Empty Husks: Nebraska Looks To Rebound After Struggle Win

(photo: Aaron Beckman, Omaha World Herald News Service)

Saturday was a mixed bag for the Nebraska faithful. The offense struggled to build any momentum. However, the Blackshirts flashed some promise. After a season full of poorly timed penalties, dozens of surrendered explosive plays, and one of the worst rush defenses in the nation, Nebraska finally came out and accomplished exactly what it wanted to on defense. They created turnovers. They stopped the Jags’ run game to the tune of 1.9 yards per carry. And they forced South Alabama QB Cephus Johnson into making bad choices.

The defense did give up 3 touchdowns. Yet, just one came on a full drive. The second was the result of a muffed punt by JD Spielman near Nebraska’s goal line. The last came on a short field after an Adrian Martinez interception in the second half. In 2018, Nebraska intercepted 11 passes and forced 9 fumbles. In their first game of 2019, they managed 3 picks and recovered 2 fumbles, resulting in a +2 turnover margin on the day. A pair of defensive touchdowns put an exclamation on the day. On special teams, JD Spielman opened the second half with a punt return TD. It was Nebraska’s first special teams touchdown against an FBS opponent since the end of the 2014 season.

Cam Taylor-Britt forces fumble (photo: BH Media Service/Brendan Sullivan)

What Went Wrong

While the defense was having a field day, according to HC Scott Frost, the offense was “anemic.” Nebraska started as hot as they ended last season, quickly driving 81 yards for a touchdown on their first possession. After that, they never found that level of efficiency again. They scored only once in their next five drives, narrowly missing a FG to close out the first half. The second half was no better. Nebraska only ran 17 offensive snaps to South Alabama’s 59. And QB Adrian Martinez threw his sole interception of the day. It was a messy, disappointing day from an offense which many expected to be a Top 25 unit in 2019.

The Cornhuskers total yardage per game in 2018 – 2019

What Happened?

So, what happened? Why did an offense that averaged 456 yards per game a season ago finish with 276 yards on Saturday, including just 66 in the second half? Scott Frost has only overseen two offensive performances worse that Saturday’s showing since taking over at Nebraska. Both were against top defenses. The next closest was against Troy in 2018, when walk-on QB Andrew Bunch filled in for an injured Adrian Martinez.

Martinez and Frost were quick to shoulder most of the blame. Frost talked about not scheming very well for a South Alabama team which threw the playbook and then some at Nebraska. Martinez owned up to not doing his job well enough. He missed some key reads, and wasn’t decisive enough in the run game. Those shortcomings were evident, but they were made worse by snapping problems. Of the five offensive starters Nebraska lost coming into this year, losing center Tanner Farmer may have hurt the most in game 1.

Center of Attention

Nebraska named Cameron Jurgens, a converted former TE and redshirt freshman, as their starting center on Saturday. Jurgens missed much of fall camp with a foot injury. However, Frost has called him “a game-changer for the offense” and “the next Dave Rimmington”. Yes, that Dave Rimmington. It was clear how much those missing camp reps meant on Saturday. Jurgens consistently snapped the ball high, often causing Martinez to leap to catch it. Once he flung it so far over his QB’s head that he caused a 20-yard loss and cut the drive short.

By the end of the first half, Martinez was reflexively jumping on every play, whether it was a good or bad snap. It threw off the timing of the entire offense and gave the Jaguar defense the crucial moments they needed to read the offense and respond. This was the cause of the offensive woes Saturday, as bad timing ruined any possible rhythm in the offense again and again.

Adrian Martinez chases high snap – (photo: Hail Varsity)

After the opening drive, Nebraska took a very vanilla offensive approach. This was to both test fundamentals across the board and to avoid showing off too much of the expanded playbook to upcoming opponents. The offensive line struggled to open holes for running back Dedrick Mills against a senior-heavy South Alabama defensive front. The aforementioned timing problems ruined any hope of an effective passing attack.

Where Will They Improve

Nebraska has one week to fix the snapping issue before they head to Boulder to take on Colorado. After admitting to a few pretty bad offensive practices last week, Frost reaffirmed his belief in both Martinez and Jurgens. The Big Red reportedly rebounded very well in Monday’s practice. If Jurgens can settle in after his first college start at center and be more consistent in getting the ball to #2, the offense should be back to the explosiveness we saw last year. Add to that an expanded playbook that will look to target Colorado’s new 3-man front in the inside run game. They will try to take advantage of some weaknesses on the edge with playmakers like Maurice Washington and Wan’Dale Robinson. Expect Nebraska to have little problem moving the ball in week 2.

What To Expect

Colorado has no shortage of options on offense. Led by quarterback Steven Montez and one of the best receivers in the country in Laviska Shenault, they should give the Blackshirts all they can handle. Bringing pressure against a weak Colorado line and forcing Montez into making bad choices should give the offense enough breathing room to cruise to victory.

Nebraska 42, Colorado 32.

Christian is a co-host of Between The Numbers, a weekly podcast recapping the best college football news from around the country and offering smokin’ hot takes.

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