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LINCOLN – The song of the day at Memorial Stadium, as selected by Husker fans and played during the second quarter while Nebraska was surprisingly tied 7-7 with South Alabama, was Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer.”
Maybe that’s all it was, the song Nebraska fans wanted to hear the most, and nothing more. But, man, was it well timed.
A summer of division-title projections and talk of unlimited potential on offense damn sure did feel cruel with the Nebraska offense sputtering towards a 14-7 lead and 4.3 yards per play in the first half. The Huskers averaged 6.3 a year ago. South Alabama allowed 6.7 in 2018.
And that was the good half for the Huskers’ offense.
In the second, the offense barely got to play at all thanks to two defensive touchdowns and a JD Spielman punt return touchdown that won Nebraska the game. The Huskers only ran 16 plays, taking out the final kneel down, and maybe that was a good thing on this day given that those plays only averaged 3.9 yards.
This is the mystery that will perplex people all week long. The morning-coffee crowd at all of the small-town cafes around the state will be talking about the offensive line Monday morning. The retched running game (2.7 yards per carry, and that’s without sacks) was driving call-in shows immediately after the final gun. By Wednesday, you’ll be watching some national show and they’ll probably ask something like this: “Is there cause for concern with Nebraska’s offense?”
I don’t know the answer to that. I know that you never really know much after one game. This game will either be a bizarre anomaly or the first sign of some legitimate concerns, but we won’t know which one it is until much later.
South Alabama head coach Steve Campbell saw little reason to change his opinion on the more broadly held belief that Nebraska’s offense is going to put up numbers this year.
“Nebraska is good on offense,” he said. “They’re going to score a bunch of points against a lot of people. Ohio State and Michigan, people like that. They’re going to score a bunch of points.”
You could view that as an opposing coach simply being gracious after a loss. Or you could view it as someone who has lived with the frustration Scott Frost must have felt on Saturday, because all coaches have, saying this was just one of those days. Campbell had every reason to be, and probably was, ecstatic. His Jaguars gave up the fewest yards per play in a game since Campbell took over at the start of last season.
But he almost seemed to be hinting that if the two teams played again tomorrow, maybe Nebraska looks more like the Nebraska most think it can be.
First games can be like that. First games with big spreads—this one closed at Nebraska -36—offer a particularly high degree of difficulty. Not to win, but to make everyone happy. A heavy favorite can come out, dominate and get only partial credit for it because “that’s what they were supposed to do.” Or it can struggle, win close (or even lose) and get dragged through the social-media muck for not doing what it was supposed to do. Those are really the only two options. Meet expectations, which must then be tempered (because it’s only Week 1) or fail to meet them and endure a mini-calamity for the next seven days.
Nebraska’s offense—it’s sharpest knife, it’s calling card—landed in the latter category on Saturday. So, calamity it up. My feeling is that a re-watch of this game won’t be kind to the offensive line, but that needs to happen. The run-game struggles, if they’re a lingering problem, could be a big problem. The defense probably can’t score as many points as the offense if the Huskers are going to be much good this season, unless the defense is planning to score 21 points a game.
There are concerns here, and they need to be looked at. But they’re concerns involving what I’m still quite confident will be Nebraska’s biggest strength this season. This program is built around its offensive identity. It’s who Frost is, and there are more reasons to believe Saturday’s struggles against South Alabama were more noise than signal.
“Offensively, I don’t have any doubt on what we can do on offense,” Frost said. “We’ve been doing it a long time as a coaching staff and we have the right pieces to do it, so we’ll go back to the lab and figure it out.”
The choice here after the first 60 minutes of Nebraska football in 2019 is whether or not to believe that.
There’s always a choice.
In the second quarter, Husker fans chose “Cruel Summer.” It was perfect for that moment, but like all Week 1 things, we’ll see if it was something or actually nothing at all.