Getting Over the Hump
Adrian Martinez’s fourth-quarter fumble serves as a perfect encapsulation of what this football team appears to be this season: good enough to give itself a chance, but not good enough to take advantage of that opportunity.
That play included Martinez picking up a much-needed first down with his legs only for his extra effort to lead to a back-breaking turnover. It also featured an offensive lineman getting beat for good measure.
Two weeks ago, I more or less fleshed out my thoughts on Adrian Martinez at this point in his career, and the way the Michigan game played out perfectly only reinforced what I laid out in that column.
Since Scott Frost took over in Lincoln (and therefore, since Martinez became the team’s starting quarterback) Nebraska has had 15 games where the Huskers have gotten the ball late tied or trailing by one score. Twitter user @stewmanji compiled Nebraska’s final drive in each (17 total possession including overtime games), and the final tally is… not encouraging.
Nebraska has one just one of those 15 games, and that was with Noah Vedral at quarterback in place of an injured Martinez (shots to Lane McCallum). The only time Nebraska has even scored in that situation with Martinez behind center was the Iowa game in 2018. Martinez led the Huskers down the field for a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive plus a two-point conversion to tie the game. Unfortunately, he left enough time for Iowa to march back down the field and kick a field goal as time expired.
On the other 15 drives, Nebraska managed to gain just 299 yards on 78 plays (3.8 yards per play, 19.9 yards per drive). The Huskers turned the ball over on downs seven times, threw an interception four times, punted once, lost a fumble once, let time expire once and missed on field goal (in an overtime game).
I know Frost said the team believed they were going to win that game late when they got the ball back, but I didn’t feel the same way. They literally have never done it with Martinez at quarterback.
Just like the last time I wrote about him, this isn’t an attempt to blame Martinez for Nebraska’s failures. He gave Nebraska the lead late in the third quarter, then again midway through the fourth. You can only expect so much from him. Like I wrote two weeks ago, they need to give him some help and try to avoid putting him in a position where he has to lead the team down the field late.
Based on everything both teams had done so far this season, 29 points should have been enough to win that game. As good as the defense has been this season and as well as it played for stretches, the Blackshirts had a chance to win that game too and couldn’t deliver.
After Martinez’s go-ahead touchdown with 7:08 remaining, Tyreke Johnson made a good play on kickoff coverage to drop the returner at the 18-yard line, giving the Wolverines a long field. On the second play of the drive, Nebraska gave up a 50-yard run to Hassan Haskins, and suddenly Michigan had a short field.
The defense had a chance to at least force a 40-plus yard field goal after that, but the Blackshirts ave up a 12-yard gain on third-and-9. They stopped the Wolverines after that, but Jake Moody easily knocked through a 31-yard field goal to tie things up.
The go-ahead field goal wasn’t on the defense, but the Blackshirts did give up eight explosive plays (four pass, four run) and over 200 yards rushing at 5.3 per tote.
“We could have done better,” safety Deontai Williams said after practice on Tuesday. “Maybe you see it from a different view, but knowing how good we are as a defensive unit, we could have done a lot better. We had a lot of ex-plays. We had a lot of big plays like two big runs that they had and a deep ball that I got beat on that we could have prevented. Other than that, we could have tackled better as a whole unit. Cover-wise, we blew the two coverages; that’s how they got two good deep balls. Other than that, I know we’re better than what we did last week.”
Nebraska has been quite good defensively this season. The Huskers are fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.9 points allowed per game). They’re fifth in passer rating allowed (117.0) and yards per pass attempt allowed (6.2). They’re 10th in yards per rush attempt allowed (3.9). They’re tied for eighth in takeaways (six interceptions, two fumbles recovered). The Blackshirts have been good, but they haven’t been elite.
“They’ve played to my expectations, but we can do better,” Williams said. “You don’t want to just be comfortable with what you’ve done now. I see that we could be one of the top defenses in college football in general. I always knew that, I knew it since last year when we kept getting three-and-outs quick. I was like ‘Man, I didn’t even do anything yet.’ So I knew that we could be a great defense.”
At this point, I think that’s the key to Nebraska finally getting over the hump. They have to play more complementary football. The defense played well enough against Oklahoma and Michigan State, but the offense and special teams let the team down. All three phases came up short against Illinois, and the defense wasn’t able to replicate its performance from the previous three weeks against the Wolverines last Saturday.
I’m not sure we can ask too much more of the offense at this point, especially with the ongoing offensive line concerns, but I do still see upside with this defense. I think Nebraska’s best chance at getting over the hump, finishing strong and earning a bowl bid is for the defense to go from good to great, and that has to start this week in Minneapolis. Minimize the busts and, most importantly, tackle well.
The Taylor-Britt Takeover
One Blackshirt who definitely brought his best stuff last Saturday was Cam Taylor-Britt. The dynamic corner finished with a career-high 11 tackles (four more than his previous best) and a career-high three pass break-ups. The only completions he gave up were a couple of underneath throws where he was giving a cushion by design. Any time Michigan targeted him down the field it didn’t end well for the Wolverines.
Pro Football Focus graded Taylor-Britt as Nebraska’s best player on either side of the ball.
“Cam had his best game this year,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said on Tuesday. “He competed well on the outside, tackled well. They gave us a lot of deep balls in the game and I think he did a great job of defending those passes. Cam is improving and getting back to the way he knows he can play.”
I’ve been fairly critical of Taylor-Britt’s play this season considering the expectations he carried and the ability that he’s shown. He’s given up more completions than you’d expect your lockdown corner to allow and has whiffed on plays in key moments. I wondered on multiple occasions through the first handful of weeks if he had cost himself some money by returning to school. However, if he continues to play like he did on Saturday, he’ll be just fine. Fisher said the key has been calming him down and focusing on getting him to lock in on his responsibilities and not try to do too much.
“He just started off trying to make every play, and that’s what it was,” Fisher said. “You get guys that have so much athleticism and they want to go out and make a play for their team. Sometimes, we don’t need that. Sometimes we just need you to do your job and do a great job of doing your job. I think for the most part, and even on special teams, Cam is just trying to go out and make an explosive play. That’s what he’s normally doing out here in practice every day, he’s making an explosive play about every day.”
Former Husker Dalano Banton wrapped up his first preseason with the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. The Raptors went 3-2 and Banton played in every game.
The 6-foot-9 point guard averaged 14.6 minutes per game off the Toronto bench, contributing 5.2 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 turnovers and 0.8 blocks while shooting 46.2% from the field. He was a positive in plus/minus in all five games as the Raptors outscored their opponents by 39 points while he was on the court.
Unfortunately, Banton only shot 1-of-7 from 3, and the one make was a deep desperation bank at the end of the shot clock. He also shot 1-of-4 at the free-throw line. Ultimately, Banton’s long-term viability in the league will likely depend on whether or not he can develop the jumper to a respectable degree.
The Raptors have 12 players on guaranteed contracts plus two two-way players. Before the season, they’ll have to cut at least three of the six players with non-guaranteed contracts to get down to the 15-player limit for the regular season.
Toronto has Goran Dragic, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. who will play big minutes in the backcourt plus OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes on the wing. Svi Mykhailiuk is the only other perimeter player without a guaranteed contract, though the Raptors have a handful of wings to choose from for the remaining roster spots.
Banton might have a chance to sneak into the back end of the team’s rotation depending on health, but I wouldn’t expect to see a ton of him on the floor as a rookie. If the Raptors end up trading Dragic at some point, though, it might open up more playing time for Banton.
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.