Photo Credit: Ohio State Athletics

10 Thoughts from Nebraska’s Game 1: Wideouts, Targeting, Left Guard, Mills, and More

October 26, 2020

I don’t feel the need to couch a “Nebraska played better” kind of statement with a “But the scoreline still wasn’t acceptable” kind of statement. That’s obvious. By the midway point of the third quarter, Nebraska was out of the game. No one will be happy with that. No one should.

Yes, Nebraska showed real, tangible, larger-than-expected signs of progress against the Buckeyes. Yes, it looked strong at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, and to be able to say that after a game against Ohio State is a nice start. Linebackers looked good, too.

What didn’t, though: the passing game.

Nebraska’s gameplan looked to be structured around attacking Ohio State up the gut with the ground game and then on the periphery with its quickness. Quarterback Adrian Martinez attempted one downfield pass, and his target, tight end Travis Vokolek, had to play the role of a defender on the jump ball to avoid Buckeye corner Shaun Wade from coming down with it.

McCaffrey was 4-for-5 for 55 yards throwing the ball, helped out by a 16-yard reception from freshman Alante Brown and then a 17-yard reception from redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson on the last two plays of the game. The throw to Johnson was a simple throw to the flat. McCaffrey’s role was much more recipient than it was distributor.

Martinez averaged 7 yards a throw, which currently has him tied for 55th nationally after one game. So, not bad, but not great either. And Nebraska watched happen the absolute last thing that could given its plan of attack: Ohio State created distance.

When you want to run the ball and you don’t want to test a team vertically, you have to stay close on the scoreboard. Either Nebraska was reticent to put the ball in the air because it didn’t trust the thrower to make mistakes (Martinez’s last outing against Ohio State resulted in a career-high three interceptions) or because it didn’t trust the guys catching the football.

Maybe it was a combination of the two. Either way is potentially worrisome. (I think they trust Martinez, for what it’s worth.)

“We still as a program need to push the ball down the field better, there’s no question about that,” head coach Scott Frost said after the game. “When you watch the speed they have at wide receiver and the shots they take and the deep balls they hit, when you hit those they’re big plays. Even when you don’t hit them, you’re backing people up and keeping people honest. We have a ways to go to be able to be that kind of threat, to hit a home run in the passing game.

“That’s one game against a really good football team, so if we didn’t throw for 450 yards, there’s always next week.”

This is true.

Next week Nebraska has Wisconsin, which just held Illinois to 87 yards on 22 pass attempts. The week after, Nebraska will play Northwestern, which opened its season with three picks and 4.9 yards per pass allowed. The week after that is Penn State, which allowed Indiana only 4.7 yards per pass.

The point here is that Nebraska might not be a team that can just flip a switch and have an explosive, big-play-creating passing game. You thought before the season they could get there if the play-action was working, but Week 1 showed a Nebraska team that couldn’t and wouldn’t do it.

Did Frost hold back some stuff for future weeks? It’s certainly a possibility. There was clearly an emphasis on getting Luke McCaffrey involved in a number of ways and hitting Ohio State with every kind of pre-snap alignment coaches could think of.

All the coyness leading up to the game makes sense in retrospect.

But Nebraska’s best player was a complete non-factor in the game.

Wan’Dale Robinson had six touches, and Nebraska doesn’t have enough around him to justify using him as a decoy. The sophomore wideout has to be as big (if not bigger) a part of the plan as McCaffrey, no matter how exciting the possibilities the “new” guy might give you.

It was interesting that Nebraska brought freshmen Zavier Betts, Marcus Fleming, and Brown on the road and then didn’t use them until the game was out of hand. Redshirt freshman Chris Hickman was there, too, but only showed up on special teams.

It was interesting that grad transfer Levi Falck was the starter in place of (presumably) Omar Manning and made no imprint on the game.

After an impressive fall camp, Kade Warner got just two targets and had a touchdown throw from Martinez sail right through his hands.

In that respect, we saw a lot of the same things we’ve seen for the last two years from this wideout room.

But this season was supposed to be different. Nebraska parted ways with former wideout coach Troy Walters and replaced him with Matt Lubick. Nebraska said publicly it was better off without JD Spielman, a wideout who was on pace to own every receiving record in the program.

Nebraska was not banking on Manning being unavailable for the first game. That was an unexpected curveball. But Brown was a major talking point in camp and then he wasn’t given much of an opportunity. Sound familiar?

“We’re getting better at that position,” Frost said after the game, but I’m starting to wonder what the threshold is young guys have to meet before given a chance.

Nebraska only got 56 plays on offense; it averaged 72 in 2018 and 2019. Everything was somewhat muted as the ball was spread around and there was less than normal to be shared.

Next week will be telling. If Nebraska has Manning, how much changes? If Nebraska doesn’t, same question. By that point, it’s already a quarter of the way through its season. No time to waste.

Other Thoughts

>> If Nebraska doesn’t at least explore an appeal of the targeting call that ended safety Deontai Williams’ game Saturday I’ll be shocked. Because it was in the second half, he’ll miss the first half of the Wisconsin game as well.

The call was wrong. FOX’s Joel Klatt was beside himself during the broadcast when it was upheld after video review, and rightfully so. “What do you want him to do?” Klatt asked on the call.

It’s an excellent question, because there was another play earlier in the game that highlighted the biggest problem. Tight end Jack Stoll left the game on the fourth drive of his season and never returned. A defender went low on his 6-foot-4 frame and Stoll took a shoulder right to his left knee. The hit was legal, but it was dangerous. Guys don’t want their legs cut out from under them. But guys can’t go high for fear of being ejected.

