But the ‘Huskers still have plenty of postseason hopes remaining, and the road to reestablishing themselves as a contender in the 2019 Big Ten West race begins this Saturday. With NU heading to Lincoln, we talked to several contributors at Corn Nation for their insights regarding this year’s Nebraska team, from offensive line struggles to the weight of national expectations.
Disclaimer: Any mention of “NU” in reference to Nebraska has been changed to “UNL” for clarity by a rogue editor (read: me).
INU: Adrian Martinez absolutely smoked Northwestern last season. Are the current offensive struggles due more to him or other factors? Will they get it figured out soon?
Nate M: No.
Paul: No. We’ve had enough time to watch and make some reasonable inferences about this offense. And the inference I draw is that the loss of our offensive line with 4 or 5 years of experience was too much to overcome. The rebuild in Lincoln is at least a 4 or 5 year effort. Which is too bad, as Martinez is definitely a national champion caliber QB. Until the pipeline can be filled Nebraska’s offense will be heart attack inducing YOLO.
Uglydog56: Our offensive line is not building any trust with our quarterback, and that has got him out of sync and making questionable decisions. I don’t see that situation resolving itself this season.
Jill: In addition to the offensive line not coming together, we aren’t seeing much out of our receivers. It has pretty much been JD Spielman and ???? We need to see one or two of them step up and to see the tight ends show up in the passing game for the rest of this offense to gain a little life.
Andy: The 2-deep for the offensive line consists of four juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. The top two centers are redshirt freshmen and the starter is a converted tight end coming off major injuries. Although (prior to Ohio St.) he had been grading well on his blocking, the snaps have Martinez so freaked out, he’s back there guessing. It’s not unusual to see him leap in the air then reach down to catch what was actually a perfect snap.
INU: The defense definitely seemed like Nebraska’s biggest weakness in 2018, but it’s difficult to tell from an outside perspective whether it has improved significantly. Has it? Why or why not?
Nate M: I believe it has merely because the players are more comfortable in the system. The juniors and seniors on this roster are on their third defensive coordinator in their time at Nebraska. I think we are also seeing an improvement in both the physicality and speed. However, as you can tell last week that it isn’t good enough yet.
Uglydog56: Finally having a true nose guard in transfer Darrion Daniels made a huge difference up front. Getting better buy-in from the defensive backs has helped too. The defense is a couple of blue-chip outside linebackers from being complete.
Paul: This defense has a lot of talent. But until it can become established they, like the offense, will basically consist of YOLO pass rushes.
Jill: There has been improvement. I still don’t trust our linebackers much but the d-line is solid. We’ve got two good corners as well. There is not a true pass rusher, which hurts the overall scheme a fair bit but they definitely took a step forward from last year.
Andy: Ohio St. will abuse some good defensive lines this year, so I don’t take too much pain away from that. This is only the second time in six years that the Blackshirts have had the same DC for a second year. Outside of the Buckeyes, they’ve had some moments this season. With the exception of 1-AA and mid-major teams, we couldn’t say that last season.
INU: Though national expectations were high preseason, the impression I got from you guys and other Nebraska folks on Twitter was that internally things were more tempered. Is that true? Even taking that into account, has the season been a disappointment thus far?
Nate M: There were outliers of course but the majority of the fanbase was thinking 8-4 or 9-3. I was more in the 7-5 or 8-4 camp. I still believe that it is possible, but the struggles on offense has me a bit worried at this point. What we want to stop happening is getting our butts kicked on a national stage. We know there is progress and that is evident but we are just ready to be confident in the product that is going on the field.
Uglydog56: I was 7-5 to 8-4 preseason. Personnel issues at the center position worried me from the outset. In my opinion, bowl eligibility might be the ceiling at this point.
Paul: It’s weird, but UNL fans were less optimistic about 9-wins than the rest of the country. I think that if we were 4-1 instead of 3-2 it would feel differently. Nevertheless, 3-2 is a lot better than 0-5, so we will take it and move forward.
Jill: Yes, I think most Husker fans were surprised at the love Nebraska was getting nationally. Of course, the whole state still collectively loses its shit when the Huskers lose, but that happens no matter what national pundits think. I had us pegged for 8-4 and a good chance at winning the West with that record.
Wiscy looks better than expected, so I’m dropping the West division part of that and probably settling more into a 7-5 prediction now too. If this team can show the mental toughness they seemed to develop in the last half of the 2018 season, they have a lot to play for. If they continue to look lost (and honestly that sort of starts with the coaching staff) then bowl eligibility will be an achievement.
Andy: The 4-2 finish, taking Ohio St. and Iowa to the wire in the two losses and Frost’s 2-year history at UCF made the prognosticators lose their minds. And people literally had no idea how far down the toilet pipe Riley took this program both from a culture, development and training standpoint. This was never going to flip in two years. Just getting back to a bowl game this season would be enough.
INU: Scott Frost seems to have been recruiting well. Who are some newcomers to watch on both sides of the ball?
Nate M: Well, Wan’Dale Robinson is a true freshman. When he gets opportunities in open space he can make other teams regret it. On the defensive side of the ball there aren’t any true freshmen but Cam Britt-Taylor is a defensive back who has all-conference written all over him in his junior and senior years.
Paul: What Nate said. Wan’dale Robinson is an All-American level talent. If he gets an offensive line to operate behind we may see some real magic from him.
