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LINCOLN — After three years of mediocrity and inattention to detail, it would appear in Year 4 of the Scott Frost era that Nebraska football is ready to excel at making its own bed.
The Huskers seek not to turn their league on its head, fight for their right to play football or juxtapose themselves to players from five years ago. NU appears boring and straightforward in its approach, with a coach seemingly disinterested in playing footsie with his depth chart all the way until the season-opening kickoff. Frost wants positions settled early in camp.
“Continuity helps — making sure the main guys are working with the main guys,” Frost said.
“Clear expectations,” outside linebacker JoJo Domann said when asked about what he envisioned for training camp. “Having a standard and knowing what’s being asked of us. From the walk-ons to the young guys to the seniors, we all have a role and we all need to exceed in that role.”
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Exceed. Good word choice.
Expect the same rhetoric as coordinators and position coaches start talking this week.
Frost’s 10 assistants drove the bus on that vibe last spring after he chose to run it back with his full staff. The decision drew criticism. The Rewind thought that it made sense.
Continuity is key against a tough schedule, and after all, if NU goes 5-7 in 2021, some of those assistants wouldn’t return for 2022.
The bet is that Frost would (and should) survive a losing season. Short of total collapse, it’s a two-year conversation for the native son. A coach of Frost’s stature and connection gets one shot at shaking up his staff, and he hasn’t done it yet. One losing season — even 6-6 — and there’s little choice.
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You could use 27 numbers to explain and underline the struggles on that side of the ball — the one area where a Frost team was supposed to excel — but here’s a deep cut, offbeat stat to sum it up.
There are 65 Power Five teams — the P5 — and 83.1% scored more points per game than Nebraska last season. Fifty-four of 65.
Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State, of course. And Rutgers. And Duke. And Boston College. And Northwestern, Oregon State and Wake Forest. UCLA, which runs a similar offense to NU, averaged 35 points per game last season. Nebraska averaged 23.1.
Yes, the Big Ten-only schedule plays a factor. NU didn't enjoy any nonconference cupcakes to drive up its scoring numbers.
But if even you filter for conference-only games, NU moves up from 101st in points per game to … 99th.
And what about the 10 P5 teams Nebraska did outscore last season? Their combined record was 19-67. Three of them — Vanderbilt, Kansas and Arizona — didn’t win a game. All three fired their coaches. So did Illinois and Tennessee.
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Teams that do not score points do not keep their coaches long. They tend to lose, and they are usually boring.
Nebraska’s offense has been exciting like a roller coaster can be. Lots of yards, lots of turnovers, lots on the shoulders of a single guy, quarterback Adrian Martinez, whose level of help — from linemen, receivers and backs — has been in decline since the end of 2018.
Martinez pumped up the receivers Thursday while noting that many of them still have another level to be “unlocked.” Frost pumped up the talent in the running back room while desiring to see “a main guy, and a backup or two” emerge out of a group of six. Before you anoint any of them, remember: One of them has to pass block for Martinez, and catch passes from him.
It’s the offensive line — on paper, the most talented in years — for which Frost found more than platitudes.
“If I could pick one thing, the attitude is changing,” Frost said. “It’s transforming from ‘I hope we get the job done’ to ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ Being a little more aggressive and physical … the leaders on your team have to have the right mentality, particularly when it comes to the front line on offense and front line on defense. And it’s probably still a little young, but I’m starting to see that type of determination from those guys.”
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The line is NU’s single biggest determinant of success. A better downhill running game begets a better play-action passing game. The better that is, the less Martinez has to run himself, and the less he’s fumbling downfield while leaping for a first down. The biggest domino is the first one. Win the trenches.
“It’s just dominating the other teams and winning,” center Cam Jurgens said when asked to define success in 2021. “We need to get back to a brand of winning football, and that’s what matters. Doesn’t matter how you play, if you’re turning the ball over five times a game, you’re not winning. The only thing that matters is winning or losing, so to get back to winning football. I’m not going to put a number on it.
"Husker fans will know if it’s a good product on the field or not, and that’s what we want to put out there.”
On with the Rewind.
50.8%: Only half of the Power Five teams had a better scoring defense than Nebraska last season. Middle of the pack is pretty good, especially when in 2018, 78.5% of P5 teams had a better scoring defense. (In 2017, it was 93.8%.)
24.5%: Opponents’ third-down conversion rate the last half of Nebraska’s 2020 season. That’s pretty terrific — against mediocre offenses like Iowa and Rutgers, NU consistently got off the field — and it should carry over to 2021. Oklahoma, Ohio State and Wisconsin could be exceptions, but if the Husker D can force a 35% conversion rate, they’ll be around the top 25 in the nation.
54.9%: Of Nebraska’s rushing yards last season by quarterbacks. That’s not a misprint, and that’s way too big a slice of the pie, especially compared with Frost’s first year in 2018, when QBs accounted for 27.2%. In 2019, it was 36.9%. Nebraska’s best team in the Big Ten era — the 2012, 2014 and 2016 squads — were at 28.6%, 24.1% and 22%, respectively.
94.2%: Of the top 35 most-viewed games involving Big Ten teams since 2018, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State were involved in 33 of them, according to data from Sports Media Watch and research from World-Herald digital sports coordinator Hunter Paniagua. The two exceptions: Wisconsin vs. Oregon in the 2020 Rose Bowl and the 2019 Wisconsin-Minnesota game. This isn’t entirely surprising, as Ohio State is the league’s best team playing in the biggest games, but it’s a reminder that the league’s balance of power tilts heavily east toward the big three.
0: Bowl games for Nebraska in three years, which has indisputably hurt the program’s national visibility. As an example: The 2019 Illinois-California game, which you surely don't recall, had 1.87 million viewers. That’s more than the 1.43 million who watched Nebraska and Iowa on Black Friday on BTN in 2019. Illinois-Cal! One reason bowl games matter is, well, people watch the heck out of them. Michigan State-Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl had 3.8 million viewers. That’s more viewers than every Nebraska game in the past three years, outside of the three games against Ohio State.
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Illinois leads the nation, coach Bret Bielema likes to say, with 22 super seniors. Some of whom, like quarterback Brandon Peters, are pretty good. Some aren’t, and truth is, they contributed to a program that got its coach fired last season. Illinois’ offense wasn’t a major part of the problem; when on, the Illini could move the ball in a spread-run offense. Will Bielema make the hard shift to a Wisconsin pro-style attack or wait a year to do so because he has a salty offensive line primed to pull and move in space?
Michigan State held a big tentpole recruiting event, “Spartan Dawg Con,” over the weekend, and it was apparently a hit. Nebraska didn’t have that luxury because it started camp this week. MSU landed a big-ticket four-star defensive line commit (Alex VanSumeren) last week and has four commits from the state of Georgia, too; coach Mel Tucker once worked at Georgia. NU didn’t need more recruiting competition in Georgia, but MSU is providing it.
Major movement in the running back battle by the time Frost talks again. NU has to pick two or three guys and roll with them.
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