Preparing for Illinois will be more difficult than usual this week for the Nebraska defense.
Four quarterbacks have taken snaps for the Illini this year and for a variety of reasons. Starter Brandon Peters has missed the last two games after testing positive for COVID-19. Backup Isaiah Williams has sat out while in a contact-tracing quarantine but returned last weekend against Rutgers to run for a single-game program quarterback record with 192 rushing yards in his first career start. Third-stringer Matt Robinson has also appeared in two games along with No. 4 QB Coran Taylor.
With Peters eligible to return this week, the decision appears to be between him and Williams, a former high four-star prospect with top national offers. Illinois coach Lovie Smith on Monday declined to offer any specifics about who would start against the Huskers.
“One thing about Illinois that’s kind of hard is they switch their whole concept around the quarterback and who’s in and who’s not in,” NU inside linebacker Collin Miller said. “If Brandon Peters plays they’re going to have a whole different situation than if (Williams) is playing and going to try to run the ball more.”
What made Penn State quarterback Will Levis tougher to handle as a runner was the way PSU used him, Miller said. The Nittany Lions got the 6-foot-3, 222-pounder one-on-one with a Husker linebacker who was left to make a tackle, and Levis totaled 61 yards rushing on 18 carries. Ohio State’s Justin Fields also got loose last month for 54 yards on 15 carries.
Everyone has to do their job when that happens, Miller said. Defensive lineman Ty Robinson said his role against mobile QBs is to take on blockers and keep his positioning until others arrive to help.
Said Robinson: “I think that’s the biggest challenge is holding my ground so I know I gave enough time for our teammates to go make a play.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost was also complimentary of the Illini defense and how physical the group was last year in NU’s 42-38 triumph, saying the Ilini “hit the crap out of us.”
Frost said the fact that Illinois has continued to play despite COVID-19 limiting their personnel is a good reflection on Smith.
“I give them credit for playing the games they’ve played despite missing some guys,” Frost said. “I think that says a lot about who they are, who Lovie is. The challenge for us is not really knowing who is going to play and who is going to be out there for them and what they’re going to do on offense depending on who is playing quarterback. So we’re going to have to get ready for multiple things.”
Blackshirts recharging for Illinois
Robinson carried his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame home Saturday night and laid down. The defensive lineman had just finished tangling with Penn State blockers for 57 snaps.
“I don’t even remember shutting my eyes and I woke up the next morning,” Robinson said Monday. “… I didn’t wake up until late that next morning.”
The redshirt freshman joined Ben Stille — who played 58 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus — as Nebraska’s most-used D-linemen in Saturday’s 30-23 victory. Eight other defenders logged at least 68 snaps in a game where the Nittany Lions ran 91 plays, the most seen by the Blackshirts in one outing in eight years.
Miller (71 snaps) said the physical fatigue didn’t set in for him until Sunday after the adrenaline and euphoria of playing — and winning for the first time in nearly a calendar year — wore off.
“You come into the training room with nicks and bruises and legs are feeling kind of heavy and sluggish,” Miller said. “But our trainers do a good job of getting us right for preparation and getting ready to go for Monday.”
JoJo Domann didn’t leave the field Saturday at outside linebacker while others to join him on the 90-snap plateau were senior safety Deontai Williams and junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. The totals were significantly higher than NU’s games against Ohio State and Northwestern, when the defense saw 69 and 65 plays, respectively.
Still, Robinson said, the Huskers won’t be dragging this week ahead of their second straight home game.
“I feel pretty great today so I’m ready for another week of practice to go take on Illinois,” Robinson said.
West is best in empty stadium
Frost wondered when he might be asked about why the Huskers, for the first time since the end of the Bill Jennings era, set up camp on the west sideline of Memorial Stadium rather than its traditional east side. The east side, until Saturday, is all Frost had ever known as a fan, player or coach.
But NU moved to the west, Frost said, so it could better protect its signals from opposing coaches sitting in the press box. Nebraska, like most teams, uses backup quarterbacks to send in plays from the sideline. During a normal game in a normal season untouched by COVID-19 there’s enough “chaos” on the east sideline to partially obscure the signals. In an empty Memorial Stadium, with fewer players on the sideline than usual, there isn’t.
"With no fans in the stands, it's just kind of an empty barn in there," Frost said.
McCaffrey wants to 'crisp it up'
Luke McCaffrey describes himself as two things — his mother’s son and his own harshest critic.
From his mom, Lisa, he gets the energy and competitiveness, that live-wire trait he showed before and during Nebraska’s 30-23 win over Penn State. It’s “infectious” energy, Frost said, the kind leaders need, that draws teammates to McCaffrey.
The redshirt freshman quarterback, who just completed his first start, is also the kind of player, Frost said, who can take what coaches dish out.
