Even in a blowout, Nebraska football showed signs of growth from last year’s team in a 52-17 loss to Ohio State.
Despite that, Husker players and head coach Scott Frost made clear in a press conference Monday that they weren’t satisfied with only improvement.
“We certainly are never okay with losing, I want to say that first and foremost,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “... With that being said, I think there were definitely some positives we could take from it.”
A lot of those positives came on the offensive end. Despite scoring 17 points, Martinez said that the offense moved the ball well. In the first half, the Husker had two touchdown drives that spanned 75 and 78 yards. In the second half, they only scored once but moved the ball into Ohio State territory on three of their five second-half drives, excluding the last drive of the game in which the clock ran out.
Part of the offensive success came from Nebraska’s two-quarterback system that it debuted against the Buckeyes. Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, who lined up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver throughout the game, combined for 160 passing yards, 165 rushing yards and five receiving yards.
The Huskers’ two longest plays on Saturday were a 47-yard McCaffrey rush out of the backfield and 39-yard Martinez scramble. Part of the reason the system found success was the relationship between the two, according to Frost.
“It probably just makes it easier, more healthy,” Frost said. “Both of them deserve to play, that’s what I said before. I think you could see that in that game. They both ran hard, they both threw the ball well.”
Martinez also said that Luke and him make “a great team,” and that they both just want to win games.
Another bright spot on Saturday was the run defense. Nebraska limited the Buckeyes to 3.8 yards per carry in the first half, and 4.5 yards per carry for the entire game. Last season, Ohio State totaled 368 yards on the ground on 6.9 yards per rush.
Despite losing three defensive linemen from last year’s squad in Khalil Davis, Carlos Davis and Darrion Daniels the Huskers showed marked improvement from last year. Senior defensive lineman Ben Stille said he was mostly happy with the line’s performance.
“I think run-game wise, we were pretty solid up front, interiorly especially,” he said. “We still have a few things technique-wise, a few things just fitting the scheme-wise that we’ve got to get better at.”
Along with that, Stille said that the unit needs to improve in pass rushing. That improvement could help out the secondary, which was gashed by Ohio State junior quarterback Justin Fields. Fields threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns with one incomplete pass, while also adding 54 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
The secondary will have to play better than that next week to slow down Wisconsin redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. Mertz was incredibly efficient in the Badgers’ Friday matchup against Illinois, completing 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns.
However, Mertz playing is no guarantee. The quarterback had a positive COVID-19 test over the weekend, and if he receives another positive test, he will be out for 21 days.
“I hope for [Wisconsin’s] sake that he is okay. I hope just for his health that he is okay,” Frost said. “We have had false positives here too, so my guess is that’s what it is.”
Regardless of who is available for the Badgers this Saturday, the Nebraska secondary will be depleted, at least for one half. Junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and senior safety Deontai Williams were both ejected in the second half of the loss against Ohio State for targeting, and are set to miss the first half against Wisconsin.
This means some younger defensive backs will have to step up and make up for that loss.
“It’s a team game so when one guy goes down, it’s not just one guy that has to step up. Multiple people have to step up,” senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “We don’t go into the game with just four DBs that play … so the group has to be deep that way.”
Bootle and the rest of the Huskers will be looking to pull off an upset at home against the No. 9 Badgers. Nebraska is 1-8 against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten, with the last win coming in the regular season of 2012. Even then, the Badgers blew out Nebraska in a rematch in the Big Ten championship that same season.
Last week, Nebraska played the 2019 Big Ten champion, and will take on the 2019 Big Ten West winner this week. Although back-to-back top-10 teams opening the season is a difficult draw for the Huskers, Frost said that the team still needs to continue to step up.
“We’ve got to get some wins, get some energy and have everybody start believing and knowing we can get it done,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a climb when they give us the schedule that we have, but our kids see it as a challenge and they’re going to play hard and do everything they can to try to compete with Wisconsin.”