Nebraska: Report card with a month to go
Nebraska’s football program has seen some all-time lows this season.
There is no getting around it: The first 0-6 start in program history and a 10-game losing streak dating to last season gave Scott Frost a harsh introduction to life as the Cornhuskers head coach.
So our report card, with five games to go in the regular season, is going to reflect some of that struggle. But it is also going to show some improvement. That befits a team which lost to Sun Belt Conference team Troy at home in its second game, one of the low points in program history, then had a couple of close losses before finally breaking through last week with a Big Ten victory over Minnesota.
Now, as the Cornhuskers head into Saturday’s hastily scheduled game against Football Championship Subdivision foe Bethune-Cookman, let’s check out their grades so far:
Students can take a “B” grade one of two ways. They can say, “A few more of those will do nicely” and not strive for more. Or they can take it as they should: As a student who’s doing well but has the potential to improve and truly excel. Adrian Martinez will do the latter. Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost said Martinez is “right up there with the best ones I’ve ever coached.” Martinez has made a few mistakes but if his progress, especially after Saturday’s sterling performance against Minnesota, is anything to go by, the next few years will be special for him in Lincoln. Consider this: Martinez is 12th in FBS in total offense at 309.7 yards per game. Of the 11 players ahead of him, all quarterbacks, four are seniors and five are juniors. One, Hawaii’s Cole McDonald, is a sophomore. The only other freshman in the top 12 is Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman, who is sixth. That’s progress. Backup Andrew Bunch started once, in a loss to Troy, and has played little since.
Running backs: B+
Devine Ozigbo has exceeded all expectations for a senior who was not highly regarded either coming out of high school or going into this season. Frost even said recently that Ozigbo has a chance to play on Sundays and few would have said that even after last season, when Ozigbo led Nebraska with 493 rushing yards. He has gained more than that in the past four weeks alone. Among the 40 FBS players who have at least 600 rushing yards, Ozigbo has hit that mark in the fewest carries (85). Freshman Maurice Washington has made some strides as well and looks like a back the Cornhuskers can rely on in 2019 and beyond.
Receivers/tight ends: A-
This has been probably the steadiest unit on the team. Basically, two receivers have carried the load: J.D. Spielman (48 catches, 614 yards, seven touchdowns) and Stanley Morgan (37, 556, 3). Last season Morgan set a school record with 986 receiving yards; he’s not quite on pace to match that but Spielman is on pace to become the first 1,000-yard receiver in Big Red history. Spielman (below) has at least eight catches in each of the past four games, meeting the definition of consistency and strong production. These two have been very reliable targets for Martinez. Tight end Jack Stoll (10 catches) pops up as a target from time to time.
Offensive line: C+
This unit had a very rough start to the season — not a surprise considering the team’s 1-6 record — but has gotten better. They opened all kinds of holes against a Minnesota defense which had somewhat stymied Ohio State the week before. Advanced metrics show that the front five for the Cornhuskers has done a decent job getting a push in the running game, but is allowing a relatively high sack rate. If they can buy the elusive Martinez just a bit more time when he drops back, he can make more things happen both running and passing. The line has gone through a couple of lineup changes, too.
Defensive line: C-
Not enough push, not enough pressure, not enough times stopping the opposition’s ground game in short-yardage situations, too many third-down and fourth-down conversions allowed. Nebraska’s defense is guilty of all of these things and it starts up front. Football Outsiders analysis reveals a team which is especially unsuccessful in stopping teams behind the line of scrimmage (94th of 130 FBS teams) and on short-yardage plays (101st). The other numbers are mostly not very pretty either, and you don’t have to dig into advanced metrics to prove it: Yards allowed (449.9, 111th in FBS) and points allowed (36.9, 115th) per game are evidence enough.
Luke Gifford single-handedly boosts this grade by about a full letter. Simply put, more often than not he has been the best player on either side of the ball for Nebraska. The senior leads the Cornhuskers in tackles for loss (10), sacks (4.5) and QB hits (five). He gets an A. Mohamed Barry has made some big splash plays but has been far less consistent than Gifford. Dedrick Young has been solid but not spectacular. The one demerit for the linebackers, and this applies to the whole defense, is that they have not created enough turnovers.
Safeties Aaron Williams, Tre Neal and Antonio Reed and cornerbacks Lamar Jackson (below) and Dicaprio Bootle have definitely had some ups and downs. This unit has combined to produce a paltry four interceptions in 268 opposition passing attempts. Like much of the team, this unit probably had its best game against Minnesota. The Cornhuskers allowed a season low in completion percentage (55.6) in that victory last week and an interception near the goal line was critical at a time when the Golden Gophers were trying to drive for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Special teams: D
Oh, dear. Very little is going right here. We have harped on this before but the Cornhuskers are getting practically nothing from their return units as they are ranked 124th in running back punts (2.88-yard average) and 114th in kickoffs (17.27 average). Their coverage units — 118th on kick return, 120th on punt returns — are no better. Nebraska is at least OK in punting average (ranked 40th at 42.9 yards per attempt) with two different punters but Barret Pickering (6-for-10 on field goals, long of 35) has been an inconsistent kicker. Just awful all around.