The Huskers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) opened conference play with a massive 42-38 come-from-behind win over Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) on the road Saturday night. As is the case each week, here are a number of random, unrelated thoughts about the game and the week that was, packaged as a Monday column, presented to you wonderful readers on a Sunday.
Welcome to the Party
Second-half Martinez is what everyone has been anxiously, desperately and in most cases not-so-patiently waiting for.
But raise your hand if you thought about Noah Vedral during halftime Saturday night.
It’s OK. You’re either in the comfort of a home or personal space or no one around you is going to know what exactly you’re doing. Be honest with yourself for a moment. That crowd was there. Nebraska had 14 points after 30 minutes against a team that had, just a week earlier, lost to Eastern Michigan at home.
The sophomore quarterback was 11-for-21 for 167 yards and two scores. But he had seven runs for 19 yards and a handful of major misses through the air. The offense he was leading totaled 314 yards at half. But Nebraska had just two scores in nearly 17 minutes worth of possession and two turnovers. It was once again a horrible slog to try and put points on the board.
Martinez was a Heisman darkhorse to begin the season after Freshman All-American honors in 2018. What we had seen through three-and-a-half games was someone who honestly looked stuck in the mud.
The confident, decisive runner of 2018 was averaging 2.7 yards per carry on 50 attempts at halftime.
He’s slower after another offseason of bulking up. He’s failing to identify coverage adjustments after the snap. He’s not making the correct reads in the RPO game. He’s not taking off when he needs to. His center isn’t helping him. His wide receivers aren’t helping him. His offensive line isn’t protecting him.
He’s not angry enough.
He’s too nice.
This has been a month of shots across the bow at a guy deemed the savior. At halftime, we were trending toward uncharted water. Even though things looked fine on paper, they looked uninspired between the lines on the field. The kid has all the talent in the world, but did he need a kick in the butt to jolt something in him?
Certainly wouldn’t be the first time a Nebraska coach benched his star quarterback for a brief moment to send a message.
“I don’t read too much but I hear the whispers that he’s tentative and not playing well,” Frost said after the game. “Those people won’t be saying that after the way he played tonight.”
Not even whispers.
Those whispers seem foolish now.
After a three-and-out on the first drive of the second half, Martinez was nothing short of spectacular. He led scoring drives of seven plays and 75 yards in 1:35, nine plays and 75 yards in 3:29, six plays and 64 yards in 1:35, and 11 plays and 75 yards in 4:08.
The Huskers could have and should have gotten points on each of their last four possessions before the three kneel-downs to end the game. A false start/doinked field goal (sorry Bears fans) sequence with two minutes left made a 10-play, 75-yard, 4:35 drive come up empty, but you cannot put that at the feet of the quarterback. It was 38-35 Illinois early in the fourth quarter before Nebraska controlled the ball for nine-and-a-half of the final 12 minutes of the game.
This Frost Fast outfit successfully executed a four-minute offense twice. Nebraska controlled the ball because its quarterback controlled the game.
He was one shy of 100 yards rushing in just the second half.
…But the guy we’ve been waiting for all season. Martinez now leads the Big Ten in passing. He leads the Big Ten in total offense. No other Big Ten quarterback has more rushing yards than him, and only one is doing it at a better per-carry clip. He’s second in the conference in 10-plus-yard runs — only behind Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor — and first in 20-plus-yard passes.
“Can he still get better? Yeah. Can I get better? Yeah. Can the team? Yeah,” Frost said. “The kid is a winner and a great player and he’ll continue to be.”
Redshirt freshman center Cameron Jurgens’ snapping problem popped up again against the Illini. The snaps literally started popping up again. (Bad joke, had to do it.)
So for this to be the game Nebraska breaks out a little direct-snap-to-the-running-back wrinkle — and do it twice! — is something of a statement from Frost and I’m all the way here for it.
If this is something of a gadget play Nebraska can play with at any sort of frequency game-to-game, I’m all for it. Frost’s displaying an incredible amount of confidence in Jurgens, in Maurice Washington and in the rest of the Husker offensive line. Even if the play doesn’t work, I love the willingness to roll the dice with it.
