Should Nebraska Do More Under Center
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Should Nebraska Do More Under Center, and When Will it Have a Chase Young?

September 30, 2019

Well, that sucked. 

Nebraska (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) was overmatched in a 48-7 loss to then-No. 5/now-No. 4 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) under the home lights just 24 hours ago. Which means it’s time for another weekly rewind, with a number of random, unrelated thoughts about the game and the week that was, packaged as a Monday column, released on a Sunday.

Dot the I

The sample size is tiny, but maybe Nebraska should do more work under center. 

Memorial Stadium was rocking at kickoff Saturday night in a way it hasn’t in years. A Nebraska turnover after just six plays, combined with an Ohio State offense that scored seven in five, helped to punch the life out of the stadium. 

On drive No. 3 for the Huskers, the life came back. Ohio State’s star-studded defense was on its heels. Nebraska was moving. That drive opened with the Huskers in the flexbone. Dedrick Mills, who played in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack as a freshman, picked up 2 yards on first down. 

Nebraska went shotgun, motioned Mills out wide and swung him a pass for another 10 yards. Then quarterback Adrian Martinez went under center, Mills lined up at fullback with Wan’Dale Robinson at tailback. 

Twelve more yards for Mills on a fullback trap.

Then another I-formation look. A quick pitch to Robinson picked up 5. 

Two plays later, Martinez picked up 8 more on the ground from an option keeper out of the I. 

Then another fullback trap to Mills for 12. 

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler were just as confused in the booth as Ohio State’s defense was on the field; the two just kept yelling random years from the 1990s. The crowd could feel it. The press box could feel it. Scott Frost could feel it. 

Energy.

This was a wrinkle. Whether it was just for Ohio State or something Nebraska has been building toward, coach and quarterback played coy, but it worked when called. 

Nebraska went under center 11 times Saturday night and hit for 6.1 yards per play. Considering their usual (prepared for) shotgun stuff picked up an average of 3.6 yards per play, it’s worth exploring whether this wrinkle can turn into something more in the coming weeks. 

“We’ll see,” Frost said.

It fits Mills’ running style and what he knows, and with Maurice Washington once again getting banged up (he had four carries for 9 yards and two catches for 10), if Mills can string together some games without fumble issues this may be the way to squeeze the most out of the former JUCO runner. 

It also helps redshirt freshman center Cameron Jurgens, who, for the second game in a row, was less-than-ideal in the snapping department. 

It may fit Nebraska’s current offensive line configuration, too. 

“It was fun,” right tackle Matt Farniok said, and it shouldn’t be discounted because no other part of Saturday evening was fun for anyone in scarlet and cream. “I love that kind of football, running downhill and trying to smack someone. That plays right into my wheelhouse. It was a lot of fun to get some of those plays and get a feel for them.”

This offensive coaching staff is not going to just throw out what they do and go back to 1996. There’s too much pride. There’s also too much UCF tape that suggests it works if Nebraska could just be more consistent in its execution. But Scott Frost is known for his adaptive style. 

This could be the adjustment that frees up the other stuff. Nebraska pulled out under-center concepts on three drives (the third, eighth and 10th), but that third drive is where things really came together. The interception to end the drive came from a shotgun set in 21 personnel that I haven’t seen yet this season, and Nebraska got exactly what it wanted. 

If this stuff is more of a complement rather than an occasional gadget deal, perhaps Saturday wasn’t a total lost cause. It worked against maybe the best defense in the country. 

The Most Popular Question After Saturday

How long until Nebraska has that?

Bill Connelly’s four-year weighted recruiting ranking coming into the season had Ohio State slotted at No. 5. 

I don’t really want to get into a prolonged discussion about how wide your friend’s uncle thought the talent gap was Saturday night, because Nebraska has talent. Maurice Washington and Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman and Adrian Martinez and Mohamed Barry and Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle and Darrion Daniels would make any two-deep in the Big Ten. Any. I will die on this hill. 

But Nebraska has no one — repeat, no one — like Chase Young standing on its sideline on Saturdays. And that’s the difference. 

From the first snap of the game, Young told Nebraska it was going to be a long day. 

By the sixth snap, Young told Nebraska it wasn’t going to be a contest. 

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior defensive end is the best defensive player in football. He’s a future NFL All-Pro. In a single second, he threw Farniok aside with a swim move and flushed Martinez from the pocket. Trying to evade a sack, Martinez threw across his body and late to Robinson. Jeff Okudah jumped the ball and turned Nebraska over. Great play from Okudah, it doesn’t happen without Young. 

On Martinez’s second interception, Farniok was matched up with senior defensive end Jonathan Cooper. Cooper proceeded to bull rush Farniok back into Martinez’s lap, but it was Young coming off the left end underneath that left Martinez with nowhere to escape. He couldn’t retreat back any further and he obviously couldn’t step forward. 

So he threw. Pick No. 2 isn’t entirely on Martinez the way pick No. 3 is (though you’d be hard-pressed to find a time this season when that kind of a throw has been completed, regardless of protection) and it isn’t entirely because of Cooper. Young deserves credit here, too, because if Cooper didn’t get to Martinez, Young was. 

For how modest a stat line Young posted — three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble — his impact was greatly felt. When Nebraska dedicated extra attention to him, other guys teed off. When Nebraska left him one-on-one, he teed off.

He’s a game-wrecker. Herbstreit called him as much Saturday night. He’s the guy every great team needs on its defense because he’s the guy every offense fears the most.

Which begs the question: where is Nebraska’s Chase Young?

Is there someone in the pipeline right now that can become that? Maybe Ty Robinson. Maybe Caleb Tannor, who continues to show flashes. But that’s a big emphasis on maybe. Young was the seventh-ranked high school prospect in the country in his 2017 class. Nebraska certainly doesn’t have that and it doesn’t look like those guys will be interested going forward until these 48-7 games on big stages are a thing of the past.

A Quick Acknowledgement

I normally try and steer away from the fan praising, as it just feels like it comes across as disingenuous, but to however many Nebraska fans stayed into the night to watch that 17-play fourth-quarter drive come up empty, and there were a lot of them, you guys are special. 

Those who were in town as visitors took note of that. Nebraska didn’t quit on the field, and there was an actually-pretty-good percentage of fans in the stands that rewarded them for that. So congrats.

Another Happy Note

Junior Nebraska guard Jervay Green is a legend. 

That is all. 

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