The Alabama kid is getting his opportunity.
By now you’ve heard the news. Adrian Martinez won’t be available for Friday’s season finale against Iowa. The shoulder injury that he sustained at Wisconsin needed to be fixed, so he called it a season and had surgery on Wednesday. Who knows what happens with him and his career going forward, but this much is known: Martinez should be celebrated for what he’s given this football program. Mentally, physically, he gave it all. Like him or not, he always faced the music during good times and bad. He deserves all the respect.
With Martinez out of the equation, the hopes and dreams of a win over Iowa lie with a second-year freshman quarterback from Muscle Shoals, Alabama—Logan Smothers.
This will be interesting, won’t it? For two years, fans have been wondering about Smothers. He’s a dynamic athlete who can run the ball, we know that much. But it’s the other part of the being a Power Five quarterback—arguably the most important—that’s an unknown right now: Smothers’ ability to throw the ball effectively against Big Ten defenses.
“That part of his game has improved a lot, along with other areas,” Scott Frost said of Smothers’ passing Wednesday when he met with the media. “So it’s a good opportunity for him and it’s a good opportunity for us to see what he can do.”
That last part from Frost is interesting. It sounds like the head coach is even wondering what he’s going to get from Smothers in the passing game. He has the right to wonder, by the way, because Smothers simply hasn’t had to do it yet in his Husker career.
Iowa is a heck of a defense to have your first career start come against, however. Phil Parker’s unit leads the nation with 21 interceptions and is stout against the run, keeping opponents to just 2.97 yards per rush, second-best in the Big Ten and eighth in the country.
Frost let it rip at Wisconsin and threw the ball 35 times. It worked, and the Huskers had the Badgers on their heels most of the game. Will he let it rip against Iowa, though? I have a hard time believing he will. Instead, put Smothers in a position to be successful. Make a concerted effort to run the ball with the healthy running backs who are left, including Markese Stepp, Jaquez Yant and Marvin Scott. It won’t be easy—the offensive line has struggled all season—but a run game that’s able to churn out tough yards can be Smothers’ best friend on Friday.
A run game can help Smothers, but so could a good day from the defense, and it’s had a lot of those this season. One could tell NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was fired up for the game when he met with the media Monday. He’s a former Hawkeye, after all, and has family and friends who live in the state and want to see the Huskers lose.
“Obviously for me growing up in that state, there’s a lot of people that I know who are going to be cheering for Iowa, which obviously adds a little fuel to the fire,” Chinander said. “There’s going to be a lot of people I know in that state who will be cheering for Nebraska, and I know that they’re wearing Blackshirts gear to the game and or to the bar, or wherever they’re watching the game, and they’re gonna take a lot of heat, and I know they’re doing that for me and the Huskers, so that means a lot. So I think this game is super important, not only about the rivalry, but also just the aftermath of what a win can mean for the program.”
Recently, Iowa’s defense has always been tough. Nebraska’s, not so much. But there’s been a shift this season. Chinander’s 2021 Blackshirts have looked like a Big Ten defense. He’s helped clean up some of the areas that needed cleaning up from last year, like limiting big plays.
The Blackshirts have allowed 40 plays of 20-plus yards in 11 games, which is tied for the fifth-fewest in the conference. Against Big Ten offenses, they’ve allowed only 29 plays of 20-plus, which is tied for third-best. In eight games last season, the Huskers allowed 35 plays of 20-yard or more. That’s progress and improvement.
Limiting those chunk plays also goes along with being better at keeping points off the board, which has gotten better each season since Chinander’s first year in 2018. Nebraska’s defense in 2018 allowed an average of 34.3 points against Big Ten competition. In 2019, the average was down to 30. Last season, it dipped to 29.4. This season, the Huskers have it at 26.4, its best mark yet in the Frost tenure.
There never seems to be a dull moment with Nebraska football. Logan Smothers, you’re up to bat.