A few firsts came for Nebraska football last Saturday.
The Huskers earned their first win of the season, in their first home game of the year. On top of that, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey got his first career start, and freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts scored his first career touchdown.
These firsts, and the offensive performance as a whole, led the Huskers to the highest offensive scoring output they’ve had this season. At Monday’s press conference, McCaffrey said that the energy in the locker room is different after a win, considering the Huskers had lost their first two games.
“The whole experience is great. Anytime you win and can learn from a victory it is such a different feeling, such a different vibe,” McCaffrey said at Monday’s press conference. “It’s something that we're thankful for and we'll pursue that feeling every week.”
Even with the improvement on the scoreboard, the offense still has plenty of room for growth. Out of Nebraska’s 23 offensive points, only three came in the second half. The Huskers also had their lowest yardage output of the year, but that may be explained by the fact that two Nebraska scoring drives started in Penn State territory.
Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost said that he was “pleased with the improvement,” but that he won’t be happy until the offense is more efficient.
“I think we're on the right track, but you're never completely happy,” Frost said at Monday’s press conference. “And we got to keep getting better. And I think as coaches you get frustrated because you want it perfect right now.”
Frost’s doing his best to be patient, though, considering the amount of youth on the team. Both of Nebraska’s offensive touchdowns on Saturday came from freshmen in McCaffrey and Betts. McCaffrey had his poor moments, including an interception in Nebraska territory in the fourth quarter while the Huskers were up seven, but it was a solid showing in all for the starter.
Frost recognized that McCaffrey has more work to do, and praised him for his ability to take criticism.
“You can't take it any better. Luke's the type of kid that lives in the office, always watching film, always trying to get better. So he takes coaching as constructive criticism, and he wants to continue to improve. And that's the type of people that you want to coach.”
McCaffrey echoed Frost’s message, and said that he wants things he does on the field to be cleaner, and that he wants to run more efficiently.
“When it comes to evaluation, I consider myself my hardest critic and moving forward there's things that need to be cleaned up and things that need to be continued so that efficiency will continue to grow,” he said.
The defense also came up big against the Nittany Lions. Despite the fact that Penn State marched its way back from a 21-point deficit and had multiple chances to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Blackshirts showed up with several big plays throughout the game. In the first half, junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt had a 55-yard interception return that led to a field goal. In the second quarter, senior safety Deontai Williams had a strip-sack that he recovered and ran in for a touchdown.
The secondary made crucial plays late in the game as well. The Nittany Lions drove inside the Husker 15-yard line on both of their last two drives with an opportunity to complete the comeback. They passed the ball on seven on the eight final plays, with the other being a sack. All of those pass attempts fell incomplete.
“We understood that we were going to have to do our part in order for us to win the game. The guys are building a lot of confidence in the room from everybody,” senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said at Monday’s press conference. “The guys that were in the game at that point and the guys that were on the sideline cheering us on. It just doesn’t stop there. We’ve just got to keep on going, and keep on working hard."
That process will continue this Saturday when the Huskers play Illinois at home. The Fighting Illini are coming off of a win against Rutgers, and for the second straight week, Nebraska will face a team with questions at quarterback.
Illinois’ starting quarterback at the start of the year was senior Brandon Peters. Peters had just 87 passing yards and 84 rushing yards in a season-opening loss to Wisconsin, but has since missed the past three weeks due to testing positive for COVID-19.
The Illini have played multiple quarterbacks since then, but earned their first win of the season last week with redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams under center. Williams is more of a running quarterback, as he rushed 31 times for 192 yards against Rutgers. Through the air, he only went 7-of-18 for 104 yards.
Nebraska may have gotten a sneak peek of how such an offense might look, since Penn State sophomore quarterback Will Levis came in in the second quarter against Nebraska after junior Sean Clifford was benched. Levis also fits a similar mold to Williams, and had 18 rushing attempts on Saturday. He threw the ball 31 times, although that’s partly because the Nittany Lions were playing from behind for most of the game.
“One thing about Illinois, it's kind of hard because they switched their whole concept around the quarterback and who's in and who's not in,” senior linebacker Collin Miller said at Monday’s press conference. “So if Brandon Peters plays are going to have a whole different situation than if [Williams] is playing, they’re going to try and run the ball more.”
Who will come out at quarterback for Illinois is up in the air right now. Regardless, Nebraska will look to be prepared for whatever happens.
“Challenge for us is not really knowing who's going to play and who's going to be out there for them,” Frost said. “ … we're going to have to get ready for multiple things.”