Nebraska’s getting outscored 59-6 in the second half of games this season. No matter how much better a Monday practice after a win feels than a Monday practice after a loss, the Huskers know they can’t rest on their laurels following last Saturday’s 30-23 win over Penn State.
The realist approach looks at NU’s first win of 2020 and calls it an escape. The Huskers had a 24-3 lead at one point and needed third- and fourth-down stops inside their own 15-yard-line twice at the end.
“We did some good things, some really good things, and some things we can get a lot better at, so I was pleased with the improvement, but still some things to fix,” coach Scott Frost said Monday morning when he met with the media ahead of Illinois week. “It’s always better to do those after you win a game.”
Nebraska needed some confidence and some positive momentum.
It’s now got some.
Figuring out a way to keep it going will be important. Illinois, which got its first win of the new season last time out as well, won’t roll over in Memorial Stadium.
“They hit the crap out of us last year,” Frost said of the Illini.
About what you’d expect from a Lovie Smith-coached ball club. Nebraska won that game 42-34.
The offense has reached the 40-point threshold only one other time in the 11 games since, a 54-7 late-2019 win over a hapless Maryland team.
This offense is in a place it feels it can grow from, though. Guys are in good spirits.
Instead of trying to figure out how to stop shooting itself in the foot or how to keep the confidence up and finish—those kinds of things are always moving targets—the offense can look at easy-to-identify areas.
Can you be more detailed on first down?
NU averaged a season-low 4.8 yards per play on first downs against Penn State and a paltry 3.6 yards per run. The 4-for-12 number on third downs can be helped by on schedule on first. Being on schedule also opens up Frost to seek out opportunities to be aggressive with his play-calling.
Can sophomore center Cam Jurgens get back to snapping on target?
“I think anytime there’s a bad snap it’s a terrible snapping day,” Jurgens said Monday. “That’s something I should have down pat and I need to keep working on that. … That’s something that needs to be perfect every time. I mean, you expect a field goal kicker to make every extra point. A center should make every snap perfect. I’m going to keep working on that so Luke (McCaffrey) gets every snap right at his chest.”
Off-center throws the rhythm of a play off-kilter. Jurgens has proven he can do it. Nebraska’s not terribly worried there.
Can McCaffrey build off his first career start at quarterback? He went 13-for-21 for 152 yards, a touchdown and a pick. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t problematic either.
“Luke’s performance for his first start was really solid,” Frost said, matching the tone he struck immediately after the game. In going back and watching the tape, McCaffrey is his own harshest critic. “You can’t take it any better. Luke is the type of kid that lives in the office. Always watching film, always trying to get better.”
Point to the lefty throw to running back Marvin Scott III in the second quarter. McCaffrey was getting tackled and somehow managed to flip the ball with his off hand to Scott for a first down on third-and-9.
Frost joked he was OK with the play because it worked. They never want to “curtail” player creativity, Frost said, but they do have to walk the line between taking a chance and living to fight another down.
That might perfectly illustrate why Nebraska’s feeling rather optimistic about the offense moving forward. There is so much youth on the field at one time; inconsistency kind of comes with the territory.
“There’s a couple of blocks that we didn’t block the right guy or plays would have popped,” Frost said. “A couple plays where we weren’t quite in the right place in the pass game. Missed a protection on a key third down right at the end of the game with a young running back. Luckily those things didn’t cost us the game, but you can’t fix all those things in one day, so all you can do as a coach is continue to teach and teach and teach and try to get those guys a little bit better every week.”
They’re not where they want to be as an offensive unit. Everyone outside Memorial Stadium’s walls knows that and everyone inside them seems perfectly willing to cop to it. McCaffrey talked about needing to run things more efficiently.
Nebraska’s offense (so, removing the Deontai Williams scoop-and-score) is averaging 0.26 points per play this year. That works out to a touchdown every 27 plays.
“We’re not going to be happy until we’re scoring more,” Frost said. “I just got done with a unit meeting with the offense and we reviewed the game, and I think the guys were able to see little things that they could do and should be able to do, fixing some things to sustain a few more drives. I think we’re on the right track, but you’re never completely happy and we’ve got to keep getting better.
“I think as coaches you get frustrated because you want it perfect right now. I’ve mentioned this, but I think we counted 10 first-year players that played a significant amount for us last year and seems like we’ve been young three years in a row because of the turnover at some positions and the recruiting we’ve done to get some new athletes in here. It just takes those guys a while to know all the assignments and details they need to for us to be a little more efficient and we’re working at that every day.”
A quick headcount on the lineup you might see out there on any given play:
- Ethan Piper and Cam Jurgens and Bryce Benhart on the line
- Wan’Dale Robinson and some pairing of Alante Brown/Zavier Betts/Marcus Fleming at wideout
- Scott or Ronald Thompkins at running back
- McCaffrey at quarterback.
That’s eight of your 11 starters who are either sophomores or freshmen.
Adrian Martinez had his best statistical performance of 2018 (his freshman season) in his fourth game of the year. Robinson had his breakout game last season in his fourth game as well.
It’s important to note, too, that Nebraska only ran 24 plays in the final 30 minutes against Penn State. The Nittany Lions sat on the ball. The offense wasn’t exactly in rhythm.
“A little bit of it we just really didn’t have the time possession that we wanted,” wideout Wan’Dale Robinson said Saturday after the game. “We wanted to try some things, but obviously we kind of got a little bit behind in the chains, but that’s just something that we can clean up for next week.”
That unit doesn’t have excuses. It knows it needs to continue showing progress.
But it has clear problem areas it can try and massage. No more painting with a broad brush. They can start hammering home the details in key areas.
“Just getting a win and being able to learn from that just creates so much more positivity as a group,” McCaffrey said. “Now we need to take that energy and utilize it in a proper way, utilize it in an effective and efficient way at practice this week. Hopefully it can carry us to the same feeling next week.”
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.