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Day by Day
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Day by Day, the Huskers Are Making More and More Plays

November 04, 2018

Six weeks ago, Nebraska got blown out by 46 at Michigan. Four weeks ago, the Huskers got handled by 17 at Wisconsin. On Saturday, Nebraska came up short by just five points at Ohio State.

Day by day.

Nebraska still hasn’t come close to putting a complete game together — as its 2-7 record might indicate — but we’re seeing the Huskers make more plays on both sides of the ball every time they set foot on the field.

Let’s start with the defense. For the first time since the ‘90s (I think that was the stat), Ohio State’s punting unit had to take the field, not once but four (4!) times. Even better than that, though, was the three turnovers the Blackshirts forced giving the Huskers back-to-back games with three or more takeaways for the first time since 2014.

Coach Scott Frost couldn’t have scripted a better start to the game for his team (minus the botched onside kick) as the Huskers marched down the field and scored on the game’s opening possession then forced a turnover-on-downs on Ohio State’s first drive.

Buckeye running back JK Dobbins picked up 9 yards on his first two carries before Urban Meyer got cute and tried to run it with wide receiver Parris Cambell. Senior safety Aaron Williams dropped Campbell for a loss of 1, setting up a fourth-and-2.

Rather than take the field goal, Meyer decided to go for it at the Nebraska 23-yard line. Meyer went back to Dobbins, but this time the Huskers stonewalled him.

Ohio State lined up with a tight end to the outside shoulder of the right tackle and two lead-blockers in the backfield. Nebraska line up in its base 3-4 defense with safety Tre Neal down in the trenches.

The Buckeyes pulled the left guard around to the right hoping to blow open a hole for Dobbins through the B-gap, but Nebraska’s linemen hold their ground and Neal gets off a block that initially knocked him back. 

Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry occupied the pulling guard while the lead-blocker coming over from the other side blocked to the outside where Neal had gotten off his block. That left Dedrick Young II unaccounted for and the senior was right where he needed to be, stopping Dobbins in his tracks a yard short of the line to gain (sadly, Young didn’t show the same kind of leverage later in the game but let’s forget about that for the time being).

It wasn’t a takeaway, but it was a turnover on downs and the kind of success the defense needed early in the game. This next play, however, was definitely a takeaway.

Sophomore safety JoJo Domann was one of the best stories to come out of Saturday’s game. The Colorado native suffered through two torn ACLs then got banged up again and had to miss a few more games this season, but he’s back now and has impressed to coaches to the point where they’ve carved out a unique role just to get him on the field.

Nebraska has been playing the 6-foot-1, 225-pound defensive back in a hybrid outside linebacker-safety role since he returned to the field, and he made a huge play out of that spot early in the second quarter. With the Buckeyes leading 16-7 and threatening again inside the Nebraska 30, Ohio State dropped back to pass on second-and-6.

Domann lined up in the slot across from a  receiver, but instead of dropping back into coverage he blitzed. Ohio State motioned a man across to Domann’s side, but he ran out into the flat without so much as a chip. Meanwhile Young came on a delayed rush from the middle and the running back, who seemingly never saw Domann, chose to pick Young up instead of the more immediate threat in Domann.

Domann had a free lane to Dwayne Haskins who was looking downfield and had no idea what was coming. Domann got there in two seconds and blindsided Haskins who was holding the ball out as he was looking to get rid of it. Domann got his hand on the ball as he hit the quarterback and knocked it loose.

Nose tackle Carlos Davis had his eyes up and was the first one to see the ball on the turf, diving on it to secure possession for the Huskers. Nebraska took advantage of the extra possession with a 10-play, 64-yard scoring drive to pull within two.

Domann wasn’t the only one who forced a fumble that the Huskers recovered. Senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford made his presence felt on the following drive as well and showed some terrific hustle in the process.

On second-and-6 from its own 17-yard line, Ohio State put the ball in Haskins’ hand. He took the shotgun snap, surveyed the field then hit slot receiver KJ Hill coming over the middle on a short crossing route. Gifford initially picked him up but appeared to pass him off as Hill crossed the field.

Unfortunately, there was no one over there to pick him up. Hill caught the ball and turned upfield with no one around him. 

Gifford immediately took off after him. Aaron Williams ran over to cut off his path and Hill cut back inside, which allowed Gifford to catch up. The senior wrapped his arms around him for the tackle and knocked the ball loose in the process.

The ball was sitting there for a second before anyone could find it, then Neal dived into the scrum to keep the ball alive. Somehow it found its way into Gifford’s hands and he ripped it away as the battle for the ball continued. At the end of the play, the officials awarded the ball to Nebraska and Williams was officially credited with the recovery.

We have to fast-forward to the third quarter for Nebraska’s third takeaway.

The Buckeyes got the ball to start the third quarter and wasted no time moving down the field. Five of the Buckeyes’ first seven plays went for 7 or more yards to push them into the red zone, but Williams dropped Campbell for a loss on the eighth play to set up second-and-13.

