And, finally, football.
It’s officially a Husker football game week. On Monday, Scott Frost will host a virtual game week press conference. We got captains on Saturday. We may even get a depth chart in a few days. At the end of the week, Nebraska will depart for Columbus. On Saturday, at BIG NOON, Nebraska will open Year 3 under Scott Frost at the Horseshoe.
With the football season upon us, here are five Husker-related predictions for what will assuredly be an eventful fall.
No. 1: Nebraska regains its status as a top-25 rushing outfit
In his lone year in Scott Frost’s offense, Devine Ozigbo was wonderful. Though he was 12th among Big Ten backs in carries, he was second in touchdowns and seventh in yards. Ozigbo bit off 6.98 yards a run. He powered a Nebraska offense that ranked 16th nationally in yards per carry.
The Huskers had their bell cow in Ozigbo—a powerful runner with unsuspecting top-end speed and rapidly improving vision as he worked himself into form. They had a complement in terms of running style as their backup tailback, the proverbial ice to Ozigbo’s fire. And they had a quarterback that was a true dual threat. When five yards were made available to a Nebraska ball carrier, those five yards were gained 53.8% of the time, the 11th best mark in the country.
Which points, too, to more than just Ozigbo’s talents. NU’s offensive line was a cohesive unit that season. In pass protection, the group was average, but on the ground was where Nebraska’s bread was buttered. Seniors in Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer on the interior, Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok on the perimeter, that line ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders’ line yards metric, designed to credit the offensive line properly for rushing success.
Two of the more underrated departures last season were Farmer, the team’s center, and Foster, a left guard. Nebraska replaced those seniors with redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens in the middle and a walk-on-turned-scholarship left guard in sophomore Trent Hixson.
Those two had some growing pains, particularly Jurgens. Nebraska’s timing was thrown off by snap issues. While Jurgens showed his true worth as a natural blocker, it wasn’t a seamless first year. The run game, at times, was in disarray. Early on, before Dedrick Mills was turned loose, Nebraska struggled mightily to run between the tackles.
The run game slipped to 60th nationally in yards per carry, dropping by almost a full yard. In terms of line yards, Nebraska dropped to 89th in the country.
If success is to be had in 2020, it’ll need to start on the ground. Nebraska sounds a team that wants to commit to that approach this season. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Greg Austin has spoken about finding a few pet plays, perfecting them, and then using those to set up everything else. Nebraska might not be a 60/40 run team, but the best version of its offense—especially with Adrian Martinez at the helm—is when it is running to set up the pass.
The prediction: with Mills as the bonafide starter, and with a stable of young but promising running backs behind him, Nebraska has the talent to run wild, even against what projects to be a loaded slate of stiff Big Ten defenses. With Jurgens seemingly settled, Nebraska’s offensive line feels like it should be ready to coalesce.
This group can power a resurgent offensive season. I think. Nebraska will feature one of the better ground games in all of the country, behind Mills, Martinez, and an offensive line group that has been called one of the strengths of the team.
No. 2: Nebraska’s woeful one-possession record will start to flip
Since Scott Frost’s arrival, Nebraska is 3-9 in one-possessions games. That they’ve played in 12 down-to-the-wire games in two seasons is wild on its own, but that Nebraska has been so porous in what are statistically coin flip games is even more interesting.
Eventually, these sorts of things even out. But Nebraska lost five (!!!) games by seven points or less in Frost’s first year. Remarkably, ever since a 5-0 record in close games in 2013, the Huskers are a combined 11-22 in games decided by eight points or fewer in the seasons since.
One major storyline from the last two seasons has been about Nebraska needing to learn once again how to win games, how to make winning plays late instead of making the kinds of crucial errors that cost you late. Like, for example, running out of bounds on second down with under two minutes to play, securing extra time on the clock, enough to give your opponent time to drive into field goal range and kick a game-winner as time expired.
With a more potent offense, Nebraska should be able to turn around a few more of those 27-24 games. With the culture Frost wants in place, NU should be more clinical than it has been down the stretch.
No. 3: Chinander’s defense has its best season yet
Who it’s going to be, I’m not yet sure, but I feel strangely confident that defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is poised to have his best defense yet.
