When I think back on Nebraska’s 21-13 loss at Northwestern to open this strange season 0-2—which probably won’t be all that often, to be honest—the first play I will probably think of will be the flea-flicker to open the fourth quarter.
That was after starting quarterback Adrian Martinez’s brutal interception on a last-gasp ball hung up over the middle of the field with the Huskers in scoring territory.
It was after a clutch stop from the defense that minimized the damage of that interception.
The flea-flicker was after Nebraska had started off its chance to respond to difficult circumstances––the drive after the stop started at the Huskers’ 10––with two positive plays, an 8-yard run from running back Dedrick Mills and a 6-yard pass from Luke McCaffrey to redshirt freshman Chris Hickman. McCaffrey went in for Martinez following the pick and this was a strong start. We’ve seen so far this season how much momentum means for this offense. When it starts a drive strong, it can get rolling quickly. And it had.
But with some time to think about it due to the quarter break and a first-and-10 with 15 minutes left to make up a 1-point deficit, Nebraska went with a gimmick. The pitch from Mills to McCaffrey was off target, the result was a 12-yard loss, followed by a false start, and a dead drive.
The point here isn’t the call itself. I’m sure the Husker staff saw something it liked and if it had worked it would’ve been praised for its gutsiness. But it’s still a gimmick and it struck me as emblematic of a pretty serious issue for the offense right now.
It’s stuck in a middle ground, a purgatory of play-calling and personnel.
On paper, Nebraska is more talented than every team in the West. That’s what the recruiting rankings say, but the gap isn’t so large that the Huskers can just get the ball to their best playmakers and expect them to win one-on-one the majority of the time. It doesn’t have those guys yet, or at least not enough of them. On a disastrous day in the red zone, the Huskers targeted Rutgers-transfer tight end Travis Vokolek twice for jump balls. He’s a big body and the rest of the season might show why that was the smart call, but it’s probably not how anyone was drawing it up in the offseason.
But the bigger issue might be this: Against a very good Northwestern defense, which must be noted, Nebraska didn’t look like it had any pet plays. It couldn’t “play the hits.” If there was something the Huskers knew they could execute and knew would work, it didn’t show up on Saturday.
McCaffrey’s fourth-quarter interception, which ricocheted off the helmet of tackle Bryce Benhart (helmet-based picks giveth and they taketh away), was perhaps the best example of this second issue. One of those jump balls to Vokolek resulted in a, let’s call it generous, pass interference call that set the Huskers up at Northwestern’s 2-yard line. It’s an 8-point game now. You need 2 yards and a 2-point conversion, but you’ll take those odds, right?
Mills’ first-down run went for a loss of 2 and Nebraska’s next play was a high-risk pass through the heart of a compressed defense. Lot of traffic down that close to the goal line. The pass didn’t make it through the intersection.
There’s nothing easier than playing armchair offensive coordinator, but don’t let that be the takeaway here. The real point is that a play like that was what Nebraska felt it had to do to become the first team to score on the Wildcats in a second half this season.
Purdue will have to do that next week.
If you look at the stat sheet, this is another box score that looks favorable to the guys in red. The Huskers had 28 first downs to Northwestern’s 14. Nebraska had a 41.6% success rate against a defense that allowed 34.8% 12th nationally, coming in. It hit for an explosive play 12.5% of the time against a defense allowing one on just 10.6% of snaps, ninth-best in the country. The Huskers now have the second- and third-best rushing days against the Wildcats, always tough against the run, since 2018. Ohio State rushed for 279 yards last year and won 52-3. Nebraska rushed for 224 on Saturday and 231 yards in 2018 and lost both.
That 2018 Northwestern game was when it felt like Nebraska’s new offense was really finding its wings. That felt very far away on Saturday. The Huskers have shown they will move the ball on just about anyone. They’ve done it to conference paragons Ohio State and Wisconsin twice each, and, now, have done it to the Wildcats—not that far off those two programs in terms of defense—twice, too.
But yards and big plays aren’t points, and that’s all that matters in this game. It’s not only a talent thing, nor just a “fix-us” problem that can be cleaned up in a couple of weeks. It goes deeper and, while it’s always prudent not to overreact to the latest piece of information, here in Year 3 the hole Nebraska’s still trying to climb out of doesn’t feel much more shallow.
“Listen nobody is more impatient right now than me,” Frost said in a press conference where he put the blame on himself on multiple occasions. “We should be further along than we are right now. I think we’re there. We just have to go out on the field, make it happen and win football games and that starts with me.”
Many Husker fans thought it literally would. But not yet. Not today.
Maybe next week.