrey is a dual-threat weapon that provided Nebraska quite a spark in his limited appearances under center.

Now, Nebraska looks to have a spirited competition at quarterback for 2020. Adrian Martinez, as a two-year starter, should have an inside track, especially coming off an injured sophomore campaign. McCaffrey sparkled in his times both under center and on the field last season. And freshman Logan Smothers bears so many resemblances to a younger Martinez in terms of size, speed, and athletic ability.

There’s no question that McCaffrey could beat Martinez out and be Nebraska’s starting quarterback next season, especially if Martinez doesn’t recover fully from his injuries. McCaffrey only played four games last year, so he still has four years of eligibility to use, and Martinez will be a junior next year.

But if Martinez (or, heck, Smothers) wins the job, there’s an opportunity for McCaffrey to take on a Hill-like role for Nebraska’s offense. We saw it last year, in a limited role. McCaffrey had 24 carries for 166 yards and a touchdown, and one catch for 12 yards, in addition to going 9-12 for 142 yards and two touchdowns as a quarterback.

According to Bob Hamar of the Grand Island Independent, Frost is well aware of McCaffrey’s versatile skills.

“He’s a really good football player,” Frost said of McCaffrey. “He can run, he can throw, he can catch, he loves it, so he’s going to be a really good player for us around here for a long time and we thought it was smart to get a guy like that on the field.”

Frost wanted to make it clear that McCaffrey’s future is at quarterback, but he can provide some help at receiver going into Friday’s game against Iowa.

Frost said quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco makes sure all his quarterbacks know the assignments of all the offensive players on every play. That makes it possible for a player like McCaffrey to slide into another position.

“Luke is an extremely versatile guy,” Frost said. “You can just see the raw athleticism that he’s got. He’s going to be a hell of a ball player for us in the future. I just look forward to however we use him, whether that is how we did last week or if that’s at quarterback, wherever he’s needed. But he’s a hell of a ball player and I can’t wait to see him in the future.”

Of course, Frost’s focus was on McCaffrey staying at quarterback. There was at least a good argument that McCaffrey was more effective in his time at quarterback than Martinez was. And especially with a third talented quarterback entering the room (and that’s not even talking about Noah Vedral), Frost has to know he runs the risk of losing someone to the transfer portal.

But if Martinez does win the job, and McCaffrey still sees himself as Nebraska’s future starting quarterback – much like Hill is waiting for his shot after Brees retires – then Frost would have an opportunity to get creative with McCaffrey’s skills.

Nebraska’s got a lot of new talent at skill positions coming in. But there’s precious little in terms of returning production, outside of JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson. If Martinez does win the job, then Frost will have an entire offseason to devise clever ways to use McCaffrey’s talents.

It doesn’t have to be a main feature of Nebraska’s offense. Hopefully some of Nebraska’s incoming talent (especially junior college transfer Omar Manning) will provide some day-one assistance.

But anyone who has watched the Saints this season knows that Hill’s role in the offense has grown and he’s become a legitimate weapon for New Orleans. If the Saints would have won the game, Peyton’s use of Hill would have been one of the primary reasons cited for the victory.

So maybe Frost can steal a page or two from Peyton’s playbook and find more ways to get an explosive and dangerous playmaker like McCaffrey on the field more in 2020.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Frost Effect Still Showing in Husker Recruiting

DSC07809

Nebraska head football coach Scott Frost signed a class of 25 for the 2020 early signing period. That class was ranked no. 20 overall by 247 Sports, no. 4 in the B1G, and no 1 in the B1G West.

Nebraska’s class was only behind the conference’s recruiting juggernauts Ohio State (no. 3), Michigan (no. 12) and Penn State (no. 13). And although as the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon points out, the rest of the B1G West is also doing better on the recruiting trail, Nebraska still holds a decided advantage over its nearest division rivals Wisconsin (no. 26), Purdue (no. 29), Iowa (no. 31), and Minnesota (no. 33).

What is remarkable about Nebraska’s recruiting accomplishment, of course, is how it doesn’t match performance on the field. Nebraska is coming off of a third straight losing season, and yet is able to attract top-20 talent to Lincoln.

Some of this is a testament to the enduring attraction of a blue-blood historic program like Nebraska. Even long dormant, the echoes of glories past still can be heard by at least some of the prospects visiting Memorial Stadium, inviting them to join in the story.

But I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Nebraska’s recruiting success even in this historically fallow period is due to Frost’s charisma and vision. If there is one thing from which he has never wavered, it is that he “knows where this is going.” And you can hear lots of Frost’s recruits echoing that line.

So I got to wondering just how unique Nebraska’s recruiting accomplishment has been compared to its lack of performance on the field. I took the 247 top 25, and calculated each team’s winning percentage from 2017 to 2019, to get a visualization of just how much an outlier Nebraska is in terms of recruiting accomplishments in comparison to wins and losses.