Where exactly are you supposed to aim when the target is moving and you’re moving and the environment is changing in fractions of seconds?

A subjective call will never be enforced properly. It needs changing. No more “launching” or “defenseless” terminology. No more interpretation. That might be a place to start. If not, you remove the rule entirely. It’s too consequential to be applied so randomly.

>> Four of Nebraska’s five offensive line spots are set. Cam Jurgens’ future as a center is incredibly bright. Brenden Jaimes isn’t losing his left tackle spot. Matt Farniok was OK at right guard. Bryce Benhart looked promising at right tackle, enough so that he’s not going to be losing that any time soon. Left guard needs sorting out.

Boe Wilson, a senior, got 26 snaps. Ethan Piper, a redshirt freshman, got 30. Trent Hixson, a starter at left guard last year after winning the job and a scholarship during camp, only played eight snaps, and they all came as a third-string center in the fourth quarter.

Wilson got the first three drives of the game, and the first three plays on Nebraska’s 11-play touchdown march in the second quarter. After Stoll’s injury, Nebraska put Piper on the field for the first time and he got 30 of the final 42 offensive snaps of the game.

Wilson’s performance was very uneven. Piper flashed some athleticism. Watch that spot going forward.

>> Quietly, Will Honas was very good last season. He had more solo tackles than anyone else. ACL tears (which Honas had his first year at Nebraska) take time to recover from, and even when you’re back on the field, there’s still a reacclimatization period. It was fair to wonder if Honas could be even better than he was a year ago.

He was excellent against the Buckeyes, producing two of Nebraska’s three sacks. The first came in the first quarter when Justin Fields was scrambling around, trying to escape a collapsed pocket, and Honas looked like he’d been shot out of a cannon, coming from coverage to make the play. The second showcased his athleticism, faking right and blowing past a Buckeye lineman’s right shoulder to sake Fields again near OSU’s goal line.

>> One minor stat correction from the game: senior running back Dedrick Mills didn’t have 10 carries for 33 yards as initially recorded, he had nine for 25. He was on the field a ton, but he wasn’t used. I have no clue what to make of that after an offseason in which Nebraska said time and again he’d be a “bell cow.”

A season ago, the Wisconsin game was Mills’ breakout performance. Again, this upcoming week’s gameplan will be very telling.

>> You may have seen this number floating around this weekend, but I’ll repeat it again here: in 22 career games, Adrian Martinez has 21 career fumbles.

Nebraska fumbled the ball 27 times last season, the most of any team in the country. Nebraska fumbled it 28 times in 2018. Not all of them are Martinez, McCaffrey had one Saturday, too, but they come at the worst possible times and they come entirely too frequently.

“If we’re going to run our quarterbacks like we do, then they need to take care of the football just like everybody else and we’ll certainly address that this week,” Frost said.

The question I’d pose is this: if you’re going to run your quarterbacks like this (22 combined carries for Martinez and McCaffrey), at what point do you consider taking the green no-contact jerseys off in practice?

It’s understandable why they’re on. And if Nebraska is going to continue to use its backup quarterback the way it used McCaffrey in Week 1, it should be wrapping the dude in bubble wrap on weekdays rather than opening him up to contact, but the issue just hasn’t gotten better and the remedies have to be running out, right?

If they’re going to run, shouldn’t they be practicing what it feels like to get hit while running?

>> If Nebraska was playing its defensive backs 15 yards off the line of scrimmage because it was afraid of letting Buckeye receivers in behind them, well, mission failed. The Buckeyes got behind Nebraska’s secondary regardless. And Justin Fields faced little resistance when throwing the ball.

Nebraska will be in a bind next week against Wisconsin.

Badger quarterback Graham Mertz essentially had his own Fields-like performance in his first game, going 20-for-21 (same as Fields) for 248 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois. Though his status is suddenly up in the air for the game, Nebraska has its own potential absences to worry about.

Dicaprio Bootle played some safety last year in the absence of Deontai Williams, but with Cam Taylor-Britt also facing a first-half suspension, it doesn’t make much sense to weaken both corner spots. Maybe it’ll slot Quinton Newsome in for Taylor-Britt and reserve safety Myles Farmer for Williams. That’s what it did against the Buckeyes.

Nebraska won’t face another offense like Ohio State’s this season, but that shouldn’t make the secondary feel any less like they need to have a bounceback week next week.

>> Scott Frost’s sequencing and his creativity was excellent Saturday. You saw smiles on the head coach’s face throughout the broadcast. It was nice to see. Give some credit to Matt Lubick as well. Nebraska’s offensive play-calling was strong against the Buckeyes.

>> Which begs the question: did Ohio State get exposed a little bit in that first half (which seemed to be the interpretation outside of Lincoln) or is Nebraska overall a better football team than it is getting credit for? If a few of the questions raised throughout this column get answered in a positive way against Wisconsin… Save some of those “Nebraska whined, this is what it gets” tweets from the weekend for a couple weeks. Ya know, just in case.

>> Purdue beat Iowa by four despite its quarterback looking drunk at various points throughout. Indiana beat a zombified Penn State team. Northwestern scored 43 points against Maryland after scoring 41 points combined in its first six conference games last year. Rutgers beat Michigan State by double-digits for its first Big Ten win since 2017. Michigan beat a zombified Minnesota team. Wisconsin looked better throwing it than running it.

The Big Ten is going to be weird anyway when any team could potentially lose key guys to testing at any time, but the Big Ten might be like the wild west this season behind Ohio State. The league seems wide open.

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