Nebraska is going to have to scheme around its offensive line if it’s to make a bowl game.
That’s the bottom line. Even if the Huskers getting to a bowl feels laughable in the immediate angst of yet another one-score loss. Nebraska is now 2-3 and 0-2 in Big Ten play after an overtime loss at Michigan State. Scott Frost is now 5-15 in such games over his 37 games as Nebraska’s head coach.
The Huskers are 0-3 in those games this season.
But that’s all well-covered ground at this point. It’s hard to justify writing the same column again and again.
“I felt like I was watching the same movie again,” Scott Frost said after the game, which is what he said after the loss at Illinois. It’s too many viewings in too short of a span. Nobody involved wants to watch it again and everyone involved knows, deep down, that it all comes back to coaching.
Coaches that can’t exert some sort of influence over what happens on the field are just caretakers and, by definition, being a caretaker doesn’t offer great job stability.
But, again, we’ve been over all that before.
The baseline expectation entering the 2021 season, to the degree that such a thing can actually exist anywhere outside of the mind of the current Athletic Director, was for Nebraska to get to a bowl game. It hasn’t been to one since 2016.
That can be problematic, being that specific, if you’re really interested in the long-term stability of a football program because a team could be worse than the year before and still win six games based on some good breaks. That would be a false positive.
A team could also be better than the year before with a worse record. That’s a false negative. I think, based on five games, Nebraska is on the false-negative trajectory.
But if it doesn’t play in the postseason, after four years under the current staff, it may not matter. And perhaps it shouldn’t, bottom-line business and all.
So, back to the offensive line. If Nebraska is going to get to the bowl game, almost all of the remaining seven games, at best, are going to look like Michigan State.
The degree to which the Huskers have to scheme around that unit right now is astounding. Many thought, myself included, that unit had a high ceiling entering the season. So far, it’s the flaw you can’t overlook.
There’s no consistency to the run game outside of Adrian Martinez, who again showed just what he’s able to do by conjuring a big play from what looked like a sure sack in the first half. After Saturday, he has six of the Huskers’ 13 rushing touchdowns through five games, four of seven if you remove the Fordham game.
Martinez was sacked seven times. That was on 41 dropbacks, a mindboggling 17% sack rate. Michigan State didn’t track quarterback hurries, but there were plenty of those as well. Just like last week at Oklahoma, Nebraska had the ball and a chance to go win the game near the end of the fourth quarter. Just like last week, that opportunity was snuffed out by a sack.
Point is, when Nebraska had the ball at the 25-yard line to start overtime it called three pass plays. On a crucial fourth-and-3 on the drive that would put the Huskers ahead 20-13 with 7 minutes to play, it called a rollout where if the first read wasn’t open (he wasn’t) the backup plan was for Martinez to just to beat someone himself (he did). It felt like a clever play call, given the constraints of an o-line that’s struggling to do much well at the moment.
It’s hard to see that changing in any drastic way any time soon. That’s Nebraska’s future for now. It has to find a way to win four of its remaining seven games while coming up with workarounds.
It won’t be fun. It won’t be easy. It will involve a lot of close games the rest of the way. It would’ve been a lot easier if Nebraska had capitalized on what it earned through the first 56 minutes of this game, if the punt had gone right instead of left, if, if, if.
“This hasn’t been easy for this team and it hasn’t been easy for me,” Frost said. “From where we started to where we are right now, we’re a way better team.”
I don’t doubt that the either point is true. I personally see it, too, on both fronts.
But the bottom of the hourglass has more sand in it than the top at this point.
The bizarre knack for losing close games is stretching the limits of randomness or luck. Time exists.
On a deserted island, where time doesn’t really exist, the same movie is more than fine. At least it’s something.
But this isn’t an island. Far from it. It’s Nebraska.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.