Nebraska had its nickel defense on the field with Domann in the slot and rushed four as Ohio State sent four receivers out on routes with the running back leaking into the flat late.

Lamar Jackson dropped back and gave the outside receiver a big cushion and he ran right up the seam as the late motion man ran an out route in the flat, drawing Domann. Jackson opened his hips, perhaps anticipating a corner route, but closed on the receiver.

Haskins’ throw is either late or he flat-out didn’t see Jackson as he led the receiver out towards the corner away from the deep safety, Williams. Jackson under-cut the throw, attacked the ball in the air and came down with it for his second interception of the season.?

The Huskers have now picked off at least one pass in each of their last four games and have six interceptions during that span.

The defense wasn’t the only side of the ball that had some fun on Saturday. The offense made some big plays as well.

That first touchdown drive of the game for the Huskers had a couple hiccups as Nebraska first had to overcome an illegal procedure penalty that negated a 20-yard run then had to face a fourth-and-short following a sack on second down that gave the Huskers a third-and-12 they couldn’t convert into a first.

On fourth-and-2 at the Ohio State 45-yard line, Nebraska lined up with Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman to the left, tight end Jack Stoll near the line and running back Devine Ozigbo in the backfield next to Adrian Martinez. Morgan motioned across the field and Martinez faked the hand off to him then rolled out to his left.

Ozigbo tried to cut the defensive end, giving Martinez time to let the play develop. Stoll ran a mesh route with Spielman getting in the way off Tuf Borland, the outside linebacker covering Stoll. With Borland trailing Stoll, Martinez threw it up for his tight end. 

Borland had no idea the pass was coming and ran right through Stoll as he tried to reach back for the ball. Despite the interference — which the officials did call — Stoll snagged the ball anyway to move the chains.

Stoll didn’t have a big game in terms of yardage, finishing with 17, but he did catch all three balls that came his way, none bigger than that first one that went for 7 yards, moved the chains and eventually led to a score.

Stoll wasn’t the only tight end who made an impact. After making his first career catch against Bethune-Cookman last week, redshirt freshman Austin Allen found his way into the stat sheet again against the Buckeyes.

Play-calling is all about putting the defense at a disadvantage and forcing them to make tough decisions. It’s a numbers game and on this play, the Buckeyes were a man short.

After an 11-yard gain on the first play of the drive, the Huskers lined up on first-and-10 at their own 26-yard line. Morgan began outside the numbers but motioned in tighter and then ran a cross over the middle of the field.

Allen started in-line off the left tackle while Spielman was in the backfield next to Martinez. Initially, Allen blocked the defensive end as Spielman made his way out into the left flat. Allen released from his block then headed toward the sideline. 

The result of the play was a two-on-one with safety Jordan Fuller all alone to defend both Allen and Spielman. Fuller chose to let Allen go expecting the ball to go to Spielman as if it was a screen and the 6-foot-8 tight end turned up field with no one near him. Martinez had read Fuller’s decision and let the ball go before Allen had even crossed the line of scrimmage.

The pass dropped into Allen’s hands 11 yards down field and he ran up the sideline for another 30 yards before the other safety, Shaun Wade, managed to get him down. The route Morgan ran across the middle of the field drew a lot of attention from the back end and effectively gave Allen half the field all to himself.

Morgan was no decoy on this last play. 

After three consecutive three-and-out drives (two by the Buckeyes, one by Nebraska), the Huskers got the ball at their own 34-yard line down 30-21 with just over 11 to play. The Huskers lined up with 21 personnel — two tight ends, one running back and two receivers.

The TV cameras did a great job of not showing enough of the field to see what the receivers did, but somehow Morgan got deep on his man.

In the backfield, Martinez fakes the handoff to Maurice Washington and looks down field. A pass rusher beat right tackle Matt Farniok pretty badly, but Martinez evades the Buckeyes pretty easily and rolls out to his right. Seeing his man up the right sideline, Martinez stepped into his throw and set his feet, just barely getting the ball out of his hand before he got blasted by another Buckeye.

The throw is right on the money, dropping perfectly over the top and Morgan elevated to snatch it out of the air. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield took him down as soon as he caught it but the play still went for 46 yards, down to the Ohio State 20.

The Huskers ended up settling for a field goal, but that big play from freshman to senior still allowed the Huskers to pull within one score midway through the fourth quarter.

Morgan led the Huskers in receiving for the third straight game with seven catches for 87 yards and Martinez out-shined his fellow signal-caller in Haskins with 266 yards and a score through the air (with a 66.7 percent completion rate) and another two touchdowns plus 72 yards on the ground.

Nebraska didn’t win the game, but the Huskers made enough big plays throughout the game to keep them in it all the way to the end. That’s not good enough for either Frost or his players, but it definitely is progress.

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