Hail Varsity Mailbag
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

Mailbag: Diving Into Nebraska’s Season-Opening Loss to Illinois and More

September 01, 2021

It shouldn’t surprise too many that the Mailbag had a theme this week. After Nebraska’s loss to Illinois to open the season, that’s really what most people wanted to talk about.

The full Hail Varsity staff is here to look at the good, the bad and the mayo. It’ll make sense at the end.

The head coach faux pas admitting the Illinois schemes affected game plan has got to have every DC chomping at the bit to test this young OL with alignment and blitz packages. How do we adjust and prepare? (@Oblivio60072055) 

Mike Babcock: This is oversimplified, probably, but the first thing I’d say is an effective, well-prepared offense should force the defense to do the adjusting. You’re right, Frost probably shouldn’t have acknowledged half of the offensive preparation had to be scrapped. The preparation should’ve included a plan B. But I go back to my original statement. Get to a point at which the offense can impose its will and force the defense to adjust. That can require patience at the start. I haven’t seen a lot of that. 

Drake Keeler: I don’t have an actual answer to this, but this did remind me of why I have to sympathize with the offense here a bit. I was playing Madden against my friend once and he came out in a field goal block formation defensively (I was not kicking a field goal). I audibled, then somehow threw an interception. This is all to say I think it’d be funny if a defense now came out in a field goal block/punt return formation against Nebraska for a play, just to see what happens. 

Greg Smith: That’s going to be a big question moving forward this season. This isn’t the first time Frost or players admitted that they were caught off guard by what an opponent was doing. That means we know Big Ten coaches are capable of doing this again to Nebraska. That’s scary for potential success. 

Steve Marik: I’ll go back to what offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said during his media availability on Tuesday—call more plays that work against multiple fronts. These coaches have spent their entire lives learning and teaching the game of football—they know more than I ever will. But as someone who’s played high school football—and not very well—I know that there are ways to execute the same blocking concepts against different fronts. Lubick even told the media that Nebraska has those plays in the playbook, but once the game started getting away from the Huskers, more pass plays started to get called. So, how would I adjust? I’d call even more plays that are likely to work just fine if blocked and executed properly.  

Do you prefer an odd or even front? Do you do all of your prep work with only one front? (@harve_007) 

Steve: For me, I guess I prefer an odd three-down lineman front, but only because I see it so often nowadays in college football. I see it all the time—three linemen, three linebackers; two inside and a run-stopping outside ‘backer; and five defensive backs, with your slot defender being your more versatile player who can stick his nose in the run game on one play and cover a tight end or slot receiver on the next, basically what JoJo Domann does. Call it a 3-4 or a 3-3-5, I don’t care. But that’s what I personally like. It can give you the flexibility to hide where pressure is coming from. 

Erin Sorensen: No, you do not do all of your prep work for only one front. You need a contingency plan if your opponent trots out something you weren’t expecting. Nebraska did prepare for the potential of an even front against Illinois. Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said that while, yes, the Huskers did have to throw out some of the playbook, they did have a call sheet for an event front. The concern I have is that Nebraska only spent one day, per Scott Frost, practicing those contingency plans. “The guys knew what they were doing and were prepared but certainly some of the schematic things we hadn’t prepared for them and weren’t there because of what we got,” Frost said on Monday. That stood out to me more than anything else, especially when we’re talking about a new staff at Illinois and one where no one could be completely certain what the Illini were going to do. 

Is Nebraska truly bad at committing penalties or are they just bad at hiding their penalties? Illinois had two egregious penalties on big plays that were missed. Nelson got face masked on Epstein’s 40 yd run and an illegal formation on the game tying touchdown. (@Fitch3341) 

Mike: Nebraska has to control what it can control. I don’t think it’s a question of hiding. Mistakes are on the officials. Nothing can be done about that. But the Huskers can control what they do, and they continue to draw penalties in critical situations—or situations that turn out that way. 

Greg: Maybe Nebraska just has to get better at not committing the obvious penalties. 

Steve: Nebraska beat itself against Illinois. The refs had little to do with it.  

Scott Frost’s best season was year one with Mike Riley’s recruits and some of his sprinkled in. (Record wise not, but competitively it was). Is Adrian Martinez’s regression due to lack of talent or coaching? Both? He doesn’t step into throws = all of Saturday’s overthrows. But then that pass to Oliver was fire. (@TheTruthMJH) 

Mike: Adrian doesn’t lack talent. He does lack consistency in what he does, as you point out. I’d like to see more option plays (old school, yes). But I don’t think his strong suit is drop-back passing. 

