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Padding the Stats: Big Shoes to Fill for Both Basketball and Football Teams

November 17, 2021

I’m sure Tuesday’s loss to Creighton was disappointing for fans and players alike, but the result of the game at this point is secondary to the loss the Huskers suffered during the game.

Trey McGowens broke his foot during the first half and played just 10 minutes. My heart goes out to him and his family, including his brother Bryce. On Monday, we sent the latest issue of Hail Varsity Magazine — featuring Bryce and Trey on the cover — to the printer. The cover feature I wrote focused on the brothers and what this opportunity to play together means to them, and now that time shared on the court has been reduced significantly.

A quick Google search tells me the typical recovery timeline for a broken fifth metatarsal falls in the six-to-12-week range without surgery. The best-case scenario would see him return in January and even that would see him miss at least a third of the season.

Trey was not having a big statistical season, but he was the team’s best perimeter defender and secondary ball-handler. Kobe Webster and Fred Hoiberg both called him the team’s best leader as well. He’s a big loss.

Kobe Webster was the bright spot from Tuesday’s loss, erupting for 20 points and four 3s off the bench after seemingly falling out of the rotation heading into the season (even before the back spasms that cost him the second exhibition and first regular season game). We should be seeing a lot more of him moving forward, though I’d expect C.J. Wilcher to take Trey’s spot in the starting lineup.

I said before the season that Alonzo Verge Jr. would be the one to set Nebraska’s floor, and through three games that floor appears to be below ground. Tuesday was a third straight bad process game from Verge, to the point where Hoiberg had to bench him for he rest of the first half after an 0-for-5 start from the field. He played a season-low 22 minute during which Creighton outscored Nebraska by 13.

Hoiberg said he sat down with Verge to watch film on Sunday after Nebraska’s win against Sam Houston, but whatever they discussed didn’t seem to carry over to the court on Tuesday.

“Again, we had a really good film session and he was very engaged in that film session,” Hoiberg said “He’s had a lot of really good moments in this preseason. You look at the Colorado game, you look at the first exhibition game we played, you can look at all our practices. He is getting into the paint and making plays. Right now, he’s getting into the paint to shoot, and he’s got to start understanding when you get into the paint and kick it and spray it, that’s where you get open shots and that’s the strength of our team. So we’ll continue to watch film and we’ll continue to do what we can to get better.”

Hoiberg couldn’t have afforded to give up on Verge even before Trey McGowens’ injury. Now he has no choice but to roll with Verge and hope for the best. I was skeptical of his fit when he first committed to Nebraska for all the reasons we’ve seen through the first three games. However, he’s also shown flashes of why Hoiberg thought it might work.

“He is such a gifted player, talented player, and he’s always had a scorer’s mentality, playing off the ball really for the last four years and asked to score the ball at a high clip,” Hoiberg said. “He played off the ball last year with the one of the top point guards who transferred to Kansas, Remy Martin. He missed three layups right right at the basket in the last game. He makes those, maybe it was a different story for him. When he gets in there and makes a play, generally we get a good shot. And believe me, I still have 100% confidence in Alonzo Verge.”

In order for Nebraska to survive during Trey McGowens’ absence, Verge is going to have to prove that Hoiberg’s trust in him is deserved, and that has to start with Friday’s game against Idaho State. Nebraska needs him to be a playmaker, it doesn’t need him to make every single play by himself.

Unfortunately, Hoiberg isn’t the only Nebraska coach who will have to find a way to replace a key player. Outside linebacker JoJo Domann announced last week that his Husker career had come to an end as he had opted for season-ending surgery to repair a hand injury.

Through 10 games, inside linebacker Luke Reimer and cornerback Quinton Newsome were the only two defenders who had played more snaps than Domann. The super senior has been on the field for 85.5% of Nebraska’s defensive snaps. The difficulty for Scott Frost and Erik Chinander goes beyond simply replacing a starter, though.

Domann’s ability to both cover and make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage at a listed 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds made him an invaluable piece for Nebraska’s defense as the nickel linebacker. With Domann, Nebraska’s nickel (two defensive linemen, two outside linebackers, two inside linebackers, Domann and four defensive backs) became Nebraska’s base personnel: the Huskers have played it on 77.2% of their snaps this season.

Nebraska has only played a traditional 3-4 front on 19.2% of its plays this season, and after Domann came off the field in those situations early in the year, Nebraska left him out there as one of the outside linebackers on 72 of its 87 snaps of base 3-4 in the last five games.

Bottom line: Domann had become as important as any single player on Nebraska’s defense, and he rarely left the field. Now he won’t be available for the final two games and I’m interested in seeing how the coaches handle that.

Isaac Gifford has been Domann’s primary back-up this season. Does Nebraska continue to operate like it has been with Gifford (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) simply stepping in for Domann? Will we see Nebraska continue to play nickel on more than 70% of its snaps? Will we see more traditional 3-4 fronts rotating in Casey Rogers and Deontre Thomas behind Ben Stille, Ty Robinson and Damion Daniels? Or might we see Nebraska go away from the hybrid nickel and play more situational football with a true nickel defensive back on the field in that spot, most likely Braxton Clark (and perhaps Myles Farmer if and when Deontai Williams returns)?

Chinander certainly has plenty of options from which to choose. Another variable to add to the discussion is the remaining schedule. Up next is Wisconsin, the Big Ten’s leader in runs per game. Minnesota is No. 2 and Michigan is No. 3, and against those two the Huskers played base 3-4 on 43.5% and 39% of their snaps, respectively. This week certainly could lend itself to Chinander leaning heavily on the big guys up front and playing less nickel, allowing Gifford to ease into things.

Good luck to both the men’s basketball and football coaching staffs this week. Both programs have some big shoes to fill.

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