Nebraska Football running back Marvin Scott III Runs the Ball
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The Proof of Concept, and Flaw, in Nebraska Football Emerges Again in One Game

November 20, 2021

Nebraska’s search for its next offensive coordinator got easier on Saturday.

The Huskers’ lost 35-28 to No. 15 Wisconsin in Madison, but became the first opponent to gain 400 yards against a Badger defense that entered the day allowing 211.4 per game, first nationally. Nebraska averaged 6.5 yards per play, 0.7 yards better than anyone else had managed against Wisconsin.

None of this would’ve been that surprising in normal circumstances. Nebraska, with Scott Frost helming the offense, has always moved the ball against good Wisconsin defenses. But this time he was doing it after having fired four assistants on that side of the ball. It was only Frost and the analysts he selected to fill in.

The result was the same, both ways. In three games with this Frost offense against Wisconsin, Nebraska has averaged 7.4 yards per play and every other team since 2018 has averaged 4.6 against the Badgers. You could also look at it this way: Nebraska has gained 12.5% of all the yards Wisconsin has allowed since 2018 in 6.7% of the games.

“We’ve had some success against them getting yards,” Frost said, “but we haven’t won. That’s the stat that matters the most.”

Nebraska could probably trademark that phrase at this point.

But, as we consider the future of this program and the offensive coaches yet to be hired, it at least offers some clarity. It’s not the plays or the scheme or probably even the talent that’s the issue. That should’ve been apparent before Saturday, but the Wisconsin game, given the staff changes, offered lab conditions for such an assessment.

No, the issue for Nebraska in this era has never been the fun stuff—game-planning, matching wits, moving the chess pieces around. It has always been the mundane stuff.

Nebraska lost by seven while . . .

. . . basically starting the game down seven by allowing a kickoff return on the opening kick. The Huskers have now allowed opposing teams to score on special teams this season via kickoff return, punt return, a blocked extra point returned for two and a safety. The only way left is to return a turnover on a two-point try.

. . . going minus-two in turnovers. You can generally figure an exchanged of five points on any turnover, so that’s 10 in the red for Nebraska on a pair of Adrian Martinez interceptions.

. . . coming up empty twice on drives that ended inside the Wisconsin 25. On the first one, down 14-7 in the first quarter, it made sense to play for the touchdown facing a fourth down from the Badgers’ 6 in the way that it always makes sense to go for it down seven with two games left in a 3-7 season. (Don’t give up the kickoff return, see above, and maybe it’s different.) On the second one, still down seven, a first-and-10 on the Wisconsin 11 with under a minute remaining became first-and-20 on the 21 after a holding call and there was no choice but to play for a touchdown because the difference in the game, after 59 minutes of back-and-forth football, remains that opening kickoff return.

Every game of the past four years seems to go that way because Nebraska puts itself in that position almost every time in games where the sides are relatively equal.

Frost mentioned all of those things in his postgame comments.

“It’s happened too much,” he said. “We need to get it fixed. We’re gonna get it fixed. We keep putting ourselves in position against really good teams. We’ve got to get it done.”

It remains the proof of concept and the fatal flaw at the same time.

If you’re thinking, “that seems a little outside the purview of four new offensive assistants,” me too.

That’s not to minimize what new ideas could change. The Huskers really are so close that almost any button pushed at exactly the right time could be the right one. But it seems notable—as evidenced Saturday—that the button already pushed doesn’t appear to be directly wired to the “WIN” light.

Nebraska has already made staff changes. With another losing season assured two weeks ago, some sort of public change had to be made and that’s what was chosen.

It’s a lot to ask of that particular change given what happened Saturday. I didn’t expect the Huskers to look drastically different against the Badgers, but the hope for the future is that Nebraska will.

The loss to Wisconsin was agonizingly the same, which is maybe the only way it could’ve gone with this current team. But it’s hard not to peek ahead at the future, with whatever changes will come, and wonder if the changes that are known now actually address the big-picture problem.

It feels––in most ways, given how new Nebraska’s roster could look in 2022––like a second year one, which doesn’t come along often in year five, a change in itself. Maybe the ultimate value of this game will be that it underscores that there’s only so much you can ask a new coordinator or running backs coach or offensive line coach to do.

The impediment to winning is larger than that, which the Wisconsin game only made evident.

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