Last year against Northwestern, Wan’Dale Robinson went off for 167 yards from scrimmage, catching seven passes for a career-high 123 yards and carrying the ball seven times for 44 yards and a touchdown in a win.
On Saturday, Robinson caught four passes for 32 yards, didn’t log a carry and didn’t find the end zone against the Wildcats as the Huskers scored just 13 points in a loss. Through two games this season, the dynamic sophomore has totaled just 81 yards on 10 touches.
Robinson actually received more targets against Northwestern than he did in week one against Ohio State when he hauled in all six of his targets for 49 yards. Against the Wildcats, he drew eight targets but only caught four of them.
How did Nebraska try (and mostly fail) to get Robinson involved? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.
Robinson got his first touch on the third play of the game. He initially lined up alongside Dedrick Mills in a split backfield around Adrian Martinez. He motioned from the left side out towards the right hash marks.
Martinez faked the handoff to Mills then looked towards Robinson with a couple blockers out in front of him. Strong side linebacker Chris Bergin followed Robinson’s motion out wide. Wide receiver Kade Warner worked his way downfield looking to block the outside corner while Allen briefly chipped Bergin before continuing forward to block the safety.
Martinez got the ball to Robinson about 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but Bergin and middle linebacker Paddy Fisher both rallied to the ball as Robinson ran forward.
Robinson didn’t have much space to work with but made a solid gain on first down, falling forward for 5 yards.
Robinson’s second target later on that drive also came on a play where he started in the backfield, though this time it was a single-back look with Dedrick Mills off the field. On third and 18, Robinson ran a short 4-yard sit-down route and Martinez apparently didn’t see anybody open downfield so he hit Robinson on a check-down. Linebacker Paddy Fisher and cornerback Cameron Ruiz tackled him immediately, forcing a punt.
Robinson’s next target came two drives later. On third and 13, Robinson started in the backfield but motioned out wide to the left behind two receivers and a tight end as Nebraska looked to run a screen pass. Northwestern’s defense didn’t really react much to the motion, and Nebraska ended up with good numbers as it left three blockers for three defenders. If Martinez hits him in stride, Robinson has a chance for a nice gain as the nearest unblocked defenders was Fisher. Instead, well… take a look.
Martinez certainly wants that one back. Despite Robinson’s best effort, the ball sailed past him and into the turf, leading to a Nebraska punt.
Nebraska tried to run another screen with Robinson on its next possession, and once again the numbers looked pretty good for the Huskers. Unfortunately, left defensive end Earnest Brown IV got past right tackle Bryce Benhart and managed to get his hand up in time to knock the ball out of the air.
Ideally, Benhart would have made it a little tougher for Brown to get in the way, but regardless Martinez needs to do a better job of getting that pass where it needed to go.
Robinson didn’t see the ball come his way again until just before halftime. On second and 2 with the clock running down, the offensive line gave Martinez plenty of time to stand in the pocket and look for an open receiver. Robinson worked his way up the seam then found a soft spot in the defense near midfield. Martinez eventually found him and tried to hit him, but the pass skipped off the turf before it got to him.
A good pass would have stopped the clock to move the chains and given the Huskers a chance to get in striking range before halftime, but Robinson didn’t have a chance.
Though he was on the field for all but a few snaps, that was the last we saw of him until Nebraska’s final drive. Trailing 21-13 with just over two minutes to play, Nebraska had one last chance to tie it up. Luke McCaffrey had replaced Martinez at quarterback late in the third quarter. On the first play of the drive, Nebraska lined up with Robinson in the slot flanked by Austin Allen to his left and Marcus Fleming to his right.
Allen ran a 15-yard sit-down route while Fleming stretch the field up the sideline. Robinson ran a corner route.
The route combination left Robinson wide open heading toward the sideline and McCaffrey hit him.
Robinson caught the ball, turned around and picked up a couple more yards before Ruiz forced him out of bounds, stopping the clock.
Robinson picked up 14 yards on the play.
Nebraska continued to move the ball down the field but the offense stalled out once the Huskers crossed into the red zone (the theme of the game). On fourth and 4 with 7 seconds left, the game came down to one last play. Robinson lined up in the slot, between Allen and Zavier Betts.
McCaffrey left the pocket, buying his receivers time. Allen worked across the field, taking his defender with him. Betts stuck in the left corner. Robinson ran a deep dig, cutting towards the middle of the field once he reached the end zone. Robinson was open, but safety Brandon Joseph (16) was in the area and McCaffrey decided against pulling the trigger.
McCaffrey moved further to his left then loaded up to let the ball fly. Robinson realized McCaffrey was trying to get the ball to him, so he started working back towards the outside away from the safety help.
Robinson gave his best effort, but McCaffrey’s pass was too off-target for him to catch.
Had McCaffrey put the ball on Robins’s body, he had a chance to make the play or draw a flag as the corner was behind him.
Instead, game over.
So, to review, Nebraska tried to get Robinson the ball a handful of different ways. Three of his targets were screen plays, three were more than 10 yards downfield, one was an intermediate pass and the eighth was a check down. Robinson only caught four of those passes, but the four incompletions certainly weren’t on him. Robinson’s final state line would have looked a lot different had the quarterbacks completed a few more of those passes. That being said, he also went nearly a full half without a target, which simply cannot happen.
“We need Wan’Dale to be a bigger part of the game plan, so we’re going to do what we need to,” Scott Frost said on Monday. “We’ve had a lot of plays designed for him the first couple weeks and it hasn’t panned out, so we need to do a better job of that. He’s playing a spot at slot where pretty much everybody that I’ve had in my offense that I’ve coached has good numbers to big numbers, and it just hasn’t happened the first two weeks. But that spot, that’s kind of the focus of our offense that slot position a lot, and I think it’s just a matter of time that the ball finds him in our normal offense and we’ll design whatever else we need to to make sure that he’s a part of what we’re doing.”
After logging 88 carries from the backfield in addition to 40 receptions as a freshman, Robinson hasn’t run the ball one time this season. The shift was made in part to help keep Robinson healthy, but Nebraska is still using Robinson in the Duck-R role. I counted nine snaps where Robinson started a play in the backfield against Northwestern, but he was used either as a decoy or a receiving option on all of those plays. One thing I’ll be watching is if Nebraska eventually does give him a carry here and there to keep defenses honest – and to get him more touches.
However the coaches decide to do it, the Huskers are going to have a tough time getting the offense going unless they find a way to get their most dynamic receiver more involved.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.