Nebraska Football

Mailbag: Knee-Jerk Reactions to Nebraska's Opener vs. South Alabama

September 4, 2019
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The Hail Varsity staff is back for another mailbag and it’s another big one so let’s just dive in.

What is one snap judgment you made about the Huskers' first game that you think will be incorrect by season's end? (@AsianJoeEvans) 

Greg Smith: My immediate thought coming out of the game was that the Huskers needed to go with Will Farniok at center. Essentially, they need to hit a double versus going for the home run with Jurgens. After re-watching the game, I actually have already backed off that notion. I think you let Jurgens develop and take the possible lumps now.  

Derek Peterson: I thought the offensive line struggles were pretty glaring. Nebraska’s inability to establish much between the tackles had me thinking perhaps we should have made a bigger deal out of the two newbies at guard than we did throughout pretty much all offseason. But, as is the case with these things, that’s probably preemptive. 

Does the way the Huskers played against USA change your outlook for this season? (@tklim2430) 

GS: Not really. Though ask me again after Colorado. 

Erin Sorensen: I’m with Greg. I need another week before I start changing my outlook on the season. And for the record, that outlook was 8-4. 

Jacob Padilla: What Greg and Erin said. We need at least one more week to find out what we really learned in week one. Were the struggles a sign of things to come or just a bad day at the office? We’ll have a better idea this weekend. I also went with 8-4, so I wasn’t expecting them to win the division heading into the season. 

Mike Babcock: I’ll go further. I think we need more than a couple of games to judge where this team is headed. I also predicted 8-4 regular season, after wavering at 7-5. And I’m still wavering. 

Brandon Vogel: I’ll need four games—one-third of the regular season—before I will feel great about what I’m seeing. That’s true for Nebraska, but really any team in the country. Northwestern was 1-3 after four games a year ago. More than wins and losses, however, I’ll be looking closely at how the Huskers are playing on a down-by-down basis. This is a bottom-line business, of course, but when it comes to determining quality I prefer as big of a sample size as I can get. 

DP: No, it doesn’t. These next two games — a high-intensity road matchup in a tough environment and another pay-for-play game against a lesser opponent the Huskers have inexplicably struggled with in recent memory — will tell me a lot about what season we’re about to have. I think it’s just as likely the Huskers drop 600 yards on Colorado this Saturday as it is the offense struggles again. 

How are you feeling about going into the Colorado game despite some little issues on offense? Do you think we can carry the defense momentum over into the next game? (@Go_Big_Red) 

GS: I still feel a Husker win in Boulder. In a way that poor offensive showing will make the offense very focused all week. I do think the defensive momentum carries over. If it does, we have a very intriguing storyline building after so many counted the defense out coming into 2019. 

JP: I think I feel better about the team now than if it had done well on offense but struggled on defense in Week 1. I have more faith in Scott Frost and Adrian Martinez to get things fixed quickly on that side than I would have if the defense had looked just like the one we saw last season. 

MB: I don’t feel better or worse after watching the South Alabama game. Again, we need more than a couple of games to evaluate where things are headed, so the offensive approach last Saturday won’t necessarily be the same this week. Plus, the Huskers have had a week to work on issues that arose. Martinez is too talented to have many games like the first one, assuming the offensive line continues to develop. I thought Colorado was a toss-up before. I still think that way. We’ll see. The play of the defense definitely was encouraging, though.  

DP: I think Adrian Martinez is going to have a moment. And, yes, I think the Huskers can carry the defensive momentum over. This is a unit that just needs a little proof of concept to start building confidence. Well... 

What impact will sports betting have on the media in covering the Huskers? (@dmhusker1) 

BV: I think you’ve already seen a big impact on some of the national outlets. Flip on ESPNews now and it looks like CNBC with all of the various lines and totals attached to each game. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I’m interested in what the markets are saying about games. That’s probably the biggest difference—you have to get used to seeing a point spread attached to almost everything. Locally, I’m not sure there will be much difference right away. I’ve thought a lot about this from a coverage perspective. I don’t see much value (for readers) in putting out picks because it’s really hard to beat the spread consistently. Most of the people who tell you they are––i.e “I went 5-1 against the spread last week”––are usually using some sleight of hand. So, I think if we can provide information and insight that could be of actual use, that could be valuable but from my perspective, it probably won’t be branded as “Six Can’t-Miss Picks” or whatever. 

