This is long. So this intro will be kept short. Same “Things to Love/Hate” column, new day, no fancy name. Here are three things from No. 24 Nebraska’s 35-21 season-opening win over South Alabama.
Nebraska is not worried about Nebraska’s offense.
“I don’t have any doubt on what we can do on offense,” said head coach Scott Frost. “We’ve been doing it a long time as a coaching staff and we have the right pieces to do it, so we’ll go back to the lab and figure it out.”
“I’m not worried,” added defensive tackle Darrion Daniels. “I know what our offense is capable of, I’ve seen them do better, I know they can do better, so I’m not worried at all.”
Frost called the performance Saturday — one that saw the Huskers chip off just 4.2 yards per play, go three-and-out four out of 13 possessions and turn the ball over three times — as anemic a showing as he’s ever been a part of. That’s not what he watched in fall camp, he said. A lot of the blame is going to fall on the offensive line and its center (addressing that in the next section), but sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez had a part to play.
Nebraska can get by with so-so line play as long as it has an electric quarterback. And Martinez is an electric quarterback. But Martinez wasn’t that guy Saturday. He was off, uncharacteristic in some of his decision-making, and flustered.
“There were probably around four or five throws that I could’ve made that I think would have made a big difference offensively for us,” Martinez said. “I obviously threw an interception, kind of shorted the ball there. I just need to step up as a leader and football player out there on the field and do a better job. This falls on me. I think a lot of guys did their job well on offense today and I didn’t. It’s what it comes down to and we’ll get it fixed.”
Let’s start on the interception.
Martinez has a clean pocket to work from and all day to throw. South Alabama only rushes three and drops everyone else into coverage. Martinez very much wants Washington down the alley and stares him down, and with the secondary in zone, everyone converges on Washington. Mike Williams was wide open on his curl route and Martinez didn’t look his direction, instead opting for an incredibly tight window.
This, as I see it, is just feeling uncomfortable in the game and pressing to make something happen.
The comfort level was an issue all day.
I don’t know what to make of this one from the first drive of the game. Maybe Martinez sees that defensive back coming down to pop Wan’Dale Robinson the second he turns and elects to save his receiver. But Robinson has, as we’ll see later, open-field moves to make guys miss one-on-one. Why doesn’t Martinez just fire it to him first time? Why the hesitation? Then the throw he does make is low and behind.
Like I said, uncharacteristic.
South Alabama brings three and doesn’t really beat anyone. But Martinez gets a little anxious in the pocket and scrambles outside. He doesn’t take off to run and hovers in that in-between of trying to figure out the best path forward. Nebraska turns it over on downs at midfield. If he’d allowed just an extra second for the play to develop, Jack Stoll, who appears to be one of his first options on this, was wide open on his out route.
Here he just misfires. Nebraska runs a crossing pattern with JD Spielman starting in the slot and running a corner and Kanawai Noa out wide. Spielman’s guy gets hung up at the intersection and opens up a window on the sideline for Martinez to fit a ball in for a first down. It’s a play he’s more than capable of making. Instead, he goes to Noa and is almost picked off by a safety he might not have ever seen.
This was on third down. On the first play of literally the very next drive, Frost dials up the exact same pattern with Spielman again running that corner route. It was almost as if to say, “We got the look we wanted, so this is where you go. You can make that read, you can make that throw, go make the play.”
Martinez makes the play.
None of what he showed Saturday was alarming, just surprising.
But maybe having an ESPN camera crew in his facemask from the moment he stepped on the field Saturday had him pressing. Maybe the youngster felt pressure to try and live up to the team’s preseason top-25 ranking and lofty offensive expectations. He hasn’t had to handle expectations because there were none last season.
Until he gives reason to doubt, that’s what I’ll chalk this first showing up to. There should be no worry over Martinez and the offense’s ability to correct mistakes made Saturday, because those mistakes were just simple ones. Hesitancy in some areas and overeagerness in others. Colorado just gave up 6.5 yards per play to Colorado State. Martinez has a chance to right some wrongs next week in a big way.
