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Nebraska Football Players Celebrate Win Against Northwestern
Photo Credit: John Konstantaras

A Defense that Deserves More, Wideout Usage, and Future Studs

November 08, 2020

The Blackshirts deserve the offense that was promised.

Nebraska’s offense is looking an awful lot like empty calories at this point. Against Big Ten opponents under Scott Frost, Nebraska has averaged a rather alarming 16.5 yards per point. The unit seems to move the ball, but it doesn’t know how to finish, particularly but not exclusively of late.

Dating back to October of last year—a stretch during which Nebraska has lost seven of its eight games—the offense has been even worse. A 54-point explosion against a terrible Maryland defense helps the numbers, take that out and the offense is averaging fewer than three scores a game.

When Scott Frost was in Orlando coaching Central Florida, his offense captured acclaim the country over for its creativity, its potency, and its fun factor. That UCF team was UCFast. It put up points with ease and put receivers in open grass downfield with even more.

That offense maybe stayed behind to spend some extra time at Disney World.

Watching Nebraska’s offense since it got blasted in primetime against Ohio State last year has been an exercise in self-torture.

Receivers aren’t open. Plays have imagination but rarely work. Nebraska called a flea-flicker with Luke McCaffrey in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Northwestern and while Dedrick Mills’ toss back was bad, Travis Vokolek getting tossed aside like a bag of cotton candy was what killed the play.

Nothing feels fun.

It constantly feels like there’s this weight bogging down the offense. This suffocating but invisible presence. I hesitate to place the entirety of the blame for that at the feet of the quarterback; no one has been good enough often enough.

Nebraska fired an offensive coordinator this offseason. Wideouts not named Stanley Morgan or JD Spielman have either been unable to produce or uninvolved as receivers. The offensive line has been maddeningly inconsistent.

Frost is on the money as a play-caller one week and then timid the next. And Adrian Martinez looks like either his arm isn’t healthy or he’s not comfortable trying to place a ball into coverage downfield.

None of this was supposed to still be the case. Matt Lubick throughout his career has been someone who could better organize things and drill down on the details. Nebraska talked this offseason of a self-scout but it still hasn’t shown an ability to make the necessary in-game adjustments.

This staff was hailed as excellent week-to-week schemers when they were at Central Florida. At Nebraska, the comment that a defense “showed a different look than what we prepared for” has been uttered entirely too often.

Nebraska tries the same thing to no avail over and over again.

A promising drive that began midway through the fourth quarter Saturday was derailed by incredibly predictable play-calling in the red zone.

McCaffrey took over with the ball at his own 26-yard-line down eight points. He threw a quick out to Zavier Betts for five yards, then returned to Betts on the next play for 12 yards, then picked up 17 with his feet, then found Marcus Fleming for 18 yards.

Nebraska flew down the field with pace. The offense had tempo and energy and life!

(That seems to be a McCaffrey special. He just has this air of combustibility to him. You think any play could pop. Everything just moves fast.)

On second-and-6, McCaffrey threw over the middle to Fleming running a post. McCaffrey put the ball in a spot his receiver could catch it, and Fleming drew an interference penalty that moved the ball to the Wildcat’s 3-yard-line.

Nebraska then lost five yards on a quarterback run.

Then it gained two yards on a quarterback run.

Then it was gifted another interference penalty that reset the down and distance and put the ball at the 2.

Then it lost 2 yards on a run and threw an interception.

Three plays inside the 5-yard-line resulted in a loss of seven combined yards and a turnover.

Nebraska was in the red zone six times and came away with 13 points. Had the Blackshirts not returned an interception to the 3-yard-line, Nebraska might not have found the end zone at all Saturday.

In Year 3 for any coach, that’s a problem.

“It’s inexcusable we only had 13 points in that game,” Frost said after. “Listen nobody is more impatient right now than me. We should be farther along than we are right now.”

Frost has nine wins through his first 26 games as a head coach at Nebraska.

Mike Riley had 15 and two bowl games to show for it.

To begin the 1957 season, Nebraska started 0-2. In the 63 seasons that have been played since, it has started 0-2 only twice: 2018 and now 2020.

Saturday felt like a crucial moment for the program.

“A loss like this can either split a team or bring a team together,” captain and defensive back Dicaprio Bootle said after.

