Disappointed Frost

Scott Frost reacts during the game against Ohio State on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Each of Nebraska football's six losses this season have been heartbreaking in some form or fashion, all coming by eight points or less. 

There are a multitude of reasons why Nebraska sits at 3-6 ahead of its final three games of the regular season, but the inability to close out a game remains near the top for why the Huskers are facing a fifth consecutive losing season.

Last week against Purdue, Nebraska held a 17-14 third quarter lead and had the ball twice with this third quarter lead. Those two drives ended with zero points and five offensive plays in total. Nebraska’s defense eventually broke under the weight of Purdue’s offensive pressure, giving up consecutive touchdown drives that gave the Boilermakers a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

Nebraska played catch-up for the fourth quarter but fell short. The Huskers cannot afford to give this weekend’s opponent, No. 6 Ohio State, a similar boost. 

“I think we have played well but we have been talking for a few weeks now about making the key play when it matters the most,” head coach Scott Frost said at Thursday’s press conference. “If you are ever going to win a game like this, you are going to have to make some key plays.”

Clutch is an oft-used word by fans, pundits and players alike that seems to be more overused than anything as of late. Yet, Nebraska may be one of the few teams where clutch has defined its season, coming up short in every high-stakes moment so far.

According to Frost, the team’s ability to make positive game-defining plays starts with the team’s preparation. Like previous weeks, Frost raved about the team’s preparation on Thursday and said that it was good as usual.

Preparation has clearly set up Nebraska to be competitive in every loss it has been in so far but this week poses a different challenge. Preparation may not matter as much against a team as talented as Ohio State, who Frost described as an elite squad with three NFL wide receivers.

“If you try to stop something, they are going to beat you with something else,” Frost said about the Buckeyes. “You just have to play a sound, solid game.”

The Buckeyes are coming off their first major test since a loss to then-No. 12 Oregon at home back in Week Two, scraping by Penn State 33-24 last weekend. Ohio State scored 33 points but was still held in check, struggling mightily in the red zone in particular.

Ohio State had six red zone trips against Penn State, coming away with just one touchdown and four field goals for a total of 19 points. If the Buckeyes have a potential weakness, it’s their red zone offense. Nebraska’s red zone defense, meanwhile, has proven to be a formidable unit in stretches.

Before the game against Michigan, Nebraska’s defense was among the best in holding opponents from scoring touchdowns when the field shrinks. Nebraska proved that metric to be true, limiting the Wolverines to two touchdowns on six red zone trips. 

In the last two games, Minnesota went 3-for-3 for touchdowns in the red zone while Purdue also scored three red zone touchdowns. The two teams combined for seven drives into the red zone, scoring six touchdowns and each drive coming away with points. 

That red zone defense appearance seen against the likes of Michigan and Michigan State will have to show up again against Ohio State.

That’s easier said than done, as is true for almost anything against the Buckeyes. Still, the best chance for Nebraska on Saturday is relying on holding Ohio State to three points or preferably none every drive.

Nebraska’s offense, however, can’t keep up with Ohio State if it were to become a shootout. Not only has Husker junior quarterback Adrian Martinez shown a disappointing dip in form in Nebraska’s last two games, he also has been strikingly poor in late-game situations.

Only two drives did Nebraska successfully take or retake a fourth quarter lead out of 23 attempts in the 2021 season, coming against Michigan State and then Michigan. Martinez, though having a much-improved season so far, fell back to old habits in last weekend’s four-interception performance against Purdue.

“He plays such good football most of the time. It is some of the key situations, key plays where we have not gotten that done as a team,” Frost said about Martinez. “I felt bad for him Saturday. He had done a good job with turnovers and interceptions this year until that game.”

Obviously, Martinez will need to play relatively clean for the Huskers to have a fighting chance against the Buckeyes. That also comes with what may be a major part of the game plan: winning the time of possession battle.

Turnovers are detrimental, especially if a team’s game plan relies on churning out the clock, so the margin of error is extremely thin for Martinez on Saturday. An early mistake or two could force Nebraska to abandon that strategy.

“How we handle clock management on offense and a lot of it depends on situations,” Frost said. “This is a game where we want to probably limit the reps on both sides if we can.”

Martinez’s decision-making will be a factor into the game plan, specifically whether he can hit the short-to-immediate areas that he struggled with against Purdue. Another part of such a strategy is the offensive line play.

Controlling the trenches will be instrumental in churning out the clock, something Nebraska has struggled with this season. The Huskers average 2.76 line yards per carry, 55th in the FBS, and rank at 104th in sack rate with 8.4% of all drop-backs being sacks. 

Some of those sacks fall on Martinez but this is an offensive line that has not proven to carry out a grind-it-out mentality this season. Despite the inconsistent play of the whole unit, sophomore offensive lineman Nouredin Nouili was awarded a scholarship this week, according to Frost.

Nouili has proven to be capable of a starting left guard, notching the highest Pro Football Focus Grade pass protection grade last week for Nebraska, and has strengthened the left side of the offensive line.

Nouili’s job on Saturday will be continuing his strong play of late, which is somewhere the offense can lean on. If Nouili, sophomore center Cameron Jurgens and the rest of the offensive line hold up relatively fine, then the strategy could work in preventing the Buckeyes’ offense getting onto the field. 

The final piece of Nebraska’s upset bid comes in its special teams, a unit that has consistently struggled this season. Sophomore kicker Chase Contreraz is expected to be the starting place kicker again, but Contreraz’s contributions will most likely not be the deciding factor on Saturday.

It all comes back to whether or not Nebraska will be able to execute when it matters and get over the hump and defeat a highly-ranked opponent. If Frost’s squad can execute when it counts, the Huskers could drastically change the tune of a season heading towards disaster.

“Again, it is decisions and execution in key situations,” Frost said. “We have a lot of guys capable of doing it. We have to do it."