As always, Nebraska leaves a lot to be desired against Oklahoma despite offering glimpse of what it could be
On the surface, Nebraska should be at least mildly excited about what it did Saturday. The Huskers had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to tie the No. 3 team in America in its home stadium. For a program that hasn’t even been to a bowl game since 2016, that would seem to be a sign of progress.
But once again, there is so much left to be desired with Scott Frost’s program that a 23-16 defeat to an old rival felt a little hollow. Sure, the Huskers were close against Oklahoma in the resumption of one of college football’s classic rivalries. But when will they put it together to win a game like this?
No one outside of Nebraska expected the Huskers to win in the first meeting with Oklahoma since they left the Big 12 after the 2010 season, but as the game went on and they hung around, it went from just trying to stay close to having the chance to shock the college football world and reverse the narrative. Then, the Huskers (2-2) did what they always do. They committed penalties. They messed up on special teams. They failed to deliver in big moments. It’s the same old story with this team, unfortunately.
While there is still clearly a bit of a talent gap with a program like Oklahoma, it isn’t as big as the win-loss records would have you think.
The Sooners boast the player that many thought in the preseason was the best in all of college football and the likely top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. And did Spencer Rattler do anything to make Nebraska look silly? Did he carve up the Huskers? Not at all. His 214 passing yards were well below his career average of 275. His 6.3 yards per attempt were well below his career average of 9.3.
How good was Nebraska’s defense? The last time Oklahoma had as few as 23 points was against Houston to open the 2016 season, a span of 61 games. Nebraska’s defense, once again, did more than enough and nearly held an eighth straight opponent to less than 400 yards of offense.
That’s why it has to be maddening for fans—on the 50th anniversary of the famous Game of the Century when No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 2 Oklahoma, no less—for the Huskers to shoot themselves in the foot once again. It’s a hallmark of Frost’s 3-plus years. On Saturday, Nebraska committed 8 penalties for 70 yards, missed 2 more field goals and had a blocked PAT returned for 2 points. Every week, these seemingly minor errors hold Nebraska back, and unless you’re Ohio State or Alabama, those are tough to overcome.
Nebraska’s wide receivers are big and athletic, which is why that 55-yard bomb to Zavier Betts looked so easy. It’s why Martinez’s passing numbers this season have been so good. He was great again on Saturday, throwing for 289 yards and a TD on 19 of 25 attempts. And pay no mind to that ridiculous interception from D.J. Graham because it was fourth-and-18, and Martinez simply needed to throw it up for grabs.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 18, 2021
But the offense’s effectiveness is limited by an offensive line that struggles to run block and struggles to protect Martinez, as he was sacked 5 times, including twice on the final drive. Nebraska was limited to 94 yards rushing, many of which came on scrambles from Martinez. True freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. has some juice, but Nebraska can’t seem to spring him loose.
Not only did the offensive line continue to struggle to do its job, but it actively hurt the offense’s progress. There were 4 linemen who picked up penalties — and that was just on the first drive! Center Cam Jurgens had 2 personal foul penalties. Maybe those calls were “soft,” but it’s also soft to blame refs when your team can’t quit committing penalties.
Take this third quarter drive that is a microcosm of Nebraska football. The Huskers dialed up a beautiful screen pass to Rahmir Johnson that gained 26 yards. Jurgens brought the Huskers back 15 yards with a personal foul penalty that had nothing to do with the play. Nebraska still wound up scoring, but then Oklahoma blocked the ensuing PAT and returned it for 2 points. That’s a 3-point swing. Add in the 2 missed field goals, and Nebraska outscored Oklahoma 23-21. Of course, the game wouldn’t have necessarily played out like that, but still, it has to sting for Nebraska knowing it was right there.
BLOCKED AND BROUGHT BACK FOR TWO 🔥
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 18, 2021
At times, this just felt like a clinic on how to sabotage your own upset bid.
People are so desperate to try to dunk on Nebraska on Twitter because it seems like the cool thing to do. I really think the outside world (and some national media) mistakes passion for delusion. The problem is that Nebraska keeps adding more fuel to the fire with undisciplined mistakes. It desperately needs a win against a legit team, as it hasn’t beaten anyone who has finished with more than 7 wins in Frost’s tenure. This would’ve been that game.
Nebraska, at the very least, didn’t get blown off the field on Saturday. It never led, but it was never out of the game. And coming into this season, that would’ve been a little surprising. But at a certain point — and I think Year 4 under Frost is that point — when is being close not enough?
Martinez told the media afterward that Nebraska can win any of the remaining games on its schedule. I don’t disagree, but that would require the Huskers to finally put it all together and eliminate the mistakes that continually hold them back.