s-WhattoWatchforFordham

Nebraska’s Gabe Ervin Jr. (22) runs with the ball during the Spring Game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

With the Fordham Rams coming into Lincoln, the Nebraska football team should have a guaranteed win on Saturday. The result should come in convincing fashion against the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Rams, but there are parts of Nebraska’s play to monitor to see whether the Huskers learned from its mistakes last weekend against Illinois.

Despite the opponent, there are several intriguing storylines to follow on Saturday.

Will the ground game get going?

True freshman Nebraska running back Gabe Ervin got the starting nod against Illinois, but a slow start saw Nebraska rotate other backs in to get the ground game working. With running backs being a primary concern of the Husker offense, one should watch for which players are used early on for Nebraska and how they are used.

On Nebraska’s last scoring drive, Ervin was used near the goal line while fellow freshman running back Rahmir Johnson had several carries early in the drive. Sophomore running back Markese Stepp had a significant involvement in last Saturday's game more so in the passing attack, but he too was used in goal-to-go situations in the first half.

Ervin’s struggles were not all his fault, as the offensive line did not win in the trenches consistently. Players and coaches alike spoke at Monday’s press conference about wanting to establish a ground game. 

As a result, how Nebraska distributes its carries throughout the game will be important to watch.

One key contributor is junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, whose legs were relied upon later in the game after three different running backs could not get anything going. Martinez, theoretically, could be used much earlier to help complement the running backs within the ground game.

The quarterback and running backs are only a part of the equation, with blocking taking up the rest. The offensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage, but whether the line consistently executes on top of that is a valid concern for any viewer.

After a disappointing performance on the ground, the Huskers could bring in new offensive linemen to see who executes better as a run blocker. Either way, the rushing attack will be seen heavily against Fordham and the game should be a get-right game for the offense.

Keeping the game clean

Unlike the Illinois game, Nebraska has a much greater margin of error to work with against Fordham. If Nebraska has multiple turnovers, the Huskers should still win with ease, but it will be disheartening to watch for any Husker fan.

Martinez’s fumble late in the first half was a play all too familiar over the course of his Nebraska career. Another offensive issue that reappeared last Saturday was a high snap from sophomore center Cam Jurgens in the fourth quarter. Against Fordham, Nebraska not committing any turnovers should be a small positive despite the clear talent gap between the schools.

Nebraska’s worst performing-unit, special teams, should have all eyes on it to see whether it executes properly. The first and most obvious part is the punt return unit and whether the punt returners do not make silly mistakes like fielding the ball at the 1-yard line and trying to make a play.

Another factor is the penalties. Nebraska only had five against Illinois, but they came at some of the most inopportune times in the game. Penalties are not avoidable, but reducing calls like roughing the passer make their impact much more manageable.

The last part of playing mistake-free football is consistent execution with the starting group on offense and defense, something lacking from the Illinois game. On offense, better decision-making from Martinez is vital while the defense will look to get stops and rarely give up long drives.

In the end, Nebraska’s main goal is to play clean football with at least the starters, a rare sight as of late.

The entire team gets to play

The expectation for Nebraska is simple, race out to a big lead early and break in as much of the depth chart as possible. Unless the game is somehow close in the second half, it will be interesting for fans to get a glimpse of the rest of the team.

At quarterback, Nebraska should be trotting out a couple of different looks, with freshman dual-threat quarterback Logan Smothers and freshman quarterback Heinrich Haarberg the most notable. Those two showcase two different skill sets, with Smothers’ rushing ability and Haarberg’s strong arm could both be on display on Saturday.

The quarterbacks will not be the only ones given their run out, as the majority of the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes should play this upcoming Saturday. Those classes should be getting game-action barring disaster.

These classes were both ranked in the top-20, according to 247sports.com, nationally and while some players in both classes have yet to shine as a Husker, Saturday should provide plenty of opportunity to do so. There is still plenty of high-level talent in both recruiting classes yet to be unleashed, and fans could get a glimpse into the future of the program against Fordham.

sports@dailynebraskan.com