Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Amid Signs of Progress Elsewhere, Questions Remain on Nebraska’s O-Line

September 19, 2021

Oklahoma did what I’d been waiting to see someone do, and what I suspect many will do moving forward: when Adrian Martinez had the football, linebacker Nik Bonitto was spying him.

“(When) you give a quarterback that has that gift, has that talent, and you don’t get him on the ground, you can almost see his confidence rise,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch told Sooner media after the game, per the OU Daily’s Austin Curtright. “He’s got that get out of jail free card. … It was a major commitment to not allow him to get loose. When they win football games, he rushes for over 100 yards.”

Added Oklahoma cornerback DJ Graham: “We came in and we knew that he’s gonna want to run the ball. And that’s what he’s successful at. But you put a player like Nik spying Adrian Martinez, it’s a different story.”

Bonitto, typically a pass rusher—and one of college football’s best—still had three tackles for loss, two sacks, and one other QB hurry. His impact was felt all over the field. The number that mattered most Saturday, as it related to the junior outside ‘backer, was 62. 

On 12 carries, Martinez had 62 rushing yards. Still a good clip on a per-carry basis but the volume had been there through Nebraska’s first three weeks and it wasn’t on Saturday. Against Illinois, Martinez had runs of 75 and 26 yards. Against Buffalo, Martinez had runs of 71 and 14. 

Against lesser competition and lesser athleticism, the redshirt junior has been able to beat defenses in broken play scenarios. When he’s been flushed from the pocket, he’s become the most explosive player on the field.

Oklahoma clearly wanted to take that away. 

To be clear, Martinez played a wonderful game against the Sooners. He kept the Huskers in the game. But Grinch made certain he didn’t have that game-breaking play that flipped momentum. 

So much of Martinez’s rushing production this season has come from improvisation rather than design. Entering Saturday, 83% of Martinez’s 293 rushing yards on the year came from scrambles off pass plays. 

Bonitto and the Sooners provided the counter to Nebraska’s only real rushing threat. In doing so, we got an afternoon of staring at the Huskers big, ugly ground problem. 

They can’t run the football. 

Running backs have 121 carries for 446 yards in four games. That’s a per-carry average of 3.7 yards.

And it’s not pumping sunshine to say Nebraska’s running backs have shown flashes of potential. Gabe Ervin Jr. has had a few moments, same for Markese Stepp, same for Rahmir Johnson. Scott Frost has, for the most part, done well in the play-calling department. 

Execution has been lacking. Perhaps preparation has been off. Perhaps practice habits need to be fixed. 

Nebraska’s offensive line has to take this game on its shoulders and be better. They weren’t just poor in run situations Saturday, though. There were mistakes all over.

All five starters in the game had a penalty called on them. Center Cam Jurgens was flagged twice for unnecessary roughness penalties. The second was questionable, but to have a second after a dumb first one is still unacceptable. 

The others were flagged three times on the opening drive alone. I’ve been in that stadium, I’ve seen that atmosphere; Memorial Stadium is different. Noise shouldn’t be an excuse. A huge percentage of the line’s problems have to do with detail, or a lackthereof. 

Trent Hixson replaced Ethan Piper at left guard, and had a whiff trying to catch a stunt that was so remarkable it made rounds on social media. Piper, who has been poor enough to lose his starting spot, came back in at right guard on the kick team and was responsible for the blocked PAT that was returned for two Sooner points. He was knocked back with ease. Tackles have been up and down.

Offensive line coach Greg Austin has questions that need answering for a unit that was said in the offseason to be one of the strengths of the team. They’ve quickly become a liability. Martinez was sacked five times by the Sooners; the final drive of the game was a disaster from the start. Individuals are getting bull-rushed off the ball. Stunts are fooling the line in a way you wouldn’t expect given the premium placed on athleticism.

Six of NU’s eight drives crossed the Oklahoma 40 yard line. The offense produced 16 points. For the season, the Huskers rank 99th nationally in points per scoring opportunities. Their neighbors are Northwestern, Kansas, Vanderbilt, and Illinois. 

Nebraska needs to be able to finish. That starts up front. 

“We’ve got to move people a little better,” Frost said after the game. “It’s got to be a little more consistent in the run game. Everything in the offense can work better if we can hand it off and get yards. 

“Yards are tough to get against a team like this. They’re tough to get in the Big Ten with the defenses we see. We got the guys that can do it. We’ve got to be more consistent.”

Nothing gets easier. Michigan State looks tough as nails to open the year, a team that once again looks exactly how coach Mel Tucker wants—physical. The Spartans are currently 36th nationally in yards per carry allowed. Nebraska finds itself in must-win territory this weekend, or else risk tarnishing the glow of hanging with the No. 3 team in the country on the road.

Iowa and Wisconsin are both in the top 20 for rushing defense. Nebraska also has Michigan and Ohio State on the calendar. 

It is going to need to be able to run the ball, or Oklahoma will have written the book on how to stymie this offense. The Big Ten slate is here. The defenders lining up on the other side of the ball won’t look like Fordham’s or Buffalo’s anymore. If Nebraska can’t get rushing from Martinez scrambles, it has to get it from somewhere.

Consider this: if you were told three years ago that Frost and his Huskers would go to Norman and hold Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma offense to its worst scoring output of the Riley tenure, would you have ever guessed Nebraska lost the game? 

A Riley-coached Sooner team had never been held under 27 points. Dating back to 2013, Oklahoma had lost eight straight games when held to 24 points or fewer. Nebraska turned Saturday into a Big Ten game behind a defense that rose to the challenge and a quarterback who out-dueled the Heisman hopeful on the other side.

And it lost.

There were signs of growth on Saturday, to be fair, but the presence of the same old issues make this a tough read. Pessimists were encouraged by the defense proving it’s the real deal. (Tried to tell you.) Optimists were broken by another game left on the table.  This was the ninth time Nebraska has been held to 20 points or fewer under Frost. In year four, Nebraska still can’t establish a non-QB run game. That’s a hard thing to look past. And it can’t continue. 

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