The Nebraska football team hit its most explosive start of head coach Scott Frost’s tenure Saturday, resulting in a comfortable 56-7 win against an opponent many were concerned about in Northwestern.
Each part of the Huskers’ machine did its job Saturday night, a symphony of a performance resulting in a dominant triumph.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez did many things right, though a few overthrown passes keeps it from being a truly great performance.
To start, the stats are gaudy. Martinez went 11-for-17 for 202 yards and a touchdown, which is respectable, but not where the quarterback truly shined. Rather, on eight rushing attempts, Martinez managed 57 yards and three touchdowns. For a team without a go-to red zone threat, Martinez’s ability to break into the endzone may be a sign of hope for the Huskers.
That being said, he was assisted not inconsiderably by stupendous wide receiver and offensive lineman play. On the very first pass of the game, for example, a bomb to senior wide receiver Samori Toure for 70 yards, the pass was arguably underthrown and could’ve been rather easily intercepted.
Other rough ends of Martinez’s game keeps him from perfection, but this is rather pedantic given how much he contributed on the night.
Freshman quarterback Logan Smothers and sophomore quarterback Matt Masker also took a few snaps when the game was already decided, and played respectably well when called upon.
Running Backs: A
Nebraska’s running backs may have finally figured themselves out, and it’s not the names most were expecting before the season began.
First, freshman running back Jaquez Yant. Yant featured significantly on the night and showed an incredible, diverse toolset which will make him dangerous for weeks, and perhaps years, to come. His blend of explosivity, stiff arm and sheer strength even after contact was too much for the Wildcats to handle.
By the end of the game, Yant had 127 yards on 13 attempts, mostly in the first half, averaging about 9.8 yards per carry. He established himself as a significant threat for the team early, managing a 64-yard run only three-and-a-half minutes into the game.
It wasn’t just Yant who emerged as an incredible rushing option for the Huskers. Freshman running back Rahmir Johnson also showed an aptitude during the game, running for 74 yards over 12 attempts.
All of this would be impossible, however, were it not for the Huskers’ offensive line play against the Wildcats. What had been the team’s achilles’ heel in the weeks leading up to the game became one of its greatest strengths, especially in the run block, where the team’s struggles had been most pronounced.
For both outside and inside running concepts, Frost gave Yant and Johnson the opportunity to shine, and the two did so.
Nebraska’s wide receivers have been a valuable and significant part of the Huskers’ game this season, mostly off the back of great performances from Toure or junior wide receiver Omar Manning.
The receivers for the Huskers served their primary function: to work as extensions of the quarterback. But, furthermore, they worked to help offset some of the failures in Martinez’s game.
The aforementioned near-pick-turned-mammoth-play is one key example of this, but throughout the game Martinez’s passing was not necessarily perfect. Placements could be a little high, a little wide, just enough to be noticeable. The receivers accounted accordingly, helping their quarterback to a quality performance.
Toure had 108 yards on a mere two receptions, the second being a touchdown and the first being the big play which set the Huskers up in the red zone in the contest’s opening seconds. Freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts also played his part, managing to break free on an option run play for an 83-yard touchdown, showing off his speed in the process.
Manning also did well with his one reception, a significant 28-yard gain.
Martinez exercised much of his receiver room on Saturday, and the unit in total repaid his faith in it.
Offensive Line: A-
Though Northwestern is, naturally, a very poor team, Nebraska’s offensive line put in an exceptional performance on Saturday.
Heading into the week, Nebraska’s offensive line was a mess. It constantly gave up penalties, its dreaded back-to-back false starts a recurring theme, while also giving up sacks by the barrel. This isn’t even mentioning the team’s run blocking, which was unable to create holes.
In fact, a not-inconsiderable amount of Nebraska’s total run production came from blown up pass plays which required Martinez to scramble, a concept which relies on incompetence from the offensive line.
Frost promised a full retool of the unit this week, and delivered. The heinous run-blocking became one of Nebraska’s great strengths against the Wildcats, while the unit was able to afford Martinez more than enough time to get passes off without pressure.
Furthermore, the offensive line was able to avoid any false start penalty whatsoever until the third quarter, when starter-turned-second-string freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart was flagged for the infraction.
It was a game of superlatives, but Nebraska should be happy that it may have found an offensive line combination which will win it football games instead of lose.
Defensive Line: A
Northwestern’s run game managed a collective 37 yards on 26 attempts, with the longest run being for 11 yards.
Sophomore running back Evan Hull entered the game against Nebraska with 478 yards on 63 carries, good for more than 7.5 yards per attempt. Hull also ran for four rushing touchdowns, and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week following his performance against Ohio last weekend.
However, Nebraska had shown some aptitude for shutting down elite running backs when properly planned out in advance, as happened with junior running back Kenneth Walker III last Saturday against Michigan State.
The Huskers barely flinched against Hull, holding him for a mere 31 yards on seven attempts,strangling the Wildcats’ offense in the process.
Much of Nebraska’s defensive strength has been predicated on the strength of its linebacker play.
Against Oklahoma, where the soft zone was employed, the linebackers were instrumental in using their intelligence to run the defense, and their open-field tackling to keep the Sooners from breaking free. Against the Spartans, too, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander demanded from his team strong play recognition and more open-field tackling to stop the likes of Walker.
These trends continued against Northwestern, perhaps even made more noticeable by the disparity in talent between the oppositions.
Senior linebacker JoJo Domann had yet another productive game, with 10 total tackles and nine solo tackles, along with two sacks and an impressive two forced fumbles, one of which was recovered by the defense. Domann, himself, was an important factor in keeping Northwestern to only one touchdown.
Sophomore linebacker Luke Reimer also played well, managing five total tackles and a pass breakup.
The secondary was likely the worst-performing part of Nebraska’s defense. This isn’t saying much, however, given the fact that it played quite well on the night overall.
Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski was unable to establish a rhythm on Saturday, going 25-for-39 and throwing a single touchdown. That being said, the single touchdown in question was borne from poor cornerback play.
Senior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt was blown on his coverage by Northwestern senior wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr., who proceeded to finish off a 28-yard pass in the end zone.
Special Teams: B+
Shockingly, the special teams for Nebraska did well, though it wasn’t called upon much.
Senior kicker Connor Culp had his work cut out for him in the extra points department. The former Big Ten Kicker of the Year made all eight of his extra points attempted, which should hopefully be, for Husker fans, a good sign for the future.
The special teams unit did its best, however, in the punting department. Though the game was already far decided, sophomore punter William Przystup bombed one from his own endzone, and managed an 84-yard punt off the back of a few generous bounces. Given the inconsistency of the punting crew so far this season, the sight of the ball rolling down the field sent Memorial Stadium into an uproar.
It was likely the most cheering ever seen for a punt.