Nebraska may have entered the 2019 season with a No. 24 preseason ranking, but Saturday’s game showed that while the Huskers do have potential, elements of last year’s four-win season still remain.
It wasn’t always pretty, nor was it a dominant performance, and the game certainly didn’t live up to the standards of the Nebraska coaching staff. However, the Huskers (1-0) displayed enough quality to defeat the South Alabama Jaguars (0-1) 35-21.
“We’re ranked in the top 25 but we certainly didn’t look like that type of team today,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said after the game.
Nebraska began the game with an impressive first drive, even if it wasn’t an indicator of how the rest of the game would go. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez led the drive which included a 42-yard pass to junior tight end Jack Stoll to put the team in scoring range. Junior running back Dedrick Mills then powered in the score from one yard out, giving the Huskers an early 7-0 lead.
What followed was a wildly inconsistent first half where Nebraska struggled to get going offensively and looked suspect at times defensively. South Alabama sophomore quarterback Cephus Johnson struggled to throw the ball early in his first collegiate start, but a late hit penalty negated a third-down stop and Johnson ran in a three-yard score soon after.
Nebraska’s error-prone ways seemed to return as the half progressed. Freshman center Cameron Jurgens was consistently high on his snaps, including a 20-yard botched snap which killed a Husker drive. The entire offensive line also struggled to produce enough push up front, resulting in just 51 first-half rushing yards despite continued efforts to run the ball.
Mills struggled to get going in his Husker debut, finishing with 44 yards on 15 carries, but did score his second one-yard rushing touchdown of the game to put Nebraska up 14-7 in the second quarter.
“It was tough to get [yards], but I still managed to get in the end zone,” Mills said. “It took a lot of hard fighting and work from my offensive line and my quarterback but we got in.”
A final attempt to tack points on before halftime went wayward, as freshman kicker Dylan Jorgensen’s 31-yard kick sailed wide right.
Nebraska came out of the break with two adjustments on offense — freshman Will Farniok took over for Jurgens at center and sophomore Maurice Washington began the half at running back. But before either player could see the field, Nebraska had already scored 14 points.
Senior safety Eric Lee Jr., playing in place of the injured Deontai Williams, jumped a pass from Johnson and took the interception 38 yards for a touchdown. After a three-and-out from South Alabama on its next drive, junior wideout JD Spielman took a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, tiptoeing along the sideline as he weaved in and out of defenders.
Spielman’s next bite of the cherry was hardly as sweet as he muffed a punt return on the ensuing drive, setting up South Alabama for a quick nine-yard passing score. Nebraska’s mistakes continued to compound, as Martinez threw an interception on the team’s next possession. Johnson marched the Jaguar offense down the field for another score and suddenly the 35-point favorites were only up 28-21 late in the third quarter.
Nebraska’s offense continued to go missing for the rest of the game, as the Husker totaled just 36 yards in the third quarter and 30 more in the fourth. Instead, the Blackshirts came up big again as sophomore cornerback Cam Taylor jarred a fumble loose and senior linebacker Alex Davis scooped up the ball for a touchdown.
“I hear nothing but fans, and I’m like, ‘what happened?,’” Taylor said. “I didn’t see the ball, I just ran to the sideline because I thought I did a good job.”
The Husker defense managed to close the game out strong in the fourth quarter, keeping the Jaguars from cutting into the lead any further. The unit allowed 314 yards but forced five turnovers and came up big time and time again.
“I was really happy with the defense for the most part,” Frost said. “They gave up a couple drives, but the defense won the game for us. The defense that I’ve been seeing all fall camp showed up today.”
South Alabama out-gained Nebraska over the course of the game, due in part to a substandard game from Martinez. The second-year starter entered the game with Heisman buzz but only completed 13-22 passes for 178 yards and an interception and never got going on the ground.
It was a rough day on offense for Nebraska, one which will weigh heavily on the coaching staff as the Huskers prepare for a big non-conference test against Colorado next week.
“That’s as anemic an offensive effort as I’ve been a part of for a long time,” Frost said. “That’s not the offense I’ve been seeing all fall camp, so we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened today.”