3ya final

As you can see, with one exception (oh hai north carolina y’all have been garbage lately), Nebraska’s winning percentage – or, more accurately, lack of winning percentage – really does stand out from the rest of the top 25 recruiting programs. That dichotomy is a visual reflection of the Frost effect, of Frost’s ability to keep alive his vision of “where this thing is going” and get top-flight talent from around the nation to believe it.

Of course, this can’t go on forever. If Nebraska continues to struggle on the field, eventually Frost’s belief and strength of personality won’t be enough, and the recruits will stop coming. In the very near term, whether that’s next year or within the next two, Nebraska’s win-loss record has to start matching its recruiting success.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 37, Nebraska 21

MVIMG_20191116_111930

It wasn’t as bad as we expected, was it, Husker Fan?

Wisconsin came to Lincoln and beat Nebraska 37-21, but in the loss NU showed signs of life we haven’t seen all season. Head coach Scott Frost’s offense finally showed signs of life, outgaining Wisconsin 493-482. Fourteen of Wisconsin’s points came from two broken plays, a kick return touchdown and a 55-yard reception that ended up being a clinic on how to miss tackles from the Blackshirts. Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board, but failed to cash in.

So in reviewing the game, here’s what we saw.

The Good

Oh Hai Dedrick. In the previous four games, Nebraska running back Dedrick Mills had six carries for 18 yards, eight carries for 30 yards, nine carries for 28 yards, and ten carries for 26 yards.

Against Wisconsin – currently the no. 12 rushing defense in the nation – Mills had 17 carries for 188 yards.

With freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson out injured, Mills had to shoulder the lions’ share of carries, and he answered the bell remarkable, running with speed and decisiveness we haven’t seen this season. If this Mills shows up for the next two games, Nebraska’s quest for a bowl game will be boosted significantly.

Extension Suspense. Just before the game, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Frost was signed to a two-year extension, putting him under contract until 2026. To the locals, the announcement seemed a little strange, as there didn’t seem to be much question about whether Frost’s job was unsafe.

Initially, my thought was that Frost and Moos had at least a suspicion that the rest of 2019 was going to go badly, and to provide some pre-emptive support to head off a disgruntled fanbase. But after listening to other commentary, it does seem more likely that the main reasons for recruiting.

After all, both Florida State and Arkansas fired their head coaches before they finished their second seasons. Sure, Nebraska’s situation is far different from the other two programs – but that’s only if you know the history of Frost with Nebraska. The kids who are being recruited have no such knowledge, and you can bet that coaches competing against Nebraska for those kids aren’t being shy about comparing Nebraska to Florida State or Arkansas.

So Frost’s extension is an inoculation against that negative recruiting. There was little chance Frost wouldn’t be in Lincoln for many years to come. By giving him the extension, Moos is making it that much easier for Frost to be successful.

A Kicker Away. Try this thought experiment with me. Even if everything else remained the same – Jonathan Taylor going over 200 yards, Adrian Martinez’s baffling 20-yard sack and backbreaking interception, Nebraska’s secondary attempting to tackle Wisconsin receiver A.J.  by pretending they are torpedoes without arms – Nebraska was still a competent placekicker away from winning the game.

Nebraska missed a 41-yard field goal and failed on fourth down attempts from Wisconsin’s 34, 15, and 1. Field goals from those positions would have been from 52, 32, and 18 (!) yards. A kicker that could go 4-for-4 from those distances would have added an additional 12 points to Nebraska’s tally.

And don’t forget Nebraska’s disastrously short and misplaced kickoff directly after its first touchdown, which Wisconsin returned for a touchdown of its own. A better kick almost certainly takes the touchdown return off the table, and at least forces the Badgers to drive the field to score. In other words, having a competent placekicker would have taken seven points off Wisconsin’s score.

That adds up to a score of Nebraska (21 + 12 =) 33, Wisconsin (37 – 7 =) 30.

The point of this thought experiment isn’t to find excuses as much as it is to find silver linings. With Nebraska sitting at 4-6 after two straight 4-8 campaigns, it can seem like Nebraska is (in Frost’s words) “miles away” from glory (quote from Mitch Sherman of The Athletic).

That’s not the case though, at least it wasn’t against Wisconsin. Nebraska, even with all its 2019 warts, was still just a competent placekicker away from beating the Badgers.

The Bad

Negatives in Positive Territory. If you have watched Nebraska this year, you know it seems like it has been in enemy territory all the time with precious little to show for it. So I decided to lift the hood and look at what Nebraska’s done against Power-5 opponents this year.

