The Huskers run through drills during their practice
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Answers Await in Champaign

August 25, 2021

Scott Frost answered 17 questions in less than five minutes during his Monday press conference, the first game week presser of the season. Almost all of the answers, regardless of prompt, communicated the same sentiment.

“We are getting ready for that first game.”

Frost wasn’t in the mood to provide any details about his team, which means we’re all going to have to wait until Saturday to have the many questions that most of us probably have answered.

Who’s the starting running back? Will whoever it is get upwards of 20 carries, or will it be more like half that with a few other backs getting a shot? How effective will each of the backs who see the field be?

Likewise, how many wide receivers will see the field? Will Omar Manning be one of them? How well will Samori Toure’s game translate to the Big Ten, and what kind of chemistry has he developed with Adrian Martinez?

Speaking of Martinez, will the focus on improving decision-making and ball security form this offseason translate to the field? What kind of player will the fourth-year starter and third-year captain be this season?

Will Turner Corcoran be ready to go, and if so, how good will he be in his second start? If not, is Brant Banks ready to hold down that left tackle spot? Does Cameron Jurgens really have the snap issue resolved? What will Matt Sichterman look like as the starting right guard?

There don’t seem to be as many questions on defense, but there are a few very important ones.

Who is the corner opposite Cam Taylor-Britt? What does the outside linebacker rotation look like? Can Nebraska generate enough of a pass rush? Was Nebraska’s improvement in third-down conversion rate last season a sign of things to come or a result of an easier second-half schedule?

Conversely, special teams seem to be nothing bu questions beyond Connor Culp as the place-kicker. Who will handle kickoffs? Who won the punter battle, and can the winner improve on William Przystup’s 41.3 yards-per-punt average (last among the 11 qualifiers in the Big Ten)? Will Cam Taylor-Britt continue to return punts or will Mike Dawson hand that responsibility off to someone else? Who will return kickoffs? Will Nebraska be able to block for its returns more consistently?

Frost didn’t want to give us any of those answers on Monday, but with a Big Ten West opponent waiting in week one (or I guess, week zero) it’s even more important than it would normally be that Frost has at least most of those answers by Saturday. The most important game being the next one is a coach speak cliché, but in this case it rings true, and Frost’s narrow focus on being ready to go on Saturday is justified.

This is year four for Frost in Lincoln. All but 10 players on the roster are his recruits. He’s had three years to reshape the roster and to learn what works and what doesn’t in the Big Ten. After a wild 2020 season, the Huskers had a mostly normal offseason to devote to getting better. If the kind of progress Nebraska was hoping for when it hired Frost is going to happen under his watch, it seems reasonable that it would start this season.

Considering the team’s schedule, it’s going to be difficult to show that progress in the wins column if the Huskers lose to the Illini on Saturday.

Illinois hasn’t finished above .500 since 2011. The Illini are coming off a 2-6 season that signaled the end of the Lovie Smith era. Granted, one of those wins came against Nebraska in embarrassing fashion for the Huskers (41-23), but Adrian Martinez did not start that game. The last time Martinez started against Illinois (2019), he threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns and added 118 yards on the ground.

Bret Bielema won a lot of games in the Big Ten at Wisconsin, winning 10-plus games in four of his seven seasons with an overall winning percentage of .739. However, his best season at Arkansas was 8-5 in 2015, and the Razorbacks went 4-8 in his last season before Bielema lost his job. He hasn’t been a head coach since 2017. Illinois returns as much experience as anyone in the Big Ten, but the change in coaching staff — and therefore the change in schemes — seems like it would offset that advantage at least somewhat. And again, that experience those veteran Illini have is from winning a quarter of their games last season.

Nebraska can’t afford afford to overlook any opponent at this point, but the Huskers are the favorite according to oddsmakers for a reason. This is a game the Huskers should win, and we may not get to say that too many times against Big Ten opponents this season.

For better or worse, I think we’re going to learn the answers to a lot of questions about the trajectory of this program in 2021, and that starts with Saturday’s game in Champaign. The biggest question, though, is a simple one: is this program ready to win?

I’m looking forward to finding out on Saturday.

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