Learning how to win can be a difficult process, and after a 24-19 home loss to Troy on Saturday, it’s clear the Huskers have only just begun that journey.
Adrian Martinez’s injury was a devastating blow to the team after what he showed against Colorado, but there were a lot of problems beyond the quarterback. After running seemingly at will against the Buffaloes, Nebraska could only muster 3.9 yards per carry against the Trojans and the Huskers had to settle for field goal attempts rather than touchdowns too many times.
The defense held Troy mostly in check, surrendering just 17 points and 46 yards per play, but they couldn’t get off the field in the second half, allowing thee straight conversions on third-and-9 on Troy’s final scoring drive.
However, it was the third phase of the game that has been a consistent problem through two weeks, and one play in particular captures that above all others.
So close and yet so far… pic.twitter.com/8fbxIg8yhN
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) September 15, 2018
Trailing 3-0 early in the second quarter, the Huskers found themselves facing a fourth-and-7 at their own 10-yard line and decided to punt.
Jordan Ober snapped the ball to Caleb Lightbourn in the end zone. Lightbourn unleashed a quality punt, driving return man Cedarius Rookard back nearly to the Troy 40-yard line. When the ball hit his hands, true freshman corner Cam Taylor was about 2.5 yards away and closing. Sprinting at full speed after setting his would-be blocker up by faking towards the inside then angling back out to create an open lane, Taylor had Rookard dead to rights.
However, Rookard took one step to his right and used Taylor’s momentum against him. The freshman got his hands on Rookard as he flew by, but the returner held his ground and Taylor’s hands slid right off his legs. Rookery immediately took off towards the middle of the field. Four Huskers followed behind Taylor in a clump of bodies, and Rookard’s change of direction caught them off-guard. Safety Antonio Reed slipped and fell as he tried to change directions and linebacker Collin Miller took a tough angle, diving at the return man but flying helplessly by.
Tre Neal, the gunner coming in from the opposite side of the field, had the back side cut off, so Rookard planted his foot and cut right up the middle. Neal gets blocked out of the play (from the back it looks like on the replay, but no call) and Rookard has too much speed for Reed, back on his feet, to catch him. Another player (perhaps walk-on defensive back Eli Sullivan; there are multiple No. 30s on the roster) tries to close in on him but Rookard put him in the turf as well with a slick cut-back.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn attempts to get in the mix but takes a bad angle as Rookard continues to out-run everyone else on the field. The last man standing is right tackle Matt Farniok, but a simple cutback left Farniok behind as he turned right into a block. To Taylor’s credited, he pursued the play all the way down the field after missing the initial tackle but a blocker chipped him just enough that Rookard was able to finish off the return untouched.
The return went for 58-yards and put the Huskers in a 10-point hole. Through a combination of well-timed blocks and Rookard’s ability with the ball in his hands, the return man avoided at least seven tackles on the play.
“We ran our base return,” Troy coach Neal Brown said. “It wasn’t anything special or anything we created. Their guy does a really good job of getting the ball down the field. I didn’t have a watch on it; I wasn’t sure what the hang time was. We’ve put an emphasis on our hold-up technique in the last two weeks. Rookard did a really good job of getting vertical. Punt returns, when you go east and west there’s very little success. It’s when you go north and south when you have your big returns. A lot of credit to our guys for the grit in those returns, because you’ve got to hold blocks and do those types of things.”
With a walk-on back-up quarterback behind center and an offensive line struggling to consistently win in the trenches, suddenly Nebraska had to play from behind two scores.
Nebraska did answer with a quality drive deep into Troy territory, but the drive stalled out at the 11-yard line. On fourth-and-2, Nebraska got whistled for a delay of game penalty, pushing the team back 5 yards. Kicker Barret Pickering missed the 33-yard field goal attempt. Another special teams miscue burned the Huskers, and Troy responded with a touchdown drive to go up 17-0.
“It’s gotta matter,” Frost said about special teams. “It’s gotta matter to everybody more. We had great effort in special teams this week, a lot better attention to detail. One penalty is on me. I got done with the drive, was frustrated, we didn’t get it in the end zone. I wasn’t even looking at the play clock, and we got a delay of game penalty. I don’t know if he would have made that or not. Certainly don’t want to burn a timeout there. We've got to take the field better and get that whole thing going faster, but that one is on me."
Taylor showed up on special teams later in the game, this time for a positive reason as he hustled down the field and dive on top of a muffed punt, but the Huskers failed to punch it in and only got three points out of the drive (finishing off drives is an issue for another time).
“Field position, other than them muffing a punt, was decidedly in their favor, and we have to fix that,” Frost said. “We've got to be able to make some plays on special teams, and those kind of things in a tight game, those are the key things in a tight game.”
Missed kicks, missed tackles, missed blocks and far too many penalties on special teams have killed the Huskers in their 0-2 start. They’ve lost the field position battle in decided fashion both games and their offense hasn’t been able to overcome that disadvantage.
That makes the return and the missed tackles that allowed it a perfect encapsulation of the team’s costly struggles on special teams as well as it’s inability to do the little things and take care of the details. That’s why Cedarius Rookard’s 58-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter is this week’s play of the game.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.