Hindsight is always undefeated, but last Saturday’s game against Fordham could not have come at a more critical juncture for the Nebraska football team.
The Huskers, fresh off a devastating loss to Illinois, desperately needed a get-right opportunity before their nonconference schedule is kicked up a notch. And get right they did.
Following a shaky start, Nebraska bludgeoned its Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) foe 52-7, anchored by a suffocating defensive performance in the second half. Head coach Scott Frost said progress was made, the Huskers got to empty the bench a bit, sophomore Markese Stepp emerged as a potential bellcow running back — there was plenty of good to go around.
Nebraska’s challenge now is simple: maintain it.
Enter Buffalo, this Saturday’s opponent, a team that the Huskers cannot afford to take lightly. The Bulls have risen to power over the last half-decade in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), particularly during the tenure of former head coach Lance Leipold.
Leipold guided the Bulls to an undefeated regular season in 2020 that culminated with a No. 23 ranking and appearance in the MAC Championship Game against Ball State. Buffalo dropped that contest 38-28, but ended the season on a high note with a Christmas Day victory over Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.
Gone is Leipold, who left Buffalo to attempt to turn around Kansas’ program following the season, but plenty of talent from last season’s team remains.
“I’ve watched their defense more than their offense. [Buffalo’s] got good pass rushers and all-conference linebackers,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said at Monday’s press conference. “They look really well coached, they looked like world beaters in game one.”
The Bulls’ new head man is Maurice Linguist, who spent the 2020 season as a cornerbacks coach with the Dallas Cowboys. Linguist’s staff is filled with new faces who weren’t coaching for the program last season. This, as a result, makes the Bulls a more difficult entity to predict.
Even then, there are some knowns one can assume early.
What is known about Buffalo is the one game under Linguist it has on tape, a 69-7 beatdown of Wagner last Thursday. Unlike Nebraska’s blowout victory of its FCS opponent, Buffalo jumped out to a lead in the first minute over Wagner, led 38-0 at halftime and scored 62 unanswered points before a Wagner touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“We have one game [on tape], hopefully we can do a good job with that,” Frost said. “[Buffalo] got ahead fast and did some things late in the game that they didn’t do in the first 20 snaps. It’s going to be a little bit of a guessing game.”
What is known is that the Bulls are coming to Memorial Stadium to run the football. In last week’s season-opener, Buffalo ran for over 300 yards on a 5.6 yards-per-carry clip. Also like Nebraska, Buffalo had plenty of different running backs get involved against Wagner, with six different Bulls running backs earning a carry.
Don’t expect to see that on Saturday, though. He’s no Jaret Patterson, but senior running back Kevin Marks Jr. is an extremely talented runner that will make things difficult for Nebraska. He posted a 1,000-yard season in 2019, averaged more than 100 yards per game in 2020 and is on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker award, a trophy given annually to the top running back in college football.
“Skill-position wise their back is elite, that will be a good test for us,” senior defensive lineman Ben Stille said at Monday’s press conference. “They’re bringing back two of their quality linemen up front… They obviously looked really good week one and so it will be a good test for us I think in the run game.”
While Buffalo can certainly be classified as a run-first team, senior quarterback Kyle Vantrease is a more-than-capable passer. The reigning MAC East Division Offensive Player of the Week, Vantrease, went 15-for-19 with 231 yards and a touchdown in limited action against Wagner.
Vantrease and Marks Jr. headline an offense that, based on the Wagner game and previous seasons headlined by the two in the Bulls’ offense, is capable of both striking quickly and grinding teams down methodically. Stille noted Monday the importance of getting off the field and giving the Huskers’ offense as many opportunities as possible.
Saturday’s contest could very well be decided in the trenches, and the Huskers’ work-in-progress rushing attack had a positive showing against Fordham. Stepp led the way for the Huskers with 18 carries for 101 yards, rushing behind an offensive line that did a better job of creating lanes.
“I thought we made a big step from week one to week two,” Frost said of Nebraska’s offensive line play against Fordham. “There is still room for improvement, but I definitely thought they played a better game.”
Stepp seems likely to take over the Huskers’ backfield, especially after Nebraska’s first depth chart of the season was released on Monday morning. The University of Southern California transfer is listed as a co-starter with freshman running back Gabe Ervin Jr., and the battle between Nebraska and Buffalo’s running backs will be a storyline to monitor this weekend.
At any rate, the Huskers should be challenged on Saturday. A win is expected, at least according to oddsmakers, but the Bulls are no Fordham. Based on Frost and his players’ answers to questions about Buffalo, Nebraska seems to understand that.
“[Buffalo] is an athletic, talented group and they are going to be ready to play,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said at Monday’s press conference. “They played a really good, solid first game… They are going to come in here and challenge us and we have to be ready to go.”