Mental mistakes send Huskers home for holidays again

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A.J. Epenesa of Iowa sacks Adrian Martinez.

A season-ending game against a rival with a bowl bid on the line is a great time to ramp up your performance in the second half and rally from a 14-point deficit to tie the game.

It’s a lousy time to make bad decisions. But two boneheaded miscalculations — one by a coach, another by a player — made the difference in a 27-24 loss to Iowa, offsetting a fine second-half comeback by Nebraska and left it on the outside looking in once again. The Huskers are staying home in December for the third year in a row, in a year they badly needed 15 extra bowl practices to prepare for 2020. It’s largely because they can’t close the deal in close games, and that was the story once again on Black Friday.

Back in July, Scott Frost and Adrian Martinez were the main reasons that many media types predicted that Nebraska would win the Big Ten West. But two years into their Husker careers, Frost the coach has yet to prove he can make the difference with his play calls and player management, and Martinez the quarterback has shown he’s just as likely to turn the ball over as he is to get his team into the end zone. That’s the main reason Nebraska finished 5-7 (3-6 in the conference) in 2019.

NU’s fifth consecutive loss to Iowa started out looking like it would be a walkover. In the first quarter, the Hawkeyes followed their recent pattern, which goes something like this: Do a lousy job rushing the football against the rest of the Big Ten. Then stuff the ball down Nebraska’s throat with your running game.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, a 6-foot-1, 183-pound wide receiver, scored on a 45-yard reverse on the Hawkeyes’ second series, circling left end for an easy score when Husker outside linebacker Caleb Tannor abdicated his outside containment responsibilities.

Iowa ran the ball 10 times for 152 yards and two touchdowns and led 14-3 after one quarter. They would get only 73 more rushing yards the rest of the game.

The Hawkeyes (9-3, 6-3) piled up 191 yards of total offense in the first quarter, but could muster only 133 more the rest of the game.

That’s where Nebraska’s first soul-crushing bad decision came in. In the second quarter, after cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt put his team back in contention with a 38-yard pick-six, the Huskers’ Barret Pickering kicked the ball deep to Smith-Marsette, who returned the kick 95 yards for a touchdown, immediately dousing the Huskers’ momentum. Yep, exactly the same thing that happened against Wisconsin. I wonder if anyone on the Husker coaching staff thought about that.

Pickering had successfully pooch-kicked on two previous kickoffs. Why even consider kicking the ball long?

By process of elimination, I assume Dewitt made that call. In the postgame press conference, Frost said he didn’t know why the Huskers kicked long, although he said, “We went into the game not wanting to kick to them.” You’ve got to assume Dewitt knew the pregame strategy, as did Pickering. Yet someone chose to kick long regardless. That points to Dewitt, whose main responsibility at that moment was making sure the kick was executed properly. Did Dewitt think he had permission from Frost to override the game plan?

You’ve got to assume Pickering, who kicked it high and short every other time, was told to kick it deep this time. And who else but Dewitt would have told Pickering to kick it long? That’s an extremely expensive breakdown of command, and if the communication was fuzzy, Frost is ultimately responsible for it. If the communication was clear, Dewitt is responsible.

Needlessly down by 14 points at halftime, Nebraska fought back admirably to tie the game in the third quarter, which had been a disaster all season for the Big Red but was their crowning achievement against the Hawkeyes.

Going against a 15-mph wind in the fourth quarter, the Husker bogged down on four consecutive drives, as Kirk Ferentz patiently played field position football and hoped the Huskers would make a critical mistake (a strategy that Big Ten teams have used since 2011). It worked — again. And again, the mistake was a mental one.

With the game on the line, Chinander’s defense forced a fumble, recovered by Taylor-Britt at the Husker 39-yard line with 2:32 remaining. Martinez and the offense had the ball with a chance to win the game, or at least take it to overtime. A questionable illegal block call on Mike Williams stalled the drive, but NU still had a chance to run out the clock. At that point, Martinez proved that 21 starts have not been enough to turn him a into savvy Big Ten veteran.

At this point in his career, Martinez is Jammal Lord without the burst, without the dependability and without the toughness. Nagging injuries may be partly responsible, but that just serves to illustrate Lord’s superior durability.

McCaffrey will push him hard for his starting job in the spring. McCaffrey is a more explosive athlete. He’s young and inexperienced, but can you really give the edge to Martinez as an older, steadier option? Martinez is not exactly a top-notch decision maker. He’s extremely turnover-prone. Let the quarterback controversy commence.