Drake: I’m taking this question to mean the talent around him, and not his own talent. There’s likely more to his regression than this, but I’d argue that Adrian hasn’t had a receiving duo better than the Stanley Morgan Jr./JD Spielman combo in year one. The only argument would be Wan’Dale and JD the next year, but neither of them were the deep threat that Morgan was. I’m not sure Adrian has had anything close to the same downfield success since Stanley Morgan left, so that may play into his drop off. That being said, it seems this year’s group of pass-catchers is well-rounded enough that talent can’t be an excuse.  

Steve: You’re right. It does seem that Adrian has regressed. But I wouldn’t put the blame all on him. Some of his regression falls on his support staff, too, and that includes his head coach, Scott Frost, and his quarterbacks coach, Mario Verduzco. On the outside looking in, it doesn’t look like Adrian’s talent has been developed, and to me, you need to point the finger at the coaches that work with him the most. It doesn’t take a football rocket scientist to see that his receivers haven’t gotten much separation from their defenders in recent years. You can also see that, during the loss at Illinois, Martinez rarely set his feet on those misfires to receivers who DID get open. Why was that? It’s not because Adrian completely forgot all the quarterback training he’s learned his entire life, it’s because there was pressure in his face. Martinez was running for his life against the Illini and had little time to accurately throw passes because the offensive line in front of him struggled. Look, Martinez isn’t perfect. He knows that, you know that. But he needs help. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like he gets enough.  

I’ve heard mixed things on the wide receivers – either they couldn’t get open or they were open and Martinez missed them. How’d it look to someone who could see the whole field? (@nebraskaaaa) 

Jacob: I was not in Champaign. Erin and Steve are the only ones from our team that can answer from that perspective. But from what I was able to see on the television broadcast, there were some plays where Illinois covered everyone, some plays where receivers got open and Martinez missed them and some plays where the offensive line gave up pressure before receivers even had a chance to get open. That’s the problem with Nebraska’s passing attack right now: they’re not consistently winning in any phase. If one guy does his job, another does not and the whole thing falls apart. It seemed like Illinois crowded the line of scrimmage and played tight man-to-man in the back end, daring the Husker receivers to beat them one-on-one. They did it a few times, but not often enough to win the game, and the reason for that goes back to what I said above: shared blame. 

Steve: Jacob was spot on. I also touched on this for my answer to the question above this one. But what did I see in Champaign? I saw a defense that loaded the box with bodies and played man free coverage with one high safety most of the time. The Nebraska receivers couldn’t get separation from the Illini defensive backs. When the Huskers’ man-beating rub routes did work and freed up a receiver, Martinez didn’t have time to set his feet and accurately throw the football because the pressure was getting to him. Martinez isn’t perfect, we all know that, but against Illinois he was drifting on nearly every overthrow due to pressure. The Illinois’ defensive front had its way with the Husker offensive line. 

What is the average yard per route run by the WR? Seems downfield is the only route run. (@Hla17Louie) 

Jacob: They definitely had some shorter routes mixed in, but those aren’t as noticeable if the quarterback doesn’t throw the ball to those guys. For whatever reason, Martinez seems to struggle with getting the ball out of his hands quickly. I do find this question ironic though considering Nebraska didn’t even try to pass down the field almost at all last year. 

Have I missed the criticism of the QB coach that has seemed to fail in improving the play of the “cubes” or has it not existed? (@RandallKolman) 

Mike: Haven’t seen any criticism of Verduzco. He’s such an engaging guy, there probably hasn’t been any to miss. 

Jacob: What kind of criticism are you looking for? A columnist to write that he needs to be fired? I doubt you’ll see that happen. But I think plenty of people, whether it be fans or writers or radio hosts, are starting to wonder about a few assistants in particular where development progress seems to be slow to nonexistent. Quarterback is certainly one of them, though I will say that the head coach is very involved with what happens in that particular room so it’s not entirely on Verduzco. 

Greg: I do think that some of this has to do with having a head coach that is an offensive guy and a former quarterback himself. You know he is heavily involved with the quarterbacks, so any strong criticism of Verduzco also has to be a criticism of Frost.  

Steve: I touched on this in the fourth question and completely agree with Jacob and Greg. Martinez’s development hasn’t been there. You can rightly put blame on the kid himself, sure, but not all of it. Frost and Verduzco have played a part in this, too.  

