Why it's not putting lipstick on a pig to say Nebraska's season opening loss vs. Ohio State was encouraging
I’m usually not “that” guy. Better yet, I usually can’t stand “that” guy.
You know the guy I’m talking about. It’s the guy who watches a team lose in lopsided fashion and then tries to spin it as a positive. That guy tells you that “there are better days ahead” and he tries to spin why “it was closer than it looked.”
Well, I’m gonna be “that” guy today.
No, I’m not saying Nebraska is back. OK, full disclosure. I did sarcastically tweet after Nebraska’s haymaker of an opening drive that the Huskers were back.
No, a 52-17 result is not going to be celebrated in Lincoln. What I’m about to say shouldn’t be treated as that. On the surface, it was more of the same. A Nebraska team who entered Saturday 0-6 vs. ranked foes under Scott Frost didn’t exactly narrow that 21-point average margin of defeat in those matchups. And allowing 52 points to the Buckeyes rose Nebraska’s average of 41 points allowed to ranked opponents under Frost.
If you came into Saturday convincing yourself that Nebraska was going to go 60 minutes with Ohio State, that one is on you. There’s probably not a B1G team all year who will do that.
But yes, I found myself actually coming away somewhat impressed by what we saw in the Year 3 opener.
What am I referring to exactly?
Well, let’s start on defense. That final number (52) is gonna look ugly, but I’ve seen Nebraska look much worse in allowing 52 points (go back to 2018 at Michigan). The run defense, against an Ohio State offensive line with All-Americans and 3 returning starters, was promising. Promising, I add, after losing valuable front-7 production like Mohamed Barry and brothers Khalil and Carlos Davis.
Ohio State’s top 2 tailbacks, Master Teague and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon, were held to 96 rushing yards on 23 carries. Neither of them had a run longer than 17 yards. You could actually make a legitimate case that Nebraska ran the ball better than Ohio State. The Buckeyes finished with a slight 222-217 rushing advantage, but Nebraska had 12 fewer attempts.
Part of that was because Nebraska had 3 sacks on Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields. Two of those came from Will Honas, who played like a man possessed. Caleb Tannor kept playing down the stretch and added one himself. They felt like coverage sacks, too, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise with Nebraska’s secondary looking like the strength of this team.
And if we’re being honest, I actually thought the Husker defensive backfield looked pretty good. Fields completed 20 of his 21 passes, but look at some of the throws and catches that his guys were making. These weren’t coverage busts or dudes running with 10 yards of separation. They were usually a phenomenal throw and/or catch:
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 24, 2020
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 24, 2020
Fields looks like a video game. He doesn’t miss throws. His supporting cast of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were only going to help that cause.
Having said that, it didn’t always feel like it came easy for Ohio State. Collin Miller and Ty Robinson both blew up plays in the backfield. JoJo Domann came up with a key stop to force a field goal. Before he got ejected for targeting, Deontai Williams kept laying the wood late into the second half, and he forced a fumble.
Again, it’s still 52 points. Well, 45 if we take the Adrian Martinez fumble that turned into a scoop and score off the board. Nobody is going to say that the Huskers are suddenly a top-tier B1G defense.
But that unit certainly looked like it could actually stay on the field with an Ohio State offense who is going to make scoring look like flipping a switch.
And offensively, I actually found myself praising Frost’s play-calling. That first scripted drive was masterful. Gus Johnson making about a half dozen Christian McCaffrey references after Luke McCaffrey’s 49-yard run to set up the opening touchdown? That wasn’t masterful.
But we saw little wrinkles from this offense that made you think this was promising. That slip play to Austin Allen that resulted in a big gain was a smart call, as was some of the designed runs with Martinez. Did we even see a throwback to a Tommy Frazier option play?
I’m sorry. Not going there.
Nebraska doesn’t really have anyone who can really take the top off a defense yet, and I’m not sure that’s coming. But it was encouraging to see Frost stick with the quarterback run plays, which was clearly the best source of offense. Martinez and McCaffrey combined for 164 rushing yards on 21 carries. Even against a new-look Ohio State defense, that’s progress.
The Huskers are still clearly not in that spot where they hang with a top-5 team for 60 minutes. The good news? That’s the last top-5 team Nebraska will see in 2020. The competition is going to get more favorable, even with this daunting start.
Perhaps some of this is just adjusted expectations. Instead of the Huskers hosting College GameDay and discussing whether the conversation could shift against Ohio State like last year, Saturday was expected to be a nightmare from start to finish. I mean, at least this time the game wasn’t decided until the second half. At least this time there wasn’t missed assignments and horrendous tackling. At least this time Nebraska looked like it had an offensive identity.
I’ve been critical of the Huskers lack of progress in the Frost era, and this belief that a rise is imminent. I don’t know what 2020 holds in this conference-only schedule. I came away from Saturday with a similar thought to the one Johnson posed in the second half of the broadcast.
“You get the feeling, regarding of this outcome today, that this is going to be a better season for Nebraska,” Johnson said.
Not to be “that” guy, but I think he’s right.