LINCOLN — Three things we learned and three things we still don't know about the Huskers coming out of Saturday's loss to Michigan.
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Three things we learned
1. Nebraska is due for a massive win soon
The Huskers have been on the precipice multiple times this season. They almost rallied back to defeat Oklahoma in Norman, almost took Michigan State to overtime in East Lansing, and now fell by just three points to Michigan in Lincoln. Those are three still-undefeated teams that will be ranked in the top 10 nationally on Sunday.
If nothing else, the Huskers have proven they can go to the wire with anyone anywhere. Fortunately opportunity abounds still with No. 7 Ohio State and No. 3 Iowa visiting Lincoln in November. Both provide a chance for Nebraska to notch the program-changing win that has time and again just evaded its grasp.
2. Nebraska’s offense mostly came through when its defense needed
The Husker offense was largely uninspiring in the first half after turning the ball over on downs in the red zone on its first drive. The defense first showed cracks by letting Michigan drive the length of the field for a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the first half.
The cracks spread as Michigan scored 19 second-half points. But most of that was needed to keep up with a Nebraska offense that came roaring out of the break, scoring all four of its touchdowns in the second half to go with 298 yards. This unit was the opposite of anemic against a top-10 scoring defense when its own usually dominant defense struggled a bit.
3. The offensive line held its own, a departure from its early-season woes
The running game never entirely got going, but this group was able to keep Martinez on his feet for the vast majority of the game. Just one sack allowed after being sacked an average of 3.6 times a game in Nebraska’s first five contests.
The Huskers held Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, one of the best defenders in the country, to no sacks or tackles for loss. The offensive line continued to look vastly improved from the start of the season after playing very well last week. Something to keep an eye on: True freshman left tackle Teddy Prochazka, one of two key new starters, left the game with a leg injury in the second quarter and didn’t return.
Three things we still don’t know
1. Can Nebraska ever get out of its own way this season?
This problem dates back over a decade, but especially this season. The Huskers didn’t have egregious penalty issues, and matched Michigan’s steady special teams play, but they gave it all away with a late fumble driving in a tie game. In a game in which the offenses traded blows against top-tier defenses, the Huskers’ loss in the turnover battle was the difference, especially with the way the game played out.
2. How do you measure the level of this Nebraska defense?
Michigan moved the ball when it needed to in the second half, as did Nebraska, a departure from what this game looked like for much of the first half. The Husker defense had a handful of key three-and-outs but looked uncharacteristic in letting Michigan march down the field and score to end the first half and in the third quarter. It also allowed 13 fourth-quarter points, one point shy of what it’s given up in the fourth quarter in its previous six games combined. To be fair, the last field goal was more a product of Nebraska’s offensive fumble.
Still this group challenged Michigan in ways it hadn’t been seen this year, notching just the second sack and turnover against the Wolverines and handing them their first deficit, to which their offense responded surprisingly well. Nebraska allowed a total of 459 yards, more than 50 more than in any other game this season. This may not be the top-12 scoring defense it was entering the game, but it still has the talent to be.
3. How do the program and fan base respond?
Memorial Stadium buzzed with energy with fans desperate to see the Huskers change course. Of course they didn’t, but as mentioned before, there’s still ample opportunities ahead.
It will be interesting to see how the team reacts in the games before those, including next week at Minnesota. The emotional turmoil may prove too much for this program and those around it. Nebraska might be in prove-it mode going forward, and it needs to take care of the teams in front of it in order to gain back fans’ trust before the big ones in November.