Understandably frustrated, but are fans/media too impatient to let a program build? (@NebrasKen) 

Jolie Peal: At this point, I think fans and media are just pointing out that we shouldn’t be seeing the same mistakes anymore. We see improvements, yes, but we also continue to see the same mistakes. If you’re going to lose, it would be nice to be losing for new reasons while also seeing constant learning. However, I do think people tend to overreact a bit. We love the team because we love watching football and the community we get from it. There is nothing like Husker Nation, both good and bad, and that’s why we all watch. 

MB: Agree with Jolie. It’s the same old story, or “movie” to use Frost’s word. Four years in, that’s not impatience, but rather reasonable expectations. No one is calling for national titles, just progress, better execution, correcting problems, consistency . . .  

Jacob: Jolie nailed it with the first half of her answer. Fans and media can be patient if they’re given a reason to be so. The problem is the current staff doesn’t seem to be providing a reason based on that Illinois game. The team is still making the same mistakes over and over again in year four. At this point, Frost has already built his program. Sixty-four members of the 74-player travel roster last week were players this staff recruited and 30 of them are in their third or fourth year in the program. If they don’t start to show they know how to fix the problems, why should we believe it will be any different in a year or two? They’re going to have a hard time recruiting if things continue along this path as well.  

Steve: All great points from Jolie, MB and Jacob. In the fourth year, you’d like to see positive momentum. Is there any right now? 

When will the pain end? (@gus_kathol) 

Jolie: When dogs, cats and other animals are the only photos allowed on the internet. 

Jacob: I don’t really have an answer, but reading Jolie’s made me chuckle. I hope it did the same for you and at least distracted you from the pain momentarily.  

Steve: I second Jolie’s motion.  

Gary Pepin has been such a fixture as the long time Nebraska track coach. What do you think he was be remembered for when he retires? (@dmhusker1) 

Mike: Pepin is an outstanding coach. Outstanding. His teams, men and women, include student-athletes from all over, and not just the USA, and his coaching of those men and women has produced consistent success. Track and field competition doesn’t draw the numbers of fans as football, volleyball or basketball. As a result, Pepin doesn’t draw the attention he deserves for a long, successful career. 

Do you think we will have a female head coach in any male Husker sport in the next 20 years and if so, which sport is the most likely to have a female head coach? (@dmhusker1) 

Mike: In the next 20 years? I’d say a female head coach in track and field, possibly, working as Gary Pepin has, with both men and women. 

Drake: Track and field is a good choice, and possibly the best one. My dark horse pick would be men’s basketball, although I like Fred Hoiberg and I’m sure Nebraska would like to keep him around. There are a lot of good female head coaching candidates in all levels of men’s basketball currently, and who knows, perhaps Shannan Lum could be another one.  

Steve: In the next 20 years? Yeah, I think so. Not sure on which sport, though. Track and field is a solid pick.  

Erin: Yes, I think so. We need to see more women coaching men’s sports in general, though, and that’ll be a step. Drake’s mention of Lum is important, because she was a big hire for Hoiberg. She is not only going to shatter some glass ceilings in her role, but she’s dang good at what she does (and that’s being recognized). The more we open up the pool of candidates, the better coaches we get. I’d love to see football have a woman on the coaching staff soon too. You asked about head coaches however, so I’d say track and field feels like the answer for now. Maybe men’s golf too. 

Do you like mayo? (@DukesMayoBowl) 

Jolie: I put mayo on my lunch sandwiches. However, I used to not, so I would say I have developed a love for mayo since my youth. 

Mike: In moderation, with encouragement from my wife, who is a huge fan of mayo. Goes well with BLTs of course. In other situations, I’d likely pick mustard.  

Drake: Unfortunately, no. That being said, I do own this very funny Duke’s Mayo Bowl shirt, so hopefully that makes it up to you.   

Jacob: Funny thing: I grew up with Miracle Whip in the house because that’s what my mom always bought. I actually think I like regular mayo better, but I still buy Miracle Whip for whatever reason. Regardless, I need one of the two on my sandwich. I like mustard on my burgers and hot dogs, but not my deli sandwiches (or really anything else). 

Greg: I do like mayo. I had it on my sandwich yesterday. I also like it on my burgers but just enough to know it’s there.  

Steve: Of course. Works great with my near-daily salami-ham sandwich. 

Erin: Yes, and I especially love the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (not sponsored). 

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