Alex Hickey: 3 reasons why Nebraska can pull off a shocker over Oklahoma
First, a word of warning for the Boomers who may stumble upon this writing and immediately feel outrage: remember reading comprehension. Saying something could happen is not saying something will happen.
And definitively predicting anything Nebraska will do is a fool’s errand, anyhow. Yes, the Cornhuskers were going to stumble and bumble their way to a loss two-thirds of the time in Scott Frost’s tenure, but it was impossible to foresee precisely how the disaster would unfold.
So this is not a guarantee that Nebraska will upset No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon. Far from it. But as the Huskers showed in last year’s 23-16 loss in Norman, they can hang with the Sooners. It’s simply a matter of capitalizing on those few available paths to victory. Under Frost, Nebraska rarely did so regardless of opponent.
But Nebraska is no longer under Frost’s unwatchful eye. And that is where we begin with the 3 reasons the Cornhuskers could do the unthinkable against Oklahoma.
1. Scott Frost is gone
For centuries, people have burned sage to clear a space of negative energy. Or ward off ghosts.
Nebraska shouldn’t need sage this week. It has Mickey Joseph.
Much like sage, there’s no quantifiable way of proving Joseph can clear the air of Frost’s aura. But it feels certain his mere presence will have an immediate and uplifting effect on the Huskers. Frost was coaching for his job every week; Joseph is playing with house money.
After a year-plus of looking uptight every week, Nebraska finally has a chance to play loose and free. It’s not like the team is bereft of talent. You don’t lose 10 consecutive 1-score games without having a comparable skill level to your opponents. A simple attitude adjustment could work wonders.
The 2021 USC Trojans are a good example of said phenomena working. USC fired Clay Helton after 2 games, then went to Washington State and hammered the Cougars 45-14. The Trojans were still a very bad team, finishing 4-8. But for that 1-week sugar high, they dominated a 7-5 Washington State team.
Granted, Oklahoma isn’t exactly Washington State. Which is why the Huskers need to go a few steps beyond playing inspired football.
2. The Sooners are sackable
First-year Oklahoma coach Brent Venables can’t be pleased with how his team is protecting quarterback Dillon Gabriel.
UTEP and Kent State could be the weakest defenses the Sooners face all season, yet they were able to get to the quarterback for a combined 5 sacks in the first 2 weeks. That puts Oklahoma 86th in the country at protecting the quarterback early in the season.
That’s the good news for Nebraska. The bad news is asking the Cornhuskers to actually put pressure on an opposing passer has proven just about impossible this season.
Nebraska has just 2 sacks through 3 games. Both came in the second half against FCS North Dakota. Opposing offensive lines are straight-up manhandling these guys.
But Nebraska edge rushers Garrett Nelson and Ochaun Mathis have a track record of creating chaos in the backfield earlier in their careers. So it’s not as if they’re incapable. And it’s possible Joseph will tap into that capability with some tweaks.
Mickey Joseph on the defense:
"We're gonna play faster, we're gonna tackle in practice, we're gonna detail what we're doing with our kids, we're going to make our kids hold themselves accountable."
— Paul Harvey 🔨 (@HammerHarvey) September 13, 2022
3. Can’t go wrong with 3rd-and-long
Sacks put an opponent behind the chains, creating the opportunity for even more sacks on third down. And third down is surprisingly winnable against Oklahoma.
The Sooners are shockingly bad on third down through 2 games, converting just 30% (6 of 20). That rates 106th in the country.
Again, that’s against UTEP and Kent State. A year ago, the Golden Flashes were 124th nationally in total defense. Early on this season, they are 122nd. So this Oklahoma offense is having some early execution issues in its first season post-Lincoln Riley.
But that brings us back to the old “good news, bad news” dilemma.
Nebraska can’t stop a nose bleed on third down. Its first 3 opponents converted 48.9% (22 of 45), which puts the Huskers 116th nationally on third down defense.
However, the bulk of that damage was done last week when Georgia Southern converted 9 of 13 third-down attempts. If the Huskers can purge that performance from their systems, perhaps they will flip the script.
The Nebraska team we’ve seen so far this season is not winning this game. But it wouldn’t be falsely optimistic for Huskers fans to believe that won’t be the team they’ll see on Saturday.
The returners from last season know they can hang with Oklahoma. Quarterback Casey Thompson, who threw for 388 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Sooners in last year’s Red River Shootout while a Longhorn, certainly knows he can hang with Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has shown a pair of very exploitable weaknesses against pretty underwhelming competition. Unfortunately, both play into weaknesses for Nebraska’s defense. But surely the Huskers are more capable of taking advantage than UTEP and Kent State were, especially with Mickey Joseph clearing the atmosphere around Lincoln.
If Nebraska can improve its defensive weaknesses more quickly than Oklahoma can solve its protection and third-down issues, the Huskers will give their fans something to smile about for the first time in a long time.