Center of Attention
Perhaps a big part of why Martinez was so angsty against the Jaguars was the inconsistency from his center.
Cam Jurgens, making his first-ever start at center, looked like he was making his first-ever start at center. The disconnect between him and Martinez was to be expected after he missed all but one week of practice over the course of the last month. He’d never snapped in a game before.
I tallied up the numbers.
Jurgens played 51 snaps Saturday before being replaced at halftime by Will Farniok, the redshirt freshman who began fall camp with the first team. Three times in the first half Nebraska lined up under center. In total, he snapped the ball to Martinez in the gun 49 times. (The swing pass to Robinson that was called back on account of pre-snap movement was counted because Jurgens did in fact snap the football, even though the play was deemed a no-play and didn’t show up in his snap count.)
Twenty-six times, or 54.1% of snaps, he snapped the ball on the money, which in this instance is not referencing a dollar bill but Martinez’s number on his chest. There was minimal movement required from Martinez to catch cleanly and no extra time needed that could possibly throw off the mesh point between him and his running back on read plays.
Fourteen times, or 29.2% of snaps, Jurgens was high, which in this instance means he sent the ball back so high it required a jump from Martinez to catch it. Meaning his eyes were on the football above his head and not on a linebacker or safety for him to know what’s going on. I think these instances can explain away the lack of quarterback running. If Martinez isn’t looking at his key, it’s probably just better to hand the ball off and let his running back try and make a play.
Seven times, or 14.6% of snaps, Jurgens was just off, which in this instance means snap didn’t require a calf workout from Martinez but it also wasn’t right where the ball needed to be.
One time, or 0.2% of snaps, I have no clue what the snap looked like because this research was done on rewatch and the ESPN broadcast missed the first half of a play in order to show a Notre Dame-Louisville promo. Stop cutting out parts of plays so you can show shots of the stands or shots of a guy on the sideline or promos, broadcasters. Please respect the biz more.
You probably don’t want half of your center’s snaps to be awry, but if Frost believes Jurgens is the answer and wants him to play, I don’t really think Nebraska has any other option at this point but to roll through the growing pains. That’s just something that takes game reps to work through. He won’t be prepared to snap the ball in a fourth-quarter third-and-8 in a tight game at Folsom Field until he does it. No amount of practicing in Hawks can replicate that environment.
If the center the first-team offense had been working with all fall camp was going to change the week before the first game, that guy needs more than just a half in the first game. The offensive line didn’t get much push either half. Maurice Washington averaging 6.5 yards a carry on largely second-half runs while Dedrick Mills averaged 2.9 yards a carry on largely first-half runs isn’t because Farniok is a better center than Jurgens, it’s because Washington can create space where there is none in a way Mills can’t.
If Jurgens is the guy, he needs to be the guy. If Farniok takes the top spot on the depth chart this week, he needs to get the full game against Colorado. I liked where the center spot was at a week ago. I’m a little uneasy about it now.
A Quietly Big Debut for Wan’Dale
The superstar freshman played 29 snaps and rung up 54 yards on offense and another 77 from three kick returns. The snaps seem low. Maybe the Huskers just wanted to ease the newcomer into action. Save for one drive in the second quarter when three of the first four plays were designed for him to get the ball, his impact seemed choppy.
Maybe just turn him loose. He looked as dynamic as Spielman and more dangerous than any other receiving option on the field. To its credit, Nebraska tried to get him the football in just about every way imaginable. As expected, the Kentucky native lined up in the slot, lined up in the backfield, lined up out wide and motioned all over the field.
Just a simple wheel route, but the intrigue is in his body control and wherewithal to adjust to the throw, shake off the first would-be-tackler and pick up a first down.
Pencil in a handful of these each game, please.
When you have someone who can do that? Woof. What is it going to look like when more of the game plan is structured around him?
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.