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McKewon: Nebraska now looks like a Big Ten team. Time to beat the Badger bullies
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COMMENTARY

McKewon: Nebraska now looks like a Big Ten team. Time to beat the Badger bullies

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’d be something if, in a year when Nebraska fans perhaps most fervently wanted to leave their new league, the Husker roster — especially along the lines — finally started to resemble a Big Ten bunch.

Bigger. Burlier. Tougher. Delivering a blow as much as taking one.

Is that too sunny a perspective after NU’s 52-17 loss to Ohio State? Too pollyannish? Isn’t a 35-point loss — to whomever, wherever, in a pandemic or not — a 35-point loss?

Perhaps. But it’s the Monday Rewind, not the Saturday Gut Feeling. And to rewatch the Huskers’ season opener is to see some of the same concerns — more fumbles, the lack of an elite pass rusher for the sixth straight season — and some real growth (and girth!) where Nebraska has long needed it: On the offensive line and in the defensive front seven.

Nebraska’s athleticism in those spots isn’t in Ohio State’s league. But the Huskers finally have size.

The offensive line didn’t bubble backward like an overcooked pizza. The defensive line, with three new starters, held its ground and played with decent technique. The linebackers weren’t so far out of position that highways existed for Buckeye backs to run through. Yes, this is growth.

It’s hard to gauge against an Ohio State team with quarterback Justin Fields throwing to two elite receivers behind what might as well be a NFL line. And since Nebraska’s offense remains in overhaul mode with its skill players — blending a backup quarterback into three roles takes experimentation, after all — the offensive line is, at times, blocking in front of a still-building machine.

But you can watch right tackle Bryce Benhart wheel around two teammates for a lead block on Adrian Martinez’s quarterback draw and see something you like. You can do the same with Ethan Piper when he pulls around to block for Luke McCaffrey on a power play. Ditto for when Ty Robinson — at 6-foot-6, 310 — beats his man and gets a tackle for a loss in Ohio State’s backfield. Even if Nebraska doesn’t have a guy who can go get a sack, it didn’t have to use seven guys to get three sacks.

The final score was, well, what it’s typically been in the NU-OSU series. Ohio State had won the previous five games by an average of 34.4 points. Saturday fit into that. Sidestep the scoreboard a bit and watch the plays themselves, and the team Nebraska seemed close to being at the end of 2018 — and never really was in 2019 — appears to be reemerging.

“We hung with them a lot better than last year physically, and I give a ton of credit to them — that’s a really good team — but I was proud of how our kids fought,” coach Scott Frost said after the game. His assessment held up one day later in my mind.

“We created the right type of movement, got the right kind of leverages done,” Nebraska guard Matt Farniok said of the offensive line. Agreed.

The “first blush” of Husker football in 2020 shows a team that has worked with strength coach Zach Duval, a team that can run when the quarterback is under center and a defense that fits well enough against the run that OSU ball carriers actually spilled, a few times, into the sideline.

But Husker social media ran a little hot. Fans don’t want to have a jeweler’s eye to spot progress. They’d like to see it on the scoreboard. And they’d like to see, quickly, a leap by NU’s receivers.

Wasn’t that, after all, a position that had to get better by all accounts? Wasn’t an entire offseason spent shrugging off the departure of JD Spielman and the graduation of Kanawai Noa because the Huskers were going to be much better under new offensive coordinator/receivers coach Matt Lubick?

According to Frost, they were better, in terms of executing the plan Frost and Lubick drew up. They can only do what they’re asked to do, and this new crew — Wan’Dale Robinson, Kade Warner, Levi Falck and Wyatt Liewer among them — weren’t asked to execute “all-go” routes Saturday. They seemed to block well. Their routes were crisp. Guys were open, including Falck on a comeback route Martinez didn’t see.

“We still, as a program, need to be able to push the ball downfield better, there’s no question about that,” Frost said when asked about the passing game. He referenced Ohio State’s spectacular receivers and the shots Fields can take because of them.

“When you hit those, those are big plays, and even when you don’t hit them, you’re backing people up and keeping people honest. We have a ways to go to being able to be that kind of threat, to hit a home run in the passing game, but I thought the guys executed the game plan we had very well.”

