Pernell: Recapping October
Record/Results: 1-2 (4-4 overall, 2-3 Big Ten)
Oct. 5th – Nebraska (13) Northwestern (10)
Oct. 12th – Minnesota (34) Nebraska (7)
Oct. 26th – Indiana (38) Nebraska (31)
What we saw on Offense:
Nebraska continues to struggle offensively. Through eight games, offensive numbers in almost every key category have dropped compared to last year. The Huskers are sitting at 58th nationally in total offense, averaging 413.4 yards per game compared to 456.2 last season, which ranked 25th. They’re averaging 5.83 yards per play (68th) after finishing 20th last season with 6.31. The team is averaging 26.3 points per game (85th), down from 30 last year. The offense is averaging 219.8 passing yards per game (247.2 in 2018) and 193.6 rushing yards per game (4.3 ypc) compared to 209 yards and 5.4 ypc last season.
The offensive line continues to be the primary cause for the struggles. They were absolutely manhandled against Minnesota and they struggled heavily against Northwestern. The offense has had problems finding a consistent rhythm and because the line has struggled, Frost has had to be far more conservative with his playcalling than he would like.
The team has gotten sporadic production from receivers outside of JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson all season. Kade Warner missed the first four games because of a foot fracture. He had his best game against Minnesota, hauling in 3 passes for 38 yards, but then went without a catch against the Hoosiers the following game. Kanawai Noa was a bit of a spark against Indiana with 3 receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown, but his fumble also helped change the trajectory of the game. As if the team wasn’t already lacking playmakers, they are now without Maurice Washington after he was suspended indefinitely by Frost. His future with the team is in doubt at this point.
To make matters worse, the team was without Adrian Martinez for the Minnesota and Indiana losses after he went down on the final play of the third quarter against Northwestern with a left knee injury. On the bright side, Noah Vedral has played relatively well in his absence. On top of that, true freshman Luke McCaffrey showed his potential when he replaced Vedral against the Hoosiers. McCaffrey was 5-of-6 passing for 71 yards and a touchdown, while adding 76 yards rushing on 12 carries. Unfortunately, both Vedral and McCaffrey were banged up on Saturday. Vedral was injured with about five minutes remaining in the first half and replaced by McCaffrey, but was forced back into the game after McCaffrey injured his knee late in the fourth quarter. Martinez will have had nearly a month off by the time Nebraska kicks off against Purdue and he’s expected to return to the lineup. How close to 100% is he?
Could there be a bit of optimism moving forward? Nebraska racked up 514 yards against Indiana (294 passing, 220 rushing) and registered 19 plays of 10 yards or more. They haven’t been that productive since their game against Illinois back on Sept. 21, when they had 24 such plays. The offense had fallen into a major funk since then. In the three games following the output against the Illini, the Huskers had logged just 17 total chunk plays. In those games (Ohio State, Northwestern, Minnesota), the offense was averaging 9 points and gaining just 283 yards per game (4.4 yards per play). The hope is that they can build on last weeks performance and give themselves a chance in these last four games.
Cumulative Grades: Rushing Offense (C) Passing Offense (C+)
What we saw on Defense:
The defense has really regressed the last half of the season. It’s troubling because unlike the offense, there aren’t any injuries you can point to that would help justify the drop off we’ve seen. They’re struggling to find any kind of pass rush. The defense has only registered eight sacks in its five conference games (131 pass attempts). As a result, the team is having problems getting off the field on 3rd downs and currently rank 81st nationally in third-down defense. Chinander has failed to manufacture pressure from blitzes. It’s clear the staff needs to find guys on the recruiting trail who can come in and develop into threats off the edge. “We need to keep getting guys in here that can do those things, and that’s being honest,” Frost said following the Indiana loss.
The pass defense has struggled because of the lack of heat being generated by the front seven, but the trend that concerns me is the way the run defense looks against quality opponents. The Husker defense started the season off strong, allowing just 82 rushing yards per game and barely 2 yards per carry over their first three games. In their first four Big Ten games, they allowed 267 rushing yards per game and 5.9 per carry (both ranking 13th in the conference) and gave up 12 rushing touchdowns, which was the worst mark in the Big Ten. Minnesota racked up 322 yards on 49 carries (6.57 ypc) and had three different running backs run for 84 yards or more.
That doesn’t bode well for upcoming November games against Wisconsin and Iowa. Even Maryland is averaging 191.1 rushing yards a game. The D-line has gotten pushed off the ball and the linebackers have been out of position or undisciplined in their gap assignments. The back seven have taken bad angles and over pursued. Purdue is 129th (out of 130 teams) nationally, averaging just 68.6 yards on the ground. I suspect they’ll mirror Indiana’s game plan on offense. The Hoosiers threw for 351 yards in what was the worst game of the year for Nebraska’s pass defense. Regardless, if the run defense doesn’t get right, Nebraska will be in trouble the last three games of the season.
