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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: What I Got Wrong with Nebraska Football

December 16, 2020

So, the regular season is over. Nebraska technically still has the plus-one game on Friday, but at this point, I don’t think we’re going to learn anything new about this team. Now seems like as good a time as any to look back on this season and see where I got things right and where I got things wrong.

Before the season, Derek Peterson had most of the Hail Varsity crew on the Varsity Club Podcast to go over a series of over/unders (nine of them to be exact) and make our picks for how the Huskers would do. Of the nine queries, the under hit on eight of them.

The final question set the over/under for wins at 4.5 in an eight-game season. Four of us took the under with an expected 4-4 record (we won’t speak of the fifth who took the over coughGregSmithcough). I’m guessing all four of us with the under expected Wisconsin to be one of those losses, so that would put a seven-game record at 4-3. Nebraska obviously finished 2-5.

Though we technically got it right with the under, the Huskers still finished with half the number of wins as we thought they’d have. That’s not great. The Huskers went 3-6 against Big Ten competition in 2019, so why did I expect the Huskers to take enough of a step forward to at least go .500? And why didn’t they?

Let’s start with the defense.

If we want to break it down by levels, the front seven performed about as I expected while the secondary perhaps underachieved relative to expectations. Cam Taylor-Britt and Dicaprio Bootle and Deontai Williams have all certainly had their moments, but for a varsity of reasons both in and out of their control, they didn’t prove to be the consistent difference-makers I thought they’d be.

The inside linebackers played well at times, got exposed at others. JoJo Domann made a lot of plays, but none of the other outside linebackers emerged as difference-makers. That’s pretty much what I expected from those groups.

Most saw the defensive line as the biggest question mark on the defense considering what that group lost from 2019, but I thought their was enough of a mix of experience and upside that they’d be solid, and that seems to be the one group that steadily progressed (though the scheme did cut down on the importance of the defensive line by playing fewer big guys up front).

Overall, the defense gave up 30.6 points per game, eighth the Big Ten. However, I think the biggest number to focus on is third-down defense. Nebraska allowed a conversion on 43.7% of third downs they faced this season, 12th in the Big Ten. Couple that inability to get off the field on third down with a disappointingly low total of turnovers (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries) and you get a defense that wasn’t quite good enough to accomplish Nebraska’s goals.

But the bigger issue was the offense. As long as Scott Frost is the head coach in Lincoln, Nebraska is going to be known as an offensive team.

This season, it was an offensive team that averaged 22.4 points per game, down from 28.0 points per game in 2019 and 30.0 in 2018, and a far cry from Central Florida’s 48.2 points per game in 2017. Granted, Nebraska didn’t get to pad that scoring average against nonconference or AAC opponents, but it does show the offense is trending in the opposite direction.

Last season’s offense wasn’t good enough. Adrian Martinez regressed as a passer, Nebraska had to turn to a 5-foot-10 slot receiver as its primary running back for long stretches, Nebraska struggled to control the line of scrimmage no matter who had the ball and the team lacked a diversity in body types and skill set at wide receiver.

I really thought this year would be different. Based on the offseason moves and what Nebraska was slated to bring back, I thought Nebraska had a great shot at addressing those issues enough to produce a complement offense. I was very, very wrong.

Let’s start up front. Nebraska brought back all five starters on the offensive line including three seniors, and it had a few promising youngsters behind them. Brenden Jaimes was as good a pass protector as anyone in the conference, Frost was high on Cameron Jurgens heading into his second season as the starting center and Bryce Benhart’s rise allowed the coaches to move Matt Farniok inside to guard, where many expected he would fit better.

Well, Jaimes has been solid but I don’t think he made any massive strides as a player. Jurgens continued to have his issues with snapping the ball at various points. Farniok hasn’t really been any more consistent at guard than he was at tackle and the two new starters, Benhart and fellow redshirt freshman Ethan Piper, showed their inexperience along with positive flashes all season. Matt Lubick said he thought the offensive line would be the strength of the offense, and I just didn’t see a line that could dictate terms of play in either the run or pass game all season.

In 2019, Nebraska rolled out what was essentially an entire rotation of slot receivers — JD Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson, Kanawai Noa, Kade Warner and Mike Williams each had different strengths, but they could all be classified as slot receivers based on what what they’d shown before and at Nebraska. Robinson and Warner were the only ones from that group who returned and Nebraska’s recruiting class inspired hope.

Omar Manning looked like the big, athletic wideout that could split out wide and go win jump balls down the field. At 6-foot-7, Chris Hickman moved from tight end to wideout full time, providing more height and athleticism at that position after a redshirt year. Neither one of those guys has a catch this year.

Zavier Betts was one of the highest-rated recruits in the class, with a 6-foot-3 frame and blazing speed. Alante Brown was a 4-star recruit and enrolled early to get a head start. Marcus Fleming was another 4-star recruit with field-stretching speed. That trio has combined for 18 receptions for 222 yards this season, and Fleming has already left the team.

The newcomer who has probably seen the most snaps in that room has been Levi Falck, the walk-on grad transfer from South Dakota with 12 catches for 107 yards (and a whole lot of blocks).

The Manning situation has been strange throughout, so that’s not in Frost’s control, but I still don’t understand why this coaching staff wasn’t able to find a way to make better use of the talent in that wideout room. For the record, I don’t think they’ve done a good job of maximizing Robinson either.

That leads us to the quarterback position. I didn’t really buy into the quarterback battle story line, and when Luke McCaffrey got a chance to start it showed why I felt that way. I truly thought a healthier Adrian Martinez with better protection up front and a more dynamic, more diverse group of wide receivers would have a great chance at a bounce back season.

Well, the line wasn’t much better and Martinez was throwing to walk-ons, and not only did he not bounce back but he regressed even further. To Martinez’s credit, he bounced back from his benching to complete a high number of his passes, but that magic ran out at halftime against Minnesota as he completed just three of his 11 passes in the final 30 minutes and missed basically every single downfield throw to open receivers. He’s now completing 68.3% of his passes, but he’s only averaging 6.5 yards per attempt and he has just three passing touchdowns.

Injury issues aside, I’m not at all shocked at how they used Dedrick Mills because it basically is what we saw last year. He has now averaged under 4.0 yards per carry in 12 of his 17 career games as a Husker, so I honestly can’t blame Frost for not riding him more heavily.

Add all of that together and you get a 2-5 season. Things I was optimistic about didn’t happen, and things I was worried about did. We’ve got a long offseason ahead of is after the Huskers get past this Rutgers game, and Frost has a lot of things to figure out.

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