Pernell: Recapping September
Record/Results: 3-2 (3-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten)
Aug. 31st – #24 Nebraska (35) South Alabama (21)
Sept. 7th – Colorado (34) #25 Nebraska (31)(OT)
Sept. 14th – Nebraska (44) Northern Illinois (8)
Sept. 21st – Nebraska (42) Illinois (38)
Sept. 28th – #5 Ohio State (48) Nebraska (7)
What we saw on Offense:
Through the first month of the season, the Husker offense has been largely feast or famine. The offensive line has looked downright awful for large chunks of the first five games. Cameron Jurgens has had issues snapping the ball in three games, which has thrown off the timing of the offense on several occasions. Adrian Martinez was outstanding against Illinois when he became just the second quarterback in school history to throw for 300 yards (327) and rush for 100 (118) in the same game. His 445 yards of total offense was the third-best total in Husker history. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t taken the next step most expected he would, at least not to this point. Martinez is completing just 59.5% of his passes and has accounted for 10 total touchdowns (7 passing, 3 rushing) compared to nine turnovers (five interceptions, four lost fumbles). He’s making poor decisions on his RPOs and has looked sluggish when he has decided to run the ball. Martinez has missed several throws and has thrown far too many inadvisable passes.
The concerns over having to replace Stanley Morgan have not been alleviated. JD Spielman is having the sort of year we expected (19 catches for 391 yards), but he’s not the alpha Morgan was for this team. Only six wide receivers have caught a pass thus far. Kanawai Noa (5 catches, 61 yards) and Mike Williams (2 catches, 46 yards) haven’t been factors, while Jaevon McQuitty (2 catches, 14 yards) and Darien Chase (1 catch for 13 yards) have played 20 total snaps apiece – Jaron Woodyard has yet to appear in a game. Luckily, true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson has been everything the coaches thought he would be when they recruited him. He’s second on the team in receptions (18) and receiving yards (203) and tied for the team lead with two touchdown grabs. Robinson has proven to be the prototypical Duck-R, adding 36 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Robinson has been one of bright spots on offense.
Maurice Washington has been another. He’s gotten dinged up in a couple games, which can probably be attributed to his slight frame, but he has looked better than last year. Washington has 39 caries for 277 yards (7.1 avg.) and a touchdown on the ground, and is tied for third on the team in receptions (10). Dedrick Mills started slow, but he’s starting to look like the guy coaches expected. He has rushed for a team-high six touchdowns and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry (296 yards). He’s had issues with fumbles (three in the first five games), which has cost him some playing time. He looked particularly effective running out of the fullback spot when Frost unveiled an old-school I-Formation package against Ohio State. Mills finished with 67 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. It’s not a surprise he thrived in that spot, after watching him excel in Paul Johnson’s flexbone system while at Georgia Tech. Expect Frost to keep that package in his arsenal moving forward this season.
Bottom line, Nebraska needs to get better if they want to get to the 7 or 8 win mark. The Huskers are averaging 31.8 ppg (58th) and 435 ypg (47th). Numbers that have been skewed by the Ohio State beatdown, sure, but the issues remain. They have got to fix the turnover problems. They’re tied for dead-last in the country with nine lost fumbles, and tied for 128th (out of 130) with 14 total turnovers.
Cumulative Grades: Rushing Offense (C-) Passing Offense (C-)
What we saw on Defense:
The defense has taken a pretty significant step from last season. Coaches emphasized stopping the run and for the most part the team has done that. The defense allowed 83 rushing yards to South Alabama (1.9 avg.), 89 to Colorado (2.4 avg.) and 74 to Northern Illinois (2.3 avg.) to start the year. They stumbled early against Illinois, when they gave up two touchdowns and 124 total yards in the first quarter, including 78 rushing yards (albeit 66 on run carry). They bowed up after that, holding Illinois to just 175 yards over the next three quarters. The wheels fell off against Ohio State, however. The Blackshirts gave up 368 yards on the ground (6.9 avg.) and 580 yards total. The most disappointing aspect of that game defensively was how thoroughly dominated they were at the line of scrimmage. Coming into the season the expectation was Nebraska being tough to handle along the defensive front. They lived up to that until the Buckeyes came to town. Ohio State replaced four starters from last season, yet they came to Lincoln and imposed their will. Husker fans have grown all too accustomed to seeing those results when they are going against the best teams on their schedule. This year was supposed to be different. Do they bounce back? What’s it going to look like in November when they take on Wisconsin and Iowa? We all remember Frost’s comments after last seasons loss to Iowa.
