Nebraska football takes on its first conference road game against a ranked foe in front of a crowd since 2019, when it traveled to then-No. 25 Minnesota and lost 34-7.
That game was infamous for several reasons but on the field, it started a spiral that would never correct itself as the Huskers sputtered to a 5-7 finish.
In 2021, the Huskers face a similar spot to that 2019 squad. No. 20 Michigan State has taken the Big Ten by surprise much like Minnesota did in 2019 and hosts its first full-capacity conference home game in two years on Saturday. To draw further comparisons to that 2019 game against Minnesota, Saturday’s game is also at night.
Night games can lead to a change in mindset for some, such as Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost, who said on Thursday that he’s not the biggest fan of coaching under the lights.
“I can tell you from my experience as a player and sitting around the hotel all day, it is not as much fun as just getting up and getting the game done,” Frost said at Thursday’s press conference. “But the trade off is that night games are special.”
In order to come away victorious in a hostile environment, the special teams situation is going to need some figuring out on Nebraska’s end. One of the Huskers’ more pressing issues, kicker, appeared to be open for competition back on Monday.
The open competition has revolved around the struggles of senior kicker Connor Culp but it appears that Culp won this round of competition.
“Connor kicked well this week,” Frost said. “We gotta trust him and let him go out and do his job.”
Culp will get a lot of scrutiny thanks to his 3-for-8 start on field goals this season, but there is another special teams spot undergoing change. Freshman punter Daniel Cerni took punting duties of the first three games before an injury had sophomore punter William Przystup taking over those duties last Saturday against Oklahoma.
Przystup’s two punts against Oklahoma both went further than any punt by Cerni so far in 2021 but the punter spot remains up in the air. Frost said on Thursday that he has not decided on which punter will be starting come Saturday.
Punter is not the only area where the starter is not set in stone, with injuries still affecting the offensive skill positions. Junior wide receiver Oliver Martin, who hasn’t played since Week Zero, remains questionable for Saturday, according to Frost.
In Martin’s one game played, he notched six catches for 103 yards and proved to be a reliable target for junior quarterback Adrian Martinez. Frost is still holding out hope for Martin to return against Michigan State but doesn’t yet know whether he can play or not.
“He’s getting really close,” Frost said. “I had my fingers crossed for this week, but I’m not sure if that’s gonna happen”
In the three games since his injury, the offense worked well as a whole but has continued to sputter on the offensive line. In particular, Nebraska had four false start penalties against the Sooners, two coming on the Huskers’ first two offensive plays.
Penalties were the most noticeable part about the offensive line’s struggles, particularly against the Sooners, something that the Huskers have to correct in another hostile environment this weekend. Despite the penalties and five sacks given up, Frost saw good play out of his offensive line against Oklahoma and the issues appear to be easily correctable.
“We got to be a little more consistent. I thought at times our protection was really good, a few times it wasn’t,” Frost said. “There were a couple of communication issues on twists...so the guys just have to be locked in pre-snap and post-snap.”
On the other side of the ball, the Husker defense faces another challenge in the Spartan offense. That offense, led by junior running back Kenneth Walker III, boasts one of the nation’s best rushing offenses through the first three weeks.
Frost admitted that stopping Walker, the nation’s leading rusher, will be a big part of his staff’s game plan. It’s one thing to say stopping Walker is critical of the Huskers’ game plan but actually doing that is a difficult-enough challenge.
On top of Walker, sophomore Spartan quarterback Payton Thorne is one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks early on in the season. Once again, both facets of the defense will be tested this week.
Junior Cam Taylor-Britt, Nebraska’s No. 1 cornerback, has oddly struggled on several plays in Nebraska’s last two games. One such play included letting junior Oklahoma wide receiver Drake Stoops beat him for a 22-yard gain on a 2nd-and-27 that was shortened to a manageable 3rd-and-5 in the third quarter.
That’s not to mention his well-documented punt returning issues. Still, Frost knows that the defensive captain isn’t playing like his usual self.
“He’s just trying to do a little too much,” Frost said. “If he does play within the structure of what he’s supposed to do, a player like him is going to make a lot of good plays happen. I think he’s pressing too much.”
Nebraska still has questions regarding its roster but there appears to be a clearer picture of what the team’s makeup is. This is a roster that’s trending in the right direction health-wise, and a roster confident in itself that it can take down high-quality opponents.
“The guys are excited to get back on the field,” Frost said. “...They were encouraged by last week and we know we have another great opportunity this week.”