Photo Credit: Eric Francis

One of College Football’s Best Defenses, One of Its Worst Special Teams, and Other Huskers Thoughts

November 07, 2021

Well. 

Nebraska is 3-7 now on the season. Another bye week is on tap, and we’ll see how the last two games go. Iowa was looking daunting earlier and looks much more like a toss-up now; Wisconsin was looking doable earlier and looks much more challenging now.

But NU needs ‘em both. If it gets just one that’ll mark the third 4-8 season in five years for this program. If it doesn’t get either, it’ll be the worst season in over 50 years. But we’ve been saying and writing and reading the same thing for weeks and the more things change the more they stay the same. 

With a 26-17 loss to Ohio State, Nebraska has now dropped four games in a row. 

The following are some thoughts on the state of things: 

>> Seven different kickers have missed a total of 22 field goals over Scott Frost’s four years in Lincoln. 

There are only eight other FBS programs that have missed more field goal attempts since the start of the 2018 season than Nebraska. A 68.1% conversion rate on NU’s 69 field goal attempts under Frost ranks 109th out of 130 FBS programs over that period.

In all, nine Huskers have attempted a field goal during the Frost tenure. Matt Waldoch and Harrison Martin are the only two who didn’t miss a kick. Remember them? Waldoch was a UNL men’s club soccer team member who joined the football program before the 2019 season and didn’t return after the year ended. Martin was a four-year student who joined midseason and made his only field goal. 

The most reliable kicker Frost had was a student plucked from campus to plug a hole. 

Kickers this year are now 6-for-13 on field goals inside 50 yards. Perhaps we underestimated the impact of kicking in empty stadiums for all of 2020. As it stands, Nebraska is probably looking for a new guy for the 2022 season. 

I guess that’s where we’re starting this. 

Drew Brown, one of the program’s greatest kickers all-time, summed up things quite nicely.

It’s not just at kicker. Nebraska has had punting issues for two years, unable to settle on one guy because when one starts showing a glimpse of consistency a rogue 13-yard shank pops up. “You’ll never get me to run down any one kid—these are my guys, I love them—but it isn’t special teams right now, it’s specialists,” Frost said Saturday.

And that’s been the case for four years. It makes very little sense why that can’t get corrected. As a play-caller, Frost can’t rely on his kicker and he doesn’t know whether his punter will be a weapon or a weakness, and that seriously changes what he can and can’t do in various spots on the field. Those guys have to step up and do their jobs on Saturdays. That Frost hasn’t been able to fully and truly rely on anyone for four years is on him.

That third-down miss/fourth-down miss sequence with 10 to play in the fourth quarter Saturday against the Buckeyes is sort of the story of this tenure, isn’t it? 

Quarterback Adrian Martinez floated a pass to wideout Levi Falck that needed to be driven on third-and-4. Ohio State defensive linemen Zach Harrison was coming up the middle, and perhaps Martinez anticipated a swat attempt. There have been few instances over the course of his career where he’s had the touch to be able to float a ball and still drop it where it needs to go. In this instance, he missed a receiver he should have hit. 

Nebraska was looking to pay off what, at that point, was a nine-play, 73-yard drive that began courtesy of a defensive takeaway. Instead, it took a field goal on fourth-and-4 and backup kicker Chase Contreraz—who has replaced the season-long starter, Connor Culp, in the last two games—pushed it right. 

NU forced two Ohio State turnovers on the day and got zero points from them. 

Frost’s decision to kick the field goal instead of going for the 4 yards from Ohio State’s 13 instantly became a sticking point. He was asked about it almost immediately in the postgame press conference. “To try and make it a three-point game, that’s the right football decision,” he said. 

The expected point value of a fourth-down play between an opponent’s 20- and 10-yard-lines is less than three. Frost gets skewered if he goes for it and fails, same as if he kicks it and misses. That he was in a spot where the decision was necessary is part of the offensive problem, that kicking is a virtual crapshoot with this team as the rest of it. 

Nebraska hasn’t been able to pay off drives with points under Frost. It moves the ball but doesn’t move the scoreboard. Saturday marked the third time this season and the 14th time in four years that Nebraska was over 20 yards per point. That’s bad; only three offenses are over 20 this season—Vanderbilt, Kansas, and Arizona.

Martinez has missed too many throws an experienced starter should be able to make, particularly in higher-leverage situations. Too many kickers have missed too many field goals. What would things look like if either area was different?

>> At this point, the run game is never going to be understood and we should all just stop trying. 

Jaquez Yant didn’t touch the ball. He came on the field briefly for a third-and-short play and ran a wheel route. Markese Stepp emerged from the coldest end of the Nebraska bench on the Huskers’ final drive of the game after a month of not seeing the field. 

Martinez, who is playing with a high ankle sprain and a broken jaw, had 13 rushing attempts to running back Rahmir Johnson’s 16. He was also sacked five times. 

NU was highly ineffective on the ground in the first half. Seventeen rushing attempts yielded less than 2 yards per carry. In the second half, five of NU’s seven possessions featured one designed run or none.

>> If Nebraska is going to get improved offensive play in 2022, it desperately needs improvement from its tackles. In defense of the youngsters playing, there may not be a tougher place to play the position, considering the edge-rushing talent that is coming your way play after play after play. That being said, Nebraska’s tackles weren’t up to the test Saturday and you’ve been able to say that too often this year. 

