After spending the better part of the last 10 months speculating about what the 2020 Nebraska Cornhuskers might look like, we finally got our first glimpse on Saturday.
We didn’t get a chance to see all the players we were hoping for or get answers to all of our questions, and the result certainly wasn’t something to be terribly excited about, but I am glad to finally have 60 minutes of new football to break down and discuss.
Which parts of the 52-17 loss at Ohio State did I expect, and which parts caught me off guard?
Let’s start with the surprises.
I said on both the Hail Varsity Radio and on the Varsity Club Podcast that despite all the hype surrounding Luke McCaffrey throughout the preseason, I didn’t really see why Nebraska should go out of its way to get McCaffrey involved even after Scott Frost declared Adrian Martinez the starter. In addition to health concerns with him being the back-up quarterback, I questioned whether he would give the team more than the other skill position players they might give those snaps too.
Whiffed on that one.
McCaffrey was on the field for 21 snaps in a variety of roles, from quarterback to running back to Duck-R receiver. I already broke down the six plays that McCaffrey and Martinez shared the field for. He also played another 15 snaps as Nebraska’s sole quarterback, first when Martinez’s chin strap broke and then in garbage time.
In 37 snaps with Martinez on the field without McCaffrey, Nebraska averaged 6.0 yards per play. In 15 snaps with McCaffrey out there without Martinez, the Huskers averaged 5.1 yards per play. In the six snaps they shared, Nebraska averaged 10.7 yards per play (though that was significantly buoyed by the 47-yard run by McCaffrey on the first drive; the other five snaps totaled 17 yards).
The two quarterbacks combined to complete 80% of their passes, which is nice, but they only took a few shots downfield all game and totaled just 160 yards on those 16 completions. On the ground, they combined for 19 carries (excluding sacks) and were responsible for nearly 80% of Nebraska’s rushing yards.
It sounds like the two-quarterback thing might be here to stay more so than a gimmick used with the hopes of keeping a daunting Ohio State team on its toes a bit. It will be interesting to see how McCaffrey’s usage evolves.
I won’t say the massive cushions the cornerbacks were giving the Ohio State receivers most of the game were too terribly surprising; Nebraska was probably hoping to prevent the big play and make Ohio State put together extended drives with the hopes that they would make a mistake at some point. Unfortunately, they didn’t as Justin Fields missed one throw all game (and it wasn’t even the one that went down as his sole incompletion). I’ll reserve judgment on the cornerback play for down the road (especially with Cam Taylor-Britt set to miss the first half of their next game).
However, I was disappointed by the safety play and the overall cohesiveness of the coverage by Nebraska. There were just way too many busts and easy completions for Ohio State considering the secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense. In retrospect, we probably expected too much out of Deontai Williams early on considering how much time he missed. It certainly looked like he was still trying to get his bearings out there in coverage early on. And now he’ll have to miss another half because of the targeting penalty; he’s going to have to find a better balance between laying the wood and making smart decisions because Nebraska needs him out there.
At one point, Marquel Dismuke got yanked for most of a drive and instead of plugging redshirt freshman Myles Farmer in there, Nebraska moved Dicaprio Bootle back to safety and sent Quinton Newsome in at corner. With Braxton Clark injured, newsmen appears to be the first defensive back off the bench.
True freshman Ronald Delancy III got a handful of snaps in garbage time and Lincoln Southeast product Isaac Gifford even got in there on the last play in addition to contributing on special teams (I thought blueshirt rules required a player to sit but his first season, but apparently that doesn’t apply to Gifford in this case). JUCO transfer Nadab Joseph didn’t even make the trip to Columbus.
Heading in, I thought Nebraska was deep up front and at inside linebacker and shallow at outside linebacker. You wouldn’t have guessed that by how Nebraska used its personnel on Saturday, though.
