Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

On Perception, Nebraska’s Final Four Games, and Things that Can Inspire Confidence

October 24, 2021

Bye weeks tend to always come at the perfect time. You need the break, physically and mentally. You can recharge or heal up. The coaching staff can get out and recruit a little, or just spend a weekend smiling instead of stressing—and everyone deserves that. The fanbase gets to enjoy a weekend without a mental breakdown, unless of course you’re chosen to hitch your professional wagon to the Denver Broncos, in which case there is no reprieve from this hell. 

Nebraska needed a week off. Nothing wrong with admitting that, I think. And nothing wrong with acknowledging that it really looked like it a week ago. Now, if the Huskers come out and sleepwalk through the first half of their game after the bye week, something is wrong. We’re not there yet though. 

These Huskers ran an eight-week marathon to open the year. It stormed, the concrete path was cracked and uneven, there was lots of discomfort. Nebraska’s Power Five opponents (so, excluding the two gimmes against Fordham and Buffalo) to open the season currently hold a combined record of 33-11. They have a winning record against the AP Top 25 (3-2). And, yes, that includes the records of Illinois and Northwestern. Nebraska has played good football teams. 

The perception of Minnesota is that it’s not that—a good football team. 

I don’t know if that’s because the people who have called Nebraska’s loss to the Gophers a week ago inexcusable are firm disbelievers in PJ Fleck’s coaching ability, looking at things less-than-objectively, or something else. But it was widely viewed as an “inexcusable” loss the Huskers suffered a week ago on the road to a Gophers team with an extra week to prepare. 

To call it inexcusable would imply that Nebraska was a markedly better team than Minnesota, or that Minnesota is hot garbage. Neither is true. Looking at SP+, the Gophers ranked 23rd in the country. Nebraska ranks 20th. Using that model, the point spread for a game on a neutral field would have Nebraska favored by 0.1 points. Inexcusable..?

Minnesota followed up a seven-point win over Nebraska with a second-half hammering of Maryland. The record now stands at 5-2. This has been a strange season in that people are out on unbeatens like the Michigan schools and Oklahoma for not measuring up to an arbitrary eye test and calling Nebraska “the best four-loss team in the country.” We play to win the games. Nebraska continues to prove it’s not an easy task. A four-point loss to Bowling Green has swung perception of Fleck’s Gophers in an interesting way. 

Make no mistake, Nebraska needed to beat Minnesota insomuch as it would have made everything easier. Trev Alberts knew it. Scott Frost knew it. Adrian Martinez knew it. Steve in Columbus knew it. Not doing so means NU needs three wins against the foursome of Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa to reach the minimum threshold for bowl eligibility.

Given Frost’s record against those four teams in his tenure (you can look that up, it’s no bueno), it seems the most likely scenario is that Nebraska won’t go to a bowl game for the fifth season in a row. 

(What a development. Knowing what they know now, do you think the 2020 Huskers would have made a different decision regarding a bowl game last season? That’s a fun thought experiment in perception. The streak of bowl-less seasons is going to be brought up in every piece referencing Frost’s name for the foreseeable future.)

So perception becomes Frost’s best friend or his mortal enemy. Wins and losses are out of the evaluation at this point. This season is a disappointment regardless of how it ends. Importance will be placed on degree.

Does Nebraska continue to look competitive against the teams it isn’t supposed to beat? That would mean showing up and showing out against Ohio State and Iowa. Does Nebraska shake mistakes that have doomed games against teams it can beat? That would mean not handing the game to a bad and offensively-challenged Wisconsin team.

Does this group of Huskers still want to fight? 

For bowl eligibility? For pride? For their head coach who is once again under the microscope? (Things cooled after the Northwestern/Michigan sequence of games, and rightfully so.)

Every loss so far this season has come by one score or less. Here’s a question: What would you do with a Nebraska team that lost nine games in one season by eight points or less? Nebraska has lost two in a row. What if it closed the year on a six-game slide, but all six games were one-possession games? If Nebraska ended its year at 3-9, but it played five teams who at one point in the year were ranked in the AP Top Ten, how do you evaluate that team? Please don’t think of this as excuse-making on behalf of the head coach, but that’s a legitimate question that could very well stare Husker AD Trev Alberts in the face at the end of the year. Nebraska is so unorthodox in the way it plays and loses that none of this is going to be easy to flesh out.

