With each passing week, it’s getting harder and harder to see how Scott Frost gets this thing turned around.
If the Huskers couldn’t find a way to win THAT Michigan State game, with the defense pitching a shutout and the offense holding a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, how are they ever going to get over the hump again a good team? For all the progress they’ve made in certain areas, they seem to give it back and then some in others.
I’ve had a lot of thoughts bounce around my head since the start of that game against Michigan State, and I’m going to spill many of them out here. Hopefully you don’t get lost in my musings.
>> First thought: I think it’s time to acknowledge who and what Adrian Martinez is. I more or less settled into this position while watching the game on Saturday.
Let’s rewind back to the Illinois game to start with. During that game, I saw Martinez miss throws that he’s struggled to make throughout his career (whether he was under pressure or not) and another costly fumble in a situation where Nebraska could least afford it. He racked up 343 yards and two scores between his arm and his legs, sure, but it wasn’t good enough to beat a really bad Illinois team.
After that game, I came away thinking Martinez was the same guy we saw the last few years and, for all his positive traits, was part of the problem.
Then the next three weeks happened, and Martinez played at an incredibly high level. I still had some skepticism heading to Norman, considering the previous two games were against an FCS team and a Group of Five team, but then he went and outplayed Sooner signal-caller Spencer Rattler.
Martinez completed 72% of his passes and averaged 11.9 yards per attempt against Fordham, Buffalo and Oklahoma. I really started to believe that he had turned a corner and might be just good enough to push the Huskers over the top soon.
Then the Michigan State game happened. Martinez didn’t play poorly, by any means, but he also didn’t match the level of play we saw the previous week, and we saw some of the same old mistakes. He still completed nearly 70% of his passes, but his average per attempt dropped to 6.9 yards.
The fumble when he held the ball way too long was bad. He kept throwing way over the head of his 6-foot-9 tight end (and tried to overthrow his 6-foot-6 tight end too, though Travis Vokolek made an unbelievable catch). Nebraska had a chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter and then two chances to win it in regulation after Michigan State tied it up, and the Huskers totaled 37 yards and two first downs on those three drives. Then in overtime, we saw short pass, short pass, interception.
Nebraska turned 84 plays and nearly 38 minutes of possession into just 20 points.
Looking at just the FBS games, Nebraska has 14 possessions that crossed into the red zone, and just 10 of them (71.4%) have produced points. Nebraska is 3-for-6 on red zone field goal attempts (yikes at both that conversion percentage and the fact that nearly half Nebraska’s red zone attempts have ended in field goals). Nebraska has seven red zone touchdowns, six of which have been runs. Martinez has one red zone touchdown pass and one red zone touchdown interception this season.
With Martinez at quarterback, Nebraska has struggled mightily to move the ball through the air when the field shrinks in the red zone. Sometimes receivers have dropped passes, sometimes Martinez has missed guys and sometimes Nebraska simply hasn’t even tried to attack through the air past the line of scrimmage.
In Nebraska’s four FBS games, the Huskers have averaged 21.5 points.
None of this is to put blame for Nebraska’s struggles on Martinez. Quite the contrary. He’s doing everything he possibly can to help Nebraska wins, and Derek Petersen detailed where he ranks statistically Tuesday.
His best at this point simply isn’t good enough to overcome everything else wrong with the team. Nebraska has to find a way to get him some help, because it’s very clear at this point that despite his immense talent, he’s not going to be able to lead this team to wins on his own.
>> Moving on.
I’m completely baffled by the state of Nebraska’s special teams. Over the past year, Frost has talked about the difference the team’s special teams struggles has made in Nebraska’s record. He said all the right things about changing practice to prioritize special teams more, and he shifted coordinator duties from an off-field analyst in Jonathan Rutledge to an on-field coach in Mike Dawson.
Yet the results have been worse. There have ben a couple of quotes since the final horn in East Lansing that I’ve found troubling.
“Coach Dawson’s doing as good a job as he knows how to do,” Frost said, “as good a job as I know how to tell him to do.”
A shanked punt occasionally happens. No kicker hits at a 100% clip. A ball will sometimes take a weird bounce when you’re trying to field and return it. However, I have a hard time believing you will find another Power Five team that deals with multiple instances of those mistakes every week. When so many members of a single unit continue to fail to do their jobs, it transcends individual mistakes and has to be on the coach. Either they’re not properly preparing the players for game situations or they’re picking the wrong people for the job.
That last point leads me to the second quote that troubled me, this one from Sean Beckton, the tight ends coach who also works directly with returners.
“Will Nixon, I’ve been working with him the last three weeks,” Beckton said. “He’s making tremendous strides. He didn’t travel last week; if he would have traveled I may have put him back there because he’s doing a great job.”
If Nixon is supposedly doing a good job, how does he not even make the travel roster? There wasn’t SOME way to squeeze him in there? How is forcing Samori Touré into a situation with which he’s unfamiliar and clearly uncomfortable and making him learn on the fly your best option? I just don’t get it.
>> Speaking of scrambling to find someone to do a job, we heard this week about a focus on competition and jobs being up for grabs. We could potentially see some different starters on the offensive line come Saturday (Frost mentioned left guard and right tackle in particular).
It’s never good when that becomes a topic of discussion at this point in the season, because no matter how it plays out it’s not a great look for the coaches.
Presumably, the guys who earn the starting jobs in fall camp are your best players. If those guys aren’t getting the job done, what are the chances it’s actually going to get better by turning to guys who couldn’t beat out the struggling starters in the first place? If the back-ups do come in and perform better, what does that say about the coaches’ ability to scout their own players?
>> Credit to Erik Chinander and the Blackshirts defense. What they did against Michigan State and Kenneth Walker III was incredibly impressive. Holding back-to-back high-powered offenses to 23 points apiece should have been enough put two wins on the board, but, well…
/waves generally to everything written above this last point
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.