The secondary has played well for the most part. The unit took a pretty significant hit when it lost starting safety Deontai Williams to a shoulder injury in the opening game. But guys like Lamar Jackson, Dicaprio Bootle, Cam Taylor-Britt and Marquel Dismuke have played well overall. Losing Williams has hurt the depth, obviously, but it also effected how creative Chinander could be with some of his looks. Taylor-Britt was being counted on as someone who could play all over and shift the look of the defense because of his versatility and all-around skillset. As a result of Williams being out, Taylor-Britt has had to play primarily safety and hasn’t been the chess piece coaches had wanted to utilize.
The first five games have proven how thin Nebraska is at linebacker. The inside trio of Mohamed Barry, Will Honas, and Collin Miller have played well, but not having promising youngsters like Nick Henrich and Jackson Hannah ready to contribute is unfortunate. The need at outside linebacker is glaring. JoJo Domann has looked good and Caleb Tannor has taken a nice step forward thus far, but Alex Davis continues to struggle on the other side and Tyrin Ferguson hasn’t gotten the number of reps I expected and hasn’t stood out much when he has gotten chances. True freshman Garrett Nelson is green, but I love his energy and effort. I’d like to see him get more snaps because, frankly, Davis is a nonfactor (like he was last season). Coaches have to recruit some difference-makers. The defense needs help here.
Increasing turnovers and being more disruptive as a unit was also a huge point of emphasis coming into the season. Nebraska has forced 10 turnovers through five games, which is tied for 13th nationally. They have 15 sacks (tied for 20th) and 41 tackles for loss (tied for 14th). There are things to build on for the remainder of the season.
Cumulative Grades: Rushing Defense (B) Passing Defense (B-)
What we saw on Special Teams:
There are serious concerns at kicker. Promising sophomore Barret Pickering hasn’t played this season because of an undisclosed injury. In his absence, Frost has tried three different guys in his place. Between Isaac Armstrong, Dylan Jorgensen and Lane McCallum, the Huskers are 2-of-7 on field goals. They’ve had three field goals and two extra points blocked. It’s been ugly. On the other hand, Armstrong is having a solid year punting. He’s averaging 43.6 yards per punt (5th in the Big Ten) and has placed nine of his 23 attempts inside the 20 and hit another six 50-plus. William Przystup’s kickoffs have been inconsistent and he’s struggled to get touchbacks. Opponents have already returned 18 kickoffs.
The Huskers have blocked a punt, and would have gotten to another had Northern Illinois’ Matt Ference not fumbled an attempt just as Isaiah Stalbird was bearing down. JD Spielman is averaging 11 yards per punt return but that average is bloated by his 76 yard touchdown against South Alabama. He only has eight return attempts out of 29 forced punts. He’s averaging 1.7 yards on his other seven returns and also muffed a punt against South Alabama that was recovered at the Husker 13 and resulted in a touchdown for the Jaguars. The punt coverage has been outstanding. The team is allowing just 2.43 yards per return, with a long of just five yards on seven attempts.
Cumulative Grade: C-
Offensive MVP: Wan’Dale Robinson (18 receptions for 203 yards and two touchdowns, 36 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown)
Defensive MVP: Cam Taylor-Britt (21 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions, two PBU)
Nebraska came out of the summer sitting at 10 commitments. Ideally, the staff would like to be hovering closer to 15 when the season gets under way. With the early signing period, that’s going to be the goal of most teams and you can see that when you glance at the number of commitments most Power 5 schools had coming out of August.
Despite the lower-than-average number of commitments, the Husker class is off to a very impressive start. Its average star player rating puts this class right around the top 15. Frost already has his class QB (4-star Logan Smothers) on board and filled his RB quota (Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III). He has two offensive tackles (4-star Turner Corcoran and Alex Conn) committed and will look to finish his O-line class with an interior prospect. He has two receivers locked up (4-star Zavier Betts and William Nixon) and will likely aim to grab two more, with the No. 1 juco WR in the country (Omar Manning) trending his way.
