The transfer of junior phenom Wan’Dale Robinson sent shockwaves through the Nebraska fanbase. In head coach Scott Frost’s three years in charge, Nebraska has seen an inordinate amount of players – both recruited by Frost and by his predecessor – leave the program.
For the most part, fans have invested their trust in Frost, believed him when he talked about how the culture within the Nebraska football program needed to change, and that the departures were a necessary part of that culture shift. And given what Nebraska had seen under previous head coach Mike Riley, it was evident that Frost was correct.
But as the departures continued, especially departures of players Frost recruited, an unease began to crop up that the departures were less about Frost excising bad culture and more about players becoming dissatisfied with the progression of the offense and their place in the program.
Robinson’s departure brought those concerns to a head. Yes, Robinson ended up returning to his native Kentucky. Yes, there is little question that he was motivated by his mother contracting COVID and wanting to be closer to home. That’s been the motivation of many transfers this season, throughout the country.
But part of Robinson’s motivation, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, was to be in an offense that would better set him up for an NFL career.
That should send alarm bells through Nebraska’s program, as well as through the fanbase. Except maybe for Adrian Martinez, Robinson was the face of Nebraska’s program. He was the offensive archetype, the kind of player that Frost at Central Florida used to create a dazzling, dynamic offensive attack.
Unfortunately, very little of that dynamic offense has materialized in Lincoln. In Robinson’s two years, Frost seemed to struggle finding the right ways to utilize Robinson’s skills to their fullest. Last year, Robinson ended up being used as a tailback, getting carries and running between the tackles quite a bit.
While getting your most dynamic player the ball as often as possible is certainly wise in any offense, Robinson is 5 foot 9 and 180 pounds. He is not at all built to survive the rigors of a between-the-tackles running back, particularly in the B1G. And Robinson began to break down at the end of 2019, underlining the need for finding the right ways to use Robinson’s amazing skills.
The 2020 season was always going to be a challenge, playing through a pandemic with no spring football and an uncertain (to put it mildly) future for B1G football. Nebraska did find more balance in using Robinson during the 2020 season. But Nebraska’s offense on the whole was a huge disappointment this year.
While Nebraska’s defense began to find its feet, Nebraska’s offense looked lost. Frost switched between Martinez and Luke McCaffrey at quarterback, trying to find a signal-caller that could get Nebraska’s offense into rhythm, but never quite succeeding. And Robinson’s production in his second season at Nebraska suffered as a result.
Robinson clearly has designs to play in the NFL. And his electric skill set should be tailor-made for the modern NFL offense. But to get there, he’s got to be able to put what he can do on video, to make sure he can stand out from the crowd.
It’s clear that Robinson came to the conclusion that Frost was not going to be able to provide him that stage upon which to showcause his talents. That, as much as his mother’s illness, is why Robinson is no longer wearing scarlet and cream.
A smart and particularly handsome analyst said that you would know when Frost’s tenure at Nebraska was truly at risk when his recruiting started to tail off. And to be clear, we’re not there yet. In addition to Nebraska still landing a top-25 recruiting class, Nebraska landed an NFL-caliber wide receiver and running back through the transfer portal.
Nebraska’s talent level on offense should be sufficient to succeed. But almost the entire offense is an open question. Martinez, McCaffrey, or freshman Logan Smothers could all reasonably be expected to be the starting quarterback for week one of the season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning non-quarterback rusher had 24 carries last season. Nebraska’s most experienced returning receiver had 18 catches.
It’s worrying, to say the least, that Frost will be basically starting over offensively in year four. And the 2021 schedule – with games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Oklahoma, in addition to the B1G West slate – is awfully challenging for an entirely rebooted offense.
Robinson’s departure is in no way guaranteed to be the end of the Frost era. But ultimately Frost needs to maintain confidence and faith in his offensive scheme for Nebraska to be successful under his leadership. Robinson’s transfer is the first truly undeniable rejection of Frost’s vision. If that lack of faith were to take hold generally, then Robinson’s transfer really could be seen as the beginning of the end of Frost’s time in Lincoln.
