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Husker Talk: Room to improve on special teams

November 9, 2018

Sometimes it’s hard to measure progress that a team can make during a season. Sometimes it’s also hard to distinguish between moral victories and silver linings. That’s pretty much where things are right now with the Nebraska football. Well, almost, because anyone watching the Huskers play each week can — without a doubt — see progress in the program. There’s just so much to correct, mentally and physically, that it’s still hard for the team to really put it all together at once.

It’s strange to feel good about a loss, because it’s, well, still a loss, and there have been too many to count. However, the silver lining is that you can see the fight in these players. They expected to win. And that kind of mental toughness hasn’t been in the program for a while. The guys are ticked off, and that’s a good thing. The Huskers rolled into Ohio and lost a road game by five points to a top-10 team that usually waxes the floor with them, and Nebraska had all the chances in the world to win.

Nebraska wasn’t “supposed” to put up a fight, but it did. And that’s true progress. I don’t even care that Ohio State is in disarray right now. Did you see Urban Meyer on the sideline? The Buckeye players? Body language tells quite a story. Ohio State is lucky that it’s loaded with talent. That elite talent and speed helped to cover all of the issues in the program right now. Too bad Nebraska couldn’t quite take advantage.

Now, there are three games left in the season (Illinois, Michigan State and Iowa). Yeah, only three already. If Nebraska can win two of those, I think that’s a huge success. But if the Huskers continue to get better day by day as they have so far this season, maybe we’ll all be in for a good ending to the season.

Culture change

As mentioned before, the Huskers came into last week’s game expecting to win. I loved seeing that attitude out on the field. The defense hit just as hard, or harder, than the Buckeyes did. I saw a great amount of gang tackling, the hustle, the effort, it was all there. Limited on depth and skill players, the Blackshirts still brought the fight, and you can see more confidence in the schemes. With confidence comes more aggression and less thinking. When was the last time the Blackshirts created so many forced fumbles, pressures, third- and fourth-down stops, and they gang tackled that well against an elite team? It’s been a long time.

Some might still blame the defense for the loss last Saturday. Not me. Was it perfect? Heck no. But, if you’re honest with yourself, everyone expected a lot more from the Ohio State offense. The Blackshirts were a big reason for that.

Team speed

Even though Nebraska put up great numbers once again on offense, it seemed as though NU could’ve had so much more. Running plays that busted wide open earlier in the season were slammed shut by the Buckeye defense. What looked like a 15-yard gain was instead a 5-yarder because of how fast Ohio State closes in on the ball carrier. The team speed is something to behold.

That kind of team speed is also evident on special teams, and they more than took advantage of that as well with a blocked punt and excellent coverage on punt and kick returns.

Rarity

Once-promising kicker and punter Caleb Lightbourn has definitely gotten some kind of “yips” this season. For the guy who once had a punt end up blowing and bouncing backwards behind the line of scrimmage, and then fell during a rugby punt attempt, he now has to deal with the embarrassment of botching an onside kick attempt that also went backwards.

Almost impossible to hit that trifecta.

Tight ends

Against Ohio State, I think we all finally got to see exactly how Nebraska wants to incorporate the tight ends into the offense. Jack Stoll and Co. were clearly weapons all over the field. Husker coaches are creating tremendous “conflicts” on the defense with creative offensive concepts. It’s really cool to see. Especially how so many formations and motions build off of each other for a completely different result.

Stan the Man

Stanley Morgan Jr. is continuing his climb up the record charts. With 170 career receptions, Morgan is now No. 2 all-time behind Kenny Bell (181). Against Ohio State, he passed former Huskers Nate Swift and Jordan Westerkamp.

Spielman

For all of his production this season, it’s hard to rag on wide receiver JD Spielman much at all. But after he short-armed an almost-perfect pass by Adrian Martinez that would’ve put the Huskers up by 12 points, you have to wonder what happened. I’m fairly certain that the sun got in his eyes, because he usually doesn’t misjudge a pass by that much (and a similar thing happened when he didn’t field a punt that ended up rolling inside the 5-yard line). Some fans think he was worried about the safety blasting him, but if you watch the play over, the defender really isn’t close enough to spook Spielman all that much. Unfortunately, it was a case of alligator arms that directly led to the loss.

Special teams

Let’s check back next season.

Running backs

Both Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington were clearly banged up on Saturday. Although Ozigbo had plenty of fight left in him after he hit his head pretty hard, Washington wasn’t near 100 percent, almost to the point he shouldn’t have been playing much in the second half. I was hoping to see Albion native Wyatt Mazour get a couple of carries, even before he was out there during a trick play. And, man, that trick play was actually really close to working. If not for one defender who blew it up, Mazour was going to pass the ball off a reverse to either Martinez or Morgan, who was wide open.

Refs

Seriously, every horrible call or non-call by the officials gets one-upped week after week. The two pass interference flags (one on Ohio State, one on Nebraska) in the first half were absolute garbage. The phrase “phantom penalty” more than applies here.

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