Nebraska forced 10 turnovers in their first five games, which at the time was tied for 13th nationally. They’ve created just two turnovers in the three games since. They also entered October tied for 14th in the country with 41 tackles for loss. They’ve gotten 13 TFL’s the last three games. With two-thirds of the season in the books, the defense is 72nd nationally in total defense (400.6 ypg), 83rd in rushing defense (177.3 ypg), 66th in passing defense (223.4 ypg), 109th in red zone defense (88.2%), 77th in scoring defense (28.9 ppg) and have given up 40 plays of 20-yards or more (88th).
Cumulative Grades: Rushing Defense (C-) Passing Defense (D+)
What we saw on Special Teams:
The special teams continue to struggle. Starting to see a theme here? Isaac Armstrong hasn’t had a good month. He averaged just 39.4 yards on his 18 punts, with just six going inside the 20. He also had notable shanks against Minnesota and Indiana. The Huskers returned just three punts for 10 total yards, and were just as inept on kickoffs, returning five kickoffs for just a 20.4 average and a long of 23.
The only bright spot was the return of Barret Pickering, who missed the first seven games of the season with an undisclosed injury. He was 4-of-4 on his PATs and hit one of his two field goals. If he can knock off the rust and get into the groove he was in towards the end of last season, Nebraska’s kicking woes should be over.
Cumulative Grade: D
Offensive MVP: Wan’Dale Robinson (15 receptions for 204 yards, 35 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, 1/1 passing for 22 yards)
Defensive MVP: JoJo Domann (14 tackles, 3 TFL, PBU)
Nebraska only hosted six official visitors for their two October home games, and half of them were Husker commits. Wide receivers Zavier Betts and William Nixon, along with offensive lineman Alex Conn were in Lincoln for the Northwestern game. They were joined by 4-star wide receiver Justin Robinson, who is currently committed to the hometown Georgia Bulldogs, and Alex Harrison. The Utah native Harrison is being recruited by most schools as an offensive lineman, but the Husker coaches want him as a nose guard in their 3-4.
The staff used the Indiana weekend to put on their annual Homegrown event. The staff brought in 20-plus potential walk-on candidates and made sure those selected invitees had a different experience than normal. Scott Frost and Barrett Ruud, who handles in-state recruiting, spent 5-10 minutes apiece talking to the visitors. The recruiting staff also shared a meal with the recruits at the Hawks Championship Center. For the vast majority of the walk-on candidates in attendance, they hadn’t received that kind of quality time with Frost since the February 2 or March 30 Junior Days.
The lone official visitor for the Indiana game was 4-star outside linebacker target Latarie Kinsler Jr. The Florida native is also seriously considering Syracuse, Louisville, Penn State, Oregon and Tennessee. With the staff prioritizing finding pass rushers, Kinsler qualifies as a priority target. He is an early enrollee, so expect the staff to use the upcoming bye-week following the Purdue game to see him.
The staff was also able to get several top 2021 prospects on campus this month. Arguably the top prospect in the state and one of the best cornerbacks in the region, 4-star Avante Dickerson, was in Lincoln for the Northwestern game. So was 4-star OLB Randolph Kpai, OC Bryson Estes and OLB/DE Omarion Fa’amoe. For the second time this fall, the Huskers received a visit from priority 2021 OLB target TJ Bollers for the Indiana game. Nebraska also received an unofficial visit from 2022 Lafayette (LA) QB Walker Howard, one of just four QB’s Mario Verduzco has offered from the ’22 class. Howard already has additional offers from LSU (where his father played), Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Nebraska added two players to their 2020 class as well; cornerback Ronald Delancy III (Oct. 8) and defensive lineman Marquis Black (Oct. 12). They also had a brief commitment from inside linebacker Rodney Groce Jr., who committed on Oct. 4, only to decommit on the 23rd. The Huskers are still actively recruiting the Alabama native, but he is expected to stay in the Southeast. Mississippi State, who he has a long relationship with, is considered the favorite to land him, but LSU and Florida are also among a group of teams pursuing the talented linebacker. Groce wants to enroll early, so I would expect the staff to go out and see him during their bye-week next week to see if they can stay in the fight.
