In two starts, Adrian Martinez averaged 12.5 carries a game. In Luke McCaffrey’s two starts, he’s averaged 19.5. Nebraska’s two quarterbacks lead the team in rushing carries. McCaffrey has more carries in four games than Dedrick Mills, Marvin Scott III, Ronald Thompkins, and Rahmir Johnson have combined.
“Those guys are going to be good players, but we’ve got to get them to the point that they can execute well and carry the load for us,” head coach Scott Frost said after the game. “I don’t want our quarterbacks running as much as they have.”
Nebraska has three plays right now, though. First, a quarterback run. Second, a Wan’Dale Robinson run. Third, a check-down/swing pass to the flats. Switch up the order each time. That’s what you can rely on offensively on Saturdays.
Everything else is an adventure. Everything else is stressful. Everything else grays the hair on Frost’s head.
And even those three aren’t reliable or conducive to winning football.
Third-and-22 from the Illinois 38-yard-line and McCaffrey checks down to Robinson in the flat for four yards. He’s picked off on the fourth-down try. Might Nebraska have kicked a field goal if it had gained a little more on third? Who knows? It trailed 41-17 at that point and there was only 10 to play in the fourth.
Problems add up. NU’s offense has a way of compounding all its flaws until suffocation.
A change at quarterback didn’t provide air.
It brought exactly what Frost said it would: a spark, good for a brief run where McCaffrey was the unexpected wild card played at the right time. But sparks go out as quick as they spurt to life. McCaffrey was decent against Penn State, a game Nebraska won because of its defense.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith was happy to prepare for him this past week and not Martinez. The latter had thrown for 618 yards and 6 scores at a 67.6% clip in two career starts against Smith’s defense. He had only one interception.
Smith knew it would be McCaffrey taking the field Saturday, so Illinois game-planned accordingly.
The Illini committed to stopping Nebraska at the line of scrimmage. They played soft with their corners and brought safeties down. McCaffrey was spied often. The redshirt freshman ran for 122 yards and two scores against that defense, but he did it on 26 carries and got walloped more than any coach would like to see.
There was a reason Husker receivers were running wide open all day.
No one respects Nebraska’s passing game. There are only five Power Five passing attacks who have produced less through the air than Nebraska’s on a per-game basis. Frost’s offense is designed to saddle the defense with a math problem. You commit numbers to the play-makers, and the quarterback can then win one-on-ones. You commit numbers to the quarterback, the play-makers can have one-on-ones. UCF leveraged scheme and speed to win the numbers.
Nebraska isn’t. Opponents don’t have to care about the math. Stop the run. Don’t fret about what that commitment will expose you to on the backend. The quarterback hasn’t been able to alleviate the pressure.
The offensive line isn’t helping. McCaffrey was flushed from the pocket too often on Saturday. Running backs aren’t helping, though their touches remain few and far between. Wideouts have dropped first downs and touchdowns. Frost hasn’t been consistent as a play-caller.
The book is pretty open on this offense. Penn State did the same thing in the second half a week ago that Illinois did Saturday, bringing heat and making McCaffrey improvise with his legs. Nebraska didn’t make the Nittany Lions’ defense pay either.
The quarterback either has to have time to make the throw or the confidence to attempt the throw.
When McCaffrey had both, he was intercepted.
Sure, two of those picks came on fourth down so they didn’t “cost” Nebraska much, but they were damaging in other ways. McCaffrey took a shot on his first interception as he was rolling to his left toward the sideline. His throw was undercut. He took a shot to Levi Falck on the second pick and hung the ball up. Falck was open but not for long enough. He tested coverage on the third pick, throwing a ball up for the 5-foot-10 Robinson and hoping he’d come down with it. He didn’t.
Timing, timing and arm talent, and then decision-making. Three tests that came up short.
Frost said he didn’t see Saturday’s performance coming. Other players said they could. Why the disconnect? Carelessness? Tunnel vision?
Maybe the book of quarterback decisions written since Frost’s arrival contains at least a roadmap toward an answer.
I don’t know where Nebraska goes following Saturday’s loss. I don’t know what to think of this offense’s future. I thought multiple times Saturday, “What harm would it be to throw Logan Smothers out there?” Nebraska’s quarterback can’t operate the offense right now.
McKenzie Milton averaged 10 carries a game as a freshman in 2016 (he played 10 games). He averaged 8.2 a game during that magical 2017 season for Central Florida (106 carries in 13 games).
Martinez had 140 carries in 11 games in 2018. He had 144 in 10 games the following year. McCaffrey’s current pace is right in line with Martinez’s sophomore season.
“I’m going to keep simplifying, if I have to, to make sure these young players can be in the right place and do the right thing,” Frost said.
That’s about as troubling a statement as a coach in year three can make. And it doesn’t seem to be pointed at wideouts. It can’t be. Transfers are playing as soon as available. Freshmen are producing when given the opportunity. This continues to be about the quarterback spot.
Frost allowed Patrick O’Brien to leave when he arrived. O’Brien has three scores against one pick in three games for Colorado State this season, with 8.5 yards per throw and a 60.7% completion rate. He wasn’t a perfect fit for the system, but would he fit the talent Nebraska has now? Coaches have to be able to maximize what they have, not run them off when they don’t fit snugly into the puzzle.
Frost tabbed Martinez over Tristan Gebbia in the quarterback battle of 2018, and Gebbia transferred to Oregon State, where he’s now the starter, completing 62% of his throws.
Martinez is averaging 5.9 yards per throw with a 58.7% completion rate this year. McCaffrey is at 64.7% but has five interceptions against just one score in two starts. He’s throwing a pick every 14 passes. Compare that to UCF’s Milton in 2017, who threw one every 44 pass attempts, or Milton in 2016 when he threw one every 48 attempts.
Noah Vedral, brought over from Central Florida by Frost, transferred to Rutgers this offseason because he didn’t see an avenue toward playing time. He’s since averaged 6.4 yards a throw, a 64.2% clip, and has thrown eight scores. Vedral had the college football public captivated Saturday night while taking Michigan to double-overtime with big play after big play.
And Joe Burrow continues to lurk right around the corner in every Nebraska-related quarterback conversation.
Did Frost end up with the two least productive passers? Both are incredibly dynamic runners and valuable leaders, but the tape is starting to say that’s not enough to overcome the flaws as passers.
What are we to make of that?
McCaffrey has a lot of time left to develop, but Nebraska’s situation doesn’t afford him any of it.
A stake-free season has quickly become a nightmare. Nebraska is running for its life and it doesn’t seem like that will change anytime soon.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.