Several plays that helped shape the complexion of Nebraska’s 37-21 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday at Memorial Stadium can help illustrate the current status of the Husker offense.
They are informative when it comes to why head coach Scott Frost has continually said that his program needs to add more talent around sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez.
The short-handed Huskers did a lot of good against a staunch Wisconsin defense on Saturday, putting up 493 yards on just 60 snaps, an 8.2 per play clip that more than doubled what the Badgers had given up on average this fall.
They tested UW’s front seven against the run and piled up 273 rushing yards (7.4 per attempt), including 188 from junior back Dedrick Mills and, in Frost’s estimation, got a season-best performance in the run game from their offensive line.
But on three occasions over the course of the afternoon, the Badgers stopped Nebraska in part because they were able to use their two best players on defense — linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr — to account for Martinez and his ability to run.
“He’s been battling like a warrior,” Frost said of Martinez. “He hasn’t been 100% for a lot of this year. We’re not good enough around him yet. He played a lot like the guy we all expect him to be today except for a couple of plays.”
Three key plays on Saturday where the #Huskers had something good working but UW took it away by accounting for Adrian Martinez. First up, the INT. Chris Orr spies the whole way and makes a really good play. pic.twitter.com/E3RMqVP7u2
On Martinez’s second-quarter interception, Orr’s responsibility was to spy the quarterback. He shadowed and shadowed and shadowed as Martinez surveyed the defense, stayed patient and was able to bat the ball into the air when Martinez tried to throw it to Kanawai Noa. Badger linebacker Jack Sanborn intercepted the pass and UW scored three plays later for a 24-14 lead.
Martinez took the blame for a third-quarter sack with NU threatening — and he would have done well to throw it away earlier — but the Badgers were able to use Baun as a spy on the play. Instead of rushing against right tackle Matt Farniok, Baun widened out and basically stayed in position to pursue Martinez if he flushed out to the right, toward the field side. Martinez felt interior pressure and moved right and Baun was right there waiting for him.
Next, the Martinez sack. Pressure up the middle causes Martinez to want to get out of the pocket, but Baun was waiting for him. Didn't rush, just tried to take away the escape to the right and did it. pic.twitter.com/RgmI720US1
Then early in the fourth quarter on a critical fourth-and-4 from the UW 17 and with NU trailing by 13, Baun showed pressure again off the right side, but bailed to the middle of the field to spy. When Martinez took off to run — and it looked momentarily like he had plenty of room — Baun was right there to track him down short of a first down.
Last one, fourth-and-4 early in the fourth quarter. Baun shows pressure off the edge but bails to the middle of the field to shadow Martinez. Don't know for sure, obviously, but looks like maybe the QB (understandably) didn't recognize it until he took of. pic.twitter.com/vr1SSVJrMG
Nebraska always asks a lot of Martinez, but on a day when the Husker offense was without Wan’Dale Robinson and without departed sophomore running back Maurice Washington, UW was able to take its best players and dedicate them to keeping an eye on the quarterback.
If NU has more threatening players on the field, that becomes much more difficult to stick to.
“We've got to keep bringing more talent into this program so that we are going into gun fights with fully loaded guns," Frost said. “And we’ve got some really good bullets on this team. We have some really good pieces, some really good weapons, but we need more.
“When you come in missing some guys it makes it even harder.”
Of course, this isn’t NU’s only problem. The Huskers came up empty three times inside UW’s 25 in the second half. The defense gave up 30 — seven on a short field after the turnover — and special teams allowed seven. But between the lack of a true vertical receiving threat and a lack of depth at running back behind Mills, which showed without Robinson, it’s clear why a play-caller’s mind goes there after a game like Saturday’s.
* Nebraska did see a bunch of redshirt candidates get action, mostly in limited roles.
Not freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson, though. The former four-star commit played a dozen snaps or more in Nebraska’s defensive-line rotation in the first playing time of his career.
Robinson is a big, long athlete at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds and isn’t the same type of nose tackle that senior Darrion Daniels is, though Daniels also has good length.
Robinson held up alright in the middle of NU’s defensive line. He got pushed around or moved out of the way a couple of times by Wisconsin’s interior offensive line, but he also did some nice things. In particular, he showed why he has the chance to be such a versatile piece up front when he came stunted outside, came free around the edge and got his hands up in time to force UW quarterback Jack Coan to throw the ball early. Not many interior players are going to cover ground like that, and Robinson will only get better.
Inside linebacker Nick Henrich also made his career debut, playing on NU’s kick-return and kickoff teams.
Junior defensive lineman Keem Green was in NU’s defensive-line rotation, but not as much as Robinson. He played around five snaps.
A couple of guys played spot duty, too. Freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart was in on an early extra-point attempt and freshman safety Myles Farmer played at least one snap on Nebraska’s goal-line defense.
By the Journal Star’s tracking, Green and Benhart have now appeared in two games apiece while Farmer has appeared in three.
* Even though Wisconsin’s defense struggled to stop NU’s run game and gave up a bunch of yards, a couple of key categories favored the Badgers.
Firstly, UW forced four sacks and seven tackles for loss. Nebraska had zero sacks and just one TFL (for minus-2).
Also, NU scored on just two of its four red zone trips. UW scored on all five (three field goals, two touchdowns).