So 2021 after Robinson’s departure brings a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. While Frost’s contract situation is clearly secure, the faith in his ability to succeed offensively needs proof of concept on the field desperately in this upcoming season.
After a challenging season both on and off the field, Nebraska ended its 2020 campaign with a 28-21 win over Rutgers to finish with a 3-5 record. While Nebraska certainly could have gotten into a bowl game even with its record (oh hai 3-7 mississippi state), the team voted to end the season and decline any bowl invitation. Head coach Scott Frost, after the Rutgers win, sounded like a man ready to let the 2020 season go.
Nebraska also completed its early signing period with a top-25 recruiting class, headlined by four-star tight end Thomas Fidone from Iowa (and keeping Fidone from the Hawkeyes, avoiding another Noah Fant situation). So now that an exhausting, maddening, at times cringe-inducing season is over, let’s step back and take a look where Nebraska football is right now.
A brave decision to end the season
After Nebraska’s … uneven win over Rutgers, Frost talked about how much of a toll the 2020 season had taken on both the team and the coaches, and that it would ultimately up to the players to decide if they wanted to play in a bowl.
The players decided they did not, and that ended Nebraska’s 2020 season.
Frost, of course, didn’t have to give the players that choice. And he opened himself up to the possibility of ridicule by doing so. After all, it was Frost who was a vocal as anyone before the season started wanting to play football whenever, wherever – even in Uzbekistan, if need be.
After a disappointing 3-5 season, Nebraska turning down a bowl could easily have been made to look life Frost tucking tail and shying away from further embarrassment. Frost knew that, but let his team make the decision anyway.
Recruiting still on track
It’s probably not a surprise that there is at least some buzz about Frost being on the hot seat after going 12-20 in his first three-ish years in charge. In most circumstances, there would be some truth to that.
But not here. Athletic director Bill Moos has made a long-term commitment to Frost. And although Illinois and Minnesota did shake the faith of many in the fanbase, ultimately there’s little question Frost will be in Lincoln for the long-term.
If you really want a canary in the coal mine about Frost’s tenure in Lincoln, watch Nebraska’s recruiting. Last year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that Nebraska’s recruiting ranking nationally was far out-pacing its success on the field. That over-performance was Frost’s ability to connect with recruits and get them to believe that the on-field success will be coming.
Well, the Frost Effect is still working. After the first National Signing Day, Nebraska ended up no. 25 nationally in recruiting, third in the B1G West. While that’s below both Wisconsin and Iowa this year, a top-25 class is still more than good enough for Nebraska to compete.
When Frost arrived in Lincoln, we all expected Nebraska’s offense to be fast and explosive, and its defense to struggle and be at best a complimentary piece to the offensive engine.
As we finish year three, that’s … not quite how things have worked out. Nebraska’s offense has been a mess, and there’s all kinds of different reasons as to why that is.
But Nebraska’s defense has been quietly improving. Nebraska ended 2020 no. 46 nationally in team defense, no. 66 nationally in scoring defense, and no. 52 nationally in total defense.
Sure, those numbers aren’t anything to write home about. But they show a defense that’s above-average nationally, which in Nebraska’s proof-of-concept should be more than good enough. If the offense can catch up – and that’s still very much an open question – Nebraska’s defense looks ready to do its part.
Special teams disaster
There’s lots of things that Nebraska needs to fix. But top of the list needs to be special teams, writ large. Nebraska did make a massive improvement in placekicking, going from having no functional kicker to an all-conference player in Connor Culp.
But Nebraska still cannot cover a kick return. Nebraska allowed two fake punts for first downs – in eight games – where the punter was essentially unguarded and gifted a long run. Letting that happen once is bad enough. But when it happens a second time under almost identical circumstances, it’s evidence of a systemic breakdown.
