LINCOLN — First things first: It’s better than you think. At least for this week.
You looked at Nebraska’s offense Saturday and didn’t like much of what of you saw, judging by the noise on social media, which was roughly equal to the roar that followed Lane McCallum’s field goal to beat Northwestern 13-10.
The Rewind can tell you that the Huskers gained more yards than Wisconsin did last week and were within 18 and 46 yards, respectively, of what Michigan State and Stanford gained against Northwestern. The Husker offense also scored more points than the Badger or Cardinal offenses did, given both teams had defensive touchdowns.
Those are facts, not phony sunshine. Northwestern consistently pulls teams into its vortex of slower pace and defensive struggles. Nebraska emerged from that with 319 yards, 13 points and zero turnovers despite wayward snaps from center throughout the game.
The Huskers may not win like that again in 2019, especially if quarterback Adrian Martinez or receiver JD Spielman are out for any length of time. They may not want to win like that over the long haul, given Nebraska’s offense, at full bloom, should probably approximate Oklahoma’s light show. Perhaps if NU was in the Big 12 or Pac-12, it would.
But Nebraska resides in the Big Ten — where winds blow and high-paid defensive staffs spend the offseason picking apart tape. Big Ten schemes are sturdy like steel-cut oatmeal left out on the counter.
“They sit back in a zone and try to make you throw everything in front of them and then they rally up and hit you,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said of Northwestern. “They think their guys are big and stout enough to stop with maybe a (player) down in the box — and a lot of times, they are. They’re not going to let you get behind them. So you have to put drives together and piece it together.”
Credit Frost and his staff for doing that — for squeezing just enough of true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson, Martinez and backup quarterback Noah Vedral to win against a defense that had given up three plays of 30 yards or more heading into the game.
The Huskers matched that with great play design and Robinson’s skills.
Play No. 1: Robinson’s 42-yard touchdown run on third-and-8. Nebraska has three men — two receivers and Jack Stoll — to the wide side, but the play comes back toward the short sideline. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes shoves an overaggressive Wildcat toward the exchange between Robinson and Martinez, but it’s the right decision. It clears room for right tackle Matt Farniok on a devastating pancake block as a lead puller. The minute Robinson hops away from the first defender, he has clear sailing and one guy to beat — a safety who takes a bad angle. Northwestern gets outschemed. Clever call.
Play No. 2: The 49-yard shovel pass. Quite the design. Jaimes leaves a defensive end unblocked — he nearly busts up the play but not quite — and climbs to the middle linebacker. Stoll leaves a defensive end unblocked to get a safety. Boe Wilson pulls around to wall off an outside linebacker, Kanawai Noa baits his defender into getting blocked, and that creates 5-yard alley for Robinson, who catches the ball from Martinez — calm in pressure — and dekes a safety 5 yards downfield to create the big play.
“I didn’t think (Martinez) was going to shovel it because of how the mesh point was, so whenever he gave it to me I was like, ‘I gotta go,’” Robinson said, adding he had to work on his top-end speed to finish that play.
Play No. 3 was the biggest: The 32-yard reception on a switch route. Not on Frost’s call sheet but a concept, Vedral said, Nebraska players know like the backs of their hands. Well, Vedral does, anyway.
“We are just kind of trying to adjust and get him in something that we thought would work based on the way they were rotating on that motion,” Frost said.
Robinson sprung open. Northwestern’s defense was late getting to the ball. And Vedral made a perfect back shoulder throw where only Robinson could get it before the defensive back had a chance to knock it away. It’s remarkable how close Northwestern even got; Robinson would have been 3 yards clear on most defenses.
Each of the three plays were a split second from getting blown up. Together, they comprised 38.6% of Nebraska’s yards and led to 10 of its 13 points. NU’s margin for error is thin, even on the best-designed, perfectly executed plays.
It’s fair to say Nebraska’s offense isn’t where coaches and players expected it.
The Huskers averaged 30 points per game last season. They average 28.7 now with at least two elite defenses still to come.
It was, in hindsight, odd to think NU’s offensive line would be considerably better given two fifth-year seniors were replaced by first-time starters, but to this point, the front five has been a mixed bag. Martinez doesn’t have a Stanley Morgan — who caught a pass in a NFL game Sunday — as a receiver. Nebraska coaches did know he’d be hard to replace, and he has been.
Maurice Washington has been in and out of every game for minor injuries or suspensions. Dedrick Mills is on the rise, but he’s not as good as Devine Ozigbo yet. Now, Martinez may be dinged up.
Vedral is a more-than-capable backup. Can he make the two roll-to-his-left-on-third-down throws Martinez made to extend first-half scoring drives? We’ll see.
The Big Ten repeatedly does this to offenses not named Ohio State. Look at Iowa against Michigan. Look at Michigan against Wisconsin. Look at Wisconsin against Northwestern. Look at Northwestern against, well, anyone.
Minnesota, Nebraska’s next opponent, hasn’t had a game like that in 2019, but it will. OSU, with its five-star recruits and track stars all over, avoids it.
It’s called recruiting, and it’s part of why Nebraska is building new facilities. It’s part of why Robinson, who joins Martinez as the best recruits of the Frost era, was so important for Nebraska to land. Without him, NU could be 2-4.
But Nebraska stands 4-2 with an offense that needs a little duct tape and a lot of ingenuity. Saturday, against one of college football’s best and smartest defenses, Frost, Robinson, Martinez, Vedral and that oft-criticized offensive line supplied that. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t bad, either.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
McCallum: Nice kick, Lane.
Nose tackle Darrion Daniels: An All-Big Ten-caliber performance. Six tackles — including one for a loss — is a very good stat line for a nose, but Daniels was often even better than that at pushing the pocket and breaking Northwestern’s wall on run plays. Daniels played his best in a tight spot when Nebraska’s defensive line lacked depth.
Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry: A couple of key tackles — including a third-down stop on a crossing route just before Northwestern missed its field goal — wipe out the moments when he got beat on a cutback. Barry is on track for roughly 100 tackles on the season.
Nickelback JoJo Domann: Questionable horse collar penalty doesn’t overshadow seven tackles, including two for loss. Domann continues to be one Nebraska’s most valuable defensive players.
Safeties Cam Taylor-Britt and Marquel Dismuke: Notice how Northwestern didn’t hit a single deep pass in between the hash marks? Notice how the same was true for Northern Illinois and Illinois? Me, too. There’s a reason for that.
Defensive end Ben Stille: Played nearly every snap — far more snaps than he’s ever logged — battling and hustling.
Robinson: When Robinson plants that right foot in anticipation for a hard cut, something special is about to happen, even in a phone booth. Robinson is small enough to enter and emerge from tight spots at full speed.
Vedral: I probably watched Vedral play more high school basketball than football, and his anticipation and savvy stood out on the court. Defenses won’t outfox Vedral, and Frost can call plays to Vedral’s smarts.
Jaimes: Hasn’t missed a snap since a minor injury in the Northern Illinois game. He held up pretty well, too, against Northwestern’s pass rushers. All of the offensive line did, in fact.
Northwestern defensive end Joe Gaziano: What a player. Seven tackles, three for loss. He’s been good against Nebraska for three years. See you in the NFL, pal.
Northwestern middle linebacker Paddy Fisher: Had he been in the right spot, he blocks McCallum’s field goal. He’ll have to settle for 10 tackles. Also going to the NFL.
Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith: You can make a case he was the best quarterback in the game, throwing for 136 yards and rushing for 64. Nebraska lacks offensive weapons, sure. Northwestern has, like, half of a weapon. Smith has the hardest quarterbacking job of any team in the Big Ten, I’d say.
18: Games since Nebraska last played a turnover-free contest. It was the first zero-turnover game of the Scott Frost era Saturday. Before that, Nebraska last had a turnover-free game in a 56-44 loss at Penn State. (It’s sort of amazing NU didn’t have a turnover in that mud and rain.) Get this: Nebraska has had 15 turnover-free games since joining the Big Ten. Nine of them came in the Mike Riley era.
By coach — Frost: 1 out of 18 (5.5%); Riley — 9 out of 38 (23.7%); Bo Pelini — 5 out of 52 (9.6%); Barney Cotton — 0 out of 1 (0%).
5.13: Yards per play allowed by Nebraska’s defense through six games. This is well ahead of the 2018 mark — 5.81 — and remains ahead of every yards-per-play mark since NU joined the Big Ten. But it still ranks 10th in the Big Ten, which underlines first how much of a defensive league the Big Ten is and second the challenges ahead for NU’s offense.
Nebraska’s defense has faced more significant challenges than some defenses — Ohio State and Colorado both move the ball on pretty much anyone — so the Huskers may crawl up to the middle of the Big Ten pack by season’s end.
313: Rushing yards allowed by Nebraska in the third quarter this season. That’s the most in the Big Ten and sixth most among Power Five teams.
To be clear, Nebraska allowed the third-most rushing yards per game of any Big Ten defense and fourth-most yards per carry. It’s not a great run defense. But the third-quarter run defense — 5.22 yards per carry — is baffling. The Huskers seem to make halftime adjustments after the first drive of the third quarter.
2.22: Yards per punt return this season for Husker opponents. That’s good coverage, but it’s also great punting from Isaac Armstrong, who has been exactly what Nebraska expected and needed him to be.
Twelve of his 33 punts have been downed inside the 20, and eight have been longer than 50 yards.
5: Wins by the four teams Nebraska has beaten. Illinois has won twice while Northern Illinois, South Alabama and Northwestern have each won once. It’s also the number of victories for Minnesota, Nebraska’s next opponent.
After every game, I ask fans on my Facebook page for their take on NU’s performance. Selected and edited responses follow:
“Thrilled they won, but too conservative on the play calling and I can’t understand after this many weeks why we are still having high snaps!” — Judy Gracey Rees
“How many times is Frost going to throw the ball backward to go forward?” — Ernest Yount
“No offensive identity. Ran I-formation once after hearing the coaches want it to be a staple. Third-and-1 and in shotgun with inconsistent center and QB play. Playcalling awful. Happy to get the win. Proud of the effort. Lucky to have won. Need to find something. Anything.” — John Behounek
“Can we figure out a basic snap from the center to the QB? The lack of rhythm in the offense is a major concern. Glad they won, but it was as ugly of a win as I’ve seen.” — Eric Will
“Appreciated that the Huskers were able to make a play and grind out a win. They keep fighting to the end every week, which is the foundation for things to come. — Jay Hoffman
- played its most complete offensive game of the season, racking up 332 rushing yards in a 40-17 rout of Illinois.
Illinois is not a hard team to run on. Nebraska ran roughshod over the Illini. But the Gophers have some of the Big Ten’s most dangerous receivers, so a run game with veterans like Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks only makes Minnesota more complete. The Gophers are 5-0 with an offense that can score on anyone.
- Thirty carries, one yard. That was Iowa’s rush output in a 10-3 loss at Michigan.
Nate Stanley was sacked eight times for a loss of 65 yards. Stanley also threw three interceptions. The Hawkeyes now host Penn State — which looks better, at least on offense, than Michigan. Iowa is much better at home against ranked teams, particularly on offense.
Here comes the cold weather for the Minnesota game. You won’t hear Nebraska complain.