Nebraska is 1-0 with Luke McCaffrey as the starter and perhaps that’s all that matters.
“The state needed it. The team needed it. I needed it,” Scott Frost said following the Huskers’ hang-on-for-dear-life 30-23 win over Penn State.
I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those needed it most, but in a bleak time on other, non-football fronts, at least the conversations around the state’s prized export can be a little bit brighter.
A win does that, no matter how it comes.
This win, Nebraska’s first of the season and just the second since the loss at Minnesota in early October last year, came in the way that so many Husker losses have come during the Frost era.
Penn State, now 0-4, had an edge in success rate and explosive plays. It had seven drives cross the Huskers’ 40-yard line and only managed two touchdowns. Sometimes a team does all of these traditional things that indicate football success and it loses.
Nebraska knows that perhaps as well as any team. It was sort of the grand narrative tying the past 26 Husker games together. In the 27th game, it flipped. Nebraska finally got to feel like what it was like to be on the other end.
Now can it stay flipped?
The defense put together the kind of game I think it is designed to play. It won the turnover battle, scored once and gave the offense a 15-yard field off an interception. It had six tackles for loss and held up well enough against the run. Most importantly, it won in the red zone.
“It takes a weight off of our shoulders when our defense can be as stout as ours was today,” McCaffrey said.
The offense? That’s a little harder to parse. It started off with a beautiful opening drive, though that’s somewhat common. The Huskers have excellent script writers. The touch “pass” to true freshman Zavier Betts that resulted in a 45-yard touchdowns was a slick play call at just the right time.
But the Huskers were done with touchdowns after that. Nebraska managed just a field goal in the second half, bringing its total points over the final 30 minutes of games this season to six. That part in particular is clearly still a work in progress.
Overall, the offense posted season lows in success rate (39%) and explosive-plays percentage (11.9%), probably the two most important stats that don’t involve scoring. That’s all made more interesting, of course, by the switch at quarterback.
Frost called the decision to start McCaffrey over Adrian Martinez one of the hardest he’s ever made. When he was healthy, Martinez was the starter for all of the Frost era up until Saturday. That sort of move has to carry some weight.
To McCaffrey’s credit, he never gave anyone a reason to rethink the decision on Saturday. He showed more of the explosive play-making ability in the run game we always knew he had. (Martinez has a good bit of it, too.) He showed a flair for the what-was-that?, flipping a pass left-handed to running back Marvin Scott III while avoiding a sack on a third-and-9.
The play went for 14 yards. The pass traveled about six feet. McCaffrey, in his typical team-first way, called it a “really good catch.”
We’ve seen some Mahomesian plays like that out of Martinez over the years, too. Heck, there was one last week, a running-left, jump-and-throw-it-right flick that went for a nice gain.
One thing McCaffrey had that Martinez hasn’t this season is a lead greater than one-score. That was definitely different. Whether this is McCaffrey’s nature, and you can expect it all the time, or it was the nature of how this game unfolded early, the first-time starter mostly let the offense work for him when he wasn’t making impressive plays himself.
Maybe that’s the thing Nebraska needed most right now on offense—trust what you see, make good decisions. If having a lead as large as 21 points made that easier, well, football is often a game of how easy you can make your life.
That feels like progress, even if I don’t come away from this game feeling as though much was “fixed” on offense. The learning curve might still be pretty steep.
But that’s all secondary right now. A concern for the days ahead.
“It’s always better to learn after a win than a loss,” Frost said. “There’s still a lot of things we need to clean up but I feel like the team needed to turn the page on being in some of those games and not finding a way to get it done.”
On Saturday, in an exciting quarterback’s first start, it got done.
Might be as much as we know right now, but it’s enough.