The Huskers were good on that side of the ball a year ago. So much so, I’d say people don’t give them the credit they’re due. That defense had it’s problems, yes—linebackers in pass coverage were a mess, the run defense still wasn’t good enough—but the Blackshirts got close to being what Chinander wants them to be.
At the end of the day, the yards don’t matter. What matters are the game-changing plays, the number of times the defense can take the ball away from the other team and give it to Frost’s offense. At UCF, it worked when the offense was firing on all cylinders. At Nebraska, with a ho-hum offense, you’ve seen excruciatingly close losses over and over again.
But this group looks as physically stout as any Nebraska has had in some time. Whereas two years ago Frost was appalled to look across the field and know Iowa was the bigger, more imposing team, now, Nebraska seems to have closed the gap in the trenches.
Ty Robinson, a conditioned Damion Daniels, Keem Green, Jordon Riley, Ben Stille… Nebraska is huge across the front of its defense. Linebacker is concerning, still, as you’re just not sure what you’re getting from the outside ‘backers (though it’s well-documented I’m very fond of JoJo Domann’s game), but the strength of the defense is the secondary. And if Nebraska can hold its own at the line of scrimmage, that secondary can be dangerous.
I’ve brought up the 2019 Baylor Bears before. Under Matt Rhule, the Bears set out to reach 30 takeaways and 40 sacks. If they hit those marks, Rhule urged his team, they’d be one of the best teams in the country. Well, with 30 takeaways (tied for second nationally) and 46 sacks (seventh), Baylor did exactly what Rhule said. It ended the year 11-3, two years removed from a 1-11 record.
Make the splash plays, and good things happen. Defensively, Nebraska should be a team that does what it’s supposed to. It might not be a team absent of busts in the secondary or misfit gaps in the run game, but it’ll be a unit where all 11 guys flow to the football and they play with their hair on fire.
A year ago, Nebraska had 27 sacks and 21 takeaways as a defense. Above-average numbers, but not great.
With Deontai Williams healthy again, and Cam Taylor-Britt settled at corner, Nebraska can improve on those numbers. With Robinson and Riley factoring in on the defensive line this season, Nebraska can be better there than it has for years.
The Huskers can get to 35 sacks and 25 takeaways this season.
No. 4: The tight end will, finally, get involved
Jack Stoll and Austin Allen, two stalwarts in that tight end room for a few seasons now, will be in the rotation and they’ll make plays this fall. But the difference-maker here is Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek.
Vokolek was a ready-made pass-catcher when he arrived in Lincoln ahead of the 2019 season. Position coach Sean Beckton has said he expects Vokolek to make his presence felt in that regard early on. A 6-foot-6, 260-pound junior, Vokolek spent his sit-out year working on his blocking and learning the Husker offense. By all accounts, he’s showing strong in camp.
Stoll has said new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick’s fine tuning has the group feeling like it can make more of a difference in the chunk play department. Lubick prefers tall, rangy athletes, and Vokolek is perhaps one of his best options.
At Lubick’s previous stops (Oregon from 2013-16, and Washington in 2016 and 2017) tight ends averaged 44 catches a season. Over the last ten seasons at Nebraska, Husker tight ends have averaged 30. Last year, that number was 34.
Logic would dictate that if wideout Omar Manning isn’t available when the season opens, or his availability is limited, Nebraska big target pass-catcher would become a tight end. It moved Chris Hickman out of the room in the spring, though he’s flexing all over the field. Some combination of Stoll and Vokolek might help buoy any damage done by missed games from Manning.
Stoll had 21 catches to lead all tight ends in 2018 when Frost took over. He had 25 a season ago. I expect he’ll be right around those averages again this season, but his yards-per-catch clip will climb back into the double-digits, where it was in 2018 (11.7).
The boon will come from Vokolek, who I expect will approach the 500-yard marker.
No. 5: Nebraska will beat Iowa
Six points is all that’s separated the two teams each of the last two seasons. Two late-game field goals have given Iowa wins over Nebraska.
For all the reasons mentioned above, that won’t be the case in 2020.