Nebraska tried to have special teams be handled by a special teams consultant this year, rather than having a coach specifically tasked with handling that role, which at least reflects an attempt to shake the system up. It hasn’t worked, clearly, but there’s little question that Nebraska needs drastic action to fix a gaping hole.
Quarterback still a question
Boy, how much fun was it to see Adrian Martinez go off against Rutgers, going 24-28 for 255 yards in the air and 157 yards on 23 carries and scoring three total touchdowns? That’s the guy we’ve been waiting for to lead Nebraska’s offense, right?
Well, that same guy – in the same game – lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions. More disturbingly, the turnovers were repeat performances of mistakes we’ve seen in the past, mistakes which have killed Nebraska in the last three years.
If there’s one weakness in Frost’s offensive concept, it’s that it needs supremely talented quarterback play. Frost’s quarterback needs to be a threat on the ground, have the ability to deliver the ball to dangerous playmakers, and stretch the field to keep defenses honest and put them in conflict. He’s got to do all that while protecting the ball and making consistent smart decisions.
Whether it’s injury or understanding, Martinez has yet to demonstrate his ability to check all those boxes – and in his defense, that’s a lot of boxes to check. Luke McCaffrey, while an exciting and dynamic athlete, has not demonstrated his ability to throw or protect the ball sufficiently for Nebraska to rely on him as a starting quarterback option.
So Nebraska comes into 2021 with questions at quarterback. It is entirely possible that, with a full offseason, that Martinez or McCaffrey could grow into the position. It’s possible that freshman Logan Smothers, after watching this season from the sideline, will be able to challenge for the position.
But we don’t know – and more importantly, Frost doesn’t know – who is going to be that guy in 2021.
Yes, I know Husker Fan, you’ve seen this before. More often than you should have.
But we’re here again. Nebraska just got bullied, humiliated, and embarrassed on its home field – by Illinois. Not Ohio State. Not Wisconsin. Not even (shudder) Iowa. The Fighting fricking Illini just made Nebraska a laughingstock.
There’s not a ton of point in dissecting the minutiae of what just happened. There’s plenty of outlets for those. We are here to help you, Husker Fan, try to make some sense out of all of this.
Unfortunately, we’ve done this in 2017. And in 2007. But here we are again.
I know you’re hurting right now, Husker Fan. I know you’re struggling with how to respond to this team. Here’s some guidance to help you maintain your sanity.
I. THOU SHALT CARE. This might be the hardest one, other than maybe the Tenth Commandment. The rational thing to do after seeing this debacle is to detach yourself emotionally and walk away.
Caring passionately about a football team is a blessing, a gift that lets you feel emotions and experience life in a way that those who aren’t fans won’t ever understand.
I know, I know, that means you just went through all of that agony – a feeling you’ve had at some level basically for the last two decades. That’s part of it – and it’s still worth the exchange.
Following a team, being a Nebraska fan, gives you a rhythm to life, and a connection to the past. It gives you things to think about, to focus on, to be excited for. Giving that up is just too high of a price to pay.
II. THOU SHALT FIND A HEALTHY SPACE FROM YOUR FANDOM. Having said all of that from the First Commandment, it is also really important to understand the need to take care of yourself. It’s perfectly fine to put your Nebraska fandom to the side for a little bit and let yourself heal.
Things will look better tomorrow, I promise. And better the day after that. By Friday, after a nice Thanksgiving meal (properly socially distanced, of course) you might even be ready to watch the Iowa game.
Your social media account will be just fine without you doomscrolling for the next few hours. Your bulletin board will muddle through without your ALL CAPS SCREED.
Rake your leaves, walk your dog, bake some bread, play a video game. Find something else that makes you happy and engages your brain.
Nebraska football will be there when you get back. And its going to need you, healthy, to stick together in all kinds of weather.
III. THOU SHALT TURN THE OTHER CHEEK. It’s gonna be ugly, Husker Fan. Nebraska’s going to be the butt of national jokes. Opposing fans are going to revel in Nebraska’s struggles. Your Hawkeye relatives and neighbors are going to luxuriate in this. You’re even gonna get things like this.
