Nebraska football will be faced with newness in every sense of the word this season.
The temporary cancellation of Nebraska’s fall sports due to COVID-19 and the eventual new start date of Big Ten football on the weekend of Oct. 23-24 could provide the Huskers with unique advantages and disadvantages for the 2020 season.
Arguably the most impactful of all of these circumstances: no fans.
Nebraska’s sea of red has been dwindled down to only the families of the players. No team in the Big Ten will have home-field advantage this season.
The Huskers have sold out 375 consecutive games dating back to 1962 and Memorial Stadium houses 90,000 fans each game in the fall. When Nebraska is playing on Tom Osborne Field, the crowd is a huge factor.
“Whether we’re on the road or we’re at home, we have the best fans in the country period.” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander at a press conference on Oct. 8. “There’s always a lot of juice coming from the stands. [This year] there’s not going to be so we’re going to have to bring our own a little bit.”
Nebraska lost all five of its away games in head coach Scott Frost’s first season in 2018; two by a field goal (Northwestern and Iowa) and one by five points (Ohio State). In 2019, the Huskers lost three away games at Colorado, No. 10 Minnesota and Purdue. Nebraska beat Illinois on the road in a 42-38 victory and blew out a hapless Maryland squad on the road 54-7.
Nebraska is 2-8 playing away from home under Frost and 9-15 overall. Something clearly needs to change if the Huskers want a winning season. No fans in the stands at away games could be the great neutralizer that Nebraska needs.
This season Nebraska fans won’t be cheering on their Huskers from the stands, and neither will Ohio State’s, Northwestern’s, Iowa’s or Purdue’s. Nebraska plays Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio in week one on Oct. 24 without 105,000 Buckeye fans trying to influence the game, a significant impact for the offensive and defensive rhythm of the visiting Huskers.
On the flip side, playing in Memorial Stadium without fans will present its challenges for Nebraska. Nebraska’s fans are notorious for a raucous atmosphere and having a great impact on opposing teams. This season, that impact will no longer be felt.
However, every team in the Big Ten will be struggling with the same disadvantages, thus creating an even playing field when it comes to home-field advantage. There are ways to combat the feeling of emptiness during games.
Nebraska and other schools have been practicing with simulated fan noises to get used to the new game setting. Raising the intensity of practice to simulate what a game day will feel like is another benefit of the fanless arena that will also help the players adjust.
“As far as playing in empty stadiums, I know we’ve practiced in Memorial … to prepare for those situations,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said during a press conference on Oct. 8.
Playing in a quieter stadium will make it easier for defenses on both teams to pick up on the quarterback’s cadence and snap count. However, Nebraska hopes that its revamped offense under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Lubick will be effective enough to keep defenses on their toes.
“Our tempo will hopefully play a factor in that as well so the defense won’t have as much time to just sit and think about what we’re calling out there,” Martinez said during a press conference on Oct. 8. “As long as we keep moving fast and we mix up some of our calls, I think we’ll be fine moving forward.”
Each Big Ten team will be able to prepare for an empty stadium. This is, however, easier to prepare for than a full stadium. The elimination of home-field advantage could help the Huskers win close away games.
Multiple coaches and players, including Chinander and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, have talked about the importance of creating the team’s own atmosphere and momentum in a quick phrase.
“Bring your own juice.”
That is exactly what the Huskers need to do if they want to have success in an unprecedented season.