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Nebraska didn’t get desired result, but shows promise

September 11, 2018

LINCOLN — The frustration was palpable. It practically came off of coach Scott Frost after NU’s 33-28 loss to Colorado on Saturday. And if you want to really chart the difference between the Frost era and the one that preceded it, the posture and demeanor of NU’s leader and his players is one place to start.

“If this team didn’t beat itself today, we would have won that game,” Frost said.

Said left guard Jerald Foster: “If you know football, you can see that this team has a lot that we can do better, a lot that we have in store. And we have a whole lot of hope that’s going to show up in the next game, it’s going to show up throughout this season. So if you’re a team that doesn’t want to count us in it, if you’re thinking that off of this one game is going to be the way this season is going, then you’re going to be wrong.”

The on-field product resembled several you-couldn’t-draw-that-up Nebraska games in the Big Ten era. It’s like there’s a handbook titled “Razor’s Edge,” the contents of which most Husker fans have memorized.

Turnovers. Drops. Personal foul penalties. Wild swings in emotion. Snapping the ball with 20 seconds left on the play clock late in the fourth quarter. A freshman dual-threat quarterback — this time Adrian Martinez — doing wonderful things and confounding things, then getting hurt. Defensive backs getting beat on key downs for big pass plays.

Nebraska has lost 11 of its past 25 home games, and that doesn’t happen without a few common threads.

But, unlike the 33-28 Hail Mary loss that opened Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska, one is inclined to give Frost and Co. a mulligan.

Thunderstorms canceled the first game. The backup quarterback left the team just before the season. Plus, there was the vibe — the mood of the evening — and you can’t discount that. Frost and players darn near insisted on it in their postgame comments. That confidence will be contagious to fans.

So will the fire with which Nebraska played Saturday. NU fans, polite as they may be, generally tend to like that, too.

“They got the swagger back,” a Walgreens cashier told me Sunday.

Yes, NU made a lot of mistakes Saturday. But rarely did the Huskers seem tentative. Their seasoned offensive line mashed Colorado’s defensive line for 329 rushing yards. Their linebackers got off blocks and made aggressive tackles. Their nine-deep defensive line attacked Colorado’s front instead of dancing with the Buffaloes.

If you assigned points based on which team controlled the real estate between the hash marks and the 10-yard sticks, Nebraska wins. That’s a key indicator going forward. The Huskers have been iffy — at best — in that category against other Power Five teams.

“I thought we won the battle upfront on both sides of the ball,” Frost said.

NU lost the game in other spots.

The ball was on the ground a lot. NU lost two fumbles. Conversely, Nebraska didn’t create any takeaways. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s pass rush schemes and personnel units — such as the two down-linemen, four-linebacker package on passing downs — were creative. The players love his aggressive style. They need to create turnovers for him.

Nebraska’s special teams weren’t up to snuff. Yes, that’s Game 1 stuff — especially on kicker Barret Pickering’s miss of a 44-yard field goal — but racking up multiple penalties on returns is shoddy.

Every Husker opponent will try to throw on NU’s secondary. It’s 2015 again in that way. Colorado wasn’t shy, dropping back close to 60 times when you figure in seven sacks of Steven Montez and the quarterback’s scrambles. Nebraska doesn’t have three reliable cornerbacks. When the Huskers switched to nickel, moving cornerback Dicaprio Bootle inside to the slot, Colorado attacked Bootle with big, physical wideout Laviska Shenault, who caught fade routes of 37 and 40 yards right over Bootle. The latter was a game-winner.

Martinez created two big plays — the 41-yard touchdown run and a 57-yard touchdown pass to JD Spielman — but could use more help from other skill players. Does Nebraska have a home run hitter at running back? The holes were there. Drops by Spielman and Stanley Morgan hurt.

Andrew Bunch having to play for Martinez had something to do with it, but the Huskers’ last four drives — zero points, 21 plays, 4.14 yards per play — echoed Riley-era struggles. NU held the lead to start three of those drives. Martinez’s interception was the result of a pass play call right after a fourth-down stop. Nebraska had the ball at the 50 with 6:05 left.

“We’re always going to be aggressive,” Frost said. “We wanted to go score and put them on the safest pass play that we knew to run to get it started.”

By “aggressive,” one figures Frost meant keeping Colorado’s defense off-balance because the pass was, indeed, a bunch of short routes, none longer than 8 yards. If, out of 83 Frost play calls, that’s the only questionable one, it’s a great ratio. But Nebraska may very well have run for 10 yards in three totes, too.

The stat sheet in front of me suggests NU should have won by 14. That’s not new to Nebraska football. It is new to Frost. And it’s what he’s trying to change.

He has the Huskers playing hard. Now, they’ll have to clean up all the little mistakes.

And Frost will need time and patience to do that. Nebraska has been a talented-but-flawed program for many years.

On with the Rewind.

I see you

Shenault: Best player on the field. He converted two fourth downs as a Wildcat quarterback — one for a touchdown — and when the Buffaloes needed a win in man-to-man coverage, Shenault delivered.

Defensive end Khalil Davis: Two sacks, six tackles and one play where he peeled back to slow down a screen. Either of the Davis twins is capable of a game like this.