With a first-year starter and young player at left tackle, you can understand inconsistency, but that side of the line has been beaten too often in too many ways. It’s looking like staff changes will be necessary if Frost gets another year. 

>> Someone once again brought up the talent discussion this week. “Nebraska hasn’t surrounded Martinez with enough talent to be successful.” Over the course of Frost’s four years, it has been a common refrain from folks wanting to give Frost a crutch. But if he could just get more talent things would be different. 

I looked up the high school recruiting classes from 2018 through 2021. In terms of 4- and 5-star prospects signed, Nebraska ranks 21st among Power Five programs. In the Big Ten, only Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State have added more blue-chip prospects to their rosters than the Huskers since Frost got to town. NU boasts more than twice as many as Purdue and Minnesota, and nearly five times as many as Northwestern and Illinois. 

Against that foursome that was just listed, Nebraska is 6-10 in the last four seasons. Acquisition isn’t the problem. Development, usage, and retention are.

>> I’m glad the “no, actually, Nebraska’s defense is really good” train finally appears to be filling up. Chinander deniers are running out of arguments. 

Ohio State seemed genuinely uninterested in running the ball at Nebraska for large stretches of their game Saturday. That’s a sentence that was just typed without a hint of sarcasm. The Buckeyes ran the ball 28 times with a rushing success rate of 36%, according to gameonpaper.com. The expected points added on those rushing attempts? Minus-2.4. 

Quarterback CJ Stroud threw a career-high-tying 54 passes. The other 54-attempt game? Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to Oregon.

The Buckeyes, overall, had an explosive play rate of 11.9% against the Blackshirts. They entered the game at 23.3% on the season, per Hail Varsity editor Brandon Vogel’s tabulations. 

Don’t care for the advanced stuff? Here’s a basic one that’s as important as any: Ohio State entered the day averaging an FBS-leading 47 points per game, Nebraska held it to 26. 

The Buckeyes didn’t score a first-quarter point for only the fourth time in 33 games under coach Ryan Day. (It was the second time this season, the first coming against—you guessed it—Oregon.) It ran 42% of its plays from Nebraska’s side of the 50 and yet it was the lowest-scoring regular-season game for the Buckeyes since the 2018 loss to Purdue.

The nine second-half points Ohio State scored marked a season-low for a second half and the fewest second-half points in a regular-season game since Oct. 5, 2019.

But this is what Nebraska has been doing to everyone. Against Power Five opponents in the second half, Nebraska is giving up 11 points per game and 4.8 yards per play. (The national average this season for yards per play allowed is 5.6.)

Consider this from The Athletic’s Max Olson:

The Huskers ranked No. 14 nationally in stop rate this week. The 13 teams ahead of them had a record of 84-21 entering Saturday. Nine are in the College Football Playoff Top 25. None have losing records. If you take out 27 points that Nebraska’s offensive and special teams errors have gifted their opponents, the Huskers would have a top-five scoring defense nationally at 15.6 points per game.

The following shows Nebraska’s defensive numbers against P5 opponents so far, compared to those teams’ season averages:

 Points AllowedOpp. PPGDiff.YPP AllowedOpp. YPPDiff.Rush YPP AllowedOpp. Rush YPPDiff.
Illinois3017.6+13.44.94.8+0.13.54.5-1.0
Oklahoma2342.9-19.95.97.2-1.35.55.50.0
Michigan State2334.6-11.64.86.8-2.02.45.4-3.0
Northwestern719.0-12.04.45.0-0.61.44.3-2.9
Michigan3237.1-5.15.76.4-0.74.95.4-0.5
Minnesota3028.4+1.65.85.6+0.24.24.7-0.5
Purdue2822.9+5.14.15.1-1.02.82.5+0.3
Ohio State2647.3-21.35.98.2-2.33.06.0-3.0

NU has faced four top-40 offenses so far this season. Indiana (5) is the only Big Ten team to face more. Nebraska currently ranks No. 28 nationally in scoring defense (three spots behind Alabama). Nebraska hasn’t finished top-30 there since 2010. The Blackshirts are 23rd nationally in yards per point allowed and 20th in points per play allowed. The Blackshirts pair a top-20 pass defense with a top-15 short-yardage run defense.

This is legitimately one of the 25 best defenses in football. If you still don’t think so, good luck arguing your case.

>> Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts was reportedly hanging around the team locker room after the game, making a point to stop and speak with each player that passed him. Alberts has been clear with his messaging from day one and consistently shown up for this team, rain or shine. He does things that make you confident in his ability to lead the department in the right direction. He also—granted this is coming from afar—seems to be acting like a proud boss.

Don’t discount what’s happening in Florida. Dan Mullen was 8-1 and coaching a top-10 team the night of Dec. 5, 2020. Since then, his Gators have lost eight of their last 10 games against Power Five competition, the latest coming in the form of the worst loss to South Carolina in program history. Folks in Gainsville are getting a firsthand look at a team that gives up on its coach.

Frost hasn’t had the immediate success Mullen has had. And yet he might last longer. Nebraska is fighting, and that’s admirable. I think Frost is on the right track, but there are legitimate problem areas that need to be addressed if he’s to have success.

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