The stretch run will focus largely on the defensive side of the ball. The Huskers have 4-star DT Nash Hutmacher and will look to sign two or three more defensive linemen. As I mentioned above, the staff really needs to hit on some linebackers and they’ll likely sign five or six. They’re off to a good start with 4-star OLB Blaise Gunnerson and are trending with Rodney Groce Jr., who plans to commit on Friday. Nebraska wants to bring in around four defensive backs. They’ve had CB Tamon Lynum on board since late June, but they came out of nowhere to steal 4-star Henry Gray away from schools like Florida, Ohio State and Michigan after he verbaled to the Big Red a few days after taking an official visit for the Northern Illinois game. They also seem to be in good position to add Ronald Delancy III, who decommitted from Louisville this morning after taking an official to Lincoln for last weekends Ohio State game.
Scott Frost also has used this month to get his 2021 class started. First on board was defensive end RJ Sorensen out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who committed September 1 after initially earning his offer during his visit for the June 21 Friday Night Lights Barbecue. Last weekend they added in-state 4-star OT Teddy Prochazka out of Elkhorn South. Prochazka has been to all three home games this season and both guys were in Lincoln on unofficial visits for the Ohio State game.
The staff used all three home games (South Alabama, Northern Illinois, Ohio State) to bring in several top targets for the 2020, 2021 and 2022 classes on either official or unofficial visits. Among those who visited were (2020 class): 4-star DB Myles Slusher (Oregon commit – Northern Illinois and Ohio State), 4-star LB Jackson Bratton (Alabama commit – Ohio State), 4-star OLB Kaden Johnson (Ohio State), LB Rodney Groce Jr. (Ohio State), OLB Jared Ivey (Ohio State), LB Caleb McCullough (Northern Illinois), DE Tuli Tuipulotu (Northern Illinois), DL Marquis Black (Ohio State), CB Ronald Delancy III (Ohio State), OG Chandler Durham (Ohio State), OLB/DE Regan Terry (Northern Illinois), DL Nusi Malani (Northern Illinois). (2021 class): 4-star OLB/DE Ethan Downs (Ohio State), 4-star OLB Travion Ford (Ohio State), 4-star OLB TJ Bollers (Ohio State), 4-star WR Shawn Hardy (Ohio State), 4-star OT Trey Zuhn (South Alabama), 4-star QB Peter Costelli (Northern Illinois), 4-star RB Javion Hunt (Ohio State), LB Collin Oliver (South Alabama), DL Griffin Liddle (Northern Illinois), OT Henry Lutovsky (Northern Illinois), DE Ryan Keeler (Northern Illinois), WR Brody Brecht (Ohio State), TE AJ Rollins (Ohio State), TE Thomas Fidone (Ohio State). (2022 class): OT Kiyaunta Goodwin (Ohio State), CB Xavier Nwankpa (Ohio State), RB Ali Wells (Ohio State) and WR Quinton Conley (South Alabama).
A look ahead to October:
The lopsided loss to the Buckeyes was a stark reminder of how wide the gap is between Nebraska and the elite teams in college football. Ohio State (in my opinion) has been the best team in the country so far this season, and it showed just how far the Huskers have to go before they can realistically expect to join that upper echelon. They’re light-years away from hanging with motivated and focused teams like Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU. Heck, the rest of the country is probably in that category. Last Saturday night just proves that Frost is going to need more time than fans probably anticipated, but are (for the most part) willing to give him that runway. Nebraska needs another couple recruiting classes like last seasons top 20 haul to continue rebuilding this roster around Frost’s vision. They’ll get there.
October is going to be a huge month for this team. How the Huskers are able to put the Ohio State game behind them could determine whether or not this season unravels. Will there be a hangover that lingers and effects this team moving forward? We’ve seen that so many times with Husker teams in the past. The coaches and players have done a nice job of talking the talk this week regarding moving on and focusing on Northwestern. Will they walk the walk come Saturday and beyond?
The Huskers take on Northwestern and Minnesota the next two weeks before their first bye, and then close out the month against Indiana. To have any hopes of winning the West, they probably need to go 3-0. Anything less basically signals just trying to become bowl eligible.
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.