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Nebraska Football

On Season Expectations, Bold Predictions and Lots of Misses

October 20, 2019
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Since there’s no Nebraska football this weekend and nothing new to see from the Huskers’ offense, I’m going to do something different with my column. Hopefully, it’s not a miss; I’m sure folks will let me know if it is. And while the last few pieces from me this weekend have been pretty juvenile in tone, the big boy pants are on for this one. Before the season, I wrote five bold predictions about Nebraska football, so with this being as natural a midway point as we’ll get, we’re going to revisit each of those in the traditional five things format this column began with. 

No. 1: Scott Frost becomes a top-five coach by season’s end

The gist: A fun thought experiment — who are the 10 best college football coaches? I argued Scott Frost wasn’t quite in that tier yet, but admitted I wouldn’t need much convincing to include him in the back half of the 10. The boldness here was in saying Frost would be not just widely accepted as a top-10 guy by mid-December, but that he would be knocking on the door of entering the conversation for five best coaches in the game.

I believe in Scott Frost. I believed in Scott Frost throughout last season and throughout the offseason and my belief in him being a guy who can turn around the fortunes of this football program haven’t yet changed. 

I believe that thinking also holds true for the majority of the fanbase. At least the sensible ones. 

I think that belief, among those who had it to begin with, has been shaken for those outside Husker nation with the start of this season, though. Both from a football fan perspective and a media one. 

Barring a turnaround similar to 2018 in the last five games, Frost probably isn’t going to be considered a top-10 guy by season’s end — so 0-for-1 there — because a lot of people right now think this 4-3 start is a lot of his fault. 

Social media questions the play-calling. 

Nebraska’s run-pass split is skewed much more to the ground game this season than last despite the Huskers being less efficient and less explosive on the ground.  

Sack-adjusted rushing 2018 2019
Attempts per game 36.3 41.4
Yards per carry 5.3 4.2
Explosive run rate 20.6% 13.4%

Quarterback Adrian Martinez is picking up more yards per throw as a sophomore than he did as a freshman, but Nebraska is also on pace to give up 33 sacks this season, five more than the Big Ten’s fifth-worst mark the team posted last season. The Huskers are struggling to run block consistently, but they’re also struggling to pass-protect period; Martinez and backup Noah Vedral have been sacked on 15.1% of passing downs, the 12th-highest clip in football. 

How exactly is one supposed to play-call when the situation looks like it does? If the response from the crowd at home is “Why not dial up more slant routes,” I promise you Frost has already thought of that. Slants require receivers to get off the line quickly, another thing Nebraska isn’t doing well. 

Some have called Frost a liar for claiming Nebraska would be better this year and gone so far as to suggest he doesn’t know how to properly evaluate his team.

I think Athletic Director Bill Moos’s comments about his expectation for the season being a 6-6 record and a return to the bowl scene were more about setting a hard floor rather than forecasting things to come (the way they’ve been interpreted). If the head coach is saying eight and the athletic director is saying you better get to six, it makes more sense the athletic director is just setting a baseline rather than contradicting his coach, right? I think so. Though, of course, I may be wrong about that, too.

There’s a lot of wanting to make sense of what’s gone wrong, wanting to find a neat and tidy box to place blame in. So fans have blamed the media. Now, media folks have gotten defensive and blamed Frost for selling us something we have yet to see. 

Ignoring the obvious “Every coach everywhere lies” stance, I don’t think Frost ever lied directly. He talked about the Huskers having depth concerns. He talked about this being a process. He’s talked about needing more at the skill positions. 

Frost gave us a partial set of ingredients. Just as fans don’t have to drink the kool-aid, we didn’t have to make it. I’ll take some blame in that regard. I expected more — evidenced by what’s to come — and told readers to expect more and so far I’ve been off. But Frost has been off, too. Frost had to expect more; with two junior tackles who have played a lot of football between them returning and another junior at guard, this big a step back on the offensive line was hard to see coming.

I was wrong about this being the season Frost took that next step on his way up the coaching ladder. 

