The Huskers, ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll to begin the season, did not look like the Husker team anyone expected to see. The 369th-consecutive sellout crowd was often hushed Saturday morning against a South Alabama team that went 3-9 last season, but Nebraska ultimately made enough momentum plays to win the day.
The 2019 season will begin with a 35-21 win that probably didn’t feel great for anyone involved. The offense failed to meet expectations. But the defense exceeded them, I think.
Here are three thoughts from the game.
A Fast and Furious Defense
The Blackshirts came to play. If nothing else looked different to those in attendance, the Husker defense was flying to the football in a way it just hasn’t done in recent years.
In the first quarter, Lamar Jackson came on a delayed corner blitz to level South Alabama quarterback Cephus Johnson and jolt the ball loose. Carlos Davis recovered the fumble and the Jags were stopped dead at midfield after a 25-yard pickup on the play prior.
With the Huskers up just one score to begin the second half, 14-7, Memorial Stadium collectively sat on pins and needles waiting for something to break right for the offense (more on that in a minute).
Senior corner-turned-safety Eric Lee Jr. replaced a banged-up Deontai Williams to open the drive and on second-and-8, tracked across the field to run down a ball thrown deep down the right side of the field. His corner had been beat and Lee was able to make up enough ground to force an incompletion.
A play later, he jumped all over a telegraphed throw from Johnson.
Senior CB turned safety Eric Lee Jr. with a terrific read and a great break on the ball for his first career interception which he ran all the way back. pic.twitter.com/E0MPAkICKt
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) August 31, 2019
The first play of the fourth quarter, with the Huskers up 28-21, sophomore defensive back Cam Taylor came screaming off the edge to Johnson’s blindside and leveled another massive blow, again forcing a fumble which Alex Davis recovered in the end zone for six points.
Midway through the fourth, with South Alabama inside the Huskers’ 20, Taylor picked a tipped ball standing on his own goal line and returned it to midfield.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander dialed up a healthy dose of pressures from all over the field and the Huskers either got home or came close to it on the majority of them. Corner blitzes off the edge, overloading one side of the line, Nebraska was attacking.
It helps that the linebackers had, collectively, one of the best games that group has had in a while. The rest of the unit wasn’t too bad either, ending the day with nine tackles for loss, five turnovers, four sacks and two defensive touchdowns while holding South Alabama to 4.0 yards per play.
A Not-So-Fast Offense
Now for the other side of the ball. Outside of maybe the Michigan game in 2018, this was perhaps quarterback Adrian Martinez’s worst performance in a Husker uniform. He went 13-for-22 for 178 yards and a pick. He added just 6 yards on 13 carries on the ground and often looked hesitant to take off and use his legs.
In the pocket, he just wasn’t comfortable.
The offensive line has some issues to work out as well — namely snapping, as redshirt freshman starter Cameron Jurgens was replaced with fellow redshirt freshman Will Farniok at the half. Most of the afternoon was terribly uninspiring up front, with the five-man group failing to get any kind of push. The run game sputtered to a 2.2 yards-per-carry average.
Between-the-tackles runs were swallowed at the line with regularity and the only time Nebraska found space to move was when dialing up action to the perimeter. The read-option stuff — a staple of Scott Frost offenses — seemingly all ended with a handoff. Initially, it just seemed by-design in order to set up keepers in the second half, but Nebraska didn’t take advantage later on.
The more likely answer is Martinez’s timing was thrown out of whack by consistent high-snapping from Jurgens. Every third or fourth snap (and sometimes Jurgens strung a few together) required a hop from Martinez to field. One went over his head in the first quarter and lost the Huskers 20 yards, stalling out a drive.
In some respects, Jurgens’ snapping is something the Huskers are just going to have to work through if they want to keep him on the field — remember, this is the first time he’s ever done it in a college football game — but the bigger line problems were surprising. Nebraska not being able to move a smaller Group of Five team off the ball after an offseason of strength talk was unexpected.
This projected as one of the weaker defensive units the Huskers would face this season. Don’t overreact to the first game of the year, but it also won’t get any easier from here on out.
A Mo Problem
Nebraska has a Maurice Washington problem.
Charges in California cost Washington the spring game in April. He was a limited participant in spring practices but ultimately sat out the game. When fall camp began, he was a full participant, then he sat out the first half of Saturday’s game.
With the ground game producing little in the first half, Frost told Husker Sports Network he would play in the second half.
Was it a one-half suspension? Was the intention to sit him the entire game and that thinking changed after the course of events in the first half? I don’t know, so I’ll reserve any judgments until I do, but Washington looked like the more talented runner compared to JUCO transfer Dedrick Mills and rolling with him going forward is going to bring about a number of questions until his legal situation is resolved.
This first game did Nebraska no favors from a public perception standpoint.
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.