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Nebraska Cornhuskers linebacker JoJo Domann tackles Illinois QB by the ankles
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Illinois Exposed an Uncomfortable Distance Between Where Nebraska Should Be and Where It Is

November 21, 2020

Before Tom Allen arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, the Hoosiers had one winning season dating back to 1995. Twenty-two seasons; only one time above .500, and that was a 7-6 year. Indiana was a doormat, a basketball school, not to be taken seriously. 

And it hasn’t been some fall from grace, either. The Hoosiers have never reached double-digit wins as a football team. Not once. Allen showed up in 2017, and after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, he has produced 12 wins in his last 18 tries. His 2020 Hoosiers opened the year 4-0. 

Why are you reading about Indiana? This is a Nebraska publication and the Huskers just played a football game, too. Well, as Indiana was taking Ohio State to the very brink with lesser talent in Allen’s fourth year, Nebraska was getting its soul crushed 41-23 at home by a 1-3 Illinois team in Scott Frost’s third year. 

It was hard not to draw a line connecting the two. 

Indiana lost to Ohio State, just like everyone else has this season, 42-35. But Indiana had a shot at the end to drive toward a potential overtime-forcing touchdown. Nebraska lost to Ohio State 52-17. 

“But the margin wasn’t indicative of the play,” we said at the time of the loss. Turns out it was. 

Turns out progress, as it relates to Nebraska’s football program, is cruel and fickle. It shows up just long enough to seduce you, and then smashes a crowbar into your stomach and runs in the other direction. Nebraska takes a step forward and then two back. 

That’s been the case for a while. 

Nebraska coach Scott Frost stated after Saturday’s game that he has “as much or more confidence today than I’ve had” that this thing will turn.

Based on what, might one ask? 

On Saturday, Nebraska had Illinois’ social media account trolling it into oblivion, angry supporters calling for heads to roll, current young players tweeting frustration while the game was going on, and future prospects (both of them pass-catchers) openly questioning what they were to make of the performance they were watching. 

Luke McCaffrey, making his second start of his career, was a major deterrent to winning football. He turned the ball over on the first play from scrimmage. The call on the field was incredibly questionable, but McCaffrey opened the door with a recklessness NU can’t afford to have. “Not a good decision to do what he did,” Frost said. 

He turned it over three more times after that, all of them interceptions. 

The Huskers lost the turnover battle 5-0 and had one pass that went for more than 20 yards on the day.

“We’ve got to be able to throw the ball down the field,” Frost said. “I’ll have to look at the tape, but I feel like we had some guys running open downfield. Whether its protection or vision or just trusting it and throwing them on time, we’ve got to be a better football team at throwing the ball down the field. That’s kind of how this offense is built and it always has been, and we are not good enough at it right now.”

Nebraska benched a third-year starting quarterback a week ago in favor of a redshirt freshman because the offense needed to take a step forward. The issue still gripping the Huskers two games later is the complete lack of a downfield presence. 

NU averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt.

Frost was right afterward to think he saw guys running open. They were. They just weren’t being found. It looked as glaring as it has all year.

And this cannot be an issue of talent. 

Marcus Fleming, a 4-star wideout recruit last cycle, had five catches for 75 yards against Northwestern and hasn’t drawn a target since. Zavier Betts, a local recruiting win from the same class as Fleming, took a fly sweep 45 yards to the house a week ago and had a lone 9-yard catch early.

After a week during which their position coach talked optimistically about what they could offer, Nebraska’s true running backs got nine handoffs in the game. (They’ve gotten 32.7% of Nebraska’s 162 runs so far this year.)

This is about execution, both on the players’ side of things and on the part of the coaches.

“I felt great about our plan going in on offense,” Frost said. “We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We have guys open and miss them. We have bad snaps that kill drives. We have penalties that kill drives. One little thing here or there and it’s not going to work. I’m going to keep simplifying if I have to to make sure these young players can be in the right place and do the right thing.

Indiana, on the road with a nonexistent run game that ended the game with 10 yards on 14 carries, threw for 491 yards and five scores against an Ohio State secondary Nebraska didn’t dare test.

Allen has recruited four 4-star players to come play with him in Bloomington in the last four cycles, two of them on offense (a wideout and a running back). Frost signed eight 4-stars in the 2020 class alone last cycle, seven the year before, and six the year before that. 

But there was Indiana, ranked ninth in the country going toe-to-toe with arguably college football’s best, getting punched in the face and responding with teeth of its own. 

Nebraska saw the kind of necessary fight from how many on Saturday? A handful of guys? Robinson? How about Cam Taylor-Britt completely racing a guy down from the opposite side of the field to save a touchdown? The Illini scored shortly thereafter anyway, but that’s talent and determination and selling out. Taylor-Britt hurt himself on the play to stop the score. 

That’s supposed to be an across-the-board thing.

The offensive line was a disaster. McCaffrey was pulled in the fourth quarter. The non-QB run was MIA.

And Frost said after the game he’s going to have to strip his offense down to the studs to be able to get guys in positions to be successful?

In year three?

“I didn’t really see this coming,” he said. “I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases. I didn’t think we had the juice we had last week. We didn’t get as many hats to the ball on defense. We made mistakes over and over on offense. We made mistakes on special teams. I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t really see it coming. 

“It was almost like our team thought we won one game, ‘We’re good, we’re good.’ That’s not how it works in this league. It’s not how it works in life. It’s not how it works in football.”

Consider this question: how many times has this football team looked on Saturdays the way it was billed to look? That is, a high-powered offense boat-racing opponents off the field. The Big Ten was to adjust to Nebraska. The heavy-hitters in the league were to be running scared. 

No one is scared of this program. Nebraska was a two-touchdown home favorite in this game and trailed 31-10 at one point.

UCF scored 35 points or more 14 times in its first 26 games under Frost. Nebraska has done it seven times in 28 games. It’s averaging 20.8 points-per through four games, which would make it a bottom-30 offense in college football. 

When does that get figured out? That Frost keeps getting asked about whether he has faith in the direction the program is headed means the destination still seems too far off.

Illinois writers left Memorial Stadium Saturday joking about Nebraska meeting Penn State again during the Big Ten’s 7-vs-7 championship week matchup as the worst teams in the league. Is that where this program is at right now?  

Indiana, by the way, has now topped 35 points in four of its five games this season. The Hoosiers did it five times last year, too. 

Allen is a year ahead of Frost. He’s had more time, it’s true. After Saturday, does Nebraska look to be on the same upward trajectory? So much uncomfortable distance between a basketball school and a proud football school. 

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