(Honestly, well played, Illinois social media team.)
Let them. It’s OK to acknowledge that – right now – the team you love is kinda garbage.
There’s zero point in getting into a fight with someone about this. Just acknowledge that Nebraska’s a mess, and that you still love the program. There’s a level of respect you’re going to earn for acknowledging the reality of your team being bad, and you sticking with them. And I promise, the Fourth Commandment will help you get through that.
IV. THOU SHALT SEPARATE YOUR FANDOM FROM YOUR SELF-IMAGE. This might be the most important thing to remember, just to help keep yourself sane. Yes, Nebraska’s kinda garbage right now.
But that doesn’t mean that you are kinda garbage.
You as a human being are awesome (of course you are, you’re a Double Extra Point reader)! Your friends and family don’t love you any less because your favorite team is bad. Please, please, please don’t let those streams get crossed.
Because if you’re able to remember that your team being bad doesn’t mean you are bad, that will help you keep things in perspective (see the Ninth Commandment) and stay healthy.
V. THOU SHALT NOT STRIKE YOUR COLORS. No hiding, Husker Fan. This is the time when you really earn your respect as a fan. It’s easy to be a fan when your team is good.
Now’s the time you earn your respect, Husker Fan. Wear your colors with pride, even at Thanksgiving with your Hawkeye relatives (over Zoom, of course) and let them take their shots.
I promise you, Husker Fan, not only will you earn respect, but you’ll feel better about yourself too.
VI. THOU SHALT ACCEPT REALITY. You guys, Nebraska’s bad. And there’s plenty of ways this could get worse. Both this year and looking forward.
That’s got to be your starting point. And it’s OK. What is now is no guarantee that it is what will be, whether that’s next week, next month, or next year. More on keeping faith alive in the Tenth Commandment, I promise.
But denying reality is the heart of quite a few problems we are laboring under in 2020. You will do yourself no favors cocooning yourself in a fantasy world. Accept where things are right now – good, bad, and ugly – and ride the wave out with the rest of us here in reality.
VII. THOU SHALT TAKE THE LONG VIEW. When we’ve been at these turning points before, it was pretty obvious that a coaching change was coming and that was a source of long-term hope. That’s – probably – not coming now. Frost almost assuredly isn’t going anywhere, even if Nebraska ends this strange, pandemic-influenced year 1-7.
So you gotta dig in for the long haul, Husker Fan. Yes, it looks bad now, but losing to Illinois doesn’t mean that Nebraska can’t be successful under Frost. Failure under Frost is far from a guarantee.
Of course, success under Frost is far from a guarantee too.
Nebraska football as a program is bigger than one coach – yes, even Frost. Maybe he’s not the right guy for the job. Maybe it’s the next guy that comes in that gets Nebraska back to the promised land.
Nebraska has played college football since 1890. Memorial Stadium was built in 1923. Nebraska fans have been, well, Nebraska fans, swarming to follow the scarlet and cream to its first Rose Bowl in 1941.
Nebraska football will be there after Frost is gone – whether he’s fired after abject failure or after winning national championships. That’s why being a Nebraska fan is so powerful – because it connects you to that history, that tradition, that rhythm of life that was there before you were here and will be there once you’re gone.
Don’t give up on that, Husker Fan, even though it’s not a ton of fun right now.
VIII. THOU SHALT TAKE IT ONE WEEK AT A TIME. I know, it’s hard to think that there’s a benefit of being a fan of a bad team. But one of the benefits is that you can take each game as a discrete, week-by-week experience without worrying about how it fits into the “bigger picture” of things.
College football is beautiful in large part for its weirdness. Nebraska gets Iowa next week, and the scoreboard will start at 0-0 regardless of how ugly this loss to Illinois was.