Nebraska used three true defensive linemen on just under 30% of their snaps. Ben Stille was out there for most of the game and Ty Robinson and Casey Rogers got a good number of snaps each. But nose tackles Damion Daniels and Keem Green played a combined 30 snaps. The Huskers had each of Stille, Robinson and Rogers line up at both nose and end throughout the game. Jordon Riley will hopefully be back in the mix on Saturday and I’m guessing we’ll see some bigger fronts with how the Badgers like to play, but this will be something worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
When they weren’t playing traditional fronts, Nebraska had four outside linebackers — Caleb Tannor, Nick Henrich, Garrett Nelson and Pheldarius Payne — line up with a hand in the dirt in place of the missing lineman. Tannor and Nelson led that group in total snaps, but Henrich and Payne both got over 20 reps each as well.
JoJo Domann continued to play his hybrids role, spending most of the game in coverage. He played every defensive snap. Just like last year, it looks like Domann is Nebraska’s nickel corner in addition to being a starting outside linebacker.
As for the inside linebackers, Bo Ruud used a three-man rotation last season with all three guys getting fairly even reps. Against the Buckeyes, however, it was Colin Miller and Will Honas playing basically every snap until Nebraska started sending in young guys for the last two drives. Luke Reimer’s absence likely had a lot to do with that, but I find it interesting that they coaches played Henrich exclusively at outside linebacker, where Nebraska had more depth, while not getting either Miller or Honas a breather at any point. Redshirt freshman Garrett Snodgrass appears to have a leg up on JUCO transfer Eteva Mauga-Clements at the moment.
Now for the other side of the coin. What wasn’t I surprised by?
We heard all offseason about how Dedrick Mills was the team’s bell cow back and how he had really turned a corner down the stretch of last season, but we didn’t really see that on Saturday. Mills ran the ball nine times for 25 yards (2.8 yards per carry). A lot of people were surprised by that.
I can’t say I was, however. If you look at his game log from last season, he had 12 or fewer carries on nine of his 12 games and he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry eight times. He had a nearly identical state line (nine carries for 28 yards and a touchdown) against Minnesota in week seven last year.
For whatever reason, it seems like Frost can get away from Mills pretty easily in games, especially when the senior back isn’t providing a great return on his touches. Though he only touched the ball nine times, he was out there for 34 snaps. Part of his limited touches probably has to do with the number of read option plays Nebraska runs; Martinez keeps the ball himself on those a lot more often than he hands it off.
I have no doubt that Mills will have some big games this season, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more performances like we saw against the Buckeyes.
Shouts to Ronald Thompkins, though. It’s awesome to see him out there period after everything he’s been through, but he looked really good on top of that.
The re-made wideout room is one of the things I was most excited about seeing heading into this season, but after listening closely to the coaches throughout fall camp, the group we saw out there for most of the game — Wan’Dale Robinson, Levi Falck and Kade Warner — was exactly what I expected. We even saw a brief Wyatt Liewer sighting early in the game, though he never returned after committing a false start during that three-play drive.
Omar Manning didn’t make the trip, and neither did Jamie Nance or Demariyon Houston. Chris Hickman and Zavier Betts didn’t see the field (at least on offense in Hickman’s case; he did play on special teams). Alante Brown and Marcus Fleming didn’t play until garbage time.
Predictably, the Nebraska receivers who did play didn’t really create much separation down the field. The longest completion of the day went to a tight end in Austin Allen (26 yards) and the longest by a wideout belonged to Wan’Dale Robinson (2 yards) late in the game.
Robinson only got six touches as he caught all six of his targets for 49 yards. Nebraska doesn’t want to use him in the backfield nearly as much as it did last year (those snaps went to Luke McCaffrey instead). The Huskers got him the ball a few different ways, but it will be interesting to see how Nebraska continues to get him more involved without simply handing the ball off to him.
This is already way too long so I’ll cut it off here. Looking forward to seeing how much of this holds up moving forward, and how much was simply a result of time and opponent.
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.