Nebraska football is at the critical juncture of its early season. After a disappointment against Illinois and a bounceback against Fordham, Buffalo provides a unique and dangerous challenge for Nebraska.
The Huskers’ game against Buffalo is, in some sense of the word, consequential. And its result will have large ramifications on the season.
Here’s what to watch for on the field Saturday:
Can Nebraska stop Buffalo’s dynamic rushing attack?
In some ways, the running regime of Buffalo is strangely evocative of the kind of general aesthetic the Huskers have been wishing to capture over these last few seasons. Former Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson, after all, was one of the strongest runners in all of college football last season.
That trend doesn’t seem to be going away in head coach Maurice Linguist’s first season.
After Buffalo’s 69-7 beatdown of Wagner last week, a game with seven rushing touchdowns from the Bulls, the Huskers will be on high alert for the running attack of their counterpart.
The general consensus is that Nebraska’s game is upheld primarily by the strength of its defense, though there are significant asterisks to that.
The defensive line played well enough against Illinois, even if senior running back Mike Epstein managed 4.7 yards per carry on 16 attempts, but the running game of Illinois overall is rather questionable. This is the same Illinois team that got completely stuffed in the running game by UTSA only last week.
Furthermore, Fordham junior running back Trey Wilson III managed 5.8 yards per carry against the Huskers, a concerning metric against a team where the line of scrimmage should’ve been dominated.
Leading Buffalo’s run will be senior running back Kevin Marks Jr., a player who ran for 72 yards on 13 attempts against Wagner and notched two touchdowns. Junior running back Ron Cook Jr. should also be expected to take attempts and brings a different style of running to the offense. Whereas Marks is a strong, if surprisingly quick, 6-foot back, Cook relies more on his agility and stands at 5-foot-9.
If Nebraska’s sometimes inconsistent defensive line can muster a strong performance against Buffalo, even in the early stages, much of the Bulls’ gameplan will be rendered vestigial from the start. This, however, is far from a sure thing.
Can the offensive line click?
Against Illinois, the predominant offensive narrative focused on the relative insecurity of the running back group. Many of those concerns were answered against Fordham with the emergence of sophomore running back Markese Stepp as the clear starting option for the team.
However, with those problems effectively settled, one has to look at the next glaring problem facing the Huskers: a general sense of dysfunction present within the offensive line.
Broadly speaking, offensive lines are only as valuable as some of their weakest parts. If four players do their assignment, but one messes up, the play could be as good as dead. That being said, the line is also a tricky place to work, replete with responsibilities and dependent on communication.
Whereas the likes of freshman left tackle Turner Corcoran and sophomore center Cam Jurgens have largely availed themselves in glory, eyes have turned to freshman left guard Ethan Piper as the weak link in the operation.
Regardless of whether this is true, Nebraska’s offensive line played poorly against Illinois and only passingly against Fordham. In the latter, the offensive line was expected to dominate and in some sense did, but not enough to be quite convincing.
Buffalo’s defensive line isn’t the most striking on paper, but regardless, with the threat of Oklahoma looming in the distance, the offensive line will have to start snapping into place soon.
Without it, no phase of the offensive game will work.
Can Scott Frost adjust?
A running narrative so far this season has been centered on Nebraska head coach Scott Frost.
Of the least promising things about the Illinois game, one of the most significant came after it, in the Monday press conference, where Frost noted that Illinois’ odd defensive alignment forced him to throw out half the gameplan.
Furthermore, the Huskers had a distinct chance to win their week zero matchup. The hammer blow to the team largely came in a dysfunctional second-to-last drive which, though it ended in a touchdown, burned a heinous amount of time off the clock. Nebraska was left with little time to complete the comeback, and Illinois was able to secure the victory.
In some sense, these two things helped fund the loss against the Fighting Illini more than anything else. But it appeared to get better against Fordham. It’s easy to forget, given the totality of the final score, but much of the first half was an even affair between the two teams.
While it’s incredibly difficult to say that the breakthrough was a direct result of Frost’s actions, perhaps it was some other factor or just luck in the end, his stewardship of the game eventually resulted in a positive end product.
With all this being said, Buffalo is a rather eclectic team with an articulated game plan and style. Facing up against Nebraska, this can go a few ways for Frost and his team.
Best case scenario for the Huskers, the right things go the right way and the equation rounds out to zero. The defensive line’s initial setup can hold and Nebraska gets far enough out in front that the game stops being a contest.
However, another distinct possibility is that not everything goes right immediately. In which case, the team is presented with two distinct possibilities. Adjust, or lose.