Nebraska experienced against Oklahoma one of the pinnacles up until now of head coach Scott Frost’s tenure.
Despite the game against the old enemy ending in a loss, Nebraska put up a performance it should be proud of ahead of the resumption of Big Ten play next week.
Here’s position grades from Nebraska’s 23-16 loss to Oklahoma:
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez gave the kind of performance Saturday one should frame somewhere, in a nice place, where lots of people can see.
Perhaps the numbers aren’t quite befitting that status, but let’s make the case. He threw 19-of-25 for a touchdown and an interception. The touchdown was brilliant, a 21-yard strike to junior wide receiver Omar Manning under extreme duress. Without Martinez, Nebraska would’ve surely crumbled in that moment. The interception, too, is hard to blame on Martinez. He needed to throw the ball on fourth down and long and had no real choice otherwise.
On the running end, Martinez was able to pull off the same array of feints against the Sooners as if he were playing against Buffalo. Despite playing one of the most high-pressure defensive lines in the nation, and with a poor offensive line himself, Martinez managed to marshall against a Sooner squad regarded as a frontrunner for a place in the College Football Playoff
Martinez’s victory is likely emotional more than anything, which is to say the Huskers’ signal caller was the tip of the lance Saturday. Of any player in the game, he likely had the most influence.
Running Backs: C
For one of the more disappointing ends of Nebraska’s game this season, the running game could’ve done worse.
It was clear going into the game that most of the run production was going to come from Martinez, and any pretense to otherwise was mostly abandoned. This was only reinforced when late in the third quarter freshman running back Gabe Ervin Jr. went down with a non-contact knee injury, and was unable to return for the rest of the game.
Despite being suited and on the sideline, sophomore running back Markese Stepp did not take a snap on the game, even though he was a prospective starter for many after the start of the season.
All this being said, freshman running back Rahmir Johnson played respectably for his snaps, and when called upon the running backs in general did their job. Whether or not this extreme Martinez reliance is evidence of new scheming or just a gametime decision is notable as the season continues.
The receivers did quite well against a strong secondary, and did especially well in catching some of the more errant balls Martinez threw.
For one, junior tight end Austin Allen on the crucial first drive of the game managed a conversion on third down when he caught a ball thrown slightly behind him. These small mistakes from Martinez which, in theory, could sink an offense, were accounted for by his receiving corps in general.
Manning had his best game for the Huskers in his career thus far, managing 52 yards and a touchdown on two receptions. Senior wide receiver Samori Toure, Martinez’s normal top producer, had a quiet game, more proof of the general efficacy of the rest of the unit.
Offensive Line: F
The offensive line lost Nebraska a game against the No. 3 team in the nation.
In the past, the blame was largely laid at the feet of individual performers on the pipeline but against the Sooners the problem was penalties. The tone for the game was set before Nebraska took its first offensive snap, when two back-to-back false starts made Nebraska’s first play of the game a 1st-and-20.
It never really got better. Sophomore center Cam Jurgens was called on unsportsmanlike conduct penalties twice in the game, one questionable, the other a bodyslam after the play had concluded.
Even ignoring the penalties, the offensive line gave up five sacks on the day, and despite improving a lot in the second half, all but gave up on the Huskers’ final drive.
Defensive Line: C+
The defense did exceptionally well in containing one of college football’s highest-flying offenses, though it’s hard to localize this to any specific part of the defense.
For one, the defensive line was not incredible in its pressures. There wasn’t a sack all game, and Oklahoma’s main two running backs both averaged above five yards per carry. The line kept sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler in check broadly, but for a quarterback who is more of a pocket passer this isn’t a particular feat.
Oklahoma’s first attempt to overcome Nebraska’s defensive scheming was the development of the run attack, and the Husker defensive line was able to put this off enough to keep the game close.
The pair of senior linebacker JoJo Domann and sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer played well on Saturday, the former managing 12 tackles, seven of which were solo.
In the linebacking group overall, one of its finer qualities was its ability to manage pressures on the quarterback. Despite being mostly unbothered throughout the game, Rattler had a few rushed moments, each of which would come from the linebacking group.
Nebraska’s secondary was likely the driving force behind its defensive performance.
The Huskers on the day played a soft zone, a defensive setup which gives up the short-to-intermediate in favor of preventing big plays. Against a team like Oklahoma, where the big play is the primary concern, this presents a problem.
But one of the key requirements of a soft zone is also the ability to prevent run-after-catch yards when the shorter passes are given up. This is a tremendous responsibility on the defensive backs and secondary more generally, and without it the scheme would’ve collapsed.
The secondary rose to the challenge.
Oklahoma only managed four big passing plays all game, relatively unthinkable for the Sooners. In particular, senior safety Deontai Williams and sophomore defensive back Quinton Newsome both had great outings, the latter of which likely managed his best performance in a Husker uniform, notching six solo tackles in total.
Special Teams: F
The problem wasn’t with the punt return this time.
Senior kicker Connor Culp has started the season horrifically. With the opportunity to bring the Huskers close to a Sooners team that had only scored seven points, last year’s Big Ten Kicker of the Year missed twice, once from 35 yards and another from 50 yards.
Yet, these mistakes would pale in comparison to one of the more oddly consequential moments in the game. After scoring to make it 9-14, Nebraska elected to kick an extra point. On the coaching side, this was already arguably the wrong decision, but what would come next was worse.
The kick was blocked, and a breakdown then resulted in Oklahoma returning the ball for a two-point conversion. The odd 16-9 scoreline forced Nebraska into a considerably worse situation, one it wouldn’t recover from.