A Random Quote that Probably Means a Lot
JoJo Domann, Nebraska’s junior outside linebacker/nickel is one of the best people on the team to talk to. He’s thoughtful, he’s engaging, he’s energetic. He gave this quote after the game Saturday night that I don’t really know how to fit in anywhere, but it needs to be shared because I think it says a lot.
“I’ve felt this way for a long time,” he started. “I think we’ve got a lot of leaders on our team. We only get four captains, but we’ve got a lot of leaders. We’ve got a lot of guys that have a lot of respect for other guys. When you have that, and you’re able to really have that bond and you’re able to trust each other out on that field, it’s going to free you up to make plays.”
I asked inside linebacker Mohamed Barry exactly what it meant when he or other Blackshirts echo defensive coordinator Erik Chinander in saying “Put out the fire.” He said it’s about snuffing momentum. If the offense needs the ball back, or just turned it over, it’s the defense’s job to have the offense’s back.
The offense put up 690 yards and talked about needing to be better to the defense. Wyatt Mazour said they were upset about the turnovers putting the defense on the field in tough spots.
If it wasn’t evident by the way the Huskers’ closed out Illinois, it’s clear in talking to the players themselves. Frost stressed building a strong foundation when he took over; I don’t think there are any cracks in it.
In the first quarter, after a 22-yard pickup on a connection from Adrian Martinez to Wan’Dale Robinson, the Husker quarterback bungled a read-option play and lost control of the football at the mesh point. A Nebraska turnover. It would go down as the first of several on the evening.
On the video board inside Champaign’s Memorial Stadium, the Illini trolled Nebraska with a video of Kevin Malone from NBC’s “The Office” dropping a pot of chili all over the office carpet. If you watch The Office, you know what Malone says here. (If you don’t, you need to re-evaluate your life choices.) “It’s probably the thing I do best,” Malone says as he uses paper trays to scoop the chili he spent all of the previous night preparing back into the pot.
Felt a little too on the nose.
Nebraska’s offense is the thing it’s supposed to do best. But the Huskers fumbled the ball three more times after that first one. Four total. It made 13 on the season, of which the Huskers have lost nine. Only Michigan has put the ball on the ground more, and Michigan’s company is not one you want to keep right now.
“Coach [Tom] Osborne is up at the university all the time talking about turnovers and ball security drills,” Scott Frost said after the game. “We do them and we tell them. We try to do the same things he did but we can’t spot teams advantages like that.”
Illinois scored 21 points off four Husker turnovers. Nebraska lost the field position battle, Nebraska lost the turnover battle and it was outdone on the ground (by yards per carry). How it left Champaign with a 42-38 win is, from a statistical probability standpoint, an anomaly.
After finishing just behind Georgia Tech’s triple-option (RIP) leader TaQuon Marshall for the FBS lead in fumbles last season (12, one off), Martinez is currently in a three-way tie for the lead this season. He’s got five.
Frost was asked about it after the Colorado game and said he didn’t want to make something out of nothing. It was nothing to him then. It probably will be something to him this week. Martinez wasn’t the only guy who lost a fumble, running back Dedrick Mills did, too, but this is officially once again an issue for this program.
Saturday marked the seventh time since 2000 the Huskers have lost four fumbles in a single game.
Rutgers has five such games in that span, and most of them came when the Scarlet Knights were participating in 80-7 losses (an actual score. . . unreal). Indiana and Illinois each have three. No other current Big Ten member has more than two.
The Huskers are 2-5 in such games, everyone else is a combined 9-20. Again, this one was a real testament to the value of intangibles and cliches because statistically Nebraska should have lost.
Fumbles are mostly random, but to Nebraska they’re a persistent pest. That they’re as big an issue as they have been these last two seasons considering how much the Huskers work on ball security drills in practice is even more random. Someone needs to start holding onto the football, and that’s about all I have in the name of solutions to the problem. But this isn’t really about giving a solution, just pointing out fumblitis is now (once again) a problem.
Law of averages says Nebraska probably isn’t going to win another game with those kinds of turnover numbers.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.