Nebraska football believed it could, and almost did the unthinkable on Saturday afternoon in Norman, Oklahoma. In one of the country’s most hostile environments, Nebraska fell to old Big Eight rivals Oklahoma 23-16 in a loss that could’ve easily turned into a win had a few breaks fell in favor of the Huskers.
The Husker offense and defense both had big highlights, but were ultimately never able to close the gap to the team that played the cleaner game on special teams.
Here are five takeaways from the upset that wasn’t:
The offense would be lost without Adrian Martinez
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez had perhaps his greatest performance as a Nebraska quarterback. He outperformed Oklahoma’s highly-touted sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler, completing an efficient 19-of-25 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown. His yards were the most he’s had since Illinois in 2019, and it came in a hostile environment against a top-5 team.
Martinez found much-needed, consistent accuracy on deep passes. He had six completions of twenty or more yards, spreading those completions out to five different receivers. The 55-yard fourth quarter completion to freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts was the longest pass play surrendered by Oklahoma all season.
Even his first interception of the year, which came on an incredible catch by Oklahoma sophomore defensive back D.J. Graham was a net positive for the Huskers. The fourth-down pick set up Oklahoma 21 yards behind the line of scrimmage where a turnover on downs would have given the Sooners much-needed breathing room.
The Sooners went three-and-out, which gave Nebraska the ball back with great field position and led to Martinez finding junior wide receiver Omar Manning for a touchdown.
What made his performance more impressive was his scrambling and awareness in the pocket. When the offensive line broke down, Martinez was there to make something out of nothing more often than not, gaining two first downs on quarterback scrambles. When the pressure was too much to salvage, Martinez remained poised and made smart decisions with the ball.
Martinez was the catalyst for all good things the Husker offense did on Saturday, proving his immense value to the team.
The offensive line needs fixing
When all five starting offensive linemen get called for a false start penalty, it's usually not the greatest of days for that offensive line. Three of those false start penalties came on the Huskers’ opening drives, with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty setting up a second-and-23 that killed the hopes of a Husker touchdown.
Penalties were not the only issue for the offensive line, as Oklahoma was able to wreak havoc with its pass rush. The Sooners finished with five sacks and four quarterback hurries, severely limiting the momentum of the Husker offense. The most notable drive-killing sack came with eight minutes in the fourth quarter, where an already long third-and-eleven turned into a fourth-and-seventeen.
While it did work out in the end with the interception’s short field giving Nebraska an aforementioned short field of its own to set up a touchdown, getting that touchdown earlier would have put more valuable time on the clock for the potential game-tying drive. On the last chance drive the Huskers got with 57 seconds remaining, the line collapsed, leaving Martinez to be sacked twice and making hopes of a touchdown near-impossible.
The run blocking had its moments, but was largely unimpressive with the Huskers only managing 2.5 yards per carry. Even the special teams blocking had its issues, with Oklahoma breaking the line to block an extra point for a two-point conversion of its own. Cleaning up the issues on the offensive line will be vital before squaring off against a Big Ten schedule that features some of the country’s top defenses.
Special teams is still a problem
The Huskers lost Saturday’s game by seven points. If both missed field goals were good, and the extra point turned two-point conversion doesn’t happen, Nebraska wins by two. While that isn’t an exact science due to field position, time, and other factors, it is a glaring indicator of how many points Nebraska’s special teams spotted Oklahoma.
Senior kicker Connor Culp was unable to rebound after a week where he went 0-for-3 on his kicks, missing a 50 and a 35-yarder, but making a career-long 51.
On the bright side, there were no punt return or punt coverage mistakes, but the kickoff team did make a few errors still. The one Husker kickoff that wasn’t a touchback turned into a 31-yard return, setting Oklahoma up with excellent field position on what would be a 65-yard touchdown drive. Freshman running back Rahmir Johnson’s decision to return a kick from his own endzone in the early fourth quarter also backfired, as he only made it to the 13-yard line which set up the Huskers with a long field.
Special teams played a key factor in both of Nebraska’s losses this year, leaving a black mark on what was regarded as an improved unit going into the season.
The defense played well, but was missing a spark
Nebraska’s defense did something that no team had done since September 2016: hold the Oklahoma offense to under 27 points. The Huskers’ impressive defensive effort snapped a FBS record 65-game streak by the Sooners.
The Blackshirts broke another streak as well, holding Oklahoma to single digits at half for the first time since September 2017.
The floodgates started to open in the second half, though, with Oklahoma breaking two touchdowns on its opening possessions, but the Huskers forced punts on the next two drives. By most accounts, the defense played as well against Oklahoma as any team could have hoped for.
However, there was one thing that defenses who pulled off the upset against Oklahoma in years past did that Nebraska was unable to do: force turnovers. Nebraska came very close to intercepting Rattler numerous times, but never quite came away with the game-changing pick.
Oklahoma also faced three third downs and a second-and-27 on its second half touchdown drives, leaving more potential big plays for the Husker defense on the board.
The game was there for the taking all along
Even with the aforementioned mistakes, the Huskers were never truly out of the game. Only one Oklahoma scoring drive went unanswered, and Nebraska stopped the offense and scored on the following possession anyways.
What initially looked like an overmatched Oklahoma letting an unranked Nebraska hang around, turned into two teams that absolutely belonged on the same field together with opportunities to win the game. Oklahoma capitalized on its opportunities, and Nebraska did not.
The Huskers had six drives with the chance to tie or take the lead, and came up empty-handed on five of them, with the field goal on the opening drive of the second half the exception. Even when Nebraska answered Oklahoma’s late third quarter touchdown drive with a touchdown of its own, it only gained four net points from the score after Oklahoma took the ensuing extra point back for two.
Nebraska hoped it would be in a competitive game against the country’s third ranked team, but the gap between staying competitive and winning is still, painfully, present.