So take these gifts for what they are Husker Fan. Yeah, it doesn’t seem likely right now, but maybe things click right and Nebraska finally gets a win over Iowa on Black Friday. Or maybe they play a great game against Purdue. Or maybe they thump Minnesota.
Or, maybe none of that happens. But sports is the ultimate in reality television, and you’ll never know unless you watch. So do your best, Husker Fan, to silo off each week’s contest as a one-off rather than seeing it as a bigger picture. It’ll help you feel better, I promise.
IX. THOU SHALT MAINTAIN PERSPECTIVE. I know, I know, “it’s just a game” is loser talk.
But, really, it is just a game. And that’s the beauty of it. One of the reasons sports is such an important part of life is that it gives us a chance to feel passionately human emotions – happiness, excitement, fear, joy, anguish – about something that is ultimately meaningless.
Feeling those emotions – all those emotions, good and bad – is part of what it means to be alive, to be human. And having this big, loud, ridiculous spectacle to funnel those emotions through without (for the most part) anyone getting hurt is a tremendous blessing.
So yeah, Husker Fan, this sucks to feel like you’re back in the wilderness again, stuck there for the better part of two decades. Don’t dismiss or denigrate how bad or sad or mad you feel right now.
But if you remember that, ultimately, it is just a game, then you’re going to be well on your way to finding the strength to do all those other things that will keep you strong, healthy, and sane – well, as sane as a Nebraska fan can be, anyway.
X. THOU SHALT KEEP THE FAITH. Here’s the biggie, Husker Fan. Faith is tough, because it’s a belief in the unseen, the unproven. Faith is holding on to something even when there’s no reasonable explanation for doing so. Faith is looking into the teeth of a frightening, uncertain future and deciding to still believe in a better tomorrow.
Faith is hearing the whispers of doubt, of despair, of apathy, whispering in your ear to take the easy way out – and gently, firmly, saying no.
Faith isn’t something inherent, something you’re born with. It’s a choice. And (because it’s important to stay On Brand with this site) it’s best described by Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Lt. Commander Data : Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android – nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form; however, I realized that if I was simply a machine, I could never be anything else. I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept, so I chose to believe… that I was a person, that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors. It is a belief which I still hold.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Rightful Heir,” Season 6, Episode 23
You’ve done that as long as you’ve worn scarlet and cream, Husker Fan. Many of you made that leap after Nebraska was mauled by Colorado in 2001. Or Kansas in 2007. Or Wisconsin in 2012.
Make it again, Husker Fan. I promise you, it’ll be worth it. Stick with us. Just listen to this smart and particularly handsome analyst from 2007 – who admittedly might have been just a bit hyperbolic (and even, ew, used the word “haters”) in his younger days.
We must stand firm, and stand together. We must care for and respect each other, even when we disagree. We must remember that we all want the same thing. And we must believe – nay, we must know – that brighter days are ahead. Nebraska will rise again, because we the people will demand it, and will not rest until we are delivered. Let the haters crow and enjoy our time in darkness. We will rise above them, and we will once again be the insufferably polite fans who cheer as our team dominates all opponents.
Nebraska fans were over the moon in the first half, watching NU out-play Penn State and take a 27-6 lead into the half. Then, the familiar second-half doldrums and catastrophic defensive breakdown came back, and Nebraska gave Penn State two legit shots to send the game into overtime.
But the defense held both times, keeping the Lions off the board in two first-and-goal situations, and salting away head coach Scott Frost’s first win in 2020.
So in reviewing Nebraska’s nail-biter against Penn State …
Luke’s Team. Frost made a bold choice in benching Adrian Martinez for Luke McCaffrey – although given Martinez’s struggles going back to last year, it would have been hard to make any other decision. The decision paid off, with McCaffrey delivering decisiveness, footspeed, accuracy, and good decision-making
Special Teams. Hey, remember last year when Nebraska was literally pulling people off the street to fill in kicking roles? This year, both spots have been manned well, with Connor Culp as placekicker and Will Pryztup at punter. Culp didn’t do anything remarkable, but was incredibly reliable, going 3-for-3 on field goals and 3-for-3 on extra points. Even though none of the field goals were longer than 30 yards, the point is that he made them all … and kept Penn State at sufficient arms’ length to avoid yet another devastating collapse.