Frost referenced “a couple other chances” that Nebraska couldn’t grab because of a missed protection and a “fumbled snap,” referring to Luke McCaffrey’s bobble on what would have been a chunk play-action pass, perhaps to tight end Travis Vokolek. Late in the contest, Alante Brown made it in and had a grab, and Robinson had his longest grab of the day in the fourth quarter.

How much of its passing game did Nebraska hold back for future weeks?

Frost and Lubick, perhaps out of necessity, revealed some of what they plan to do with McCaffrey — who can play three positions better than most — but stuck to a modest passing plan, creating some nice Mark Richtian triangles in the middle of the field. Only once did Martinez put a pass in harm’s way, when he threw deep to Vokolek along the sideline instead of taking Falck’s comeback route on the front side of the play.

In the red zone, Nebraska attempted one pass, and it should have gone for a touchdown (if Martinez had thrown the ball a little softer or Warner had caught it).

“That’s one game against a really good football team,” Frost said. “So if we didn’t throw it for 450 yards, there’s always next week.”

In other words, it’s Ohio State. Put some context on Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes may win a lot of games by 35 points. Nebraska’s 6.73 yards per play ranked third in the Big Ten after one week.

The next defensive challenge, Wisconsin, figures to be stiffer. The Badgers tend to play stingier defense than the Buckeyes, anyway, but there’s a bit of extra juice on each Big Ten West game.

And with Nebraska, there will be added urgency. Ohio State is, indeed, a mulligan game. Wisconsin is not.

You can’t play the recruiting service game with the Badgers, who develop as well as any team in college football. Wisconsin’s eight-year advantage over the Huskers is rooted more in physicality, toughness and sheer want-to — winning the 3 yards between two trees in your backyard.

Time for that drill again. There might even be a little residual snow on the sidelines.

Here comes the Halloween game for the Huskers. Nebraska seems to have the size and strength to make it a little less scary. On with the Rewind.

I see you

Offensive weapon Luke McCaffrey: My favorite McCaffrey moment was his reaction to a Husker defensive stop in the second quarter, chewing on a mouthpiece, fully engaged on the sideline. That guy’s fire burns and he seems to have endless fuel.

Tight end Austin Allen: If Jack Stoll’s injury keeps him out of action, Allen becomes the starting tight end. He looked like one of NU’s top receiving options Saturday as the Huskers seek to use the tight ends more prominently in the short passing game.

Middle linebacker Will Honas: Played a physical, aggressive game. Attacked the line of scrimmage on run plays, blitzed well on pass plays. Honas looked a little faster than he did last season.

Cornerback DiCaprio Bootle: The long touchdown allowed by Bootle didn’t appear to be his fault — NU safety Deontai Williams should have provided help, it seemed — and Bootle broke up Fields' other long throw.

Defensive tackle Ty Robinson: The strength was good last season, but it appears to be better in 2020 with an extra explosive burst he showed on the tackle for a loss.

Kicker Connor Culp: Made a very short field goal and hit two nice knuckleball kickoffs. That’ll do.

Punter William Przystup: His first two punts were excellent.

Running back Ronald Thompkins: A brief, impressive picture — a catch, a few runs — that needs more paint strokes on it.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields: The light feet and poise of a Charlie Ward with a much better arm, Fields makes wow plays look easy. He “feels“ the game really well; even his sacks seemed sensibly taken. The Buckeyes are lucky to have him.

Ohio State wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson: They were most valuable on crossing patterns. Nebraska can’t run with that duo. Few defensive backs could.

Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett: The Huskers’ offensive line got after him pretty good in the first quarter. He was increasingly hard to block as the game went on, and finished with two tackles and a sack while drawing a holding penalty.

Ohio State offensive linemen Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis: When the Buckeyes needed an interior push on a few key downs, the Buckeyes’ center and right guard helped. They’re really good.

The Ref Show: And the game was so clean for a half, zipping along at a pace equal to the brisk weather. Cam Taylor-Britt’s targeting penalty was perfectly legitimate, if harmless — Taylor-Britt literally jutted out his helmet at OSU running back Steele Chambers — but the Deontai Williams penalty seemed wrong. If you purposely avert your head from the tackle and deliver the hit to a guy’s chest, you’re trying to play safely.

