Nebraska football lost on Saturday night.
After back-to-back near-upsets and a trouncing of Northwestern, culminated with a date at Memorial Stadium against No. 9 Michigan, it looked like Nebraska’s best chance to beat a top 25 opponent this year would come on Oct. 9, 2021.
It was close, incredibly close, but Nebraska ultimately fell short.
Here’s three takeaways from the contest:
Adrian Martinez so close to flawless
18-for-28 with 291 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, along with 38 yards rushing and a touchdown on eight attempts. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez nearly pulled it off.
There was that play at the very start of the second half, where Martinez, off of a play action, hit junior tight end Austin Allen in stride, with the 6-foot-9 tight end rumbling 46 yards down the field for a touchdown. Martinez’s play put Nebraska back in the game where before it looked cut adrift.
There was also that play near the end of the third, where Martinez worked off the play action to see freshman running back Rahmir Johnson curling down the sideline. Martinez sat in the pocket for a second or so, before senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, one of the best in college football, came bearing down on him.
Martinez could’ve scrambled if he wanted, but his window to hit Johnson would be closed. Rather, the Nebraska quarterback decides to hit the pass and sacrifice his body, lifting an inch-perfect pass to the running back in the process. Johnson ran the touchdown in from 41 yards out, while Martinez got nailed.
These heroisms kept Nebraska in the game, even giving it the lead in the fourth quarter. Yet, they probably won’t be remembered.
Rather, it’s one play with the game tied up, just under two minutes left, which will linger longest in the memory. The Huskers had a chance to drive down the field and decide the game. It’s 3rd-and-one, and Martinez breaks through for a quarterback draw.
After getting a first down, Martinez continued to power through the defense but then fumbled the football deep in his team’s own territory. Michigan recovered and kicked a field goal, all but deciding the game.
One couldn’t imagine the contrast. Midway through the fourth, Martinez ran the ball in for a touchdown, putting the Huskers ahead. Memorial Stadium exploded, Martinez yelled with his teammates rushing towards him to celebrate — it was perfect for the Huskers.
And then it wasn’t.
Referees hurt Huskers
It’s a tired narrative, of course, and an easy one to use to deflect blame from the underdog onto something other than its own failings, but the referees were genuinely perplexing Saturday night.
In the end, many of the problems were localized to the first half, which is to say the refereeing in the second was average, but any singular factor is magnified when a game goes down to the wire.
One need only mention the strange calls to get a sense of how problematic the refereeing was during the game. A few minutes into the second quarter, with Nebraska on defense, the referees called a delay of game penalty.
Commonly, this penalty is called on the offense when the play clock expires. This time, it was called on the defense for “disconcerting signals.” The proviso occurs in the result of the defense mimicking the calls and mannerisms of the opposing quarterback. An uncommon call for sure.
Next, there was the signature drive of Saturday’s contest. Michigan’s odyssey of a second-quarter offensive march, 87 yards and ending in a field goal, was plagued with reviews. The first came off a rush from senior running back Hassan Haskins, who was called short on a 3rd-and-one run.
This was overturned, perhaps an uncontroversial call on its own, but the referees waited several minutes and delayed the game to make the call, waiting for television coverage to resume before announcing the play was under review.
Chalk it up to the exigencies of modern televised football, but a few plays later and the Wolverines arrived at Nebraska’s one yard line. Michigan lined up for a run and Haskins was stopped well before the endzone, but the touchdown was called anyway.
Another few minutes, and that call is overturned. Now, on 3rd-and-goal, junior quarterback Cade McNamara tripped and downs himself before getting the ball off to Haskins, who punched it into the end zone.
This wasn’t caught at the time, and probably wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s frantic demands for a review. The call was later overturned, after further minutes of deliberation.
The decisions on their own are passable-to-fine, but sitting through the many reviews wore down all in attendance. The most egregious was likely Haskins’ phantom touchdown — the referees ready to get on with the game were it not for Frost.
Though the second half was largely fine, it was not without controversy. A few minutes into the third quarter, Michigan’s fair catch of a Husker punt return was muffed and the ball spilled away from the Wolverines. Both teams jumped on the loose ball at the same time, and at the bottom of the pile the referees ruled a joint possession. The ball went to the Wolverines.
The referee play can broadly be described as eccentric. Replete with oblique, once-in-a-lifetime calls, it played a pivotal role in deciding Nebraska’s fate.
Defense struggles with Jekyll-and-Hyde performance
Nebraska’s defense is exceptional, and showed it during the first half.
The Wolverines’ first three drives all ended with punts, each barely gaining any real yardage. Michigan’s first scoring drive, one that ended in a field goal, started with great field position that was wholly out of the defense’s control. Indeed, one may say the defense did well in stopping the touchdown.
Then, there was the aforementioned second-quarter drive. McNamara’s long-range bomb to junior wide Mike Sainristil was certainly a mistake by the secondary, but the heroic goal-line stand afterwards deserves yet another commendation.
In particular, junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt had an excellent game. The captain had struggled in recent weeks, starting with punt return struggles against Illinois and continuing with some blown coverages against Northwestern, but showed why he is so highly lauded against the Wolverines.
Taylor-Britt ended with 11 total tackles, three being solo, with three passes broken up. The last of these is likely most significant. All of Taylor-Britt’s breakups came on crucial passes where otherwise the result would either be a big play or touchdown.
These successes in the first half, however, soon gave way to the fast-paced second half. Michigan’s offense came alive in the second, particularly off the efforts of sophomore running back Blake Corum, who finished the game averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
A few problems overtook the defense in the second half, but the most notable would likely be its discipline. Spot usages of freshman quarterback JJ McCarthy are most instructive in demonstrating this.
McCarthy was brought on at times to provide an offensive spark for the Wolverines, but was not always the center of attention when he was under center. McCarthy was rather used as a decoy or runner, and the threat of a possible McCarthy run made the Huskers gamble on him enough to where the team would ignore the actual runner, either Corum or Haskins.
Though McCarthy wasn’t a big part of Michigan’s gameplan, the way the Huskers failed to deal with him resembled itself in all facets of the defense in the second half. The pursuit of the interesting parts of Michigan’s offense, whether it be McCarthy, Corum, McNamara or Haskins, led it to ignoring the feints which they represented.
For a team which relied heretofore on blunting the opposition’s finest component, Nebraska’s scheming on Saturday forgot that, in order to do that, one has to stick to the game plan.