Isaac Armstrong missed field goal

Nebraska kicker Isaac Armstrong filled in for an injured Barret Pickering Saturday against Colorado. 

THE FRONT ROW OF FOLSOM FIELD IN BOULDER, Colo. — On the shady side of the stadium, the whole row — goal line to goal line — was full of Husker fans. It was a cross-section of the fan base, too. Old-timers, Gen Xers, millennials, even a toddler, absorbed and oblivious at the same time, momentarily blocking the path of reporters and photographers sprinting from one end to the other for overtime.

Nebraska football is what it is because of that row.

It’s the sellout streak, the walk-on program, the reason NU can still sign top 25 recruiting classes. And it’s the roar as Maurice Washington ran alone down a sideline. Imagine full blast sound in one earphone going silent then the other earphone, once silent, suddenly going full blast. Unforgettable.

“I can’t thank Nebraska fans enough,” coach Scott Frost said. “They were a difference in that game, the people who traveled out here. I promise them — you guys — this is going to get better.”

It was Frost’s final comment Saturday, and it spoke to the responsibility he feels. NU is 5-9 since he returned, inconsistent and unpredictable as usual, and suddenly below expectations it had for itself in 2019.

Every Husker player and coach planned on beating on Colorado. The 17-0 halftime lead wasn’t a shock to them. The resulting second-half collapse at altitude — which befell Husker teams in 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2007 — absolutely was.

“The first half, I thought it was over with,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We were about to give it to them, it was about to be a blowout. And that’s what it should have been. We had them.”

Well, sort of.

Nebraska’s defense wasn’t going to pitch a shutout of a CU offense that’s among the best in the Pac-12. Quarterback Steven Montez and his receivers were too good for that.

So NU’s offense, armed with a three-score lead, had to protect the Blackshirts who — if you’re inclined to believe in the altitude effect — were going to be more susceptible to the fatigue that comes with playing at elevation.

It made Frost’s postgame statement about the weakness of Nebraska’s offense notable. Chew on it for a second.

“In this offense, we need some big plays, too,” Frost said. “We got two really big plays, but not what I’m used to getting in calling this offense. We’ve got to find ways to get some more chunk plays, so we’re not having to grind out 12-play drives.”

A five-minute, 12-play drive — even one that ended in a missed field goal — would have helped a lot in a third quarter that slowed down the defense and helped set the hook for the fourth-quarter meltdown.

Big plays?

Nebraska produced seven of 20 yards or more. That’s above NU’s 2018 average of six. Those seven plays gained 274 yards of offense, accounted directly for two touchdowns and played a role in the other 17 points. The big-play portion of Frost’s offense seemed to function pretty well.

It was the other 65 plays, totaling 195 yards. That’s 3 yards per play. Three plays at 3 yards per play won’t equal a first down. That’s the bust side of this offense, the bear market.

Nebraska’s best offense — the booming 10 percent — was good enough. But the Huskers’ work in the offseason — all the weights and practices and film study — hasn’t yet delivered play-to-play consistency. That seems to be affecting the situational football that separates 5-9 from 9-5, that separated Nebraska from two wins over Colorado.

» NU’s “salt the clock” offense couldn’t even bleed two minutes. Leading 31-24, Nebraska recovered a CU fumble with 5:35 left in the game.

» From his own 28, Frost went aggressive — he later said it was a bad decision — and called for a stutter-and-go deep route with Wan’Dale Robinson, who was covered. It wasn’t a one-man route, but quarterback Adrian Martinez treated it like that, throwing the ball away while in the pocket for an intentional grounding call. It stopped the clock and killed the drive.

» Nebraska’s two-minute drill offense produced 13 yards and an interception. NU had 46 seconds and a timeout to go roughly 40 yards so interim kicker Isaac Armstrong could reasonably attempt a winning field goal. Martinez threw deep twice to Kanawai Noa — covered both times — and on one play, ignored a very open checkdown throw to Washington, the guy who produced three of NU’s seven big plays.