And when Nebraska’s offense went three-and-out late in the game and was set to give Penn State the ball back with a chance to tie, Pryztup uncorked a 53-yard punt that required a fair catch, making the Lions go 69 yards to tie the game. As we saw, Penn State was able to get most of that distance – but not all of it.
Last year, that wasn’t the case. And not having those quietly competent specialists could easily have been the difference between victory and defeat in a game like this for Nebraska.
Meaningless Stat. Penn State had 501 total yards to Nebraska’s 298 – and lost by seven. Last week, Nebraska had 442 yards to Northwestern’s 317 last week – and lost by eight.
It’s almost like total yardage is a pretty meaningless statistic. It’s not quite like a Win in baseball, but please keep in mind that total yardage can be incredibly misleading. In many ways, Nebraska beat Penn State in the same manner that Northwestern beat Nebraska last week – by forcing the opponent to be methodical down the field, and preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Second Half Struggles. Nebraska has played three games in 2020. It has scored six points – in total – in the second half. That works out to 0.067 points per minute. Nebraska’s run a total of 95 second-half plays, yielding 0.063 points per play.
That’s … bad.
Thankfully Nebraska had a big enough first half lead to survive the second half offensive power outage – as well as facing an opponent somehow worse in the red zone than NU. While a win like this is critical for the team’s psyche, Nebraska can’t just cede the second half offensively if it wants to turn that mythical corner.
Staying Sharp. Nebraska’s still struggling with getting correct personnel in on offense, even coming out of stoppages of play. It wasn’t nearly the struggle it had been in weeks past, but those are the kinds of mistakes that just simply shouldn’t happen at all.
Converting. Much like last week, third down and red zone conversions for Nebraska were anemic. Nebraska was 4-for-12 on third downs, and 1-for-4 in touchdowns scored in the red zone. Both of those statistics are a big reason why Penn State was able to mount a comeback and – almost – snatch a victory away from Nebraska.
AND THE FOOT IN THE GROUND
Well, there it is, Husker Fan. We’ve talked a lot here about how winning begets winning. Now – finally – Nebraska has gotten a payoff for all its hard work. Now there’s some confidence that can build from a win over a marquee team.
Yes, I know Penn State is 0-4, but it’s still Penn State. There’s still NFL guys – a bunch of them – that were on the field trying to muster that comeback. And, finally, Nebraska was in a tight spot and made the winning play instead of having the winning play made against it.
The closest thing Nebraska had to that kind of a result was last year’s 13-10 thriller over Northwestern. Given how anemic Nebraska’s offense was in that game, it was hard to see it as a turning point – and with Nebraska getting bullied by Minnesota the following week, 34-7, it clearly wasn’t.
This feels a little different. Nebraska really dominated Penn State in the first half. Then, the calamitous find-a-way-to-lose Nebraska showed up in the second half. But the defense bowed up, again and again, and made two goal line stands to preserve a win.
So, let’s see if this is when Nebraska as a program finally puts a metaphorical foot in the ground to change direction. Next week Illinois comes to town, coming off its first win of the season after handing the starting quarterback job to dual threat freshman Isaiah Williams.
The opportunity is there for Nebraska to get only its fourth back-to-back winning streak in Frost’s tenure. A win over Illinois – a team that Nebraska has the talent to beat – puts Nebraska at .500 going into Black Friday against Iowa.
Nebraska got the win it desperately needed, to put confidence and hope into a battered program. Let’s see if that foot in the ground holds, and Nebraska can build on this victory to change the direction of the program.
Nebraska came to Evanston with an opportunity to put itself right in the mix for the B1G West title. In a pandemic-shortened season, and with division heavyweight Wisconsin in question, the door was wide open.
