Nebraska (0-1) opened its season Saturday with a 33-28 loss to Colorado (2-0). And yet, each of the Hail Varsity staff's three takes are positive. The outcome wasn't what anyone in Huskers Nation was hoping for but there were certainly plenty of positives to be found.
Scott Frost and his staff went to work upgrading the talent and depth at the skill positions as soon as they took over in Lincoln, and many of those players made a big impact on Saturday. Nebraska racked up 565 yards of offense including 329 yards on the ground, the team’s highest total in almost four years.
The skill players, both new and old, deserve a lot of credit for how easily Nebraska moved the ball. But the Huskers had some playmakers last year as well and they didn’t have any games like this. The biggest change is the unit that saw the least turnover in personnel — the offensive line.
Nebraska got a strong push up front in the run game most of the night and the result was two 100-yard rushers in freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez and junior running back Greg Bell plus another 60 yards from senior back Devine Ozigbo. Martinez had a lot of clean pockets from which to throw as well and the Huskers only surrendered two sacks.
At one point, senior center Cole Conrad went down with an injury and had to leave the game. Senior right guard Tanner Farmer slid over to center while sophomore Boe Wilson came in at guard, and the Huskers didn’t miss a beat as the very next play was a third-down conversion on the ground by Ozigbo. In fact, Wilson did well enough that the coaches left him in for a bit after Conrad returned to the game.
“We had a couple hiccups here and there, but we showcased ourselves pretty well,” senior guard Jerald Foster said about his unit’s performance. “I feel like we made it clear to ourselves what we need to work on this week coming up. At the end of the day I felt good about our team though. We have a good offense, good at running the ball, throwing the ball, our pace was good.”
The offensive line was a big question coming into the season: how much change could one offseason in Zach Duval’s strength and conditioning program and under offensive line coach Greg Austin’s tutelage bring about? It’s only been one game, but the early returns are good.
“I’m not satisfied with my offensive line,” Foster said. “I’m happy that we showcased ourselves well for the first game, but we can do better. We have detail things, things that if you knew the scheme and everything about it, you would be able to see we messed up a couple times. At the end of the day we did have good yards. I’m happy going forward, we’ve got a lot in front of us, we do.”
Nebraska’s offense will go as the offensive line goes, and the big fellas up front certainly went on Saturday afternoon.
Since Jacob went offensive line, I’ll go defensive line. Nebraska won both battles in the trenches Saturday. Who would have guessed that?
It also didn’t start out that way. On back-to-back possessions to open the game, the Huskers’ defense operated off sudden-change scenarios and looked to be way back on their heels. Colorado covered 86 yards in three minutes and then 24 yards in 1:42 to put 14 points on the board; both drives saw virtually no push up front from the defensive unit.
Then quarterback Adrian Martinez took it 41 yards to the house, the crowd got into it, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander opened things up and the big guys up front for Nebraska teed off.
The Huskers had 14 sacks all of last season. I started a “sack tracker” during the game half as a joke, not expecting this year’s team to hit that 14 mark until well into the season. They had half of last year’s total in four quarters. Three sacks came in the second quarter, then another three in the third quarter, then sophomore Ben Stille’s double-team-busting sack on Colorado’s final drive in the fourth quarter made seven. The line directly contributed 4.5 of them, but make no mistake, it paved the way for each and every hit leveled on CU quarterback Steven Montez. And they had another five hurries.
On Colorado’s last four offensive plays of the game, Montez felt pressure each time; before Stille’s sack, junior Carlos Davis bull-rushed his man and chased Montez away from the pocket and forced a throw-away.
There was a third-down play — not entirely sure when but it stands out nonetheless — where Chinander showed six, brought four and still got to Montez. Stille was getting double-teamed as early as the second quarter. If you adjust the rushing numbers to account for sacks, Nebraska forced a 3.1 yards-per-carry average. Only one time last season did the defense force a lower number.
“Defense at times looked like the Blackshirts,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “I don’t know what they rushed for but we had their quarterback on his back, we stopped the run all day.”
Nebraska did one other thing, too. It out-hit its opponent at the point of attack; and it wasn't particularly close. How many times could you say that last year
Nebraska sent four players to the podium post-game: offensive lineman Jerald Foster, defensive lineman Mick Stoltenberg, linebacker Luke Gifford and quarterback Andrew Bunch. There were a number of players that spoke to the media out in the hallway adjacent to the weight room where the press conference is held, but it’s worth taking note of those four players at the podium specifically.
Foster, Stoltenberg and Gifford are three of Nebraska’s four captains. All three spoke on Monday leading up to the Colorado matchup, and made it clear that they all came to Nebraska together and they planned to leave Nebraska together on a high note. Five days later, those three captains were presented with their first challenge as a unit.
The loss weighed on Foster’s face. It was especially noticeable in one particular answer. What went wrong on those fourth down plays?
“Offensive line…that hurts, all right?” Foster said. “We take it upon ourselves when it’s fourth and ones. So, I’m frustrated up here and I hope you can see that on my face that I’m frustrated about those two things. We can say what we want, but this team doesn’t point fingers, we are one team, one heartbeat so we aren’t pointing fingers, that’s something that we stand for. We do understand that the offensive line needs to be the ones to be able to get that yard, and we will.”
Stoltenberg was next at the podium, giving Foster a hand slap and a hug before switching places. He offered a little insight to his message to the team, which was to take the night to feel down but get ready to come back Monday and work. He talked about building those who were feeling down back up, and making sure no one held on to the loss for too long.
Gifford’s message was the same. The locker room felt different to him after this loss than in losses before, but there are no moral victories. He was clear on that.
Foster, Stoltenberg and Gifford weren’t a surprise to see at the podium. They were named captains for a reason. They’ve been vocal leaders through spring ball, summer conditioning and fall camp. The player that was more surprising was Bunch, but it also wasn’t.
Bunch came into the game late in the fourth quarter after starting quarterback Adrian Martinez left with a knee injury. Having not been the one to lead the team most of the game, it would have made sense if Bunch wasn’t willing to address the media on behalf of the team. Yet, he was there.
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco has always been honest about the role his quarterbacks play on a team. They take the blame, for better or worse. They provide the answers, even if the questions are not about them. When Martinez wasn’t able to come to the podium Saturday night, Bunch did instead.
His answers were short and sweet. He talked about his preparation, and his excitement to be in the game. He also talked about moving forward. In Martinez’s absence, Bunch stood at the podium and provided answers.
On a night when it would have been easy for any Nebraska player to step away from the spotlight, three captains and a backup quarterback stepped forward. It’s not going to be a big storyline out of the day, but it’s at least worth acknowledging and appreciating.