Play of the Game: Nebraska's Botched Fourth Down in Overtime
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Play of the Game: Nebraska’s Botched Fourth Down in Overtime

October 13, 2018

One step forward, two steps back.

Nebraska continues to find ways to lose despite showing progress in certain areas, and it keeps coming back to the little things.

Nebraska gave away its hard-earned lead in the fourth quarter with two long Northwestern drives sandwiching a Huskers' three-and-out. With 12 seconds left on the clock and the scored tied, Nebraska took a knee and accepted overtime and the 50-50 nature of it.

Northwestern won the coin toss and gave the ball to the Huskers. A run of 2 yards and a catch for 7 yards by running back Devine Ozigbo gave Nebraska a third-and-1 before a false start — Nebraska’s ninth penalty — moved them back 5 yards. Adrian Martinez found JD Spielman but he was taken down a yard shy, setting up fourth-and-1.

With the difficulties Nebraska has had in the kicking game this year (never mind that Nebraska’s success rate on kickoffs, while still not encouraging, is quite a bit higher than its success rate on fourth downs), Coach Scott Frost elected to go for it.

The decision itself is understandable, but the execution that followed the call was not. The bad snap on fourth-and-1 in overtime is this week’s play of the game.

Nebraska lined up with 21 personnel with tight ends flanking both tackles, two receivers to the right side of the field and Ozigbo next to Martinez 4 yards deep in the backfield. 

On the snap, right guard Boe Wilson got some serious push, center Tanner Farmer turned his man and sealed him off to the left and the other three linemen at least had their men stood up for the most part. It looks like Ozigbo has enough space to punch it right up the gut and reach the line to gain.

The only problem is Ozigbo never got the ball. The snap never got off the turf, rolling right past Martinez’s legs and back about 13 yards before the quarterback was able to scoop it up. By that time, he had a rusher in his face. Martinez made the first guy miss, but a second and then a third rusher drove him toward the sideline.

"There was enough space to get whatever was needed so I just  . . . Whatever play, we would have hit it," Ozigbo said. "It was definitely there. I think it was definitely there if we would have got it but unfortunately, just crazy, uncontrollable circumstance."

Side note: I’m not quite sure what Ozigbo was doing after that point. He barely touched the first rusher then sort of jogged around aimlessly, neither trying to block someone nor taking off to make himself available as a receiving option.

Feeling like he was out of time, Martinez fired a shot at the end zone off his back foot, throwing up a prayer for his go-to receiver in Stanley Morgan Jr. However, the Wildcats have two defenders surrounding Morgan and the pass is too far inside anyway, landing in the hands of JR Pace.

It looks like Martinez might have had Bryan Reimers up the sideline right at the sticks, but on the run with two large humans hot on his trail, Martinez didn’t exactly have a lot of time or space to scan the whole field. 

“Just make a play,” Martinez said after the game. “Knowing it was fourth down, try not to panic and just try and make something happen. I threw it up there as a last shot, probably could have put more on it, but just trying to make something out of the play.”

An empty possession for the Huskers meant Northwestern only needed a field goal to win, and that is what they played for. A 2-yard run, a 3-yard pass and a 1-yard run set up kicker Drew Luckenbaugh at the 19-yard line. Nebraska tried icing the kicker, but Luckenbaugh put it through without issue to win the game for the Wildcats.

Nebraska has had issues at center ever since Michael Decker went down with an injury and then retired. Cole Conrad struggled initially and then got banged up, and Nebraska's second option is a converted guard in Farmer who has had his fair share of rough snaps this year. The last one proved to be costly.

"We've got a young team and at certain places, some of the mistakes are by the young guys," Frost said. "We have a young kicker. He's going to be fine. He's going to be fine. We missed one earlier on fourth and really short. I was going to put in Devine to get us the first down and we shouldn't have been in that situation but we false-started somehow; doesn't matter. Snapped the ball through the quarterback's legs. Some of the things that are happening to us this year I've never really seen before. It's hard for me to anticipate them and fix them. I've never seen that happen before."

Every time Nebraska looks to be making progress, the same old problems pop up at the worst possible time. Penalties and fundamental mistakes have the Huskers sitting at 0-6 despite showing signs of potential. 

That’s why Nebraska’s bad snap and ensuing interception on fourth-and-1 in overtime is this week’s play of the game.

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