And, as we have seen time and time (and time, and time, and time) again, Nebraska ran face-first into that mythical door as opposed to kicking it open.
Nebraska outgained Northwestern in total yardage, 442-317. Nebraska gained more yards per play, 5.02 to 4.88. Nebraska ran far more plays than Northwestern, 88-65. Nebraska was even with Northwestern in turnovers, with two apiece.
Those are numbers that should point to a win. But those numbers cover the game as a whole. When Nebraska’s offense was called upon to produce when it mattered, it fell flat. Nebraska was 4-for-16 (!) on third-down conversions. Nebraska only scored one touchdown in six trips to the red zone – and turned the ball over twice in Northwestern’s end zone.
Indeed, the second interception – Luke McCaffrey bouncing a pass off his lineman’s helmet and having it flutter softly into the hands of an opposing defender for an interception – feels like a distillation of Nebraska football over the last five years.
And, really, that’s the ball game. If Nebraska puts the ball in the end zone, rather than turning it over, that’s a fourteen-point swing in a game Nebraska lost by eight.
So stop me if you’ve heard this one. Nebraska’s own ill-discipline and inability to perform at the crucial moment was the difference between victory and defeat.
Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.
Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.
That’s what’s terrifying, isn’t it Husker Fan? Terrifying that the self-destruction in Evanston, the interception bounced off an offensive lineman’s helmet in the opponent’s end zone, is what this Nebraska team is going to be. It’s probably a little hyperbolic (not to mention pedantic) to be reminded of George Orwell’s “1984” quote about how a seeing the future is to “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”
But sometimes that’s what it feels like to be a Nebraska fan. When Scott Frost arrived in Lincoln, he was able to unite the fanbase around the hope of a dynamic offense and a tough-minded attitude. But what we have seen since his arrival in 2018 is exactly what we’d seen before – a team with flashes of potential that was utterly unable to get out of its own way.
Now, in year three, we’ve seen a re-run of the same movie that has all but foreclosed Nebraska’s chances of winning a wide-open B1G West division. And fans are running out of reasons for hope.
Winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. I do think Frost was right in that when Nebraska turns the corner, it will happen quickly. I’ve just become fairly certain that “when” in that sentence is doing a lot of work.
Frost ain’t going anywhere, and his inclusion on any hot-seat rankings is silly talk. He’s just signed a multi-year extension, he’s still recruiting at a high level, and making any judgments about a program in this pandemic-altered season is folly. If you’re looking for true danger signals about Frost’s tenure, watch to see if the recruiting rankings start to slip.
Until then, Frost is the guy, and he should be. He’s got every chance to get the gigantic ocean-liner U.S.S. Nebraska Football Program turned away from its current course into the Cove Of College Football Irrelevance.
But the Northwestern game felt like a turning point, at least for me – and it seemed like a lot of Nebraska fans as well. Everyone is, of course, still hoping Nebraska will turn that mythical corner and start to be a contender in the B1G West.
The certainty that Nebraska will turn that corner under Frost, though, feels like it died in the long Evanston grass on Saturday morning. Now we’re back to where we were in late-era Pelini and the entire Riley era – going full Missourian and waiting for Nebraska to “show me” before investing any kind of confidence in future competitiveness.
Penn State is coming to Lincoln this weekend. How are you approaching this game, Husker Fan? Excited at the chance for (at least on paper) Nebraska to finally get a marquee win? Or resigned to watching a game that you hope like heck Nebraska wins but holding your breath and waiting to see what borderline-comical way Nebraska finds to lose?
The answer says a lot about where you’re at 26 games into Frost’s tenure in charge.
After a strong start, Nebraska fell victim to both its own mistakes and a top-flight Ohio State squad, losing its 2020 season opener to the Buckeyes, 52-17. The game was more than competitive throughout the first half, but a flurry of chances taken advantage of by Ohio State put the game beyond doubt early in the second half. So, in looking back at week one of the B1G 3.0 schedule for 2020 …
Signs of Life: That first half felt pretty good, didn’t it Husker Fan? You could see it, starting to take shape, that proof-of-concept of what head coach Scott Frost is trying to build. You could see Nebraska competitive in a way that we haven’t seen for a while.