I looked at how many drives both Nebraska and its opponents have had with possessions starting inside the 50, starting inside the opponents’ 25, and what their average points per drive (PPD) resulted from those possessions. Here’s what I found

  Inside 50, NU Inside 50, opp Inside 25, NU Inside 25, opp PPD 50+, NU PPD 50+, opp PPD 25+, NU PPD 25+, opp
Col 5 9 2 5 2 3.8 5 5.4
Ill 8 6 8 4 5.25 5.17 5.25 7
NW 5 7 4 3 2.6 1.43 3.25 3.34
Minn 6 7 1 5 1.17 5 7 7
Ind 9 9 7 7 2.67 4.23 3.43 5.43
Wis 7 7 3 5 2 3.29 0 5.46
Total 40 45 25 29 2.75 3.8 3.84 5.55

What do these numbers tell us? Well, here’s what I took from it.

  • Nebraska has gotten into plus territory and inside its opponents 25 just about as often as its opponents, meaning NU’s offense has been getting into scoring position.
  • In games Nebraska has won (Illinois, Northwestern), Nebraska did better inside the 50 than its opponents.
  • Since Illinois, Nebraska has been bad, but not terrible, from inside the 25. But it has been absolutely horrendous from 50 to 25.
  • Northwestern’s offense was really bad, you guys.

So yeah, you weren’t imagining things. The numbers back up what your perception likely was – that Nebraska’s struggles can really be focused on the area from the 50 to the opponent’s 25 yard line.

And The Weight of Moral Victories

Nebraska lost to Wisconsin at home. Nebraska was a 13.5 point underdog at home to Wisconsin and failed to cover. Nebraska gave up 200 yards rushing – again – to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.

And yet the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was – optimism?

Part of that comes from an offense that finally returned to life. Nebraska outgained Wisconsin even as it lost by 16 points – and that’s hard to do, y’all. But Frost’s calling card has always been his offensive prowess. So the offensive doldrums Nebraska endured for the last three games really did seem like an existential challenge for Frost’s success at Nebraska.

Seeing Nebraska succeed offensively, even in a loss, helped fuel the fire of hope. And even though defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took more than his share of barbs, the fact that Wisconsin’s offense (absent a few chunk plays) had to work its way down the field on the Blackshirts was a pleasant surprise.

Some of this might be the poverty of low expectations. Some of it might just be a fanbase wandering through the desert of mediocrity and desperately clinging to any drop of hope. But whatever it is, in this Upside-Down world that is Nebraska football now, Husker Fan is feeling better about things after a 16-point home loss to a conference rival.

At the very least, though, Wisconsin is stuck having to house the hideously ugly Freedom Trophy for another year. Take that, Badgers.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Barry’s “Rebellious” Quote Helps Explain Huskers’ Struggles

DSC07807

Twenty-one games into Scott Frost’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach, fans are in their feelings far more than they expected to be. After an off-season filled with dreams of unearned glory, the reality of a 4-5 Nebraska squad and a long, arduous rebuilding process stares them square in the face. Everyone connected to the program has struggled for some concrete evidence to base a judgment about how a programs like Nebraska’s can be floundering so badly.

At least, I felt adrift and without any good answers. Then I read this quote in a story by Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star from senior linebacker Mohammed Barry, one of the team’s captains, given before the Purdue game (emphasis added):

“We’ve said that stuff three years in a row,” Barry said. “I’m not going to keep putting it on that. I know what teams (with bad culture) look like. There were guys that literally did it deliberately, just wasn’t bought in, wanted to go against Coach. There’s no rebellious people on the team now. That’s not happening. That’s all shut down. It’s just people have to want it more, have to just be disciplined.”

Maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe this comes from a place of never having played football.

But Nebraska’s been through some dark times. The hand-picked heir of a beloved icon was fired less than two years removed from a national championship appearance. The fanbase was torn apart by a forced culture change that didn’t work. A head coach literally said “fuck you” to the fanbase and literally attempted to sabotage the program after he got fired.

But through all that, I never heard of a team in open rebellion against a coach. Maybe it’s happened and we’ve never heard of it. Hearing Barry say it out loud, though, in public is jarring to see, and really puts a new light on the depth of the hole Frost is digging Nebraska’s program out of.

I know, we’re all sick of hearing about culture and knowing where things are going. But seriously, if the baseline you’re having to start with as a new coach is “I wonder which of my guys are going to actively ignore the things I tell them,” you’re starting at quite a disadvantage.

Barry says that rebellious players aren’t an issue anymore – which hopefully is true, although I’m not sure we’d know about it if it wasn’t.  But even this year, Frost’s second, is the first year of just building trust and buy-in, that helps explain why we’re still asking questions about “culture” eighteen games into his tenure.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has been giving you, Husker Fan, reasons for optimism about Nebraska football going forward. Well, if you want evidence of how bad the problems were when Frost arrived – and therefore how much time he’s going to need to have a reasonable shot to fix them – look no further than Barry’s revelatory quote.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Survival Tips for Husker Fans

IMG_2110

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.