An Alarming Reliance on Newcomers and Just OK Football for Nebraska
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

An Alarming Reliance on Newcomers and Just OK Football for Nebraska

October 27, 2019

Saturday morning, well before kickoff, and before a partially-blacked-out fanbase found their seats to watch a defensive performance almost certainly unfit for the jerseys they were wearing (455 yards and 38 points for the first game with a Blackshirt alternate), and before media members lined the field to see who was going to play quarterback for an NU team with zero healthy scholarship ones, and before TV cameras readied to broadcast what would become a 38-31 gut-wrenching defeat to Indiana—taking the Huskers to 4-4 on the year—Nebraska lost.

Nebraska lost before anything really started. 

Probably a little hyperbole, but in Week 9 of Year 2 Nebraska needed a guy who has been in Lincoln for less than a year—in this case, grad transfer defensive tackle Darrion Daniels—to stop warm-ups so he could yell at the rest of the team and tell people they need to focus up. 

That happened Saturday morning. 

“Guy’s been here for [10] months, so if he recognizes something’s wrong, guys who have been here for a while need to recognize that focus needs to be honed in at times,” said outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, a true freshman, another first-year man.

Maybe Scott Frost misjudged the culture of the team he inherited. Who knows but the head ball coach. What I know at this point is that I spoke with a true freshman linebacker about wanting it, a true freshman wideout about the moment X-rays showed no structural or ligament damage to his ankle following a hit against Minnesota, saying, “It’s time to get back to work” and how he’s fine with 28 touches two weeks later if that’s what the team needs, and a true freshman quarterback about preparing as a third-stringer like he’s going to start. 

Nebraska has veterans it can rely on—cornerback Dicaprio Bootle is one, Daniels, though he’s technically new, is another, defensive end Ben Stille is another, and there are others still—but it is dependent on first- and second-year players to an extent it shouldn’t be if it expects to win in the Big Ten. 

Wan’Dale Robinson was the team’s leading rusher, with 83 yards on 22 carries, and he’s one of the smallest men on the field. Luke McCaffrey, forced into action after starting quarterback Noah Vedral was injured, finished second in the ground game, with 76 yards on 12 carries. (He added 71 yards on six passes.) Daniels is the lynchpin of the entire defense.

Those guys can’t fix everything. Stille damn near tackled Khalil Davis in what looked like an attempt to save Davis from picking up a fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike penalty. 

“Too much ‘Just OK’ exists and when there’s not enough attention to detail, not enough guys that care enough to do things perfect, then those mistakes show up on the field,” Frost said after the game. 

Mistakes killed Nebraska once the game began. It was a comedy of errors at every level all over the field. 

“We couldn’t move it any better than that in the first half, we had chances to put [the] game away if we got a couple of stops and we didn’t, we get the chance to put the game away early if we don’t fumble and let them run it [68] yards back to our [8]. Go for it on fourth-and-1 and we have a receiver that doesn’t get on the ball when he’s supposed to be on the ball. Then we missed a field goal and gave up points there. We gave up fade balls on second-and-20. We can’t have bad eyes, can’t punt balls out of bounds and kick balls out of bounds, can’t have them picking up that many third downs. And I’m sure I’m missing a lot of them.”

Indiana was 7-for-13 on third down if you exclude a kneel-down to end the game on the final drive. The fumble Frost mentioned happened with Nebraska up 14-9 in the second quarter and driving towards at least a 17-9 lead, if not a 21-9 lead. Nebraska had over 500 yards of offense (514) and lost, the fourth time that’s happened under Frost.

Nebraska had roughing the passer flags on fourth down. It had three fumbles, lost two, and saw Indiana get 14 points off them. It struggled to pressure IU quarterback Peyton Ramsey as the back-up carved up Nebraska’s pass defense. 

“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team that really care, we’ve got some guys on this team that are tough and dedicated enough, we don’t have enough of them yet,” Frost said. “I told the team, right now that’s were we are, we’re just OK. … I’m not going to be happy with just OK. I want a bunch of players that aren’t going to be happy with just OK. 

“Nebraska fans are disappointed and everybody wants it to happen faster. It’s going to happen, but one of the ways it’s going to happen is ‘Just OK’ can’t exist around here, and there’s a little too much just OK.”

Robinson didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday. He was eased into things in order to make sure he was fully ready for Indiana. He said if he needed to run it 30 times he would, and if he needed to catch 10 balls downfield he would. “Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do,” he said.

Nelson is the same way. It’s almost impossible to miss the linebacker sprint off the field for halftime breaks, sprint to huddles, sprint off the field after change-of-possessions, sprint to ball-carriers, miss, and sprint back into the play to make a tackle. 

Nelson gets beat because of his motor. Indiana’s first touchdown of the game came on a Ramsey keeper where Nelson crashed hard on the ball-carrier, Ramsey pulled and walked 8 yards into the end zone. But Nelson’s motor is what Frost wants all over the field. 

He wants five Robinsons spread across the field when the offense lines up, not just because Robinson is a special football player, but because he goes to coaches and tells them to give him the ball in tough road environments and plays hurt when there isn’t another guy to do the job. 

“There’s still some guys on the team that aren’t bought all in with our mentality that Coach Frost is wanting for our team,” Robinson said. “We can’t just wait for that to come. … Even though I’m a freshman, I’m still trying to get [it] into the older guys’ heads. We just have to get better at that type of thing.”

Sophomore cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said the energy was too low. 

“It eats me up a lot honestly,” he said of losing this way. “I don’t feel like, as a team, as a whole, it’s clicking yet. Who likes to keep losing? I think everybody should look deep down inside and let each other know that you don’t want to keep losing. It’s time to up the notch. It’s the second half of the season, we just came off the bye week, we got the rest we needed. What else do you need?”

Nebraska needs two wins from its remaining four games—on the road against 2-6 Purdue, home against 6-2 Wisconsin after another bye, on the road against 3-5 Maryland and then home against 6-2 Iowa—to get to a bowl. 

I asked Bootle if the issues facing the team right now are fixable in four games, he said he thinks so. 

“We’ve just got to go out there and make it happen,” he said. “Like I say every week, it starts on Monday. I understand to you guys it’s starting to get a little bit repetitive and you hear it over and over again, ‘We’ve got to come out Monday and work harder,’ but that’s what’s real. Our best is not our best and we do have extra in the tank to be able to push forward.”

I also asked if it hurts to hear Frost tell him and his teammates, after everything he’s been through at Nebraska, all the rotten locker rooms and fired coaches and humiliating losses, that right now they are nothing more than an OK football team. 

“I’ve been through a lot here, way before they even got here. I’ve seen it all. But he told nothing but the truth. It’s just OK. A lot of things are just OK. A lot of things are just good, not great, not pushing us over the edge,” he answered. “As players we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and figure out why, and figure out how are we going to take that next step so we can come out victorious in these types of games.”

The brutally honest answer might be a few more recruiting classes, a lot more Garrett Nelsons and Wan’Dale Robinsons and Darrion Daniels. Frost has players he can win football games with, he just needs them to stop allowing OK to be OK.

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