Five stats

58: Fumbles in Scott Frost era. That’s 28 in 2018, 27 in 2019 and three Saturday. No team in the Big Ten or FBS, according to cfbstats.com, had more combined fumbles in 2018 and 2019. The Huskers have lost 25 of those since 2018. NU lost 13 in the three seasons before Frost arrived. That coincides with Nebraska having a pro-style offense that reduced the numbers of quarterback carries.

It’s easy to say the Huskers should cut down on their fumbles, but they tend to come when quarterbacks run the ball a lot. They fumble. Nebraska had 27 fumbles in 2014, 32 in 2013, 35 in 2012 and 32 in 2011. You can guess why.

7.92: Opponent points scored per third quarter in the Frost era. That runs behind the Riley era (6.13), the Pelini era (5.75) and the Callahan era (6.84). Nebraska’s had some very good quarters under Frost — 2019 Iowa, 2019 Maryland — and some poor ones.

21 (yard line): Nebraska’s average starting field position Saturday. On the three kickoffs in which returner Rahmir Johnson did not take a fair catch, the Huskers started at the 24, 19 and 15. The kickoff return unit remains a work in progress. Thanks to kicker Connor Culp’s two knuckleball kickoffs, Ohio State started drives at its own 12 and 10. Still, the Buckeyes had an average starting field position 8 yards better than Nebraska.

19: Games since Nebraska committed 90 yards in penalties until Saturday. NU hadn’t chalked up 90 since the 2018 Wisconsin game, when Frost was working through some early issues with team buy-in. Saturday’s penalty spree was more based on bang-bang plays but still a small disappointment.

215: Rushing yards allowed by Nebraska to Ohio State. Before you shake your head too much, know that it’s the fewest rushing yards for the Buckeyes against NU since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Now chew on this: 215 yards is fewer than the average number of rushing yards any Big Ten team gained per game against Nebraska in the previous three seasons. NU just might be pretty good at stopping the run. Might.

Facebook feedback

After each game, I ask Husker fans on my Facebook page for their on the performance. Selected and edited responses follow.

Peter Campbell: “Gotta say, it did not seem like we lost by 5 TDs. We hit harder, stopped the run, and our QBs performed quite well. I have to wonder how the game might have turned if that tipped 4th down pass didn't get caught by OSU in the first quarter.

Jamie Suhr: “Frost needs to be more aggressive in end-of-half situations and on fourth down, especially against great offenses like Ohio State.”

Ryan Goeden: “We looked better than the final score. Martinez looked good, there is no QB controversy. Run D was solid. Still scared of Wisconsin.”

Brian Parsons: “A tale of two football games. For 25 minutes NU went punch-for-punch with one of the most talented teams in college football and played them to a draw. The next 35 minutes NU was outscored 38-3. So signs of progress are there, but 38-3 just can’t happen.”

Leigh Batten: “There were flashes of great, but that has to stick around for more than a series (and not end with either of our QBs fumbling).”

Opponent watch

>>Wisconsin was pretty on-brand in a romp over Illinois. The Badger defense was tough, and the schemes on offense looked the same. UW’s run game wasn’t impressive statistically — 182 yards on 54 carries equals a 3.37 yard-per-carry average — but its prevalence helps set up Graham Mertz, in his first start, to complete 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Mertz won’t be that good every week, but he’s more than a game manager backup to the injured Jack Coan. If Mertz — who reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 this weekend — can't go, the job falls to sophomore Chase Wolf. 

>>Penn State lost 36-35 in overtime to Indiana in the game of the weekend, with quarterback Michael Penix providing an unforgettable 2-point conversion that IU fans won’t forget. The score is misleading; PSU’s defense only allowed 211 yards. Its offense racked up nearly 500 yards, but three first-half turnovers — that set up 10 IU points — cost the Nittany Lions. So did PSU running back Devyn Ford’s choice to score a touchdown late in the game when a kneel down would have sealed a one-point win.

Forecast

Tension. For a lot of reasons — coronavirus cases continue to go up around these parts — but, in the football world, mostly because Wisconsin, as good as it might be, is a game even forgiving Husker fans dearly want to win. Nebraska has to shut out that noise and just prepare.

 

Omaha World-Herald: Big Red

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