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With Renewed Confidence, Huskers Feel Ready for Ohio State Challenge

October 28, 2018

In the two weeks leading up to Michigan, Nebraska averaged 19.8 yards per point. In the two weeks leading up to Ohio State, Nebraska is averaging 11.5 yards per point. The lower the number here, the better; the first would have ranked 129th in the country last season while the second would have ranked sixth.

In the two weeks leading up to Michigan, Nebraska was outscored 17-7 in first quarters. In the two weeks leading up to Ohio State, Nebraska is outscoring its opponents 42-3 in first quarters.

In the two weeks leading up to Michigan, Nebraska went 0-2. In the two weeks leading up to Ohio State, Nebraska has gone 2-0, with the latest coming by way of a 45-9 win over Bethune-Cookman on Saturday.

Now, there are slight quality differences among opponents, sure. Colorado and Troy (NU’s first two) currently rank 62nd and 60th in S&P+ rankings. Minnesota ranks 67th but Bethune-Cookman sits at the FCS level. Still, the point remains: Nebraska is playing better football leading up to Ohio State than it was leading up to Michigan.

Nebraska knows it, too.

“I think we're a more disciplined team, I think we're a more efficient team right now,” Coach Scott Frost said after Saturday’s game wrapped up. “Hopefully the last two [wins] mean we're going to be more of a confident team. We've got to go on the road to a tough place to play a very good team that's going to be ticked off and had two weeks to practice since their last game that didn't go well for them. We know what we're in for, we're going to get their best shot."

Ohio State will get the Huskers’ best shot too, because while the team is producing at a higher level (21 penalties in the first two, 11 in the last two; okay, now I’m done), the less measurable stuff has improved, too. Nebraska has confidence now it didn’t have before.

“I don’t think we knew what kind of team we were,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “I think we had a lot of doubt with each other, conflicts within, and a lot of that is gone. We have a lot of confidence in each other.”

There were still players leaving the program in September and the talk that dominated press conferences and postgame availabilities was more about culture and less about play on the field. All of that stuff has changed. The narrative since Purdue has been of a team that has finally started to click.

Quarterback Noah Vedral, with Frost last season at UCF before transferring back to Nebraska, was asked if this Huskers team is starting to better resemble the Knights he left. He said they’re getting closer, the execution is crisper and the trust levels are higher.

“This team’s pretty…” he started before stopping himself. “This team’s really special in terms of how close we’ve gotten this year. We’ve had our ups and our downs, our struggles, but as a team we’ve held it together, which I think is why you’re seeing now a team that’s starting to rise back up and we’re starting to catch our stride again.”

Defensive lineman Peyton Newell had an interesting comment on that rise. “The little things are finally adding up,” he said. Like running top drills during “zero period” every single practice and having an interception off a tipped pass each of the last two weeks? Or like working on punch-out drills and ball security drills in practice and having safety JoJo Domann force a fumble by punching the ball out from behind?

The little things that weren’t being done and weren’t adding up to much for Nebraska early are doing the exact opposite right now.

“I think seeing a little bit of proof of product, proof of process,” Vedral said. “We’ve seen the yards all year but we’re starting to see it transition into points now. A win or two helps the guys, kind of like, ‘All right we’re good, we’re not 0-6, that’s not who we are.’

“This week, we felt [confidence] a lot. Even for Bethune-Cookman, guys were bought in, locked in all week long and if guys continue to come in with that mindset, we feel we can compete with anyone.”

Michigan is currently ranked fourth by S&P+. The Wolverines haven’t lost since the opening game of their season, a one-score loss to Notre Dame (who is seventh in S&P+ and likely headed for a CFP berth). Nebraska was not ready to go toe-to-toe with Michigan’s talent and it showed.

Ohio State is currently ranked eighth by S&P+. But the Buckeye’s only loss this season came a week ago on the road against Purdue. The Buckeyes were on their bye week this week and should enter next Saturday’s contest fresh and angry. Maybe Nebraska isn’t quite ready to go toe-to-toe with Ohio State’s talent yet either. But this is college football and stranger things have happened.

A lot of times, the common denominator is confidence.

“It’s hard to put words to it necessarily but we have grown,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “We’ve grown in our confidence and in our chemistry. I wish we could have had it a little earlier in the season obviously, but we are where we are now. We feel great as a unit. Confident we can beat anyone.”

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