LINCOLN — Nebraska’s first offensive play seemed designed to make a statement and please a hungry crowd denied their season-opening, clear-the-benches feast last season.
The Huskers trotted onto the field in a bunch formation. They shifted into a traditional I-look, with quarterback Adrian Martinez under center, true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson as the tailback and Dedrick Mills as the fullback. Tight end right, flankers to each side. Was it 2019 or 1989?
South Alabama couldn’t have been prepared for a toss pitch, with Robinson following Mills and pulling left guard Boe Wilson to daylight. This wasn’t a fancy spread play. It was power football. Big Ten football. Old-school Nebraska football.
Robinson ran into two defenders and gained 2 yards, foreshadowing a surprisingly tough day of sledding — 276 yards, 98 rushing yards, 14 points — for NU’s offense. An “anemic” day, said coach Scott Frost, who designs and calls the plays. A performance in search of explanations.
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Maybe it was classes starting the same week the team began preparation for its season opener. Or NU was overconfident. Or still not past the weird thing that happens to Husker football in 11 a.m. starts. Maybe it’s just college football, and 18-to-22-year-olds tend to be inconsistent. Frost processed the struggles in real time Saturday afternoon as he talked to reporters.
Did he put too much in Nebraska’s game plan?
“We have a lot of veterans on offense and you wouldn’t think it would affect them,” Frost said. “We actually went into the game with fewer plays than we went into a bunch of games the second half of last year with.”
At the end of his press conference, he mentioned starters with “nicks” in training camp who are “just getting back to healthy.” One, center Cameron Jurgens, plays on the offensive line.
Those are good explanations, especially the first one about the breadth of the game plan. Perhaps Nebraska, expecting to run the ball well, didn’t have enough diversity in the plan, though a new Robinson jet sweep — with Martinez under center — was a nifty play.
But NU’s offense creates run-pass options for many plays. Yes, Nebraska’s offensive line got pushed around — by South Alabama — and that’s always concerning. You also figured to see some hiccups with a new center. Plus, Frost’s system is superior to, say, Mike Riley’s scheme because there are ways around line hiccups. The quarterback is given some freedom to navigate that terrain.
Martinez — so often good at knowing the right decision — seemed to lack a compass a few times.
First, he was impatient as a passer, looking away from tight end Jack Stoll — breaking open on a corner route — on a fourth-down play to pull the ball and scramble to his right and throw wide of Robinson. He twice threw into heavy coverage over the middle — his pass to Maurice Washington was picked off, his pass to Kanawai Noa was a dropped interception — when if he’d held an extra beat, he had Mike Williams and JD Spielman open on those respective plays.
“There were probably around four or five throws that I could’ve made that I think would have made a big difference for us offensively,” Martinez said.
Though it’s hard to know when a play is a true RPO or a called run that just looks like a RPO, Martinez seemed to give the ball a few times when the quick outlet throw to Robinson or Spielman was available. On Nebraska’s second-quarter touchdown drive, Martinez may have had two option-pitch plays in space with Spielman, but instead gave to Wyatt Mazour and Mills, respectively. Both backs plunged into a sea of white shirts. Mills missed the hole on his run by two gaps.
Martinez said he “forced” a few runs and “it didn’t work out well.” Frost seemed to indicate Martinez needed to commit more to his scrambles and runs.
“When he takes off, I want to see him go because I know what kind of runner he is,” Frost said.
Frost didn’t dwell much on the offensive line, but none of the linemen talked after the game, and the tape doesn’t lie. Jurgens struggled with snaps. Martinez faced up-the-middle pressure, which disrupts the natural pocket. South Alabama’s two-star linemen pushed and shoved their way to a dominating day against the run.
Focusing on the offense isn’t ignoring Nebraska’s five takeaways on defense. The Blackshirts sunk their teeth into a subpar offense, snuffed out the sweep plays that worked in the first half and didn’t have any massive busts in the secondary, which has quickly become a strength of the team. The defense runs, hits and celebrates.
But NU’s not likely to face quarterbacks that inexperienced again this season. Certainly not at Colorado, where fifth-year senior Stephen Montez has thrown for 7,000 career yards. CU put up 33 points and 395 yards on Nebraska last season; the Buffaloes can do that again.
So the Husker offense had better be ready for more of a track meet. Can NU play more than four receivers — Spielman, Noa, Robinson and Williams — who took the bulk of the snaps Saturday? Can anyone get behind an opposing secondary? Will a full game of Maurice Washington — one presumes he’ll start Saturday, pending his Tuesday court date — reshape how defenses play Nebraska’s run game?
NU’s struggles on offense — against the weakest team on its schedule — probably needs to be an anomaly. The Huskers went 14 years between games when they scored three nonoffensive touchdowns. No matter how good they are, it may be 14 more years before it happens again.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander: He schemed up two forced fumbles and over the offseason, developed with his assistants and nice vision for rotating the front seven. Six defensive linemen four outside linebackers and three inside linebackers played with some regularity. That’s a full two-deep at those positions.
Nebraska’s secondary: Eric Lee and Cam Taylor-Britt deserve the most praise, but you can’t argue much with the work done by Dicaprio Bootle, Lamar Jackson or Eli Sullivan, either. Not perfect, but well above average and, for next week’s game against Colorado, they’d better be. Marquel Dismuke got lost in coverage a few times and Deontai Williams — no word on his health — missed a few tackles.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann: He played roughly half the series as Caleb Tannor and made just as many impact plays. (Tannor got better as the progressed, especially against the run.) Domann clearly has a knack for reading the “give” portion of the RPO and attacks the mesh point between back and quarterback.
