The most common question coming out of No. 24 Nebraska’s season-opening 35-21 win against South Alabama was something of a general catch-all surrounding the offense.
What the heck was that?
NU’s attack, which was mostly prolific in the second half of the 2018 season and drew rave reviews through spring ball and preseason camp, started with a dud in 2019, managing just 4.2 yards per play, 276 overall and putting just 14 points on the board against a Sun Belt opponent that finished No. 107 in total defense last year.
“We’ll take a look at it as a coaching staff,” Frost said Saturday after the game. “I’m extremely excited with the way the offense has played through fall camp. So hopefully this wasn’t indicative of what we’re going to get, but I think the guys are going to be hungry to come back and practice.”
The good news? Much of what ailed the Huskers on Saturday falls in the correctable category.
The not so good news? Just about everybody’s got plenty to correct.
Pick your starting point and you can find clean-up needed.
The most glaring offensive line issue came in the form of at least eight high snaps — one over sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez’s head and others that made him jump or react outside his normal motion — in 49 first-half snaps. Those each were charged to redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens, who was making his collegiate debut.
Frost said it likely threw off Martinez’s rhythm — so much of the offense is based on reads, and a quarterback can’t begin that process if he feels the need to watch the ball on the snap rather than scanning the field from the start — though the sophomore quarterback still took the blame.
“It’s part of the game, guys aren’t going to be perfect all the time and it’s something we’ll adjust to,” Martinez said.
On review, South Alabama’s defensive line held up well against Nebraska’s offensive front, but perhaps didn’t dominate the way it felt at times on Saturday. One of the big questions — and one that’s not going to be answered by watching the television replay or without knowing the intricacies of the offense — is how much of the lack of run game in the first half was about a lack of running lanes and how much was about running backs not maximizing what was in front of them.
The offense, for example, looked different when sophomore running back Maurice Washington was in the game in the second half. It looked different when Wan’Dale Robinson was able to work more toward the perimeter.
That pair combined for 10 carries for 60 yards.
For the most part, the tight quarters between the tackles yielded very little. Certainly the USA defensive front got the best of NU at times. Remember, too, though, that junior back Dedrick Mills is new to the zone run game and should continue to learn when to ram straight ahead and when to cut back by a lane or two. One of the rare occasions when Mills did find daylight, he fumbled at the end of a 13-yard run.
Availability, of course, is key. Washington was suspended for the first half and Frost intimated last week that Robinson was still getting back into full physical condition after missing some time during camp with minor injuries.
When Robinson’s in the game, he’s a focal point player. Take a second-quarter stretch, for example. He didn’t play at all on a 12-play, 42-yard grind of a touchdown drive.
Then, the next two series, he carried the ball, caught it or was the intended target eight times in 17 plays.
Frost afterward went back to conditioning, but with more than just Robinson.
“Some of the guys on offense, we've got to get into a little bit of shape,” Frost said. “I think it’s got to do with nicks in training camp and missed time and guys are just getting back to healthy. (Senior wide receiver) Kanawai (Noa) was that way and Wan’Dale was that way and Cam (Jurgens) was that way and a few others, so that's one thing we'll look at.”
Martinez didn’t look comfortable, particularly later in the game. He said afterward he had “four or five throws” he missed that could have made a big difference. The interception to A.J. DeShazor is certainly one of them. Martinez forced the ball into coverage when he had a check-down readily available. He made a similar mistake in the first quarter on a throw to Noa in the post that should have been picked as junior JD Spielman broke open on a corner route. The Huskers came back to the same concept on the next possession and Martinez threw a dart to Spielman for 19.
After the opening drive, though, NU got nothing done down the field.
Tight end Jack Stoll had three catches for 66 yards on three targets by the opening minutes of the second quarter and wasn’t targeted again the rest of the afternoon. He broke free on a failed fourth-and-5 at midfield later in the first quarter, but Martinez appeared to come off him and look to his right just before he did.
Martinez wasn’t explosive in the first half but his numbers weren’t bad. He completed 8-of-9 at one point and was 11-of-19 for 158 (8.3 per attempt). In the second half, NU ran just 17 plays overall and Martinez was 2-of-3 for 19 but had the interception.
So, add it all up and what do you get? Some trouble up front, snap issues, perhaps some yards left out there by a new running back, a herky-jerky game flow, a slew of counted-on players who are still getting into game shape, a top playmaker suspended for 49 snaps and available for less than 20, a quarterback who didn’t play his best and a pair of turnovers.
It’s all correctable, and the coach has confidence. How fast do the results follow?
* All three of South Alabama’s scoring drives came on short fields. They covered 41 yards (after a 32-yard punt by Isaac Armstrong, his worst on an otherwise good day), 13 (after Spielman’s muffed punt) and 58 (after Martinez’s interception was returned out to the NU 42).
The Jaguars’ longest drive of 59 yards came in the final 2:21 when the game was pretty much wrapped up, if not completely done. That’s not to totally discount it — both teams had their starters on the field — but quarterback Cephus Johnson hit his two longest plays of the day on that drive (27 and 36). Otherwise, the sophomore was 17-of-32 for 168, two touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles.
* In the final three quarters, 13 of USA’s 30 rush attempts went for a yard, no gain or negative. The Huskers weren’t bad against the run in the first quarter (14 for 14 for the Jaguars), but surrendered just 35 yards on 30 attempts in the final 45 minutes.
That’s made more impressive by the fact that the Blackshirts were on the field for 21:14 in the second half.
* Huskers who made their collegiate debut on Saturday include: Jurgens, Robinson, Noa and Mills, freshman DB Quinton Newsome, freshman kicker Dylan Jorgensen, redshirt freshman running back Brody Belt, freshman outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, redshirt freshman defensive back Isaiah Stalbird and sophomore offensive lineman Broc Bando.