PARKING LOT OF FREEDOM GAS STATION OUTSIDE EDWARDS, ILL. — I was certain I’d seen the coolest play of Nebraska’s 42-38 win over Illinois before in Husker history.
The direct snap to running back Maurice Washington was lovely to watch unfold twice for the blocking alone.
Center Cameron Jurgens turned his man. Left guard Trent Hixson climbed to the linebacker while the defensive tackle Hixson let go was walled off by right guard Boe Wilson’s trap block. Washington blasted right between Wilson and Jurgens blocks for 25 yards.
A beautiful thing. Power, technique, sleight of hand. Right out of a Tom Osborne or Frank Solich game plan. Scouring YouTube, I found a few old-school Husker shotgun plays — be it Husker running backs or several quarterbacks — that looked a lot like the Washington runs.
It was another wrinkle from Frost’s offense that he and offensive coordinator Troy Walters unveiled at the right time. NU needed every wrinkle and nuance to overcome its own mistakes and avoid the kind of loss that Frost said, rightly, would have had media and fans saying the “sky is falling.”
The sky stayed where it belonged Saturday night. Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez were the main two guys who kept it there.
Necessity is sometimes the mother of invention and improvisation, and while Nebraska would have preferred not to crawl out of an almost game-long hole, the deficit forced the Husker offense to dig deep. Over 98 plays — Nebraska has never run more in the Big Ten — Frost, Martinez and Co. found a lot.
“I thought we had the guys in the right play almost the entire night,” Frost said.
Added Martinez: “No one lost faith in our team. We were confident, and we executed.”
Martinez’s pocket presence — even with a strip-sack fumble — improved, and he found ways to buy time outside the pocket without losing sight of his receivers downfield. He consistently fit seam passes over Illinois linebackers and in front of the safeties for big gains.
Did his receivers get battered upon catching the ball? Oh, yeah. But Martinez didn’t hesitate to make the throws. He trusted his receivers to hang on, too.
And when Martinez had to stick the knife in late with his feet, he bulled through arm tackles on fourth-quarter runs of 10, 25 and 44 yards. The 25-yarder, which set up NU’s winning touchdown, left two defenders on the ground, exhausted and banged up.
“I hear the whispers — he’s tentative, he’s not playing well,” Frost said of Martinez. “Nobody’s going to be saying that after tonight, the way he ran and finished the game.”
Nebraska rushed for 115 yards in the fourth quarter. Linemen started getting pancakes. Illini pursuit angles got longer and more cautious.
“We could see it in their eyes and we knew we had reached that point where, as long as we could keep executing and doing our job, we knew we were going to move the ball on them, plain and simple,” Martinez said. “We kept doing it, kept running the ball, finding ways to move the ball, get first downs. And I think towards the end there, it really started wearing on them.”
Nebraska even scored on a Dedrick Mills toss-pitch power play with Martinez under center. Tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen sealed their men, and Hixson pulled around to knock out a corner who tucked his head and braced for a blow. That left Mills one-on-one with a safety. Mills, with a head of steam, won that battle easily.
Frost said he wanted just one call back — his decision to go with an I-formation on first-and-goal from the Illinois 1 on NU’s final drive. Wan’Dale Robinson lost 4 yards.
So 97 out of 98 plays — including some victory formation moments — is a pretty good hit rate. For only the second time in school history, the Huskers ran and passed for 300 yards, and they did so with a dizzying number of formations, a mixture of tempos and four running backs — including Robinson, a true freshman receiver whom Nebraska moved to back once Washington was ruled out of the game.
It was bold, leaning on Robinson. But Frost was right about that one, too. Robinson ran tough between the tackles. He didn’t fumble. And he was still fresh when the defense was gassed.
“He wanted that ball, he wanted to take over that game,” Frost said of Robinson. “In a lot of ways, he did.”
So did Frost. So did Martinez.
Their press conference was a mixture of relief and steel. NU’s offense hurt itself — then healed itself — over the course of four hours. Not a bad way to go into a big game against Ohio State.
Nebraska can’t overlook its weaknesses, but with the sky caving in, it found real strength in Frost’s creative playbook and Martinez’s late-game heroics.
“We are where we are,” Frost said with conviction. “We’re a lot better than we were Week 1, we’re a lot better than we were four games into last season, for sure. As long as we keep getting better, good things are in the future.”
The Huskers barely survived, but they also imposed their will. Both things matter.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
Robinson: Watching the game again and the wallops his 5-foot-10 frame took over 27 carries/catches, you’re reminded how much courage it takes to play a violent game.
Receiver JD Spielman: Ditto for the Husker junior who caught seven passes for 159 yards. Spielman got speared in the stomach, took an unfathomably tough hit right to the middle of his back, and hung in the game. He’s second in the Big Ten in receiving yards and No. 3 among regular Big Ten pass-catchers in yards per catch.
Washington: He may not want to be tweeting from the locker room after he’s out hurt, but he’s the trickiest runner to tackle because of his unpredictable jukes and instincts.