Martinez: Special stuff mixed with freshman mistakes. The two giveaways were avoidable, but his big plays were gorgeous.

Running back Devine Ozigbo: Greg Bell had more yards thanks to bolting through two giant holes for 65 of his 104 yards, but I like Ozigbo’s ability to move the pile. He may be NU’s best overall back right now.

Outside linebacker Luke Gifford: Three tackles for loss, 1½ sacks, 11 tackles and consistently pursued Montez. If he can do that every game, he’ll be All-Big Ten.

Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry and outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson: Mostly for the effort and passion alone. Barry had 12 tackles, Ferguson 10. Both pursued relentlessly and set a feisty tone for the defense.

Inside linebacker Dedrick Young: Had the least flashy game of the linebackers, but his excellent read and tackle of a failed Colorado fourth-down option should have been worth more than it was.

Safety Aaron Williams: With eight tackles, including two back-to-back plays in the first quarter, Williams announced he’ll be a factor in Nebraska’s secondary. It wouldn’t surprise me if he started against Troy.

Foster: It’s always tricky to judge offensive linemen, but Foster seemed to have a good day for the most part. Right tackle Matt Farniok had some impressive pancake blocks, as well.

Nose tackle Damion Daniels: When he pushes a center, that center goes back. Remember: Daniels is just 19. Two more years, and he could be as good as any 3-4 nose guard in college football. The power is there.

Colorado linebacker Nate Landman: Thirteen tackles, a fourth-down stop and an interception. The sophomore is the real deal, and NFL bound.

Montez: He got the tar beaten out of him and still delivered the win. Rarely do quarterbacks take seven sacks and pull out a win. They’re too battered. The Buffaloes may go on a big run because of his toughness.

Five stats

Minus-7: Yards margin in average field position for Nebraska. NU’s average start was its own 26. CU’s average start was its own 33. The Huskers started possessions at their own 10 and 15 after the kickoffs when a touchback starts a team on its own 25. Turnovers didn’t help, as CU started one drive at the Nebraska 24 and another at the 32. Colorado had more drives of 50-plus yards (6) than NU (5). Colorado averaged 4.5 more yards on net punts, too.

43: Combined return yards (punt and kick) on six attempts. Spielman more than doubled that on a single kickoff return for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener. It’s one game, and Colorado has better athletes than Akron would have, but it’ll be interesting to see if, long term, Tyjon Lindsey remains the starting punt returner. He did field the ball well.

126th: Nebraska’s national rank in penalty yards per game with 95. It’s one game and teams both great (Ohio State) and poor (Purdue) have racked up penalty yards this season. Ohio State can get away with it. NU cannot.

12: Power Five teams that are at least minus-3 in turnover margin this season. Of those 12, four — Wake Forest, Washington State, Kentucky and Utah — are still undefeated. Three — Nebraska, Purdue and North Carolina — haven’t won yet. The combined record of the teams is 13-10. Frost calls turnover margin the most important stat in football. We’ll see how it plays out.

6.09: Yards per carry for Nebraska after one game, and you’ll take that all week. That average will travel southward as the season wears on, but if it stays above 5.0, NU’s having a strong season. Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has averaged more than five yards per rush just twice — 2012 and 2014. And only three Big Ten teams — 2013 Ohio State, 2013 Wisconsin and 2014 Wisconsin — have averaged more than six yards per carry for a season.

Facebook feedback

Each week on my Facebook page for their thoughts on the game. Selected and edited responses follow.

Andria Skaff Niles: So far, they look more like a cohesive football team than I’ve seen in awhile! Some mistakes of course, but it seems like they are on the right track!

Terry Morris: Offensive and defensive linemen were a dramatic improvement over last year. Almost as many sacks and rushing yards as we had all of last year.

Scott Benedict: By Monday I may be calmed down enough to comment intelligently. I suspect many of us feel the same after blowing the game multiple times in multiple ways.

Steve Brown: “‘Boy I sure do miss Bob Diaco,’ said no one, ever.”

Eileen Taylor: “I liked how the players didnt give up, the coaches didnt give up and the crowd didnt give up. There is work to do to get better but much better team than the past 3 years.”

Opponent watch

Michigan in 12 days. How about that? The Wolverines smashed Western Michigan 49-3 because of a power running game right out of Wisconsin’s playbook — fullback, multiple tight ends, etc. A game against SMU won’t reveal much — Michigan will run all over the Mustangs, too — so we’ll find out more about the Wolverines’ system when they play the Huskers.

Troy smoked Florida A&M 59-7, but one can’t put much stock in that. The Rattlers haven’t made the FCS playoffs in 17 years. Akron beat an even worse FCS team, Morgan State, 41-7. The Zips remain a potential opponent should they and NU agree to reschedule their game.

Early Sunday morning, Michigan State finally lost 16-13 to Arizona State. MSU had a 13-3 lead and fell apart in the fourth quarter. The Spartans punted on their final three possessions while ASU scored on three of its final four. Michigan State’s defense is the real deal against the run. But that pro-style offense will keep lesser-talented teams in games. Nebraska can steal one from Sparty later in the season.

Forecast

Silver linings all week. Just don’t stub your toe against Troy.

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