» The overtime possession failed. Frost said he and assistants talked for five minutes about how to attack Colorado without risking an interception. Frost is right to be concerned — Martinez is a career 47.6 percent passer in the red zone with two interceptions — but the first run play, what looked like a zone read, had its own risk with a defender left free by offensive tackle Matt Farniok. Martinez was coached on that play to give to Washington, who gained nothing.

Martinez’s first-half numbers — 180 yards passing, 45 yards rushing — were gaudy, but he struggled in the second half.

For the game, he took six sacks and accounted for three turnovers. He seemed to chase big plays a few times on those sacks, but that’s Nebraska’s offense. Bet big and break the defense in two.

The Huskers need a “killer instinct,” Frost said. He hinted, too, receivers need to get open more on their own.

My take: NU misses Stanley Morgan, as does Martinez. And Noa, a natural slot receiver, is being asked to win outside the numbers and on big-time post routes over the middle. NU needs a true X. Colorado has two or three of them, and as the game wore on, they started beating Nebraska’s defense.

Colorado coach Mel Tucker chalked it up to conditioning, which given Nebraska’s emphasis on it, would seem to be a serious critique.

“We were the best-conditioned team,” Tucker said. “We take pride in that. We knew that if we kept scratching and clawing and fighting, we could wear them down.”

Montez said Nebraska was “too amped up.” I buy that more than Tucker’s contention. NU’s defense burned a lot of emotion in that first half — playing beautifully in the process — and needed an assist from the offense.

And against one of the weakest defenses it will face all season — don’t forget that — Nebraska managed eight first downs and 3 of 11 on third down in the second half. Washington’s 75-yard catch-and-run — and the roar that came afterward — was unforgettable. The biggest of booms.

NU still left Colorado busted.

I see you

Washington: He’s tied for fifth in the Big Ten for all-purpose yards per game. Pretty good for 26 touches. As Frost said, Washington needs work as an in-between-the-tackles runner. Nebraska could use better power backs, too.

Receiver JD Spielman: Five catches, 112 yards, the long touchdown. Can NU find a way to get Spielman the ball on more screens? Or a jet sweep? He’s at least as good at both of those plays as Wan’Dale Robinson, who’s been decent so far, but not as good as Spielman.

Defensive end Khalil Davis: Two huge hustle tackles for loss on CU’s final drive of regulation and its overtime drive. Neither prevented the Buffaloes from scoring, but what terrific late-game effort.

Inside linebacker Will Honas: He’d like to have some missed tackles back — all of NU’s linebackers would — but Honas appeared to play the best of the three inside guys, leading the team with nine tackles. On the outside, Alex Davis had two tackles for loss.

Montez: He has a fourth-quarter swagger against Nebraska and throws a terrific deep ball. His final touchdown pass of regulation was gorgeous.

Colorado linebacker Nate Landman: Terrific last season and again Saturday, finishing with 14 tackles. He could play for just about any team.

Colorado receivers K.D. Nixon, Laviska Shenault and Tony Brown: Nixon had the big play — the 96-yard flea flicker for a score — but all three worked NU’s secondary the entire game. It bore no fruit in the first half but, as NU’s offense stalled in the second half, that trio, plus Jaylon Jackson, got more and more open.

Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson: Finished with three sacks. One forced a fumble of Martinez that led to a Colorado field goal while another came in overtime and put Nebraska too far out of field goal range.

Five stats

7: Fumbles for NU this season. In the Big Ten, only Michigan has more (nine). For the season, Nebraska has four lost fumbles; Michigan has five. And if you want to put that into perspective, the 2017 Huskers — with that rotten, no-good, oh-please-make-it-stop culture some writers like to bring up every time the Huskers stub their toe under Frost — lost two fumbles all season. Yes, spread option teams fumble it more — Michigan is learning that now — but NU’s ball security needs a lot of work. Martinez’s ball security needs work.