Jill: There are not a lot of newcomers getting significant playing time on the defensive side of the ball. On offense, our redshirt freshman center may get noticed, but not in a good way, yet. The coaches are convinced he has the talent and athleticism to be great (and they know more than I do) so his development does bear watching. Wan’Dale Robinson is obviously the most exciting freshman on offense. Dedrick Mills is a newcomer (junior college transfer) who is starting to find his stride. He could (will likely) play a key role too.
Andy: As far as freshman seeing significant action, look above - Wan’Dale is about it. As for newcomers, Mills, Kanawai Noa (starting at WR) and Darrion Daniels (starting at NG) are all seeing significant snaps. In addition, Daniels was voted a caaptain and also has the coolest nickname on the team - “War Daddy”.
INU: What are the biggest strengths of this team? What is their path to winning this game?
Nate M: The strength, believe it or not, is on the defensive side of the ball. They are creating turnovers and are limiting teams to limited rushing yards. The path to winning this game is simple. Stop turning the damn ball over on offense. It is ridiculous.
Uglydog56: Nate has summarized it well. If the offense gets out of its own way, this game is winnable. If your defense just stunts inside a bunch, bowling over our interior line, it could be a long afternoon for husker fans.
Paul: The defense is performing better than the offense, but the real strength is that Frost has made them believe in themselves. OSU not withstanding, this team should compete in every game we play.
Jill: Strength - a lot of young talent that could grow up at any time. Path to winning - STOP TURNING OVER THE DAMN BALL.
Andy: Turnovers are the path to the Dark Side. Turnovers lead to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to hiring guys like Mike Riley. Mike Riley leads to suffering.
INU: We are headed to Lincoln this week. For us and any other Northwestern fans who may be making the trip, what should we be doing/eating on game day?
Nate M: If you are flying into Omaha then stop at Block 16, downtown Omaha before heading to Lincoln. Alton Brown (famous tv chef guy) says they make his favorite burger in the country. Then on your way to Lincoln stop at Round the Bend Steakhouse for a great meal at Exit 426. Then after the meal drive about 6 miles south on 310th street to Bulldog’s Bar and Grill and get some cheap drinks before heading to Lincoln. When in Lincoln stay away from Runza. There are many other places to eat.
Jill: Wear purple proudly and you will have fans greeting you, asking if you are having a good time and if you are being treated well. They may even give you something called a red beer*. Drink it. It’s good.
*It’s the Nebraska version of a Bloody Mary. Cheap light beer with tomato juice and possibly a few other things like Tabasco or green olives. I’m a beer snob and even I like red beers. Don’t knock it til you try it.
Andy: Do not fear the Runza. Do not sit down to eat however, just pass through the drive-thru for a sample, much as the Runza will pass quickly through you. It’ll clean you out like Tidy-Bowl before your actual meal.
INU: Finally, what is your game prediction?
Nate M: I think if Nebraska wins this game it’s going to be because they limited the turnovers. If they continue to turn it over like they have so far this season then I will lose all hope and walk into one of the corn fields surrounding the town I live in. I will head toward the middle of the field among the tall corn stalks and lay down for a nice deep sleep as I wait for harvest to take hold. Soon the sound of a combine heading my way will wake me up. I will stand up ready to meet my maker. The farmer won’t see me until it is too late as the red sprays all around him. Then we can say once and for all that our “Red Burns Brighter.”
Uglydog56: Data overwhelmingly supports a win by the visiting team. Huskers lose by a field goal late. I’m not going hiking with Nate anytime soon, that’s for sure.
Paul: (note to Nate: Jeebus dude. Get some help.)
Anyway, Nebraska is a better team than Northwestern. Usually, that is sufficient to win the game. Huskers 34, Northwestern 30.
Jill: I looked at Northwestern’s offensive “statistics” for my weekly Numbers, Statistics and Lies article. Man, those stats look soooooo tempting to pick an easy Husker win.
However, we all know there is no such thing as an easy win when these two teams meet and statistics be damned, this will be a dog fight. If the Huskers continue to give the ball away like a drunk bridesmaid giving out her phone number at her best friend’s wedding dance...the Wildcats win.
If the Blackshirts at least force Northwestern to return the favor and can even the TO margin...buckle in for another wild one that no one can predict. If the Huskers hang on to the ball...I think they pull this one out by four. Hope springs eternal, so I’m going to pick the last one, but I’m not giving Vegas any of my money to back it up.
Andy: Normally, I’d describe another sloppy back and forth battle in Lincoln between these two, but hoo-ah, the Wildcats offense looks like hot sick so far. I think the Huskers move it well early through the air as the Wildcats stack up to stop the run and jet out to a sizeable lead midway through the 3rd quarter.
Then, of course, Frost, trying to protect that 4th win starts trying to run out the clock with over 20 minutes left (a-gain!) and the defense lays off the receivers leaving all sorts of space (a-gain!). The Huskers still manage to hang on to go to OT (a-gain!)
Northwestern gets a quick TD in the 1st OT, but Nebraska answers. Barrett Pickering who has been dressed like an asst trainer with a steroid problem, rips off his tear-away sweatsuit and already in full pads rushes in to kick the extra point. Noah Vedral bobbles the snap and picks up the ball while Pickering takes a wild kick at the air, launches up and lands on his arm, breaking it like Nigel Gruff in The Replacements.
Vedral, however, sweeps right and coolly hurdles a diving Wildcat into the end zone and...36-35!! Huskers Win! Huskers Win!!