I was surprised to see us in the top 25 this week. How overrated do you think we are? Where would you put us? (@InDaWilderness) 

ES: I’m not sure I think Nebraska is significantly overrated. Maybe a little, but that probably goes back to the original rankings, right? Let’s take the AP Top 25, for example. Nebraska is tied for 25th with Iowa State after being ranked 24th to start the season. Who should be rated higher? Virginia is the closest in votes with 73. Nebraska and Iowa State have 86 each. Virginia defeated Pitt, 30-14, on Saturday. So, maybe the Cavaliers deserve more votes and to be rated over Nebraska but they also just moved from what was technically 32nd to now 26th from Week 1 to Week 2. If they keep winning and Nebraska loses, that obviously changes. But if Huskers are overrated, blame the preseason poll. It’ll sort itself out in due time either way. 

MB: When you get into the 20s there’s not as much certainty as with, maybe, the top 10. I’m not sure Nebraska belongs in the top 25, but if voters do, fine. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. Again, I need to see more than one game to evaluate where (or if) the Huskers belong in the top 25. It’s just too early to say a team that was 4-8 last season belongs in the top 25. 

I live in Colorado. Please assure me that NU will figure out what they need to figure out and win Saturday.  
AND 
I still see a team that is enamored with the myth of Nebraska, one that likes to talk about things a lot but hasn't quite figured out what they are and can be. Analysis is fine but I just want to see them to be quiet & play loose and fun and fierce on Sat. How long until we're there? (@thawildbunch) 

JP: The defense at least played pretty loose and fierce and the Blackshirts had fun based on what the players said after the game. I guess I don’t understand the “be quiet” part. If players kept their mouths shut and just played the game we wouldn’t have a job. I haven’t heard anything that leads me to believe the Huskers think they’ve arrived and don’t have to keep working. As for the first question, the hope is that Saturday was an uncharacteristic showing by the offense and that they’ll get it figured out this week in practice while the defense carries over its success from the South Alabama game and builds on it against Colorado. 

MB: Your question includes excellent insight into where things have been with this program, living in the past. I think that’s a significant element of what Frost brought to the program, an understanding of what Nebraska once was. The Huskers need a balance between confidence and the reality of where things stand. It’s a work in progress. To think it’s otherwise and that Nebraska is back is unreasonable. I don’t see unfounded arrogance from this team. But you gotta believe.  

What percentage of Husker fans will be in the stadium this weekend? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: I’ll go with whatever percentage is 15,000 fans. A strong showing for Husker fans. 

JP: Current capacity for Folsom Field is 53,613, so 15,000 would be 28% assuming a sellout. 

ES: Give me 15,000 as well.  

DP: Someone is claiming 20-25,000 will be on hand. I’m all for excitement and I think the “Keep the Red Out” campaign from Colorado has had the opposite effect (which they should have seen coming), but 25,000 would be damn near 50%. That’s not happening. Having 20,000 people there would be 37%. That’s still too much. I think inflating the number of people in attendance is a discredit to the fans who are actually there, so I’ll err on the low side and say 10,000 and just say “Congrats” if I’m wrong. 

What was your initial knee jerk reaction moment from game 1? (@PBlak69) 

MB: One series in, I thought blowout, as it should’ve been. By halftime, I thought (knee-jerk), not as much progress as I expected. 

DP: Jack Stoll is Nebraska’s second-best receiving option. 

How do you feel about the defense? Had a lot of amazing plays but also gave up three touchdowns. (@SlicVic13) 

GS: Well 21 points allowed would have been good for fifth in the conference last season. I’ll take that every single week of the year. If Nebraska plays defense like they did on Saturday all season, they will win the West. 

JP: One of those touchdown drives also started at the 13-yard line after JD Spielman’s muffed punt. Holding them to a field goal would have been nice, but that’s a tough ask in that situation. Nebraska held South Alabama to 4.0 yards per play including 1.9 yards per carry and it forced five turnovers. I think Erik Chinander will take that performance any week. 

MB: Agree with Greg and Jacob, although it was South Alabama and I would expect such numbers and not three touchdowns, regardless—unless a couple came when lower-unit players were in the game. That’s what didn’t happen. I expected to see lots of lower-unit guys in the fourth quarter.  