"You can't take it any better," Frost said. "Luke's the type of kid who lives in the office — always watching film, always trying to get better — so he takes coaching as constructive criticism, and he wants it."
So McCaffrey understood the pointers given to him by Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco on Sunday after the game. McCaffrey doesn’t tend to offer much to reporters about his own play, preferring to deflect credit to teammates, but one area he’d like to improve is in his own handling of the team’s quick tempo.
"There's always an ability to make things a little cleaner from a quarterback standpoint," McCaffrey said. "Run a little more efficiently. So that's one, be able to crisp it up a little bit more."
McCaffrey has long been confident in his ability to run Nebraska's offense — "I don't know that I ever really doubted it" — but he has improved his grasp of the system since last season.
Frost said McCaffrey would continue to practice each week to earn his job against backup Adrian Martinez. Nebraska retains the flexibility, Frost said, to play Martinez and McCaffrey at the same time, as well.
Jurgens working toward perfection
Cam Jurgens expects his nagging injuries will improve as the season goes on. But he definitely woke up with a “pretty sore” foot Sunday.
Nebraska’s redshirt sophomore center returned against Penn State after the ailment kept him from traveling to Northwestern a week earlier, snapping a string of 13 consecutive starts. He played the whole game after deciding midweek he could “functionally” do enough to help the team.
Still, the Beatrice native said with a smile, he was OK watching from the sideline when the defense produced a scoop and score in the second quarter.
While Jurgens said the erratic snaps that plagued him early in 2019 have smoothed out, he still considers a single bad hike to the quarterback “a terrible snapping day.” Sometimes, amid the excitement of the game, he doesn’t think about it like he should. Sometimes, he said, the balls come out too high and hot.
“That’s something that needs to be perfect every time,” Jurgens said. “You expect a field-goal kicker to make every extra point, and a center should make every snap perfect. So I’m going to keep working on that so Luke (McCaffrey) gets every snap right in his chest.”
» The Nebraska defense needs to make its biggest strides in the pass rush on third downs, Robinson said.
“I just feel like our pressure isn't as good, but it’s slowly getting there,” he said. “I feel like especially what we did in Penn State, we had a few pressures — Ben Stille with the game-winning sack. So, I feel like we're definitely going the right direction.”
In the win over Penn State, the Nittany Lions converted eight of their 17 third down attempts. The Huskers, however, converted on four of 12. Improving the pass rush and the Husker's third-down defense, Robinson said, starts with "caging the passer" and just getting back to the quarterback.
» Frost confirmed that Nebraska got positive news on receiver Oliver Martin’s eligibility for this season, and the transfer from Michigan and Iowa appeared in team warmup drills Saturday. The former four-star prospect and 6-footer from Iowa City has begun competing for reps at the position.
» Junior-college transfer Omar Manning didn’t suit up against Penn State as he continues to work through physical limitations, Frost said. Manning, a receiver, didn’t travel to Ohio State and played four snaps at Northwestern, though the touted addition and 6-4, 225-pounder has yet to make a catch.
“We just can’t seem to get Omar healthy,” Frost said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed, but he just hasn’t been healthy.”
» Frost said he called freshman running back Marvin Scott on Saturday night to compliment him on his game. Not so much the five carries for 11 yards, but the key block on the Zavier Betts 45-yard catch-and-run touchdown as well as the 14-yard gain he made after grabbing McCaffrey’s left-handed pass. The latter play led to a conversion on third-and-9 and eventually a field goal before halftime.
“Those two plays could have potentially won the game for us,” Frost said. “I told him how happy I was for him.”
» Frost said he’s “happy” with the running back room, mentioning underclassmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins along with freshmen Scott and Sevion Morrison behind senior Dedrick Mills. Circumstances Saturday prompted NU to use Wan’Dale Robinson in the backfield for the first time in 2020, and the sophomore carried 16 times for 60 yards.
Said Frost: “We’ll always use Wan’Dale as a changeup and make sure he’s getting the ball in his hands enough.”
» Tight end Jack Stoll returned for a handful of snaps Saturday following a serious-looking knee injury against Ohio State. Frost said Stoll also made a key block on the Betts touchdown and hopes the senior is closer to full strength this week.
“I told him it wasn’t bad for being 80%,” Frost said. “He said, ‘Frosty, that’s being generous.’ He went out there and gutted it out.”
» Nebraska kicker Connor Culp reported his pickup stolen overnight Saturday, but the truck has been found. Culp tweeted about it Sunday, asking for people to be on the lookout for it. Police say Culp reported leaving his 2002 white Dodge Ram near 12th and L Streets, in the area of the Marriott Cornhusker Hotel, on Saturday night. On Sunday morning he reported it stolen, Officer Luke Bonkiewicz said. Lincoln officers found it Monday morning near 11th and H Streets and processed it for evidence.