Stoll: Three catches and several more terrific blocks. Watch Stoll’s work on the second-half swing pass to Spielman.
Martinez: Consistently excellent poise on third down, especially throwing and running to his right. For the season, Martinez is completing 72 percent of his passes on third down. He’s also run for 108 yards on third down.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann: Five tackles, a sack, 1½ tackles for loss. The guy makes plays, even if he’s not in there every down.
Cornerback Lamar Jackson: Two tackles for loss and two pass breakups. Jackson didn’t give up anything deep. He’ll be fiercely tested this week.
Safeties Marquel Dismuke and Cam Taylor-Britt: Even with a few missed tackles, the duo played hard all night and were especially tough against the pass.
Illinois running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown: Both dangerous runners — Corbin had 134 yards on 20 carries, Brown 59 on six — and Brown is one of the best kick returners I’ve seen, averaging 36 yards and making a clever play — with his feet out of bounds as he recovered a well-placed kickoff.
Illinois safety Tony Adams: Fourteen tackles, several whopper hits and a forced fumble.
Illinois linebacker Dele Harding: Twelve tackles, several whopper hits and a forced fumble.
Illinois defensive end Ayo Shogbonyo: Three tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and a slightly better game than his counterpart, Oluwole Betiku.
0: Times since Frost has been a play-caller — at Oregon, Central Florida or Nebraska — that his offense has run 98 plays. That’s the high end. He’s been in the 90s quite a bit — he called 96 plays for 755 yards in Oregon’s 57-13 win over Colorado in 2013 — but 98 is rare and the gap of 37 plays between NU and Illinois is rare, too.
64: Carries for Nebraska in Saturday’s game. That’s second most for the Huskers in the Big Ten era, trailing the 70 carries NU had against … Illinois … in 2014. At 46.75 carries per game, Nebraska is 12th nationally and third in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin and Minnesota. NU’s 4.7 yards per carry is 54th nationally. Still a work in progress there.
12: Times since joining the Big Ten that Nebraska has had double-digit penalties in a game. Half of those games have come in the Frost era. NU did seem the victim of several questionable penalties in a game officiated without any pace.
29.23%: Opponents’ conversion rate on third down. That’s 21st nationally and it’s about to get a huge test against Ohio State, which converts 50% of its third downs. NU’s third-down run defense — which includes sacks typical to that down — is really good. On 20 carries, foes have four first downs.
5: Missed field goals for Nebraska. No team in college football has more — Hawaii, Colorado State and Pittsburgh have five, as well — and unless Barret Pickering is healthy enough to return, there’s no easy answer, either. How much can fans expect from Lane McCallum, Isaac Armstrong or, now that he’s joined the team, Matt Waldoch? The new guy may be more helpful as a kickoff specialist, as William Przystup has struggled to kick touchbacks. The Huskers’ 35.71% touchback rate is 86th nationally.
After every game, I ask fans on my Facebook page for their take on NU’s performance. Selected and edited responses follow:
“At this point last year, we were 0-4. This year, we’re 3-1. We’re not playing as clean as I’m sure we’d all like, but we’re winning. I’ll take a team with ‘heart’ and a ‘will to win’ all daylong.” — Derrick Skogsberg
“As ugly as it was it did showcase determination with the ability to somehow block out the turmoil. I think the pressure to succeed has influenced the team as a whole but none the less one to build on, with many possibilities apparent.” — Stanley Steele
“I think it’s what fans needed. It’s a sign of improvement and showed that this team has the will to fight to the end! It’s a long road and everyone can still improve but I think everyone woke up this morning darn proud of this team!” — Heath Lichty
“Robinson looks like the kind of player that the offense could rally around to get an identity. He looks as good as Washington but able to take and deliver a shot. I can’t believe we can’t find a kicker.” — Patrick Edwards
“They are starting to flip the mental switch to ‘win.’ Adrian just needs to play and have fun, quit thinking so much.” — Steven Prowett
“When they get out of their town way, they can definitely move the ball! Robinson is the star. Martinez was back to himself in the fourth quarter.” — Andy Stotts
- appears to be a juggernaut on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It’s only three games — two against bad opponents — but a 35-14 smashing of Michigan grabs your attention.
The Badgers ran for 359 yards and held the Wolverines to 40. Jonathan Taylor? Still terrific. The receivers? Solid. But the lines have looked like the Big Ten’s best.
How’d that happen after Wisconsin lost so many good players? Development. And perhaps a chip on Wisconsin’s shoulder over last season.
- outrushed Michigan State by 20 — and lost by 21. That happens when the offense can’t produce any big pass plays.
Quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith combined to average 3.4 yards per attempt. That’s hard to do over 37 passes. The Wildcats appear to be a skill player or three short on offense. It happens in that program.
- Ohio State
- won 76-5. The game was cut short a few minutes by thunderstorms. Any questions?
Anticipation. Hope. A lot of talk about what three guys at ESPN think, and who NU’s guest picker might be for the “GameDay” show. Larry The Cable Guy is a no-brainer. Gabrielle Union is, too. How about both?