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This Nebraska is No Longer Scared of Ohio State
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Road Back Might Not Be As Long As We Originally Thought

November 05, 2018

Let’s do a little exercise. Most within the Husker walls suggest Nebraska’s season turned a corner after the Purdue game, and after the Northwestern game this team really became something different. Nebraska was purging all the bad things about what it had been and that purge wasn’t really complete until, what, Week 6?

Since the Purdue loss, Nebraska is: averaging 515 yards of total offense, averaging 6.98 yards per play, averaging 6.46 yards per run, getting 334.8 yards of total offense from quarterback Adrian Martinez each game, averaging 36.8 points and winning the turnover battle while averaging two takeaways a game.

Nebraska would rank 10th in total offense, ninth in yards per play, fourth in rushing yards per play, seventh in total offense from one player (ahead of McKenzie Milton), 27th in scoring offense and 16th in takeaways per game. As the last two ranks would suggest, that’s not confined to Big Ten teams, that’s national.

Since “the turning point,” Nebraska has been a completely different team on the offensive side of the ball. (The defense is still a work in progress but the plan for this defense isn’t for it to be a shutdown unit, it’s to be one that gets opportune stops and creates turnovers. They’ve been better at that over the last five weeks.)

One of the Huskers’ three losses since Purdue has carried a positive postgame win probability (Northwestern, because duh) after two of the first three had positive expectancies. Let’s just play the hypothetical game and say Nebraska gets wins for those three games. Instead of 2-7, Nebraska is 5-4 with wins in games it was supposed to win and losses in games it was supposed to lose.

A winning season so far, competitive games on the road against Wisconsin and Ohio State in year one and an offense that ranks among the best in the country over the last five weeks. The only thing we’ve done is change the number in the win-loss column. What would the perception of this team be?

What would the ceiling be heading into year two?

During the Ohio State game, I saw a tweet come across my timeline from CBS Sports’ Danny Kannell: “Nebraska is going to compete for Big Ten titles soon. Like next year.”

That’s what we’re getting close to. And no one outside of those Husker walls would have realistically thought they’d be saying the same just nine games into Scott Frost’s tenure. Not before the season started and especially not while Nebraska was getting its teeth kicked in by Michigan in Frost’s first conference game.

This offense becoming this good this fast was not expected. UCF in year one was 113th in total offense, 123rd in yards per play, 114th in rushing yards per play and 66th in scoring offense. Even if we zoom out and factor Nebraska’s first four games into the equation, the Huskers’ year one offense is besting UCF’s in every category.

“It really comes down to belief,” Martinez said after Saturday’s loss. “This team has really come to believe what coaches are telling them and their own abilities. We know we can compete with anyone and that includes Ohio State.

“This thing is taking off. Obviously, we need more wins. It’s hard to be optimistic at 2-7 but I know where this thing can get. I know the team believes where we can get. We are going to have to keep pushing.”

If that 2-7 number wasn’t a thing, Ohio State wouldn’t have walked into Saturday’s game expecting a beatdown, it would have been prepared for the 36-31 fight it ended up getting.

That one number is skewing perception. To be fair, that one number is all that really matters at the end of the day, but in talking about what kind of football team Nebraska is now and where it’s heading, that number can be like a blinder.

Next season, Martinez will be another year older with a full season’s worth of Big Ten experience. That “bonehead” fumble (Frost’s words) in the first half against the Buckeyes won’t happen. Wideout JD Spielman will be a junior and within reach of Nebraska’s career receiving records. Running back Maurice Washington will have had a full offseason in strength coach Zach Duval’s lab. Back-to-back top 25 recruiting classes will have come to Lincoln.

Watching Nebraska move the ball up and down the field against a school with two College Football Playoff appearances in the last four years got me thinking about athletic director Bill Moos’ quote from the summer.

“You’ve got Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh thinking, ‘We better put a little more into that Nebraska game coming up,’” he said in April. “And that’s the way we want it. They’re running a little bit scared right now. And they won’t admit it. We’ll leave that at that.”

Were either scared about Nebraska this season? No. Michigan wasn’t even close. Moos has gotten a ton of flak because of it. But what about right now? No one within the Buckeye football program will ever publicly admit Moos might be right, but you won’t convince me Urban Meyer, with his front row seat to that offense, wasn’t thinking “Damn, these guys are going to be a problem soon” at any point Saturday.

He even said as much after the game.

“I get that that was a two-win team, but that's a two-win team that people don't want to play right now. On videotape, I wasn't expecting to see what I saw,” Meyer said. “You watch the beginning of the game, that's going to be a hell of a team down the road now.”

That road just might not be as long as anyone originally thought.

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