Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

With Opportunity to Step Forward, Husker Offense Splinters in 24-17 Loss

December 12, 2020

Boye Mafe heard Bryce Benhart let out an audible “Oh” Saturday during one of the Minnesota rush end’s blow-bys. At that point, he said, he knew he was going to keep finding success. On tape, Mafe saw Nebraska chipping with its guards to help tackles, so early on he played a little bit of set-up. Bull rush straight down. Play to tendencies. When the third quarter hit, Mafe started cruising past the redshirt freshman right tackle on the edge. 

Late in the third, he got home and forced a fumble with a strip-sack. 

Nebraska’s offense had been set up with its best starting field position of the day (to that point) by a fourth-down stop from the defense. Sixteen seconds of game clock later, Nebraska gave the ball right back. 

Minnesota scored what would prove to be the decisive touchdown on the ensuing drive. It held on for a 24-17 win over the Huskers, now 2-5.

Frost thought Nebraska had its best offensive week of practice maybe since he’s been back at the school. He hates to say it, though he keeps saying it. Doesn’t want it to be an excuse, though he took exception with the number of media timeouts ahead of drives on a day where the Huskers had only two touchdown drives against the worst scoring defense in the Big Ten.

That coming two weeks after taking exception with clapping Iowa coaches. 

Nebraska feels a lot like the trophy it just sent back to Minneapolis with the Gophers for another year. At least offensively.

Minnesota allowed 6.82 yards per running play heading into Saturday, the worst mark in the Big Ten. Nebraska threw on 15 of its 27 first-down plays for an average of 4.5 yards a play. Frost referenced a series of calls he wanted back, a series in which Nebraska threw on both first and second down. That was the third-quarter fumble drive.

Minnesota allowed 0.588 points per play heading into the game, the worst mark in the league by a wide margin. Nebraska ran 65 plays for 17 points (0.261).

Minnesota had 33 players unavailable to it because of a COVID-19 outbreak that had claimed the last two games on its schedule. Nebraska was fully healthy and unencumbered by travel roster restrictions. 

Even the writer covering this Gopher team Hail Varsity interviewed on the Varsity Club Podcast this week expected a double-digit Nebraska win. 

And yet…

“I thought we played well enough defensively to win the game,” Frost said, repeating a phrase he’s used often this year.

And yet…

“Not all those were pass calls,” Frost said when the run-pass splits were questioned. “Some of them were RPOs. The nickel sticks his nose in too far and we throw it outside. I thought we handled those well. We hit all those passes in practice all week.

And yet…

“I loved our game plan going in,” Frost said. “I thought we had some guys open.” 

And yet…

“The energy’s been great all week,” Frost said. “The leadership’s been good all week. Practice was really good all week. That was my message for the team is the way they’ve approached the last three weeks is the way they need to approach every practice, every game from here on.”

And yet, and yet, and yet… 

You ever go to a restaurant, pull out your seat, and find one leg is off-kilter? The chair starts wobbling. It’s the worst, isn’t it? Depending on the viewpoint, everything looks fine. Then you plop down and sway back and forth. The thing’s main function—stability—is shot. 

Pressure throws the whole thing off.

“Once you get behind in the game and things start rolling the wrong way with a young team, I think they started pressing just a little bit to try to get back in the game,” Frost said. 

Nebraska looked fine a week ago, didn’t it? Not perfect, but trending in the right direction. 

Funny what pressure can do.

Nebraska had open receivers against the Gophers. It didn’t hit those throws. Collapsing pockets forced errant passes. Inaccurate throws stretched just beyond reaching fingertips. Wan’Dale Robinson had a first-half touchdown on a switch concept and quarterback Adrian Martinez threw long. He did it again just before half on a corner route for Oliver Martin that might have given Nebraska a chance to set up a field goal.

Frost thinks Dedrick Mills, his 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior running back, is close to full health, but the runner seems trapped under a hush-hush dozen-carry-or-so pitch count.

Luke McCaffrey came into the game for two plays in the first quarter and threw both times. His first fell to the turf incomplete, but it should have been intercepted. His second was. 

Saturday was the fourth time this season Nebraska’s been held under 21 points in a game after just six of those in the first 24 games of the Frost era. 

Is this thing broken? How the hell can it be when guys are consistently running open through secondaries? The scheme works. 

And yet the whole thing still feels like it’s in pieces, waiting to actually be put together.

Unofficially, this annual meeting is for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. Minnesota gets it for another year. Last year it brutalized a Nebraska team it knew it was better than. What happened this year?

No one can put a finger on why the stuff in practice doesn’t translate to the field.

Saturday was the eighth time Nebraska’s lost a game on the heels of a win. NU is 3-8 after victory under Frost. He has talked before about how just getting one can start a snowball-rolling-down-the-hill trend for this team. But one step forward too often precedes two back. 

In terms of the offense, Nebraska was dreadful against Illinois, briefly better against Iowa but still lost, better against Purdue in a win, and now right back to dreadful.

Where’s the consistency?

Where’s the stability?

Saturday’s game against Minnesota looked more like the Illinois game than the Purdue game. It nearly began the same way. McCaffrey turned the ball over on a backward pass on the first play from scrimmage against the Illini. Nebraska almost did the same thing on a swing pass that went south on the first play against the Gophers. 

Ended the same way, too. 

Minnesota fired off a tweet copied and pasted from the one Illinois sent: “Good game Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back B1G football.”

Don’t forget the trophy.

Though it might fit in more here in Lincoln.

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