The things that pass for winning football under head coach Scott Frost, it’s hard to understand.
Nebraska’s losses remain as perplexing as ever, this time dominating the second half against No. 20 Michigan State. Nebraska even had a 97.48% chance of winning with 6:13 left, and one of its best chances yet to reverse the misfortunes of past close calls under Frost.
Yet on Saturday night in East Lansing, Michigan, it wasn’t meant to be. Here are four takeaways from the 23-20 overtime loss:
Safe money makes no money
With 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter and with two timeouts, Nebraska had one last opportunity to put away the Spartans and win in regulation. Instead, the Huskers opted to play for overtime, despite proving to be the better offense throughout the whole game.
Nebraska declined to use its two remaining timeouts despite gaining a first down on the first play, and did not even attempt a Hail Mary. A sack on the next play was what Frost used as reasoning to not advance further despite having plenty of time back on the clock.
The fear of failure on that final drive seemed to be too much for Frost, placing Nebraska into overtime in a hostile road environment. The management of that drive was eerily similar to the final offensive drive of the first half.
With 1:03 left in the first half, Nebraska had the ball on its own 25-yard line and moved to its own 43 on the first play. This is a healthy sign of notching quick plays and, on the following play, the Huskers had a five-yard gain, but declined to use its final timeout.
Time was ticking and the next play was rushed, with junior quarterback Adrian Martinez being sacked on consecutive plays. The stretch, which Frost emphasized so much as swinging games, seemed to have little urgency from the coaching staff.
Still, Nebraska had a great chance to put away the game with 6:13 left. Up 20-13, the Huskers could have burned the clock and relied on what was working. Instead, the Huskers ran on three consecutive plays with two of those last three runs being up the middle, a concept that had not worked all game.
Three different opportunities saw Frost sit back instead of going for the win, or at least putting his team in a better position to win. Nebraska kept the Spartans hanging around instead of dictating the game on its own terms.
Invest into special teams
Down 20-13 and unable to burn much clock, Nebraska punted with 3:47 left. Up to that point, Nebraska’s special teams didn’t have the errors of the previous weeks, but it just felt that was bound to change. And it did.
Junior wide receiver Jayden Reed, the Spartans’ No. 1 receiver, was taking punts back alongside junior receiver Jalen Nailor. As a kick returner, Reed had returns of 43 and 28 yards and was a proven threat with the ball in his hands in this game.
When freshman punter Daniel Cerni punted, his one job was to not punt to the explosive Reed. Cerni did just that while his entire punt return coverage was also duped, falling for Nailor’s fake punt return catch.
On the right half of the field, Reed took Cerni’s punt and waltzed 62 yards to the house. Reed scored both touchdowns for Michigan State, yet special teams incompetence explained why he got his second touchdown of the night.
Whatever the investment is into the special teams is clearly not enough. New fixable mistakes are being made every week with this unit. There are three facets of the game, and it seems that for Nebraska the third part has only had negative plays to show for it.
Senior kicker Connor Culp was perfect, making both field goals and both extra points but that’s overshadowed again. The Huskers need a drastic turnaround, whatever the cost, in order to solve their special teams woes.
A great defensive performance wasted
Lost in the stunning collapse, the Husker defense continues to impress. This time, the Husker defense gave up 13 points in regulation and held the Spartans’ offense to 14 yards in the second half.
The first half may have looked scary as sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne was excellent as a passer, throwing a wrench into Nebraska’s defensive game plan of stopping the run first. Thorne went 12-for-13 for 171 yards but the defense held strong in the red zone, forcing two field goals on the Spartans’ two red zone trips.
Thorne had just two second half completions and Michigan State’s offense looked lost at points in the second half. Junior running back Kenneth Walker III was stonewalled throughout the game, running for a measly 61 yards on 19 carries — a far cry from Walker’s games against Miami (FL) and Northwestern.
The defensive performance highlighted just how much Nebraska can adapt to various offenses. The Spartans’ air attack suffered mightily in the second half and a non-existent Walker, despite lighter defensive looks, led to one of Nebraska’s most impressive defensive performances under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
In the end, the Blackshirts could only do so much and would only watch as its special teams and offense gave the game back to the Spartans.
No ordinary offense
Nebraska put up 440 total offensive yards yet only came out with 20 points. The offense outgained the Spartans by 186 yards and, from the stat sheet, this game appeared to be an easy victory for the Huskers.
Martinez went 25-for-36, throwing for 252 yards, but was overthrowing targets such as 6-foot-9 junior tight end Austin Allen and missed other open targets a couple of times. One such case was senior wide receiver Levi Falck open in the end zone in overtime, a game-changing throw Martinez didn’t even attempt to consider.
Martinez was also sacked seven times, not all the fault being on the offensive line, displaying less-than-ideal pocket awareness on Saturday. The offensive line had four false starts but, despite that, Martinez was why Nebraska moved the ball down the field as much as it did. Another added wrinkle to the offense was the use of zone reads, pitch options and even zone read passes throughout the game.
That helped out Nebraska’s two major weaknesses: the offensive line and its ground game. On the ground, Nebraska performed much better with run-blocking thanks to the use of the pitch option, and the ground game was a much more notable threat this week.
The issue was that when Nebraska entered the red zone, it leaned on the ground game too much. The Huskers had four drives enter the red zone, coming away with two touchdowns and two field goals. A 50% touchdown rate in the red zone is always a bad sign and that was in part to how much the Huskers ran the ball once it entered the 20, running seven times compared to passing it just three times.
The Huskers’ conservative play calling grew the closer it got to the end zone, and reliance on runs up the middle, something that hasn’t worked all season, significantly hindered the offense.
Instead of going for six, there’s been just a little bit too much settling once a field goal becomes apparent for Nebraska. In the end, it appears the playbook trimmed down when Nebraska needed points the most.