s-crossroads

Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez looks downfield to pass the ball during the game against Oklahoma at the Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Norman, Oklahoma.

Without question, Nebraska football is off to its second-best four-game stretch to open a season under head coach Scott Frost. It’s not particularly close, either.

Frost’s forgettable first season in charge in 2018 began with a rained-out opener against Akron and didn’t get much better. The Huskers also dropped games against Colorado and Troy, which sent Nebraska spiraling to a 0-6 start it never recovered from.

In 2020’s pandemic-impacted season that featured a conference-only schedule, the Huskers again stumbled out of the gate. While the Huskers weren’t done any favors opening the season against what would be a College Football Playoff team in Ohio State, then having a game postponed against Wisconsin before playing at 2020 Big Ten West Champion Northwestern, Nebraska nonetheless started the campaign 1-4.

2019, meanwhile, stands out as a clear outlier.

Nebraska may have slipped up in an overtime defeat at Colorado in Week Two, but rallied to win three of its first four games. Even after a 48-7 beatdown at home by Ohio State, the Huskers turned things around the following week with a hard-fought victory over Northwestern.

That Nebraska team sat, with six games remaining in the regular season, with four wins and two losses. The Huskers needed to win just two of their remaining games to reach a pinnacle not previously seen since December 2016: bowl eligibility. 

As Frost enters a crucial stretch of games in year four of his tenure, that peak has still yet to be summited.

Roster and coaching staff turnover was an understandable culprit for the Huskers’ 4-8 season in 2018. Missed opportunities and injuries derailed a promising start in 2019 to a season that finished 5-7. The pandemic significantly impacted Nebraska’s ability to make progress in 2020.

Following four games in 2021, the Huskers stand at 2-2 with eight Big Ten games remaining — a great opportunity for Nebraska to snap the longest bowl game drought in program history since the 1950s. Five of Nebraska’s eight remaining games are against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25, so reaching the “magic number” of six wins might be a task easier said than done.

However, in an uber-competitive Big Ten and plenty of favorable contests remaining on the Huskers’ schedule, reaching six wins and beyond is very much on the table. 

“We’re probably the best team that we’ve been going into conference play since I’ve been here, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Frost said at Monday’s press conference.

While Nebraska’s overall record doesn’t back up that claim, a further dive into the numbers, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, just might. 

Through four games this season, Nebraska has given up an average of 15.8 points per game and ranks No. 26 nationally in total defense. After four games in 2019, Nebraska was conceding an average of over 25 points per game, the onset of a defense that finished a pedestrian 67th nationally in total defense while allowing nearly 28 points per contest. 

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander in particular seems to be in a good rhythm calling plays, with the Blackshirts completely neutralizing Buffalo’s power running attack two Saturdays ago and eliminating Oklahoma’s big-play ability last weekend. In fact, Nebraska’s veteran defense held the Sooners to their fewest points since 2016.

There’s a certain element to Nebraska’s defense that needs to be corrected as the Blackshirts enter conference play, and if it’s not, the Huskers will have a difficult time reaching six wins.

Nebraska’s run defense has been statistically below average so far this season. The Huskers are allowing an average of 156.5 rushing yards per game, good for 81st of 130 Division I teams. Nebraska’s upcoming conference opponents are extremely formidable on the ground, and Nebraska’s front seven will need to turn in Buffalo-esque performances against the run week-in and week-out. 

Saturday’s opponent, Michigan State, is led by one of the best running backs in the country, junior Kenneth Walker III; the Spartans rank No. 10 nationally with just over 263 rushing yards per game. In fact, five of Nebraska’s eight remaining opponents rank in the top-26 in per-game rushing offense, with Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa serving as outliers. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the Huskers desperately need to fix their offensive line, a unit that has been consistently poor all season. Nebraska’s Pro Football Focus grades on its offensive line haven’t painted the prettiest picture, and last Saturday was no exception. 

The Sooners were able to pressure junior quarterback Adrian Martinez on 18 of his 36 dropbacks and that, combined with the offensive line being frequently penalized, resulted in extremely poor marks on the whole. 

Frost mentioned on Monday the possibility of mixing things up at the left tackle position, where junior offensive lineman Trent Hixson operated against Oklahoma, but in truth Nebraska needs to be searching for more consistency on the whole.

Sophomore center Cameron Jurgens’ snapping issues appear to have largely subsided, but he picked up two costly 15-yard penalties against Oklahoma. Freshman offensive lineman Turner Corcoran allowed a staggering six quarterback pressures against the Sooners.

“We’re getting better every week,” Frost said on Monday of his developing offensive line.

For the sake of the Huskers’ offense, that progress needs to reveal itself sooner rather than later. Martinez has impressed thus far this season, and just might be on pace for his best collegiate season statistically, but cannot be asked to give superhuman performances nor bail out mistakes made by his offensive line.

The last, and most glaring issue that Nebraska must correct before it squares off against the Big Ten’s best is special teams. Three of Nebraska’s first four contests featured a muffed punt, and while that problem mercifully subsided against the Sooners, a new one reared its ugly head.

Senior kicker Connor Culp, last season’s Big Ten Kicker of the Year, went just 1-for-3 on field goal attempts against the Sooners. Nebraska’s offensive line issues and kicking dilemma combined to burn it against Oklahoma, with the Sooners waltzing through Nebraska’s line on an extra point, blocking a low boot from freshman kicker Kelen Meyer that was returned for two points.

Culp appeared to have the kicker spot on lockdown for the Huskers following a couple of years of uncertainty at the position, but after Frost’s comments on Monday, Nebraska appears to be in a similar position as it was in 2019.

Unlike in 2019, however, Nebraska has plenty of options within its ranks to rectify the issue. Freshman kicker Josh Jasek and sophomore kicker Chase Contreraz both transferred to Nebraska from the highly successful Iowa Western Community College, the former with a 56-yard field goal to his name and the latter an NJCAA Second-Team All-American in 2019. 

Meyer, a local product, had a standout high school career at Ord High School, while fellow Nebraska native and freshman kicker Brendan Franke has been excellent handling kickoffs duties this season.

And, if all else fails, junior safety Lane McCallum is still on the roster.

If anything, the main takeaway from the first month of Nebraska’s season is this: the Huskers are a team that will go as far as their attention to detail and willingness to adjust takes them. 

How far that is could result in program-altering benefits, or extreme consequences. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com