Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 30, Penn State 23

Whew!

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 …

THE GOOD

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.

THE BAD

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.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Reasons the Cornhuskers can Rebound in 2020

Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. That’s hard to process when it’s seen in black and white. And while three years isn’t forever, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for feeling like it has been.

But there’s reason to think that, even in this pandemic-shortened season, Nebraska can finally show that it is turning that metaphorical corner. Here’s five reasons why you should be hopeful as the new season dawns.

GETTING DOWNHILL

If there was one specific area of disappointment for Nebraska in 2019, it was a lack of offensive performance. But towards the end of the season, as Nebraska’s offensive line began performing well, NU began leaning on downhill running with Dedrick Mills.

In the seventh through ninth games of the season, Mills never had more than ten carries in a game, and never averaged more than 3.75 yards per carry. But against Wisconsin and Iowa (two of the last three games), Mills had 17 and 24 carries, and averaged over 11 (!) yards per carry against the Badgers’ defense.

This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is starting from a much better place than last year. In 2019, the middle of Nebraska’s offensive line consisted of two walk-ons and a center who never played center. This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is both more experienced and more talented, and have a proven between-the-tackles thumper in Mills.

PROTECTING WAN’DALE

The second reason is related to the first. Last year, freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson was the most dynamic, dangerous part of Nebraska’s offense. Indeed, with the departure of Maurice Washington, the struggles of Adrian Martinez, and the injuries to J.D. Spielman, Robinson was the only offensive weapon.

The problem with that was it put so much pressure on Nebraska to over-use their best weapon. Robinson is five-foot-nine and 185 pounds. Robinson had games with 19, 22, and 14 carries. That’s too many for a player of his size, and we saw Robinson suffer from injury and diminished proportions.

In many ways, Robinson’s use last year echoed how De’mornay Pierson-El was used in 2016 and 2017. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was a diminutive, dynamic offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was at many times Nebraska’s only legitimate offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was exposed to far too much punishment from over-use, suffered injury, and ultimately never was able to realize his potential.

If Nebraska is able to establish more of a downhill attack, and has more weapons (see below), then Robinson will be able to be used properly, not over-used, and have a chance to fulfill his potential.

OPTIONS FOR MARTINEZ

Last year, receiver was an underwhelming position for Nebraska. Again, Robinson ended up being Nebraska’s only consistent weapon, particularly with Spielman’s injury.

This year, Nebraska has a number of tantalizing possibilities at receiver. Junior college transfer Omar Manning’s size and body type is tantalizing, although his injuries have limited his availability at least at the start of the season. Freshman Xavier Betts brings a similar size, and Alante Brown has possibility as a playmaking receiver.

Tight end has always been a little bit like Lucy with the football for Nebraska, as the possible talent always seems to be present but never quite materializes (otherwise known as the Mike McNeil effect). But this year could be different. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek has all the attributes to be a dangerous offensive weapon, and Chris Hickman is now listed at wide receiver but is functionally a move tight end as well. Particularly with the uncertainty at wide receiver, tight end might take up the slack to provide additional weapons, and maybe force a second safety back and open up running lanes between the tackles as well.

DEONTAI’S BACK

Deontai Williams’ freshman year offered a tantalizing look at an immensely talented defensive back. At safety, Williams displayed the kind of talent and instincts that can be game-changing for a defense. Unfortunately, he struggled to carve out a role as a freshman, and was looking at his sophomore campaign to start making his mark.

An injury in the season opener derailed his entire 2019 season. But now he is back, healthy, and looks set to lead an experience secondary. While Nebraska might struggle with generating pressure, if Williams and the rest of the secondary can overachieve then Nebraska’s defense has a chance to shine.

COMPETENT KICKING

Yeah, last year was a rousing disappointment. But you can point to discrete events in a number of games – Wisconsin and Iowa being the most obvious – where even a competent placekicker would have either won the game or at least kept it very competitive. If that’s the only variable that changed, how would  you look back on a 7-5 record with wins over Wisconsin and Iowa last year, Husker Fan?

Nebraska made sure it wouldn’t be in the same situation this year, having four (!) punters and five (!!) placekickers on the 2020 roster. Michigan State transfer William Prystup will be the starting punter, and Connor Culp will be the starting placekicker. Specifically Culp, an LSU transfer who went 11-16 for field goals and 20-23 for extra points in 2017, will at least provide Nebraska with a legitimate FBS kicking option – something that was lacking last year. And just having that option will prevent Nebraska’s offense from being hamstrung as it was last year.

GBR, baby.