Nebraska football started the season ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll, but it wasn’t even close to the wildest thing that happened during Scott Frost’s second season at the helm.
There was the preseason buzz about Martinez as a Heisman candidate and the Huskers as a dark horse College Football Playoff contender. There was the heartbreaking loss at Colorado, followed by the near heart-stopping comeback against Illinois.
There was College Gameday and a mid-season swoon marred by inconsistent play and a loss on the last kick of the season to seal Nebraska’s longest bowl drought since the 1950s.
Optimism, the underlying theme of this season, was palpable in Lincoln before the season started. This was partly because Frost’s second season at Central Florida resulted in a perfect season capped by a Peach Bowl victory, and partly because Frost’s first season at Nebraska ended with a 4-2 finish after an 0-6 start.
Clearly Frost couldn’t recreate the same year two magic as Nebraska finished 5-7, in part due to the fact that the Huskers failed to correct the problems that crippled them all year. More concerning is the fact that Nebraska showed little statistical improvement on both ends of the ball from 2018 to 2019.
Earlier this season, I penned two columns on what needed to be improved upon in Nebraska’s 2019 campaign in order to make a UCF-like turnaround. As a long offseason awaits Husker fans and players, Frost must reverse negative trends if the Huskers want to be Big Ten contenders in 2020.
The decline of Adrian Martinez
While it may have been foolish to put McKenzie Milton-like expectations on sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez in his second season running Frost’s offense, few expected Martinez to take a step back production-wise in 2019.
In Milton’s second year running Frost’s offensive system at UCF, the then-sophomore quarterback threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns with a 67.1% completion percentage blowing out his production from the prior year. A good amount of the hype entering Nebraska’s 2019 season was based on the belief that Martinez could see a similar rise in play as he and the offense gained familiarity with Frost’s system.
However Martinez’s numbers decreased in every major passing category from year one to year two, completing 59.4% of his passes for 1,955 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 195.6 passing yards per game ranked No. 73 in the country.
While Husker fans are quick to blame Martinez for another losing season, all of the weight doesn’t fall directly on his shoulders.
Martinez missed time with an injury this season, playing in 10 of 12 regular season games. When he returned from injury against Purdue, he looked extremely limited throwing the ball, throwing four interceptions and four touchdowns over the final four games of the season.
One place he was effective in was the ground game. Martinez’s running numbers were essentially identical from 2018 to 2019, rushing for 626 yards and seven touchdowns. Milton and Martinez were equally effective on the ground in their second season under Frost, as Milton ran for 613 yards and eight touchdowns.
While defenses in the American Athletic Conference and the Big Ten don’t compare, Martinez needs to be more efficient in the air if Nebraska wants to make strides offensively in 2020.
Offensive depth still an issue
Entering the season, the 2019 version of Nebraska and the 2017 version of UCF were somewhat similar when it came to returning players at the skill positions. Both teams entered the season having lost its leading rusher from the prior season, and both returned an 800-yard receiver from the prior season (Tre’Quan Smith for UCF, junior wideout JD Spielman for Nebraska).
That’s where the offensive depth similarities between the two schools end, and the lack of depth is arguably the biggest problem Frost faces entering his third year in Lincoln.
Spielman had another stellar year in Lincoln with 49 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns. Junior running back Dedrick Mills stepped up and led Nebraska in rushing in his first year in Lincoln, totaling 745 yards on the ground and 10 touchdowns.
Freshman wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson was the Huskers’ biggest offensive surprise of the season, with 443 receiving yards and 340 rushing yards as a true freshman.
Mills, Spielman and Robinson had encouraging offensive seasons and are likely to see improvement in 2020. The problem is finding playmakers behind them.
In 2017, Central Florida had five players eclipse 150 rushing yards. This year Nebraska matched UCF’s total with Martinez, Spielman, Robinson, sophomore running back Maurice Washington III and freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey all breaking the threshold. The Huskers boasted one the No. 32 rushing attack in the country in 2019, averaging 203.3 yards on the ground.
The Huskers’ depth problem comes in the air. UCF’s undefeated squad boasted nine receivers that amassed more than 150 receiving yards. Nebraska had five — and only four are slated to come back in 2020 (three if Washington doesn’t return).
When a quarterback throws the ball for over 4,000 yards, it’s no surprise so many UCF players had productive seasons. Nebraska’s problem is not just the lack of a passing attack, but a lack of people to pass the ball to.
Next season, the Huskers badly need one or two more receivers to total anywhere between 250 and 300 receiving yards so that defenses don’t key in on Spielman, Mills and Robinson.
Poor pipeline production
Aforementioned struggles in poor play and skill position depth hurt a UCF-like offensive revival, but perhaps the most overlooked issue was Nebraska’s offensive line struggles.
Yes, Nebraska had a nice season running the ball with over 2,400 yards as a team. What is unacceptable is the 28 combined sacks that Nebraska quarterbacks took this season.
Milton was sacked 11 times in 2017. That mark would’ve been a top-four mark in the country in 2019, while Nebraska’s poor pass protection resulted in a No. 86 finish. Again, defenses are better in the Big Ten than in the American, but the offensive line has to do a better job keeping the quarterback protected.
Interestingly enough, Martinez was sacked 23 times in both 2018 and 2019 (sophomore Noah Vedral was sacked four times and junior Andrew Bunch was sacked once). In an offense that focuses on quick reads and moving the ball with ease, quarterbacks cannot take that much of a beating.
Huskers must improve on defensive production
As a whole, Nebraska’s defense improved from 2018 to 2019.
The Huskers gave up 28 points per game as opposed to 30 in 2018, while also allowing 37 fewer yards in the air and seven fewer yards on the ground per game than in 2018. Additionally, the Huskers finished the season ranked No. 66 in total defense after ranking No. 100 in 2018. It’s not much, but it is a step in the right direction for Erik Chinander’s unit.
UCF’s offense in 2017 could outscore pretty much everybody, but it still boasted a defense that allowed 25 points per game. The Golden Knights had a run defense that allowed 159 yards per game, while Nebraska allowed about 188 yards on the ground per game this season.
Nebraska’s defensive numbers are average, but they need to elevate to a top-40 defense in the country if it wants to succeed in 2020. At the moment, the Nebraska offense doesn’t have the firepower to win a shootout against everyone they play, so the Blackshirts must improve if the Huskers want to succeed in 2020.
The Blackshirts must do so without some key defensive pieces, as the defense loses seniors Mohamed Barry, Lamar Jackson, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and Darrion Daniels. All five made significant contributions to the defense’s improvement in 2019, and Chinander will look for returning underclassmen to fill the void.
This year showed Frost is further away from re-establishing the Huskers as a national power than local or national media initially thought. At the moment, this is a flawed team in search of consistent play and an identity. The Huskers have problems, but they have an avenue to fix them.
Nebraska won’t have a perfect season anytime soon. What it can do is continue to make adjustments and improvements so that the offense can master Frost’s system and the defense can continually improve.
In 2016, UCF went 6-7 and lost the AutoNation Cure Bowl to Arkansas State. They didn’t lose again until 2019.
Anything is possible in college football, and if Nebraska buys in and makes the necessary adjustments to be great, Husker fans should finally see that much-awaited improvement in 2020.