Stoll: Led the team in receiving and might have been the best run blocker, too. One of NU’s best players.
Mills: He’ll learn a lot from this game. Mills runs so hard, but he may need to slow down a touch and find the holes. A sidestep here or there, and he has a more productive game. He no longer plays a Georgia Tech or behind the nation’s best junior college line.
Receiver JD Spielman: Based on Saturday, Spielman could be in for tougher sledding without Stanley Morgan as a flanker. Martinez will be, too. Spielman remains a gifted returner and his muff was a rare mistake.
Left tackle Brendan Jaimes: Seemed solid Saturday. South Alabama had far more success with a middle pass rush than against Jaimes, and Jaimes had a few nice lead blocks on that insert play NU likes to run.
Washington: Whatever one thinks of his off-field issues, he makes a clear on-field difference for Nebraska. NU likes attack the edges of a defense with a wide sweep play, of sorts, and Washington navigates that play better than anyone on NU’s team.
South Alabama nose tackles Jordan Beaton and Sean Brown: The 6-foot-1, 300-pound Beaton and 6-2, 325-pound Brown wrecked Nebraska’s interior line. Beaton had two tackles, but caused a lot more havoc than that. According to his biography on South Alabama’s website, he squatted 820 pounds in high school. Yeah, well, he looked like it Saturday. Brown had a half-sack and four tackles.
Two: True freshmen who played snaps on offense or defense. Those were Robinson and outside linebacker Garrett Nelson. Cornerback Quinton Newsome and kicker Dylan Jorgensen — who had the Lincoln Southwest graduate on the true freshman bingo card? — played on special teams. According to the participation report, no others played. It’s fair to say Robinson, Nelson and Newsome are burning their redshirts. Will anyone else?
Plus-5: Nebraska’s yardage margin in average starting field position. NU started at its own 33 for an average while South Alabama started at its own 28. The Huskers’ three nonoffensive touchdowns, obviously, changed what their average start might have been, but it was an ideal start for Nebraska in a department that matters a lot. A couple of penalties on South Alabama kickoff returns contributed to NU’s success.
One: Offensive play over 20 yards. That’s alarming. NU averaged six per game last season and seeks to build its central identity around ripping off such plays. Nebraska isn’t Iowa, in other words, which likes to grind out long, time-consuming drives. The Hawkeyes had three 20-yard plays in their 38-14 win over Miami (Ohio), but that’s standard. They averaged 3.84 such plays last season. In Week 1, only Northwestern also had one play of more than 20 yards. Stanford is a much more formidable foe than South Alabama.
9: Times since 2015 that Nebraska notched four sacks in a game. That’s pretty infrequent, and it speaks to how encouraging Saturday must have looked to Chinander. Yes, two of the sacks were manufactured with Chinander’s call for secondary blitzes but nose tackle Darrion Daniels made a good point after the game when he explained a 3-4 is like that. Pass rushes come from all angles.
5.03: Yards per carry allowed by South Alabama last season. That helps put Nebraska’s 2.2 yards per carry in perspective a little bit. Since joining the FBS in 2012, South Alabama has allowed fewer than 2.23 yards per carry 11 times, but none of those games were against Power Five foes.
After each game, I ask readers on my Facebook page for their take on the game. Selected and edited responses follow:
Keoni Maria: “I didn’t see what most saw. I saw a defense that was going to the ball, collected turnovers, defensive line held their ground. The defense saves the win. The offensive line was just short of atrocious.”
Gil Neumann III: “Common theme for us every time: trenches need work, more consistency, depth. Once those gel, we’ll be just fine. Until then, we’ll need to rely on superior athletic performance.”
Matt Olsen: “Long gone are the days when I could watch a Husker football game with confidence in a predetermined victory. Each week is an emotional roller coaster, regardless of the opposition.”
Thayne Moore: “Interior O-line looks better with Farniok. Martinez is not as elusive, his agility and burst have decreased with the weight gain.”
Paul Ochsner: “Many observers thought the defense would need to carry the offense in the early season. Sounded wrong at the time, but guess they were right. Thank you D!”
» Colorado dropped 52 points in a 21-point win over Colorado State. CU’s defensive line struggled — average push on the pass rush — but the Buffaloes’ offense remains efficient and explosive. New starting running back Alex Fontenot (125 yards) is just 6-foot, 195 pounds, but he broke a lot of tackles in the opener.
» Northwestern is stuck with quarterback Hunter Johnson now. The five-star transfer from Clemson started in its 17-7 loss to Stanford and stunk — 6 for 17 passing with two interceptions, plus a lost fumble — but he’s the Wildcats’ only option after backup TJ Green hurt his foot and had surgery Saturday. Green played early in the second half and seemed clearly superior to Johnson before the injury.
» Maryland beat Howard 79-0. Take nothing from that, other than Howard should no longer be an opponent scheduled by Big Ten teams.
» Purdue allowed the final 20 points of the game in a 34-31 loss to Nevada. The Boilermakers were minus-5 in turnover margin. It’s a bad loss and an even worse scheduling decision by Purdue to open on the road at a big underdog that spent all summer preparing for an upset.
Sunny and warm in Boulder, where the bike lanes and Husker fans will be aplenty. And, hopefully, there’s a civility to it all.