Nebraska football: 5 questions following the Huskers’ loss to Illinois
After a feel-good win over Penn State, Nebraska’s loss to underdog Illinois lit a fire under the Huskers fanbase.
Questions started swirling: About Scott Frost’s job security. About Luke McCaffrey’s passing ability, or lack thereof. About the run defense.
There’s never a dull moment in Lincoln it seems, so here are 5 questions Huskers fans should be asking themselves after the Saturday’s loss:
At one point Nebraska had 2 quarterbacks. Does it even have 1 now?
Coming into the season, Frost probably liked what he had in the quarterback room. Although he suffered a sophomore slump, Adrian Martinez was a 3rd-year starter and seemed primed for a comeback story. And McCaffrey, the speedy redshirt freshman backup, was waiting for his moment, whenever it would come.
How quickly things change.
Both Martinez and McCaffrey are fine runners. Really good runners, actually. But they struggle to throw the ball, and B1G defenses know it.
Lovie Smith knew it. You could tell he did by the way Illinois played defense against Nebraska. Packed boxes with 6 or 7 guys near the line of scrimmage. Safeties running downhill the moment they smelled run. Corners playing soft coverage, allowing short, easy completions. The Illini were fine with giving those throws to McCaffrey because they were concerned with stopping the only thing the Huskers could hurt them with — the run game.
Mission accomplished, Lovie.
It was a good game plan from the veteran coach, and Frost’s offense didn’t execute in the areas that become available when defenses play the way Illinois’ did. There were open receivers for the Huskers on Saturday — Frost can still draw up plays better than anyone — but McCaffrey just either didn’t see them or didn’t trust that he could get the ball to them.
Once a quarterback with a promising future, Martinez hasn’t developed and instead regressed. McCaffrey is still too new to declare if he ever had the talent to be a competent Power 5 passer, but it doesn’t look good right now.
Is Cam Jurgens the future at center?
By no means is this an attempt to single out Cam Jurgens. The offense’s struggles go far beyond the quarterback situation and all 5 guys make up the offensive line.
I’d hope that Huskers fans realize that Jurgens has a massive project in front of him in learning a position he never played before stepping foot in Lincoln, not even at Beatrice High School, where the former 4-star prospect starred as a tight end/linebacker. I’m confident Husker Nation likes the kid and respects that he’s learning on the fly on top of fighting through the many injuries he’s sustained.
But is Jurgens actually working out at center?
There were more errant snaps on Saturday. He has a history of those. Considering how important timing is in football, those inaccurate snaps really mess up plays. With Nebraska’s quarterback situation being what it is, catching what should be a routine snap in a shotgun set is yet another thing that McCaffrey and Martinez have to worry about. How many other teams in the B1G can say that about their center-to-quarterback exchange?
At what point do the coaches make a change at center? Does the staff even think it has a viable option behind Jurgens?
What happened to the defense?
If you take out Ohio State — it’s a now irrelevant season opener that took place so long ago and a contest which no one realistically thought the Huskers would win or even keep close — the Huskers have played 3 games. They’ve gone 1-2 in those, but their defense has been good enough to win 2 of them: Northwestern and Penn State.
The loss at Northwestern was on the offense, not the defense, which gave up just 21 points. Against Penn State, the Huskers’ defense held off a second-half comeback from the Nittany Lions and their backup quarterback while Nebraska’s offense got outscored 17-3.
So overall, Nebraska’s defense has been the good part about the team. But what happened against Illinois?
Against Northwestern and Penn State, the Huskers’ run defense allowed 196 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Those numbers could be better of course, but they’re not terrible.
The Illini gained 285 yards on the ground and averaged 5.5 per carry. Credit the Illini, I guess, because they won the line of scrimmage against a Huskers front 7 that stood its ground for the most part this season.
What is Nebraska’s offensive identity?
Do the Huskers have one? It doesn’t look like it, other than designed quarterback runs, which, over time, opponents pick up on — especially when they know they won’t be hurt by the pass.
Wisconsin has an identity. The Badgers always have a big and powerful offensive line that leans on a defense for 4 quarters, which eventually helps turn 2- and 3-yard runs into 5- and 6-yarders in the second half.
Iowa has an identity, too. After forgetting it and having a first-year starting quarterback throw 89 passes and 3 interceptions in the first 2 games, Kirk Ferentz got back to it these past 3 games, which have all been wins. Iowa went back to its identity, committed to the run game, and Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent’s solid play have rewarded the move.
Those are the 2 teams in Nebraska’s own division, teams which have owned the Huskers recently. Nebraska hasn’t won a game against Wisconsin since 2012. Iowa since 2014.
Nebraska recruits better than Wisconsin and Iowa. According to 247sports.com, the last time either program finished better than Nebraska in the B1G recruiting rankings was in 2014, when Wisconsin was 5th and Nebraska 6th. But that clearly doesn’t mean much. Those two teams develop players better, which, at least right now, looks more valuable than star rankings, right?
The sooner Nebraska can settle on an offensive identity, the better.
How much worse will it get with a loss to Iowa?
This isn’t a prediction. Iowa has owned the Huskers as of late, winning the last 5 games, but the last 2 have been close 3-point wins by the Hawkeyes. Nebraska has shown it can play Iowa tough under Frost.
But the loss to Illinois hurt the fanbase badly. It was Frost’s worst defeat of his head coaching career and one that made fans question how much time he actually has left in Lincoln.
This is just one sportswriter’s opinion, but Frost is in no danger of losing his job. None. The program made a commitment and is in it for the long haul. Most outsiders might get 3 years to show something. Frost isn’t an outsider. He’s going to get a longer leash.
Progress on offense, however, would be good to see. That’s what Frost was brought here for. To score points, and lots of them. If Michigan was “rock bottom” like Frost said it was back in 2018, what’s losing to a 15-point underdog at home?
The Illinois loss brought out the worst in the fanbase through social media, making some call for Frost’s job. What will a poor showing against Iowa — a program many in Nebraska love to poke fun at and claim superiority over — bring out?
The last thing Huskers fans want to see is another close loss to the rival across the river, and a field goal kicker pointing and blowing kisses at them like last year.
Keith Duncan blowin kisses to Scott Frost as he clinches Iowa’s 5th straight win over Nebraska. Let’s party. pic.twitter.com/TPhbGpR8ra
— Austin Bramley (@AustinBramley) November 29, 2019