The season is short. The offense needs to figure things out quickly. This goes beyond just who’s playing quarterback.

The defense that Nebraska has paired with an incompetent offense has been much better than expected. The Blackshirts’ numbers don’t hold up but what happened Saturday is what has happened game after game after game since the start of 2018.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s group played three quarters of football good enough to win a game. More than good enough, frankly. Then, in the fourth quarter, the back broke from too much weight. Tackling has to be better, but can defenders be forgiven for frustration?

In the first three quarters, Northwestern had two scoring drives that covered 80 and 61 yards in seven and 10 plays, respectively. It had the ball eight other times and ran 35 plays and gained 92 yards. Nebraska’s defense forced four three-and-outs during that stretch and picked off two passes.

That’s enough to win a football game in this modern era.

Because in this modern era the offenses are really good. Nebraska’s was supposed to be really, really good. This isn’t about talent and it isn’t about culture; Nebraska has both in place. Something else is missing.

Wideout Usage

It was interesting, to say the least.

    • Wan’Dale Robinson: Snaps: 75 | Targets: 8 | Receptions: 4 | Yards: 32
    • Kade Warner: Snaps: 44 | Targets: 2 | Receptions: 1 | Yards: 7
    • Marcus Fleming: Snaps: 36 | Targets: 8 | Receptions: 5 | Yards: 75
    • Levi Falck: Snaps: 30 | Targets: 2 | Receptions: 1 | Yards 6
    • Alante Brown: Snaps: 19 | Targets: 0
    • Wyatt Liewer: Snaps: 11 | Targets: 2 | Receptions: 0
    • Zavier Betts: Snaps: 11 | Targets: 2 | | Receptions: 2 | Yards: 17
    • Omar Manning: Snaps: 5 | Targets: 1 | Receptions: 0
    • Chris Hickman: Snaps: 2 | Targets: 0

Starters like Kade Warner and Levi Falck have gotten a lot of opportunity with little return. Wyatt Liewer now has two penalties and a dropped third-down conversion. Omar Manning didn’t see the field in the second half Saturday. Chris Hickman got his two snaps on two fourth-down plays on the same second-quarter drive.

Wan’Dale Robinson played 75 snaps, only getting four touches is another “inexcusable” thing to come out of that game. Nebraska is running him all over the field, and without being in those meeting rooms, I’m not qualified to say how to fix his lack of involvement, but everyone knows the simple fact that it does need to get fixed. He’s their best player and can’t find the football.

Maybe a change at quarterback will open things up and allow more opportunity. Maybe it won’t. The coaches have to have confidence in the quarterback to attempt shots just as much as the quarterback needs to have confidence in his arm to attempt shots.

We’ll see.

Marcus Fleming got 22 of his snaps in the second half, more than both Warner and Falck played. Zavier Betts got crucial fourth-quarter snaps and saw his number called.

Cam’s Absence

Sophomore center Cameron Jurgens might not be Nebraska’s best offensive lineman—though I think it’s close—but Saturday certainly proved he’s the line’s most important. Senior Matt Farniok is better at guard than at center. Him at center weakened two spots for that unit on the day.

The Future

At each level, Nebraska looks to have a defender that can quickly rise from good to very good to potentially a star in this league of defensive stalwarts.

Ty Robinson might very well become a future all-conference level player. As a redshirt freshman, he’s bullying offensive linemen older and wiser than him. He had just four tackles on the day (one of them for a loss) but he’s already a problem.

Luke Reimer might very well become one of the best linebackers in the conference. Too soon? Well, in his first career start he led the defense in tackles. He had a strip sack and assisted on another tackle for loss. He nearly got to Wildcat quarterback Peyton Ramsey on another straight-line blitz. Reimer is athletic, fast, technical, and violent. There were a few plays here and there that he’ll likely want back, but not many.

And there’s Myles Farmer.

“He answered the call,” Bootle said. “He showed up big time for us. Gave us big opportunities for our offense, getting them the ball back and just basically being the baller that he is. He earned a lot of respect from a lot of people today.”

Three guys this defense can absolutely build around going forward. While the emphasis is on finally showing progress in the here and now, don’t overlook how well Nebraska has done to recruit talent on the defensive side of the ball.

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