DP: Jacob mentioned the two numbers that matter to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander — yards per play and turnovers. Points are all about context. The defense held South Alabama to 3.97 yards a play after allowing 5.81 last season. I would imagine the five turnovers produced is more of an extreme rather than a sustainable trend, but if they can average two or three a game and keep that YPP number in the mid-to-low 4s, this can be an above-average defensive unit. I feel really good about the way they got there, too; the defensive line effectively ate up blocks so the linebackers could be free to go make plays. Keep that up and people will be really pleased with the Blackshirts this year. 

If by Wednesday Domann & Lee don't have Blackshirts, why not? (@HuskerChocolate) 

JP: Because the Blackshirts aren’t about splash plays or one good game. They’re earned over the course of the entire spring, summer and fall. Lee was pressed into duty by an injury, and he performed well. But Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams earned the starting spots ahead of Lee during fall camp, which took more than one good day. As for Domann, he wasn’t with the team when camp began, so he’s playing from behind in terms of putting in the work it takes to earn the Blackshirt. 

GS: What Jacob said. If they deserve it with more time they will get them. Splash plays in one game doesn’t determine a Blackshirt. 

Are you concerned with the running back position if Maurice Washington is unable to play the entire season? (@BenzelLucas) 

GS: Until we see more from Dedrick Mills I have to say yes. The thing that Washington does which is so valuable in this offense is hit the cutback lanes very quickly. Mills had a tough time seeing those on Saturday. We also didn’t get to see Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins is just getting into form. 

JP: The offensive line was certainly not good on Saturday, but even so it seemed like Mills missed a lot of cut-back lanes. I’m not one who was projecting a 1,000-yard season for him, but I don’t think he is as bad as he looked on Saturday. He averaged over 5 yards per carry in the triple-option as a freshman at Georgia Tech. I think Mills will settle in and Nebraska will learn what plays suit him best as well. Also, if Washington isn’t in the picture, I think we’ll see Rahmir Johnson get his shot sooner rather than later. I still think Nebraska will be able to get good enough running back play to accomplish their goals this season so long as the offensive line holds up and Adrian Martinez looks more like the Heisman candidate most expected than what we saw on Saturday. 

MB: If the line develops . . . that’s what has to happen. If it does, they’ll be fine. The way it’s looking, Washington will probably be able to play all season anyway. The only person I heard predicting 1,000 yards for Mills was Mills—who set the number at 1,500. Uh, probably not. 

If you could only watch one football position group (not QB) for rest of the season, which would it be? Why? (@Simba_Simms) 

GS: Give me the big uglies up front. Mostly because of the collisions and seeing the offensive line gives you a good idea of how successful the play was. 

ES: I’ll take the defensive backs. That group has some serious fire. I just hope Deontai Williams is OK because he’s a lot of fun to watch too. As so many have noted before (including Williams himself), he hits people hard. 

MB: Offensive line. That’s the key. And not just five interior guys, seven or eight. 

JP: The wide receivers. I’m not smart enough about line play to get enough out of watching the trenches, and if I’m watching the receivers I’m also kind of watching the quarterbacks because I‘m seeing where the passes end up. Plus when the receivers block for running plays I’ll get to see that too.  

DP: Whatever allows me the ability to watch the evolution of The Stollet. 

What does Nebraska have to do to improve the offensive line play? 

ES: I’m going to give a very simple answer: experience. Is it more serious than that? Probably. But in a lot of cases, like the center position, experience is limited. Give that some time and confidence should come with it. That would hopefully improve the line’s play, right? 

MB: Agree with Erin. Snaps. Snaps. Snaps.  

JP: Experience is a good answer, which is why it’s part of my answer as well. Nebraska needs time. More time means the guys already in the program have continued to work with Zach Duval and hopefully have added strength. They’ve spent more time refining their technique under Greg Austin. They’ve gained experience by getting those snaps Mike mentioned under their belts. And time also paves the way for current and future Huskers – like top-flight recruits Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran – to earn their way onto the field. You can’t fix a bad offensive line overnight, especially when you continue to play a lot of the same guys. But I do think they’re making incremental progress as evidenced by how successful the Huskers were on the ground last season. 

With all the near and actual upsets in week one, how much do you feel the “Power 5” and "Group of 5" distinctions are real and how much do you think they are merely perception? (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: It’s still pretty real in a practical sense. If Missouri and Wyoming play 10 times, Missouri probably wins seven of those. But in one game, anything can happen. I really wish we didn’t have two categories for teams. Even the names themselves—Power and Group—highlight the difference between the two. But good football can be played anywhere. That’s my operating motto. The “Power” teams have more resources and generally an advantage in any game over those with fewer resources, but for me it’s really about the internal culture. Boise State has a winning culture over multiple years and expects to succeed. UCF is building towards that. It’s pretty powerful. Same for really good FCS programs. No matter the level, a program can create an expectation for success and it’s too bad that those teams that  approach that level often aren’t rewarded for it. It’s virtually impossible so far for a G5 team to make the playoff and I wish that wasn’t the case. 

