Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) watches a replay on the big screen against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Play of the Game: Nebraska’s Failed Fourth-and-Goal Attempt

October 16, 2021

You couldn’t have scripted much worse of a start for Nebraska against Minnesota, but even so, the Huskers — thanks in large part to the defense playing lights out in the second half — rallied to get back in the game.

In fact, Nebraska had an opportunity to take the lead late in the third quarter, but some bad luck, poor execution and a controversial play call turned that opportunity into a turnover-on-downs.

This week’s Play of the Game is Nebraska’s failed fourth-and-goal attempt late in the third quarter.

The Huskers trailed 21-9 at halftime and Minnesota got the ball first to open the second half with a chance to put the game away. The Blackshirts stepped up, however, and a touchdown by Rahmir Johnson gave the Huskers life.

A three-and-out followed by a bad punt gave Nebraska the ball in Gopher territory, and a few plays later a big run by Rahmir Johnson set the Huskers up with first-and-goal at the 6. Adrian Martinez gained 4 yards on first down then handed the ball off to Johnson on second. The Gophers blasted Nebraska’s running back at the 1 and knocked him out of the game.

Martinez kept the ball on third down and might have crossed the goal line, but the officials called him short on the field and didn’t have a good enough angle to overturn the call. He “definitely” thought he was in.

“I have to go back and watch it on the tape and obviously they didn’t think there was enough there to rule it a touchdown,” Martinez said. “I know when my feet were across the line, I figured I was in there, but can’t control that. Just have to play the next play.”

On fourth-and-inches, Nebraska lined up in shotgun with 12 personnel featuring the tight ends off tackle to the right. With Johnson out, Jaquez Yant lined up in the backfield by Martinez.

The left side of the line crashed inside, trying to carve out space for Yant to run through. However, the big back stumbled in the backfield immediately after taking the handoff and safety Tyler Nubin rushed forward unblocked to drop Yant at the line of scrimmage.

Coach Scott Frost said after the game that he did consider lining up under center and running a quarterback sneak, but decided against it.

“I’ve watched every snap of their tape this year and they’ve done a pretty good job against sneak,” Frost said. “There’s kind of another reason I didn’t feel great about that play right then. I think he’d have been in if he didn’t stumble in the backfield. I think we were in the right thing. Didn’t execute very well.”

Frost is right in that if Yant hadn’t stumbled, he likely could have powered through Nubin enough to cross the goal line. If the other reason was Martinez’s health, that’s perplexing because he still carried the ball six times (not including sacks) and ran a handful of options that could have led to carries or at least hits. What made the goal line situation different?

Frost’s answer indicates less confidence in his own team’s ability to execute a sneak than for Minnesota’s ability to defend it. Martinez did say Nebraska works on it, but maybe not all that much.

“I’ll say this, for a team that’s predominantly shotgun, we do work on under-center snaps, we do have QB sneak, things like that,” Martinez said. “But there are exchange problems you could worry about and it just takes repetition. Running backs, hitting the hole is different out of the gun than it is when you’re under center, you have different landmarks, different aiming points for handoffs, things like that, and those things have to be worked on, and that takes time out of practice out. I play on the team and we run what is called. Not sure, maybe that’s something we explore, maybe it isn’t. But we feel confident in what we had called there, and I’m sure we would do it again and have faith in our guys.”

Martinez said he didn’t think the team was demoralized after getting stuffed.

“I would say we were obviously disappointed, but more, ‘We know we can move on these guys, so we’re going to get another opportunity; let’s go make it happen,’” Martinez said. “That was more of the talk, the mindset on the sideline.”

Nebraska did continue to move the ball, and the defense continued to stop the Gophers as well. The Blackshirts forced a three-and-out after the turnover on downs and gave the offense a short field, but after a 40-yard gain by Austin Allen the drive stalled out, resulting in a missed field goal.

After another stop, Nebraska marched the ball down the Minnesota 29. A false start on third-and-5 knocked them back 5 yards, then two incomplete passes turned the ball over on downs once again.

The defense forced another three-and-out, but a safety by Martinez pushed Minnesota’s lead to seven and the Blackshirts ran out of stops as the Gophers scored a touchdown to make it 30-16 with 2:12 to play.

Nebraska got the touchdown back to make its one-score game, but the onside kick failed and Minnesota ran the clock out.

That fourth-and-inches play was Nebraska’s best chance to take the lead, and they couldn’t execute. Nebraska has been metaphorically tripping over its own feet and finding ways to lose all season long, and on Saturday, they did it literally.

That’s why Nebraska’s failed fourth-and-goal conversion is this week’s Play of the Game.

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