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Nebraska Shows Progress Once Again
Photo Credit: Paul Bellinger

Nebraska Shows Progress Once Again, but Consistency Still Needed

October 15, 2018

Another week, another loss. That being said, the Huskers continue to show progress in a lot of ways — short of actually finishing off games. Let’s dive into some of the positives from Nebraska's 34-31 overtime loss at Northwestern.

Let’s start on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher had been getting sick of seeing pass break-ups, and on Saturday, Nebraska finally turned a couple of those into interceptions.

The Huskers got their hands on seven of Clayton Thorson’s passes, breaking up five of them and picking off two. The first came early in the third quarter. On first-and-10 from the Nebraska 41-yard line, Thorson dropped back and took a shot deep down the middle. It didn’t go well.

Thorson got plenty of protection then heaved it up for wide receiver Berkely Holman. Safety Aaron Williams, who had a rough day overall, was right on Holman’s hip as it was but the real trouble for Thorson came when deep safety Antonio Reed shifted over. Thomson apparently never saw him and compounded that mistake by under throwing the ball.

Unlike cornerback Lamar Jackson (who had arguably the best game of his career) who got his fingers on a pass over his head but couldn’t pull it in, Reed snatched the ball out of the air for a nice interception. He had to leave his feet to make the grab and landed on his back at the 3-yard line, so there wasn’t a return, but it was a really nice play by the senior.

Even better, Nebraska took advantage of the turnover to put points on the board, ripping off a 15-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to take a 20-14 lead.

The second play came early in the fourth quarter, and this one was aided by the kind of luck that the Huskers simply hadn’t gotten all season.

With Nebraska clinging to a 28-21 lead with less than 10 minutes to play, Northwestern lined up at its own 45-yard line on first and 10 with three receivers to the right and one to the left. 

Slot receiver Flynn Nagel, who was having a monster game, ran a 10-yard hook route, running to the sticks then turning back towards the passer. Linebacker Dedrick Young was in coverage on Nagel (not a great match-up for Nebraska), but safety Tre Neal was right there as well.

Thorson’s pass was off-target and Nagel wasn’t able to haul it in, though he did get a hand on it which deflected it off Young and right into Neal’s hands. Neal caught it in stride and sprinted 14 yards back the other way before a receiver tracked him down and tackled him at the Northwestern 36-yard line.

Starting with great field position, Nebraska moved into the red zone but didn’t get much farther and had to settle for a short field goal which Barret Pickering banged through to put the Huskers up by 10.

On the other side of the ball, one thing I liked about what Nebraska did was the tempo and the play combinations they were able to string together. When Nebraska had early down success, it got into a rhythm and ripped off some big plays back-to-back.

Let’s start with the first drive of the game, the first time Nebraska has managed to score on its opening possession. A false start (because of course) backed the Huskers up before they even began, but a short completion to Kade Warner set the Huskers up with second-and-10 and Scott Frost kept the ball on the ground with senior Devine Ozigbo.

Nebraska lined up in its preferred 11-personnel with two receivers to the left, a receiver and a tight end to the right and Ozigbo next to Martinez in the backfield. 

On the snap, left tackle Brenden Jaimes pulled all the way over and threw a key block on the right edge, allowing Ozigbo to get to the outside and turn the corner. He cut it up field with Warner throwing a block then showed his speed, cutting back across the field toward the Northwestern logo at midfield. Safety JR Price over-ran the play and made an unsuccessful line at Ozigbo’s feet. Cornerback Montre Hartage managed to grab onto Ozigbo’s leg from the other side but the big back kept moving forward until linebacker Chris Bergin fell on him. The play went for 33 yards.

The Wildcats stuffed Ozigbo at the line on the next play, but Nebraska didn’t slow down one bit. On second-and-10 from the 42-yard line, this time Frost put the ball in Adrian Martinez’s hands. As the freshman quarterback dropped back, receiver JD Spielman ran a slant over the middle of the field from the right slot. 

Northwestern was playing zone and Spielman ran right behind a pair of linebackers and the safety, Price again, was too far behind to pick him up. Martinez hit him in stride and Spielman turned on the afterburners, sprinting right past Price (who ended up on the turf again with another unsuccessful dive) while receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. occupied the cornerback just long enough for Spielman to squeeze through and walk into the end zone untouched.

Just like that, Nebraska was up 7-0.

Nebraska’s next drive covered a decent amount of ground but ended in a missed field goal from 45 yards out, and the next few possessions after that were all short as the Huskers struggled to move the ball. A fumble by Martinez that led to a scoop-and-score for Northwestern put the Wildcats up 14-7 late in the half.

The Huskers needed a good drive to keep things from getting out of control, and that’s exactly what Martinez and company produced. The Huskers mixed in runs with short and intermediate passes — we heard Mike Williams name for the first time since the season opener — and they moved the ball right down the field. 

A 5-yard pass to Spielman set the Huskers up with a second-and-5 from the 30-yard line with just over a minute to play in the first half. Nebraska tried to take a shot down field, but Martinez didn’t like any of his options and hit his check-down man, Ozigbo, in the right flat. He caught it a yard past the line of scrimmage with no one around him, then made star linebacker Paddy Fisher look silly with a slight fake inside then a cut up the sideline. 

Spielman made a nice block downfield and Ozigbo ran by a second would-be tackler for a couple extra yards before the Wildcats got him on the ground. After a gain of 18, the Huskers got right back to the line and snapped it again with just seven seconds running off the clock (not including the time it took to move the chains).

Nebraska spread things out and Northwestern responded with just four men at the line of scrimmage and one linebacker in the middle of the field. The linebacker rushed off the right side as Martinez handed off to Ozigbo. Center Tanner Farmer sealed his man to the left while right guard Boe Wilson teamed up with right tackle Matt Farniok team up to wash the defensive tackle out of the play, creating a giant gap for Ozigbo right up the gut.

Price was late to the play again and Ozigbo jogged into the end zone Pickering missed the extra point so the Huskers headed into the locker room down 14-13 at halftime.

Nebraska looked a little bit more like the team that Frost and Chinander want on both sides of the ball against Northwestern. The next step to is to make those flashes more the norm than highlights, and when that happens, the wins will follow.

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