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s second half looked a lot like what we’ve seen earlier in terms of NU hurting itself. But after last year’s humiliation, to see Nebraska at least be able to be on the same field with Ohio State
Bringing Heat: Nebraska sacked Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields three times. Given how much Nebraska struggled with generating a pass rush last year, and that the entire defensive line was replaced, it’s an encouraging sign that Nebraska is able to generate enough of a pass rush even against an offensive line like Ohio State.
Competent Kicking: Placekicker Connor Culp wasn’t asked to do a lot, but looked like a competent FBS kicker. That in and of itself is a massive difference from last season. Remember, with a league-average placekicker, Nebraska last year is likely 7-5 with a win over Iowa. So that box, at the very least, is checked for Nebraska.
Self-Destruction: Nebraska was down 17-14 with three minutes to go in the first half and the ball. If Nebraska scores, they go into half with the lead. If they at least bleed the clock, they are within three points at the half.
Instead, Nebraska took a delay of game penalty to start the drive (!), went backwards on three plays, and punted the ball back to Ohio State at midfield. The Buckeyes punched in a touchdown, then scored on the first play of the second half, and all of a sudden it was 31-17.
That kind of summarized the second half. Penalties and turnovers helped snowball the game and let it get away from Nebraska. Ohio State is very, very good, probably College Football Playoff good. But Nebraska gave the Buckeyes a ton of help in the defeat.
Lack of Deep Threat: Nebraska’s quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey had a total of 290 yards of total offense – out of Nebraska’s total of 377. Wan’Dale Robinson was the only receiver with any catches (outside of garbage time), logging six grabs for 49 yards. I am not sure Nebraska threw more than one pass more than thirty yards downfield.
That’s not going to get it done against anyone, much less Ohio State. Junior college transfer Omar Manning wasn’t able to get into the game, which might have made a difference. But Nebraska’s got to find a way to manufacture some kind of deep threat or the offense is going to struggle.
The Outs: Every time Nebraska went to a single-high look, Nebraska’s secondary gave monstrous cushions to the outside receivers and left easy completions for 8-15 yards. For the most part, Nebraska’s defense held up fairly well (relative to Ohio State). And with both starting safeties for Nebraska missing the first half against Wisconsin for targeting calls.
Against Illinois (I know, I know), Wisconsin’s freshman quarterback Graham Mertz took advantage of soft outside coverage on the same kind of outs the whole game. If Nebraska is going to recover from this beating and compete against Wisconsin, that’s got to be fixed.
AND THE LONG VIEW
Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress. Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.
Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.
Wisconsin looked sharp in a comfortable win over Illinois on Friday. The Badgers clearly aren’t the same team without talents like Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus. But like Wisconsin teams of the past, the Badgers know exactly who they are and will punish Nebraska if it can’t play cleaner.
So the season is off the ground. But next week, in many ways, the season really begins.
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.
“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.
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.
Years in charge
7 (plus one game in 2003)
Nat’l Championship appearances
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.
(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.
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.
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.
.8976 (4 star)
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.
.8941 (4 star)
Marvin Scott III
.8647 (3 star)
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.
.9506 (4 star)
.9075 (4 star)
.9053 (4 star)
.8976 (3 star)
.8647 (3 star)
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.
.9751 (4 star)
.8647 (3 star)
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.
.8801 (3 star)
.8524 (3 star)
.8722 (3 star)
.8621 (3 star)
.8614 (3 star)
.8594 (3 star)
.8541 (3 star)
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.
.9387 (4 star)
.8688 (3 star)
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.
.9064 (4 star)
.9047 (4 star)
.8434 (3 star)
.8375 (3 star)
Ronald Delancey III
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.