Midterm Report Cards: Nebraska's Disjointed Offense
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska is Erratic, Northwestern is Steady; the Huskers Want to be More Like the Latter

November 03, 2020

It was almost remarkable to hear Scott Frost retell it. Like it was just yesterday.

A lot of the details were still right there, fresh in his mind. The penalties; Nebraska was flagged eight times for 89 yards and Northwestern was flagged just once for 5 yards. (Frost said 90, but he was, for all intents and purposes, right on the money.) The turnover disparity. The yard-line that Northwestern began its final possession from and the penalty that aided that drive toward the end zone. Then the bungles in overtime that sealed NU’s fate.

Nebraska’s sixth loss of the 2018 season, a 34-31 overtime defeat on the road against Northwestern, might still sting for the Husker head coach.

Nebraska has let games get away in Frost’s first two years, but few have looked quite like that. Nebraska had a 10-point lead with 5:41 to play, and the end of a five-game losing streak to open Frost’s first year back was in sight. Northwestern yanked it all away in excruciating fashion.

“They’ll keep themselves in the game as long as they can and wait for you to mess up,” said senior corner Dicaprio Bootle.

Bootle was on the field for that 99-yard overtime-forcing drive, a drive in which the secondary was repeatedly burned by Wildcat wideout Flynn Nagel. That was the last time Nebraska was in Evanston.

When the Huskers return on Saturday for an 11 a.m. CT kick, Nebraska will be sitting exactly 350 days removed from its last win on a football field.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has had a hand in that, to be fair. Nebraska has played only one game during this 2020 season and it won’t have its home-opener until Nov. 14.

But hearing that it’s been nearly a calendar year between victories might make Frost cringe as much as the roughing the passer penalty NU was flagged for with Northwestern snapping the ball from its 1-yard-line.

That’s not the program he wants to be responsible for and that’s not the program the players want to build.

Interestingly, that program looks a little similar to the one Pat Fitzgerald has at Northwestern, at least from a discipline standpoint.

(Forgive the quote-stacking that’s about to occur, but it’s done for a reason.)

“They’re going to fight to the end and they’re just sound in just about every phase of the game,” said sophomore wideout Wan’Dale Robinson. “They don’t really make a lot of mistakes. They don’t really want to beat themselves.”

“Something you can, of course, expect out of Northwestern, they’re going to be a tough, hard-nosed football team who’s really not going to make a ton of mistakes,” said junior quarterback Adrian Martinez.

“Every time I played them here, I’ve been a part of nothing but close games. I think it’s been two overtime games and one that went down to the wire last year.  So, this being my fourth one, you know if it’s like that (again), I wouldn’t expect anything different,” said Bootle. “I know they are a tough, physical team that is very sound. They’re a very smart team and won’t beat themselves.”

“They’re always going to be a smart, physical, disciplined team on both sides of the ball,” said Frost. He, too, used the phrase “not going to beat themselves.”

If there’s one thing that gets said every week year after year about Fitzgerald’s group of Wildcats, it’s that.

They’re going to play sound.

They’re going to limit their mistakes.

And they’re not going to take themselves out of the game.

Every year since 2011 Northwestern has been among the 35 least penalized teams in college football. In 2018, the Cats averaged the fewest flags a game. In 2016, they tied for third. In 2015, they tied for 10th. In 2013, the tied for 12th. That’s remarkable consistency.

Meanwhile, Nebraska has played the same number of games as Northwestern between 2011 and 2019, and yet the Huskers have committed 215 more penalties. The difference comes out to about two a game.

Nebraska was flagged 92 times in 2018. At one point during the season, Frost called that bunch the most undisciplined group in football.

Two years later, Nebraska isn’t that, but it’s still not where it needs to be. The phrase “shot itself in the foot” is still used too often.

That manifests itself in the turnover department, where Nebraska has had a giveaway in six straight games and 23 of Frost’s 25 games as head coach.

Martinez had one on Nebraska’s first drive of the second half against Ohio State, a fumble that was scooped up by the Buckeyes and run back for a touchdown. The score capped a stretch of 9:23 of game clock during which Ohio State turned a 17-14 advantage into a 38-14 gulf.

“I don’t want to say it put us out of the game, but my fumble was definitely a big moment and it can’t happen,” Martinez said. “I’ve had trouble in the past with turnovers and it’s something that we have to limit in order for us to be a good football team.”

Northwestern, seemingly right on queue, has taken the ball away seven times in its first two games.

“They do a good job of having 11 sets of eyes on the football at all times,” Frost said. “You don’t see guys with their backs to the ball. In the Iowa game, they had a couple of tipped picks. That happens when a lot of guys are watching the football, and a lot of guys are rallying to where they need to, they are pursuing well.

“They are going to create turnovers but they capitalize on a lot because of how disciplined they are and how good they are with their eyes and their effort.”

Sounds an awful lot like what defensive coordinator Erik Chinander preaches. The packaging is obviously very different, but the guts are similar. Do your job. Play fundamental ball. Be in a position to win when the chips are down.

“To win in this league, you’ve got to block, you’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to get open, you’ve got to cover, and you’ve got to play smart,” Frost said. “The margin of error in this league… there’s too many good teams, so the margin of error is really thin.

“I feel like for two years we’ve found ways to not win. Even two years ago up in Northwestern, I think it was 90 yards to 5 yards in penalties, and we lost turnover battles, and had a 15-yard penalty on the last drive where we pinned them on the 1. They go down to score, and we get to overtime and we get another penalty and then snap the ball through our quarterback’s… We’ve just found ways to not win. You can’t do that against a good team like Northwestern, a team that’s not going to beat themselves. I think from a maturity standpoint, our kids have turned a corner. I think they are doing fundamental things better, but we’ve got a win a game sometime and get confidence and build on that.”

May not be a more perfect place to do that than Evanston.

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