Usually, when coaches sing praises about a specific unit that struggled the year before, it should be taken with a grain of salt.
But after an entire offseason of talk by Scott Frost and his staff about an improved defense being better than his offense, they turned out to be spot-on.
It ended up being defense and special teams carrying, as Frost called it, “the most anemic offensive performance I’ve ever coached,” to a rather forgettable 35-21 victory over South Alabama to open the 2019 season.
A lot of what Nebraska fans saw in Saturday’s game looked familiar, and brought back painful memories. There was a late hit penalty by junior safety Deontai Williams that let the Jaguars convert a 3rd-and-17, and led to a game-tying touchdown three plays later.
There was a drive that stalled at midfield, ending in a turnover on downs. Freshman wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson had an impressive 31-yard catch-and-run called back because he jumped too early.
Perhaps the most damning recurrence from last year was JD Spielman’s muffed punt halfway through the fourth quarter. Up 28-7, the Nebraska defense and special teams gave the offense a formidable cushion with three consecutive stops to start the second half. But the muffed punt kept the defense on the field for the first 8:13 of the half and allowed South Alabama to stay in the game.
The offense was replacing two 1,000-yard playmakers from last year, and it showed throughout Saturday’s game. Dedrick Mills, Robinson, Maurice Washington and Spielman each showed flashes of what they could be this year, but costly turnovers and poor execution by the offensive line and Adrian Martinez limited their opportunities.
Nebraska took a step back on Saturday but there were signs of improvement, specifically in regards to culture. Frost was quick to point out after the win an impressive showing of discipline by junior safety Marquel Dismuke during the game.
On Spielman’s 76-yard punt return, Dismuke came flying down the field and was ready to light up a defender for a huge hit that would have been penalized and call the return back. Instead, he turned around at the last second and backed into him, keeping the play legal.
There were also several players who came through with big performances after struggling in their first season under Frost. The most notable performance was from senior safety Eric Lee Jr., who struggled to get playing time last season. Lee finished with several pass breakups and two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Junior linebacker JoJo Domann also struggled throughout fall camp, in part due to injuries, but had a pair of tackles for losses and broke up a pass.
On Thursday, Frost spoke with the media about how his team took a step back in execution during the week in part due to classes starting. With UNL classes starting a week later than usual this year, the players started class the same week as their first game instead of starting during fall camp.
On Saturday, Nebraska looked like a team that wasn’t completely prepared for the season yet. Because of that, they received extra lessons on the importance of focus and execution that they’ve learned the hard way far too many times lately.
The Huskers have grown up just enough to avoid disasters on days like today. If they’re going to take that next step as so many expect, they have plenty of work to do.