Nebraska football started out on the wrong foot in its first game of the season, losing 30-22 against Illinois. Many concerns arose after the game, including a lack of offensive identity, struggles with penalties, turnovers that gave the opponent easy scoring opportunities and a defense that struggled to consistently get stops.
Early in Saturday's game, Nebraska appeared to be headed down that same path, but the Huskers quickly rebounded and looked like the team fans were hoping to see against Fordham, trouncing the Rams 52-7.
Here are three takeaways from the first Nebraska victory of the season:
Markese Stepp and Samori Toure are the real deal
Nebraska’s offense this season was set to heavily rely on two transfers: sophomore running back Markese Stepp and senior wide receiver Samori Toure. Both players showed potential in the season opener, but Saturday proved that the expectations were well-warranted, as both players emerged as leaders of their positions.
Toure, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) All-American at his former school, Montana, showed why FCS defenses feared him, catching eight passes for 133 yards. Toure was consistently the most open receiver, finding holes in the Rams’ coverage and making solid catches with plenty of space around him.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez struggled with accuracy and finding the open receivers against Illinois, and with junior wide receiver Oliver Martin out, the Huskers needed somebody to step up and consistently be on the same page with the quarterback. Toure picked up the slack and showed excellent chemistry with Martinez, particularly on a fourth down conversion in the third quarter.
On the play, Toure ran a deep crossing route and found the hole in the zone coverage for a 25-yard gain. Just as impressive was Martinez’s throw going exactly to the spot it needed to be, away from any defenders and arriving at Toure’s hands right as he got there.
Toure also opened up Nebraska’s running offense, being a key asset on a motion option play the Huskers called multiple times. Toure spun his way into the endzone on the option in the third quarter, using his speed to beat the Rams to the goal line.
Stepp was the leading rusher of Nebraska’s running back corps against Illinois, but Saturday is where he showed he was the true feature back. Rushing 18 times for 101 yards, Stepp showed he is capable of being the workhorse back typical in a Nebraska offense led by head coach Scott Frost.
On the Huskers’ first touchdown drive in the first quarter, a healthy dose of Stepp got the offense rolling, keeping the defense on its toes to set up pass plays to junior tight end Austin Allen and Toure for first downs.
The Huskers gave other running backs plenty of carries, including two touchdown runs by freshman Sevion Morrison, but Stepp’s 5.6 yards per carry led the crop of Husker running backs.
Stepp and Toure’s 100-yard games gave Nebraska its first game with a 100-yard rusher and receiver since September 21, 2019 against Illinois.
The defense can adjust
Nebraska’s defense got off to a rough start in the first half. Fordham consistently drove the ball down the field, reaching Nebraska territory in each of its first five drives. The most worrisome of those drives was a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive where the Husker defense looked lost, failing to stop slant routes and letting run plays consistently go well past the line of scrimmage.
At one point in the second quarter, Fordham was averaging 6.2 yards per carry. However, the Husker defense did not let that last very long. While the defense was lacking consistent stops, they made up for it by forcing turnovers. Senior linebacker JoJjo Domann caught his first career interception on a pass that bounced off the hands of Fordham senior wide receiver Fotsis Kokosioulis.
When the Rams had a chance to tie the game up on a field goal in the second quarter, senior safety Marquel Dismuke got a jump on the snap and blocked it, putting momentum squarely in the hands of the Huskers.
The Husker offense subsequently got a touchdown, and the defense never looked back, with senior safety Deontai Williams catching a key interception before the half to set up a touchdown on the final drive of the half.
In the second half, the defense had the Fordham offense smothered, only allowing 71 total yards. Even when the Huskers’ special teams gifted Fordham the football after an opening three-and-out, the defense remained unfazed with Williams catching his second interception on fourth down.
Fordham would only get one first down in the second half, on the final possession in the game well after the Huskers had put in their second unit. After a week where the Huskers had failed to adjust to the opponent’s gameplan, it was encouraging to see a team stop what they know is coming to them.
The sky is not completely falling
After the loss to Illinois, not many were feeling positive about the direction the Nebraska football program was going in. In the first half, those fears seemed to be confirmed and even worsened. Nebraska stayed even, and looked even, with an FCS team from a conference with a reduced amount of athletic scholarships.
As Frost pointed out postgame, the final five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half made all the difference, and the talent gap between the schools became abundantly clear. After allowing a defensive touchdown and a lengthy offensive drive in that timeframe against Illinois, the Huskers scored two touchdowns and caught an interception against Fordham.
The Huskers continued the momentum throughout the rest of the second half, allowing plenty of time for the second unit to get game experience for the first time since Maryland in 2019.
While allowing Fordham to stick around for more than a quarter was less than ideal, and Fordham senior quarterback Tim DeMorat did miss some potential touchdown throws, the final score speaks for itself.
The offense found a consistent identity, with a healthy run/pass ratio and stayed mostly mistake and penalty free, committing only two penalties all game and the only offensive turnover coming in garbage time. The defense had a second half that any team would be proud of, and the three turnovers are huge for a team that’s struggled to earn them in the past.
There are mistakes that need to be cleaned up for when the schedule gets tougher, but today showed that the Huskers are still a talented team that can put away inferior opponents with ease, temporarily quieting those who fear the worst for this program.