The Huskers sit at 13 commitments with the calendar turning to November. That leaves roughly 10 spots to fill. The team is still on the shortlist for several of their top targets, but if they start missing on some kids, things could get interesting. History tells us the majority of recruiting misses occur with kids that are late additions to a class. This happens for a few different reasons. When December and January roll around, coaches sometimes pivot towards their plan B options – especially now with the early signing period taking kids completely off the board. Now with the early signing period causing teams to reshuffle their board, the focus of a lot of schools shifts to the best players who didn’t sign. They also have kids jump onto the radar after having strong senior seasons. Coaching staffs spend 18 months or more vetting kids and building relationships with them. When a kid gets on your board this late, you don’t have the sort of information or gut feeling about a kid that you usually do. It’s why the vast majority of transition classes either suffer massive attrition, or have several players who just don’t pan out. Frost’s 2018 class is already an example of this.
Losing Groce hurts. The team wants to sign 4-6 linebackers and with the early signing period (Dec. 18-20) less than seven weeks away, the team currently has just one committed (OLB Blaise Gunnerson). Linebacker recruiting will go a long way toward determining how successful this class ends up being. It’s a huge focus and priority, for good reason. Latarie Kinsler Jr. was the 32nd official visitor Nebraska has brought in and the 11th who is a linebacker.
Unfortunately, Nebraska has missed on several guys who were on the top of their board. They received official visits from Cody Simon (Ohio State), Malik Reed (Wisconsin) and Caleb McCullough (Arizona State), only to see them commit elsewhere. Luckily, they’re still in the running for some of their top targets who have already visited. Kaden Johnson, Choe Bryant-Strother, Latarie Kinsler Jr., Jared Ivey and Regen Terry still have Nebraska in their top groups. The staff is also working to get longtime targets Desmond Tisdol, Devyn Curtis, Mister Williams and Brennon Scott on campus for official visits. Williams was in town for Nebraska’s second Junior Day on March 30, while Curtis took an unofficial visit in the middle of June. Scott is a 4-star from the same Texas High School as current Huskers Darrion and Damion Daniels (Bishop Dunne). He’s currently committed to Kansas, but is still in contact with several schools and plans to take visits to Nebraska, Oregon and SMU.
A look ahead to November:
Nebraska has a culture and leadership problem. After last Saturday’s loss to Indiana, you had several players in their first or second years in the program being the most vocal about guys needing to want it more. To care about it more. To do more. That’s encouraging for the future, but it also points directly to the problem Frost currently faces. When you have a true freshman questioning the efforts of upperclassmen, that’s a problem. Eighteen year old kids who have been on campus for nine months shouldn’t already be one of the more respected, vocal players on the team. When a grad transfer is on campus for a semester and is voted a team captain, that’s probably a telltale sign that the infrastructure on your team isn’t where you want it to be. That’s not an indictment of Wan’Dale Robinson and Darrion Daniels. By all accounts those two are excellent teammates and examples of guys who do things the right way. Guys that personify the culture Frost wants in that building. The problem is those two should be spokes in a wheel. They would be on a team with the right culture. Frost has work to do here.
Frankly, the program will be better off as it graduates the upperclassmen and attrition takes care of the others who aren’t bought in. You almost can’t blame the older players. Many of them are playing for their second head coach, second or third coordinator, and third or fourth position coach. It just is what it is at this point for most of them. Scott Frost needs a roster of ‘his’ guys that have been recruited to ‘his’ systems and have been coached, trained and developed for ‘his’ vision. Until that locker room is filled with players all on the same page about what it’s going to take to turn Nebraska back into a consistent winner, results like Saturday will continue to be all too common.
All the talk this spring and summer about Nebraska being a favorite to win the West looks pretty ridiculous at this point. Nebraska faces an uphill climb to even get the two more wins necessary to become eligible for a bowl game. That’s the ultimate goal now. I have doubts they can do it. This team hasn’t clicked in all three phases of the game on the same day all season. Not only that, but there hasn’t been one game where the team hasn’t made at least one costly mistake in one of the three phases – and usually there’s been multiple offenses.
This team could really use the extra practices that would come from a bowl game. “I think the biggest thing when you’re talking about a young football team is you just get time,” said Barrett Ruud of being in a bowl game. “You get practices. And that’s huge. When you get extra practices to prepare, you get a bunch of redshirt guys that didn’t get a ton of reps during the season, that get reps during the bowl game.” Those extra practices and the time spent around each other and the coaches goes a long way toward building camaraderie and strengthening the culture. At this point, the players could also use the reward aspect that comes with it. Something to show for their hard work. Nebraska really can’t afford to go three-straight years without a bowl game.
Nebraska has lost three of its last four games and now needs to win at least two of its final four games to become bowl eligible. The problem is that as it stands now, beating either Wisconsin or Iowa seems insurmountable. They probably have to win both of their road games (Purdue, Maryland), and Frost is 1-7 outside of Lincoln. If they start out November with a loss this weekend to a really bad Purdue team, Frost can go ahead and make plans to be at home for the Holidays again.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25 years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.