DP: I agree with Brandon on just about every point here, but I’ll add one more thought. At the top of a lot of the G5 conferences, perception has a lot to do with things. Central Florida beat Auburn. Utah State took Michigan State to the wire. Where reality starts to set in is when you get to the bottom of the conferences. App State and Troy from the Sun Belt were really good football teams. Troy beat Nebraska at Nebraska! But Coastal Carolina had the seventh-best record in the conference. What happens if you put the Chanticleers up against the seventh-best record in the Big 12 last year — Kansas State or Texas Tech? I don’t think it would be great.  

How did you feel about the play calling on Saturday? We had some creative plays, but I was surprised at how often we had simple runs up the middle when the box was clearly loaded and we had struggled with it. When we went outside and hit open space, it worked. Why not do it more? (@SheepishJohn) 

MB: Coaches can say what they want. They hold back on things depending on the opponent. Plus, you would like to think Nebraska could run at South Alabama despite a loaded box. It didn’t happen. 

BV: We know at this point that Scott Frost had some issues with it, and he was in charge. “Too scheme-y,” he said. I think Nebraska was honestly surprised by the level South Alabama, which wasn’t good a year ago, was ready to play at out of the gate in 2019. Nebraska seemed to keep things pretty basic, which is a little puzzling, but even when it was a one-score at various points last Saturday it never felt like Nebraska was in big trouble. That may have contributed. I’m guessing we’ll see something closer to the Nebraska offense we all expect this week at Colorado. 

What if at the end of the season once All-Big Ten Teams are announced, the selected players played a game of flag football against each other, East vs West? Good idea or no? (@IBeLionsBeats) 

MB: If the Big Ten could figure out a way to make some money off such an exhibition, it might happen. 

DP: This is a fantastic idea. 

Any new commitments we should be on watch for after the Colorado game? Or will the next ones come after Ohio State? (@Sal_Vasta3) 

GS: I’m not expecting anything this weekend. I wouldn’t say we will be waiting until after Ohio State. There will be targets here for the Northern Illinois game that the Huskers are looking to close with a strong visit weekend. 

How happy are you that you're not a Tennessee fan? (@Corn_Huskers) 

ES: Look, they have a great mascot so it’s not all bad for the Vols. 

MB: Or happy you weren’t a Nebraska fan in 1955, post-Hawaii game . . .  

JP: I’m a Phoenix Suns fan, so there’s not a whole lot of room in my life for happiness. 

DP: Karma, for the powers that be who caved to the Twitter mob and for that Twitter mob that hijacked a coaching search. No sympathy.  

Tips & tricks for keeping Caleb Tannor & Cam Taylor separate in my brain? (@brooks_layne) 

JP: Well, perhaps Cam Taylor officially changing his surname to Taylor-Britt to honor his stepfather will help. 

ES: As for personalities, Taylor-Britt is definitely the bigger one. Tannor is more reserved. If you see someone dancing and bouncing off the walls, that’s Taylor-Britt. 

When will SDSU and NDSU move into the FBS? Which conference would they join, (can't split them) or would there need to be a new conference? What is currently keeping them from moving up? Just funding? (@InDaWilderness) 

BV: That doesn’t seem imminent to me. NDSU could probably manage it. There are a lot of similarities there to Boise State, but the Broncos still aren’t in a P5 conference. (Man, I wish they were in the Pac-12.) It’s really the question of what do you want? NDSU gets a good amount of exposure as an FCS power and it keeps winning. It could move up to FBS, probably keep winning at a decent clip but not at the level it’s currently at, and in exchange for fewer wins and titles get more money. That’s not an easy decision in my mind. Even tougher for SDSU, which is headed in the right direction as an FCS power but hasn’t produced the results NDSU has. If either of those programs were to make the jump, they’d probably have to start in the MAC, and that wouldn’t be bad for them. I think both could eventually win that conference. Even better would be if the Mountain West wanted to scoop them up. Boise State, the best former FCS (then I-AA) success story to date, playing annually against NDSU, the program best set up to even try and replicate that? Sign me up. 

 
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