But I don’t think Frost is covering up for a team he’s not confident in, and I don’t think I’m wrong about Frost being able to turn this place into a contender at some point because I don’t think I’m wrong that he’s capable of becoming one of the best coaches in the country.

No. 2: Safety Deontai Williams has a breakout year.

The gist: The vibes I got from the junior safety before the season opened were the same ones I got before linebacker Mohamed Barry became a tackling machine and defensive leader as a junior last year. I thought Williams could make a similar impact.

This one hurts. Mostly because I still think I’m right. A shoulder injury in Week 1 against South Alabama put Williams on the shelf. Though he might not be lost for the entire season yet. Against Northwestern, Williams was out on the field without the giant shoulder sling/brace he’s been in since early September and was lobbing passes some 15 yards to fellow defensive backs to warm up. 

There could be hope here. When Frost addressed the injury, he said Williams was “out for the foreseeable future,” and not that he was done for the season. That might seem like semantics but Frost announced running back Ronald Thompkins was done for the year a few weeks ago. When it’s been a season-ender, Frost has made a point to clearly say so.

Junior Marquel Dismuke had more tackles than any other defensive back in the Big Ten before this weekend began, so he has somewhat lessened the blow of losing Williams, but the Florida native is a playmaker through and through and Nebraska has missed that from the safety spot this season. 

Eric Lee Jr. had two interceptions in the first game of the year but has somewhat faded to the background. Walk-on Eli Sullivan seemed to carve out a role for himself in the nonconference as a sub-package guy, but he hasn’t made any splash plays. As a result, Cam Taylor-Britt’s usage and physical load is probably a bit higher than what the Huskers would have hoped and he’s a bit beat up right now.

I’m 0-for-2 at this point, but not because Williams was a miss, rather because Nebraska misses Williams.

No. 3: Nebraska beats Ohio State

The gist: They had a chance last season. They win by double-digits this season. 

Jeez.

I did say they were bold. 

I severely underestimated sophomore Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields’ ability to come in and be a star right away. I underestimated how good this offense around Fields would be. And I grossly overestimated Nebraska’s readiness to handle the Buckeye challenge at home. 

After the game, I wrote the only thing that one was good for was confirming the Huskers aren’t ready for that stage yet. Who knows what happens if Nebraska doesn’t turn it over on three of its first four possessions, but it did, so the result was deserved. 

“I thought we had a puncher’s chance if we came out and played a really good game, and we didn’t, so that’s the result,” Frost said that night. “I told the team that we can’t doubt for a second where this is going, what we are doing to get it there, the improvements we’ve made. … They’re a better football team than we are, and we are going to get more shots at teams like that down the road.”

Nebraska will, in fact, get another shot in a few weeks. No bold predictions ahead of that one.

No. 4: A Milton-lite leap in efficiency

The gist: From 2016 to 2017, quarterback McKenzie Milton went from an inefficient thrower to one who regularly carved up defenses with smart, quick decisions. He powered that UCF scoring explosion. I wrote that Adrian Martinez wouldn’t throw for 4,000 yards or 40 touchdowns, but he would jump into the top 10 in QBR and the top-15 in yards per play.

  16 Milton 17 Milton 18 Martinez 19 Martinez
QBR 34.9 (115th) 84.1 (5th) 63.1 (54th) 55.3 (79th)
Yards per pass 5.9  10.2 (2nd) 7.5 (t-55th) 8.5 (t-22nd)
TDs to INTs 10:7 37:9 17:8 7:5

Martinez hasn’t made the jump anyone expected, largely because he hasn’t really gotten better as a decision-maker. You could honestly argue there’s been some regression there; I don’t know that I’d agree, but I’d listen to the argument.  

This may be the most interesting Nebraska-related discussion of the season. It could very well continue to be the case over these last five games. Because trying to uncover the “why” of Martinez’s struggles remains a difficult task. 

Is it because he no longer has Stanley Morgan Jr. to throw to?

Is it because he no longer has Devine Ozigbo to bolster the ground game and pull guys down into the box?

Is it because he doesn’t have an offensive line he trusts?

Is it because he’s just struggling to read coverages? 

The real answer is some combination of all those things. 

