Hail Varsity staff members Jacob Padilla, Greg Smith and Brandon Vogel offer three final takeaways from Nebraska's win over Illinois.
Confidence has been elusive for Nebraska football the past few seasons. You could see it on the field earlier in the season that when things broke down, the Huskers just didn’t feel like they could turn things around. That feeling has changed in Lincoln.
The biggest catalyst for the change: the offense.
Right now Nebraska’s offense is looking like the high-powered attack fans dreamed of when Scott Frost was hired. The Huskers offense has racked up more than 450 total yards in seven straight games now, which is a school record. They have also scored at least 30 points in five straight games.
“I feel like we believe that we can really ball with anybody and we should score every drive," senior running back Devine Ozigbo said after the game. "So, going out there on the first drive that attitude doesn’t change. You have got to have that attitude that once you start fast, you have to maintain it throughout the game. If the first drive doesn’t work out, you have to come with the same energy on the second. If the second doesn’t work out, you come with the same energy on the third. It is just kind of having that attitude that whenever we get out there, we are going to go score.”
With increased confidence comes loftier goals. It was mentioned a few times during post-game interviews that the offense wants to put up 50 points every time they hit the field. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kade Warner said that is 100 percent the goal for the offense. Where did that goal come from?
“Earlier in the season, we were doing a lot of good things on offense and getting a lot of yards but we weren’t getting a ton of points,” Warner said.
“They were telling us if we are getting that many yards, we should be getting 42 or 50 points. So, these last couple of games, 50 has been our goal. I’m pretty sure we hit it against Minnesota and we hit it again today. That’s our goal and we are going to keep it our goal going forward.”
The team knows that scoring 50 points a game is hard. They also know to do that, they’d need to score on most possessions they get. The good thing now is that they all believe it can be done.
Special teams have been anything but special so far this season, and in fact, mistakes in the third phase of the game were very costly in Nebraska’s loss to Ohio State last weekend.
However, Saturday’s win over Illinois was a different story. For perhaps the first time all season against an FBS foe, Nebraska won the special teams battle.
The Huskers still didn’t get much out of their return game, but their coverage was significantly better than we’ve seen all season. That had a lot to do with the latest change on special teams — freshman place kicker Barret Pickering replaced junior punter Caleb Lightbourn on kickoffs.
Pickering battled with Lightbourn for the job during fall camp, but Lightbourn ultimately won the job and held it for the first nine games of the season. However, after Nebraska’s opening drive touchdown, it was the freshman from Hoover, Alabama, who trotted out onto the field.
Pickering doesn’t have the same leg strength that Lightbourn has, and struggled to reach the end zone. Just three of his nine kickoffs were touchbacks. With Illinois starting farther up the field, Nebraska’s coverage teams became all the more important and they were on point on Saturday.
Here is the yard line at which Illinois started each of its drives following a Nebraska kickoff: 24, 24, 28, 25, 25, 25, 24, 25, 7. That’s an average starting point of the 23-yard line. Illinois returned it six times for an average of 13.8 yards per return and a long of 18.
No busts, no open lanes, no big returns this week.
Punt coverage went even better for the Huskers. The final tally shows three returns for minus-15 yards for the Illini. Even better, Nebraska got a turnover off of a punt thanks to the hustle of a pair of walk-ons (one who is now on scholarship).
With 33 seconds left in the first half, Nebraska punted the ball away to Illinois. The returner set up to field it at the 24-yard line but the ball bounced off his chest for the muffed punt. Walk-on corner Jeremiah Stovall was the first one there along with a couple other Illini and the ball got knocked backwards 10 yards. An Illinois player was the first one to the ball and he tried to reach down to pick it up, but Wyatt Mazour dived forward, knocking it free again and allowing Stovall to recover it. The Huskers scored three plays later to go up 38-21 heading into halftime.
Great job of recovering the ball here by Jeremiah Stovall but it was @WMazour20 who laid out to knock the ball free again after an Illinois player had it in his hands. #Huskers get 7 because of Mazour's hustle. pic.twitter.com/TxR5MqdBoi
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 10, 2018
“That’s the kind of effort you’ve got to have,” said senior safety Tre Neal, the one dancing at the end of the clip. “That’s something we kind of lacked earlier in the year was just guys selling out trying to make a play. That speaks to Wyatt; he’s one of those guys that hustles no matter what he’s doing. He’s going 100 miles an hour. I think when he saw the ball, I’m sure he just dove and laid out to get the ball out of his hands.”
Mazour’s effort caught the attention of form Husker linebacker Chris Weber, another walk-on who earned a scholarship during his days in Lincoln.
Effort is everything. Basketball coaches should show this as teaching tape for the ol’ loose ball drill in practice https://t.co/hfkiiJsQOa
— Chris Weber (@ChrisWeber49) November 11, 2018
We’ve seen the offense really get going (seven straight games with 450-plus yards, five straight with 30-plus points) and Nebraska’s takeaway numbers on defense have skyrocketed over the last few weeks. If the special teams are finally starting to come along, Nebraska has a chance to close this season on a high note.
Let’s talk about Nebraska’s latest alternate for a second. I neither loved nor hated it when looking at the glitzy Adidas promo photos upon the uniform’s release last month. Specifically, I had two primary concerns because I’m a dork about this stuff.
One, I wasn’t sure what to do with the pants. They were said to be “buff,” a color meant to “resemble the first façade of Memorial Stadium.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant and it was hard to make out in the photographs. On the field, however, you had a nearly cream-colored pant, which has long been on my list for potential Nebraska alternates. (The school colors are scarlet and cream, so make an alternate that “honors” that and use cream instead of white.) It looked great. Would’ve looked even better if paired with a similarly “buff” helmet, but hopefully this game proves that the scarlet-and-cream alternate is doable. If the Huskers were to seek a permanent alternate, it would be a great way to go. Keep the uniform elements the same, just swap in cream for white. Done. You could wear that once or twice a season. Could even take it on the road with a cream away jersey.
My second very esoteric concern had to do with the numbers. They were said to be based on the old game clock at Memorial Stadium, which was a pretty cool and unique clock. The number font was so singular that it was going to be easy to tell if that was just marketing nonsense or if the uniform designers actually used the font from the clock.
You can tell by the 3s.
This would’ve been an easy detail to fudge. Glad they didn’t. I say go ahead and just make that the number font for Nebraska’s helmet numbers going forward.