After Nebraska rushed for 273 yards and a 7.3-per-attempt clip against one of the best run defenses in the country last week in Wisconsin, it’s easy to see why the simplest route between here and a bowl game — a route that necessitates wins over Maryland and Iowa — is on the ground.
NU junior Dedrick Mills rolled for 188 yards and a touchdown and looked comfortable making reads and cuts near top-end speed while operating behind an offensive line that’s made steady progress as the year’s marched on. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez made good decisions on the ground, showed some burst on a 45-yarder and would have had even better numbers than his 89 yards and a touchdown had he not been sacked four times.
One way or another, though, if Nebraska is going to beat the buzzer and get to six wins against the Terrapins this Saturday and the Hawkeyes on Black Friday, they are going to have to do some of the damage through the air.
The reasoning is game-dependent. Against Maryland, opportunity awaits. The Terps are dead last in the Big Ten in pass-defense efficiency and have allowed 21 passing touchdowns against just seven interceptions this fall. Against the Hawkeyes, it’s more about strength. Iowa has allowed just four rushing touchdowns on the season and, outside of Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor putting up 251 yards, its defense has been mighty stingy against the run.
To take it a step further, here’s an under-the-radar candidate as a key player for the Huskers’ final two games: Senior wide receiver Kanawai Noa.
The fall hasn’t gone like either Noa — the Cal graduate transfer and Hawaii native — or the Huskers had hoped, but he’s been coming on lately.
After just seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown over NU’s first seven games — and all but 20 of those yards came on one night against Northern Illinois — Noa has rounded into a consistent and even dangerous threat over the past three games.
In that span, the 6-foot, 190-pounder has 10 grabs for 171 yards and another score.
Noa is no Michael Thomas, the New Orleans Saints standout. But at this point, especially with freshman star Wan’Dale Robinson’s status in doubt due to injury, Noa is a critical player for the Huskers over the final two weeks.
“He plays hard, plays with passion, loves the game,” offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Troy Walters said Wednesday. “He really reminds me of Stanley (Morgan) last year. Every time he steps on the field he has that enthusiasm, that excitement. He’s been doing a great job, running great routes. He’s been getting better each week.”
It’s worth noting that Noa didn’t appear to practice on Wednesday, and it’s not clear if he’s dealing with a specific injury or simply wear and tear.
NU’s two leading receivers by a long shot are junior JD Spielman (39 catches, 759 yards) and Robinson (40 catches, 453), but Noa is now in third place at 17 for 245, just ahead of tight end Jack Stoll.
Most of that damage has come in the past three weeks.
Whereas Robinson has receptions on 69% of his targets this season and Spielman is at 62%, per Journal Star numbers, Noa lags far behind at 40.5% (17 grabs on 42 targets), but that’s been changing in recent weeks.
“There’s been times this season where maybe the quarterback didn’t see him or didn’t have time or they just weren’t connecting,” Walters said. “But we love what he’s brought, on and off the field, and he’s done a great job.”
Over the past three games, Noa has been targeted 18 times and caught 55.6%, not a great number but good for 9.5 per target, a major uptick from his overall season average of 5.8. It could be more, too, had Martinez not missed him for a wide-open touchdown against Purdue and several other times.
Noa’s made big plays in each of the past three games, though, accounting for six chunk catches over the past three games, more than anybody except for Spielman.
“He was really practicing hard the last few weeks and I think it’s translated to the field,” Frost said. “He’s a great person and the kind of teammate we want and I’m glad he’s had some success.”