I asked the fanbase what they could see from Nebraska in its final four games that would instill confidence going into the 2022 season. I asked folks to go beyond the obvious answer—win football games. Many said exactly that just because it’s the most right answer. 

Here are some of the other responses. They’re interesting. 

Points. No more empty drives where we get down to the red zone and come away with a goose egg on the scoreboard. No more games with 400+ total yards and 21 points. If NU could score 30+ in each of their final four games (regardless of the record), that would be a good start. — @GoBigRedCast, friends of the pod 

This was a popular answer. 

Nebraska has gone over 400 yards of offense and under 30 points in a game three times this season and 10 times in 40 total games under Frost. It’s not a crazy number but it does underscore the notion that Nebraska short-circuits much too often. Nebraska pays off drives that feature explosive plays with points at a rate below the national average. It needs 15.5 yards to score a single point (98th nationally), meaning every seven requires Martinez move the offense about 109 yards. 

The red zone is a particularly frustrating area for Nebraska. Take this from Hail Varsity’s Steve Marik earlier this week: One reason why defenses are holding Nebraska to lower-than-average red-zone scoring is due to the fact that they know what’s coming. Nebraska isn’t diverse in its play calling—it has the highest red-zone rush percentage in the Big Ten this season at 85.05%.

Establish a non-QB run game with this o-line. — @JacksonGrey

Nebraska’s rushing this season has been legitimately wild to watch. Only two tailbacks on the roster can say they have a 100-yard rushing game in a Nebraska uniform, and both of those players have fewer carries on the season than a true freshman who hasn’t played since the Oklahoma game. 

Markese Stepp had 18 carries for 101 yards against Fordham on Sept. 4. He has three DNPs and six total carries since. Jaquez Yant had 13 carries for 127 yards against Northwestern. He has 10 carries since. The former was arguably the highest-profile offensive transfer Nebraska signed last offseason, the latter a guy who was earning unsolicited praise from every offensive coach in the spring.

Rahmir Johnson’s development has been a nice story, and his injury in the Minnesota game was a serious blow for the offense. There are absolutely zero answers at running back behind him. Nebraska has talent in the backfield. But its usage of running backs during the Frost tenure has been erratic and tough to understand. 

But that is a bigger discussion about skill talent deployment on the whole—another popular topic with the fanbase; “get your best players on the field.” With respect paid to trying to build the right habits and culture, it seems a little backward when a Tuesday performance carries more weight than a Saturday performance.  

If we can’t choose winning, what I most want to see is the establishment of a consistent offensive identity that we have sorely lacked during the entirety of Frost’s tenure. I never know what we are trying to do from game-to-game. — @JIPeterson89

This has been the knock on Nebraska’s offense for years. 

To a large degree, I think this question persists because the offensive line continues to operate as a below-average unit. 

Coincidentally enough, a whole slew of responses pointed out offensive line play. Several pointed to penalties up front and inconsistency in the blocking department. No one has had a good year. In 2020, Nebraska had problems but it got good play from its left tackle. In 2021, Nebraska hasn’t had lingering snapping issues, but everything else has been a giant question mark on a week-to-week basis.

Offensive line coach Greg Austin is very much under the gun, particularly if Nebraska doesn’t look different coming out of the bye week. 

For the last year-plus, so much emphasis has been on the center position and Nebraska’s perceived inability to build depth in the middle, but the development at guard is the more interesting conversation to me. 

Nebraska has cycled through guards at a high rate since Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer left town. A number of scholarship recruits on the line haven’t been able to get on the field. Trent Hixson and Ethan Piper were both walk-ons to the program. It took them both being benched for Nouri Nouili to get a shot and he’s made it look apparent he should have been the guy from the jump. Does it look like NU has a future all-conference guy at either guard spot right now? Does it even look like they have a draftable prospect there? Nouili might be the only answer and he’s a guy who began his career elsewhere.

Nebraska’s tackles are young and the Big Ten is full of premier edge rushers. That Bryce Benhart hasn’t taken the next step this season is a situation to monitor, but it’s too early in his career to jump ship. Turner Corcoran needs time. The plan all along was to sit guys for a few years and get them ready, Nebraska just hasn’t had enough depth ahead of the young guys to put that plan in action. You can lay that problem at the feet of the coaching staff as well given the advent of the transfer portal.

The issue here is that development is necessary but developmental ability is the question mark. Frost is going to have some tough decisions to make this offseason if that ball is left in his court.

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