In nearly every great individual sports performance, whether in a single game or over a season, there’s a point where it goes from just impressive to humorous.
Making high-level sports look easy enough to rack up five touchdowns as a quarterback or 150 yards as a wide receiver is impressive. Once numbers go beyond that, into territory which has a little less company, it can be hard to believe what you’re watching.
When a wide-open Trey Palmer caught a deep pass and raced for his second touchdown, this one a 72-yarder, against Purdue last Saturday, that moment hit.
Palmer had already made himself into a standout, a hero. He made go-ahead touchdown catches against both Indiana and Rutgers. He was on track to break program single-season receiving records. The evergreen football meme of a quarterback thinking “f*ck it, (insert wide receiver) down there somewhere,” before launching a deep ball had already been christened with Palmer’s name.
And through nearly three quarters against the Boilermakers, he had done more than enough to mark a successful performance. Before Nebraska’s final drive of the third quarter, he had five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, also adding a 60-yard rush. The touchdown came on the first possession out of halftime, and the rush came on the next one to put the Huskers in position for an eventual field goal.
Just one heroic play from Palmer had been enough to win the past two weeks. But this time, he made two and the Huskers still found themselves down double-digits due to a struggling defense.
So he made another. On second down, he made his way past a defensive back and up the sideline, and Thompson took advantage of the hole in the zone. Palmer, hilariously open given his success to this point, converted the score to bring the deficit back to four points.
I couldn’t help but laugh, and I chuckled again when he made an impressive 64-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska lost, but Palmer’s 297 total yards and two touchdowns stand as the most memorable event from that game, even with Purdue having a few players continually make big plays. While I understand the wish to reward winning, him not receiving Big Ten offensive player of the week honors stands as a major snub.
Dominant performances from wide receivers have always been somewhat less appealing to me than one from a running back or quarterback. I’d say that’s the nature of the position. The most memorable accomplishments of wide receivers are often individual plays with high degrees of difficulty or importance, although having the consistency to be known as a star enhances that.
The problem is that a great statistical performance usually isn’t like that. They’re made up of a lot of open catches and runs after, especially for a receiver like Palmer. When watching a game, a lot of viewers only see the ball being caught and what happens after, missing what it took to get open until the replay. It’s like only seeing Allen Iverson finish at the rim and missing the crossover.
Admittedly, I was skeptical before the season about Palmer’s ability to become the team’s clear top receiver. I wrongly thought — for a second straight year — that the Huskers might not lean so heavily on one pass-catcher. Of course, the team surely doesn’t mind this alternative.
One of Palmer’s main appeals coming in was his ability as a returner, partly because that hadn’t been a factor at all for Nebraska last year. While he’s only had some opportunities in that area, the distance he gets from the nearest defender on a deep ball could sometimes be compared to a punt return.
That’ll be a key asset through the final five games of the year. Every Nebraska opponent through the rest of the year ranks in the top five in the Big Ten in scoring defense and yards allowed. Next week’s opponent, Illinois, averages over three sacks a game.
That could cause issues for the Huskers, who have a far-from-perfect offense. Casey Thompson has shown the ability to make good throws consistently enough, but he’s been hampered by a struggling offensive line. The run game hasn’t been able to get going consistently either.
Most of the remaining offenses probably won’t play poorly enough to allow for 14-13 wins like the one at Rutgers, either.
With the inconsistencies on defense and a tough end to the year, Nebraska’s offense will have to find a way to keep it up to some degree.
There are other capable playmakers, such as Anthony Grant and Travis Vokolek, but to win any of the final five games, Thompson and the Huskers will have to keep finding Palmer, who will surely be down there somewhere.