Touchdown

Maurice Washington is swarmed by the offensive line after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter.

LINCOLN — Day by day. Week to week.

The 2019 Nebraska Huskers are a work in progress, and on Saturday night we saw a bit of a formula take shape.

Good, high-energy defense. Special teams as a weapon. And big plays, chunk plays. Lightning on the field, not in the sky.

Meanwhile, their star quarterback took a positive step but still misfires. The offensive line is far from a finished product and took an injury hit. And any sort of field goal or extra point is an adventure.

Can the Huskers get to 8-4 — a popular preseason expectation — with this formula?

Can Scott Frost find a kicker in time to avoid a serious problem?

Can Adrian Martinez regain his mojo from his freshman year?

Can the Blackshirts carry this team going into a Big Ten that doesn’t exactly look full of explosive offenses?

There are still a lot of questions for Nebraska as we watch an identity take shape.

What mattered on Saturday night was that the Huskers provided a resounding answer just when they needed it most.

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The season certainly wasn’t in dire straits. But the Big Red was coming off a brutally painful loss at Colorado in a game it should have won. And the Huskers were facing a Northern Illinois team that has made a reputation as giant killer and giant pain in general.

There was some tension last week around the Husker camp. Frost’s mantra has been to play with no fear of failure and always attack. But even the coach looked like he was pressing last weekend.

This 44-8 win over a good NIU team — where backups came in late — was just what the team needed.

Day by day. Week to week. The team is learning how to handle expectations. And pressure. The big-name coach, anointed a savior before he had coached a game at his alma mater, is learning and adjusting.

It’s a process, and it might take all season. Probably will.

But there were a bunch of positives from this one, starting with the area that was a question going into the season.

The Blackshirts look real. Yes, we know better than to judge off beating a MAC team. But they’ve been consistently good for 11 of 12 quarters — and yes, that fourth quarter in Boulder was a doozy.

But look how they came back this week.

I’ll say it again: The trait from Frost’s UCF teams that I was most looking forward to seeing was the attitude, energy and confident swagger his teams played with. They literally bounced around and flew around the field, attacking every play. If there were mistakes, they were honest ones. And their speed made up for it the next time.

That’s what we’re seeing from the Blackshirts, a purpose and swagger that is growing. More important, play-making.

The War Daddies up front create havoc and a push almost every play. They disrupt rushing lanes and pockets. The linebackers are quick to the ball. Mo Barry had a double-digit (10 tackles) night, and you often saw numbers 31 (Colin Miller) and 13 (JoJo Domann) around the ball.

The secondary broke up passes, and none was handier than safety Eli Sullivan’s outstretched tip of a pass on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the fourth quarter.

That play basically ensured that the defense would not give up a touchdown to NIU. For Nebraska’s defense, that’s good stuff.

It’s three games, but the Blackshirts have some of that UCF energy and mojo going. The tackling is measurably better than a year ago. They should grow. And they’ll need to grow.

They’ll need to be a rock because of the questions everywhere else.

Nebraska’s offense looked better than it has all season. But that’s what happens when you have nine plays of 20 yards or more.

Last week, Frost said he wanted more “chunk” plays, or big plays. The reason? He doesn’t have an offense that can grind out games or drag an opposing defense up and down the field.

He’s got some firecrackers and on Saturday night they were lit.

Running back Maurice Washington had a 60-yard touchdown sprint. His backup, Dedrick Mills, went for 61 yards on a run before he was caught from behind at the NIU 16. Then Mills fumbled on the next play, ruining a scoring chance.

Mills and Washington scored touchdowns of 24 and 21 yards, respectively.

Martinez got in on some of the fun. There was a 41-yard run. And Martinez had completions of 41, 27, 30, 27 and 26 yards.

The sophomore was 16 for 27 for 257 yards and two touchdowns. And this: no sacks and no interceptions.

So some progress, but how much?

Martinez still looks hesitant, not smooth, when making decisions and reads. A lot of NU’s pass plays are these long rollouts where Martinez tries to hit a receiver at the sideline while on the run.

His first two passes of the game sailed high over their intended receivers. You could hear the crowd groan. Then Martinez stepped back and fired a tight spiral to JD Spielman for 41 yards.

Better, but not yet up to the standard Martinez set a year ago when he wowed and spoiled everyone. Martinez made it look so easy last year, and now at times it looks so hard.

This is what happens when coaches have a year to study tendencies off film and prepare a quarterback. And we haven’t even started the Big Ten yet.

What seems to be missing is the hard-charging, decisive quarterback run game that scared so many Big Ten coaches a year ago. Frost and Mario Verduzco must get that going.

Frost had to like what he saw Saturday night, though. The chunk plays are NU’s best chance, most effective offense, until further notice. Frost has his firecrackers.

What he’s not likely to have this season is a stout offensive line. It was going to be a growing season for that group. What Greg Austin’s group doesn’t need are tough injuries, like the one that had left tackle Brenden Jaimes being helped off the field in the fourth quarter.

The other concern that none of the Phil Steeles of the world had in the summer is Nebraska’s kicking game. Barret Pickering’s injury came out of nowhere, and though Frost said he expects to be 100 percent healthy there soon, he didn’t mention anyone by name.

Could Lane McCallum be that answer? Stay tuned.

The kicking woes do not extend to Isaac Armstrong’s punting foot. Armstrong averaged 45 yards on three punts, and that will come in most handy for a team looking for every edge it can find.

But that wasn’t the best part of the punt game. Special teams assistant Jovan Dewitt threw a nasty changeup at NIU, surprising everyone with jailbreak punt blockers coming from all angles.

It was good for one punt blocked and two others botched. It got to the point that NIU faked going for fourth down twice and went with quick kicks.

When was the last time Nebraska used the blocked punt as a weapon? Too long.

It was an aggressive move, and a welcome one after last weekend’s backpedaling in Boulder. Frost admitted that his teams and staff are better “keeping our foot on the gas.”

He also offered a nod and wink that he might have heard that from the peanut gallery last week.

So it’s been three weeks and what have we learned? Nebraska is 2-1 and the program, coach and quarterback all have room to grow and are anything but finished products.

Where is this program heading? To Champaign, Illinois. Next Saturday.