That’s not to totally absolve Martinez of blame, because he does need to be better. I hate to keep rehashing this same interview, but I continue to think about a podcast I did with a former scout, Oliver Connolly.

“When you watch the all-22 [tape], the process behind the numbers is far less encouraging than the numbers themselves,” he said when I asked him about Martinez’s freshman year. “It’s just pure decision-making and very specific decision-making that I think is a real impediment when you go up against the best of the best.”

He asked if I wanted to get into the details, and I said yes, and this is what he said:

“It’s more so late rotations within a snap. Most defenses now run a pass-and-match coverage, which at this point I think most people kind of have a vague understanding of. It’s like in basketball when you play a hybrid defense. You’re playing zone but when a man comes into your zone you just start playing man. You take your eyes off the quarterback and you just start playing man coverage. What teams try and do is have a bit of both because teams run the ball so much now, they basically build in their own defensive option with a rotating safety as the offense has an offensive option to throw or pass. They will bring that safety down toward the line of scrimmage very late, as you’re going into your snap count or your clap or whatever your queue is, he will start to move toward the line of scrimmage, he will read the play and, depending on usually a tight end and what he does, he’ll either play run or pass.
“Those late rotations really allow a DC to start bluffing stuff. Once you get used to [thinking] ‘Oh, every time that guy comes down, he’s going to play the run,’ you can then bluff off of that as a DC. ... [Michigan’s] Don Brown is the best at this. … They’ll apex their corner, making him look like he’s playing in three-deep and then out of nowhere he peels off. It looks like — you see Richard Sherman do this a lot in the NFL — he jumped the route and he has some innate gift for jumping the route but really that was the plan all along. Martinez has a real issue with these late rotations and trying to figure out where the bluff and disguise comes from. If it’s early in the snap, cool, but if it’s a late thing he has real difficulty picking up most of the trap stuff. 
“You can get away with that for the most part because guys are often wide open in the system. It’s when you get in those close games and you’ve got to make tight throws and you’ve got to be pretty perfect on decisions.”

Quite a few things start making sense now, don’t they? Receivers haven’t been getting open; Frost said after the Colorado game they can’t scheme these guys open all the time. Martinez hasn’t had time to identify things properly. Defenses have a year’s worth of tape on him to know how to attack. 

Because of Frost and because of quarterback coach Mario Verduzco and because of Martinez’s natural gifts, there’s reason to believe that stuff gets figured out. It just hasn’t yet.

So no UCF-lite jump. I’m 0-for-4

No. 5: Nebraska wins the West

The gist: Nebraska finishes the season No. 1 in the West. Wisconsin finishes No. 2. Iowa ends third, Minnesota fourth, Purdue fifth, Northwestern sixth and Illinois seventh. 

It’s not looking good, though nothing is technically off the table at this point. Illinois made that possible with an improbable 24-23 win over No. 6 Wisconsin Saturday. 

The remaining schedules for Minnesota (leading the division), Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska (conference record in parenthesis):

  • Minnesota (4-0): vs. Maryland, vs. Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern, vs. Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin (3-1): at Ohio State, vs. Iowa, at Nebraska, vs. Purdue, at Minnesota
  • Iowa (2-2): at Northwestern, at Wisconsin, vs. Minnesota, vs. Illinois, at Nebraska
  • Nebraska (2-2): vs. Indiana, at Purdue, vs. Wisconsin, at Maryland, vs. Iowa

Minnesota controls its destiny, but those final four weeks are brutal. Wisconsin has to find a way to rebound against Ohio State at the Shoe. Does Nebraska have the easiest remaining schedule of the bunch? There’s an argument to be made. 

Get healthy during the bye. 

Get right during the bye.

Take care of business at home against Indiana, win a game on the road at Purdue, then you have another week off before a three-week stretch in which you have a chance to prove you’re better than the team you were to open the season. 

That could very well prove too tall a task at the end of the day, and I’ll go 0-for-5 on picks and people can feel free to let me hear about it. But after all the harrumphing about Nebraska and its rebuild and its floundering offense, there’s a scenario still where Nebraska is playing important games in November.

 
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