9: Years since Nebraska beat a Power Five nonconference foe on the road. In 2010, NU hammered Washington 56-21 in Seattle. Since then, Nebraska has lost 36-30 at UCLA in 2012, 36-33 at Miami in 2015, 42-35 at Oregon in 2017 and 34-31 to Colorado on Saturday. Zoom out to the last 10 major nonconference road games, and you’ll find Nebraska’s record is 3-7. That includes a 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech in 2009, a 20-17 win over Wake Forest in 2007, a 28-10 loss at Southern California in 2006, a 24-17 win at Pittsburgh in 2004 and a 40-7 loss at Penn State in 2002.

Average score of those games? A 28.7-25.4 loss. NU has a 3-0 record against Group of Five teams on the road since 2003, with wins over Southern Mississippi, Wyoming and Fresno State.

3.08: NU’s yards per carry this season, which ranks 112th nationally. The Huskers are among four Big Ten West teams struggling to run the ball. Purdue is averaging 2.7 yards per carry, Minnesota is at 2.96 and Northwestern, having played one game, remains at 2.82. Perhaps most interesting to me is UCLA, coached by Chip Kelly, down at 1.82 yards per game. The Bruins are 0-2 this season with losses to San Diego State and Cincinnati. Kelly is 3-11 in Pasadena.

4.08: Yards per carry for Nebraska’s running backs. Washington, Dedrick Mills and Wyatt Mazour have 48 carries for 196 yards. Last season, NU’s backs rushed for 6.36 yards per carry. Devine Ozigbo was at 7 yards per carry. The Huskers miss his experience.

He had 265 carries headed into his senior year, and he’d learned how to set up holes and sneak an extra yard or two at the next level.

4: Punt return yards for Nebraska’s opponents through two games. NU is averaging 43.64 yards in net punting; you’ll take that every year. Armstrong isn’t trying to boom punts, he’s a crafty lefty with good placement and tricky spin on his ball. Maybe he could pitch an inning for the Royals with his foot. KC’s tried everything else.

Facebook feedback

After each game, I ask fans on my Facebook page to post their takes on the game. Selected and edited responses follow”

“Martinez seems to not understand how to move in the pocket! Players and coaches don’t seem to understand how to win, they will get better, but they are much slower than other teams, wish I had answers for what they do?” — Leonard Watson

“For one half we showed what Nebraska can be. For another half we saw what Nebraska still is.” — Keith Ghormley

“What happened to this supposedly deep and improved receiving corps? Noa, McQuitty, Woodyard and Williams have one catch combined in the first two games. Does Martinez not trust them? Does Coach Walters not trust them?” — Sean Kelly

“Can’t blame Armstrong. Offensive calls put him in an impossible position for FG. Think this will be biting at Frost and all of us for a while. This should’ve been a great win.” — Don Stech

“This loss is 100% on Scott Frost. We cannot let him get away with the Pelini ‘execution’ nonsense that was really a thinly-veiled way to blame players. The players showed up today, Frost and his coaches failed.” — Gregory Burton Bright

“If you’re going to run hurry-up, then you better be good at it. Three-and-outs will eventually wear the defense down. This one’s on Frost. The play calling was, well, questionable.” — Tom Silk

Opponent watch

Northern Illinois lost to Utah 35-17 Saturday. Not a surprise, the Utes tend to play the physical, hard-nosed football that wears down a team like NIU.

But the Huskies, who stunned Nebraska in 2017 thanks to two pick-sixes, have a more-than-serviceable quarterback in California transfer Ross Bowers — a former teammate of current Husker Kanawai Noa — to offset a run game averaging 2.6 yards per carry. NIU allows 3.8 yards per carry, so don’t expect a day of easy sledding for the Husker run game.

It’s time to worry about playing at Maryland, which pummeled previously ranked Syracuse 63-20. The Terrapin offense has been turbo-charged through two games — 354 yards rushing and 8 yards per carry Saturday — and was nearly impossible to stop. The next two games against Temple and Penn State will tell much more about whether Mike Locksley has a bowl team or a nine-win team.

Forecast

A fair bit of worry, since Northern Illinois is no pushover, and Nebraska’s offense can’t run the ball well enough to wear down the Huskies.

Reporter - Nebraska athletics

Sam covers Nebraska football, recruiting, women's basketball and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @swmckewonOWH. Email: SMcKewon@owh.com

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