Nebraska’s offense is mind-numbingly inconsistent
The Husker offense struggled to find its rhythm on Saturday. Each time junior quarterback Casey Thompson and company stepped on the turf, a different offense seemed to follow.
Take, for instance, the first offensive possession of the game — a perfectly-executed display of Nebraska’s potential. An eight-play, 87-yard masterclass that took up just over two minutes of game clock.
Thompson connected with his receivers with ease, flaunting his ability to connect outside the numbers. Three receivers caught passes as Nebraska swiftly marched down the field before junior running back Anthony Grant finished off the drive with a 19-yard touchdown run.
Or take Nebraska’s first offensive possession of the second half — yet another beautifully-executed six-play, 75-yard drive that took less than two minutes off the clock. Junior wide receiver Trey Palmer flashed his explosiveness with a 35-yard gain, Grant made defenders look lost with his elusive ball carrying, and Thompson found an open tight end, freshman Nate Boerkircher, in the endzone for a touchdown.
Not to mention the five-play 75-yard touchdown drive in the third, or the 11-play 89-yard touchdown drive in the fourth. By just watching these four possessions, one would have nothing but positives to take away from the Husker’s offensive performance.
But then there were those possessions where Nebraska looked dull and confused.
On the second play of Nebraska’s second drive, Thompson was lit up in the backfield and fumbled. The Husker’s third drive ended in three plays — a run up the middle that went nowhere, an illegal shift and a sack for a loss of ten.
Then there was the three-play drive that ended with a Thompson interception —one that zipped straight into the hands of a defender. Or the three-play drive that achieved nothing but moving backward 14 yards.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, this was the story for much of the afternoon for Nebraska’s offense. It would seemingly put it all together, only for the next drive to be a nightmare. The offense must be more consistent if it has any hope of competing in Big Ten play — they simply can’t disappear on half of their possessions.
Anthony Grant has superstar potential
Nebraska has not had a workhorse back with elite potential in recent memory — it does now.
Grant was by far the most dynamic player on the field Saturday, essentially carrying his team to victory. Granted, he was lining up against FCS defenders, but given Nebraska’s struggles in virtually every other area of the game, Grant’s dominant performance was more than impressive.
His patience is incredible — it’s as if time slows down when the ball is in his hands. He made defenders miss repeatedly throughout the afternoon, cutting and weaving his way to an 189-yard and two touchdown performance.
Grant carried the ball 23 times —12 more than Nebraska’s next leading rusher, freshman Ajay Allen — and made the most of those totes. He finished averaging 8.2 yards per carry, highlighted by an electric 48-yard touchdown scamper.
The screen-game defense is cause for concern
North Dakota didn’t throw the ball down the field much, but they didn’t need to. The Fighting Hawks’ passing attack focused on the short game, pushing the ball out into the flats and letting their receivers make men miss.
For the most part, this strategy worked. Especially in the first half, Nebraska’s missed-tackle epidemic continued. The Huskers struggled to bring down players in the open field, especially on solo tackle attempts. Screen passes and short out routes turned into large gains for North Dakota, often extending drives.
This trend can’t continue if Nebraska has any hope of competing in Big Ten play. While the Huskers might get away with allowing North Dakota to do this, they may struggle to stop superior opposing offenses.
Overall, the secondary played well — they allowed just 5.5 yards per completion and only 131 total passing yards. However, if Nebraska allows quarterbacks to consistently throw underneath for medium gains, the passing defense will eventually break down.
Tale of Two Halves
Tied 7-7 heading into halftime, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost’s seat burned hotter than it ever had before. The Nebraska offense had become stale, the defense was outclassed, and the energy had completely dissipated out of Memorial Stadium.
While the second half wasn’t perfect by any means, the Huskers pulled away for a comfortable victory. Compared to the first half, the offense found its rhythm. After running just 24 plays on four full drives in the entire first half, Nebraska had 38 plays on seven drives in the second.
The Huskers finished the first half with just 147 yards of total offense, just seven points and less than 10 minutes of time of possession. Compare that to the second half, where Nebraska finished with 290 yards of total offense, 24 points and just over 14 minutes of time of possession.
Nebraska will need to come out stronger in the first half against stronger competition. Halftime adjustment and locker room speeches will not be enough to rally against superior opponents.
Who called the second-half plays?
In Frost’s postgame press conference, he skirted around a question regarding the play-calling duties. Prior to the season, Frost handed over play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple who led a dynamic offense at Pittsburgh. After the seemingly drastic adjustment in the second half, questions arose about Frost’s commitment to that change.
Although he refused to comment on it, one can assume some change was made. The offense looked more free, particularly on its final three touchdown drives. If that offense can show up for the remainder of the season, Big Ten defenses will be forced to circle Nebraska on their schedule. If the offense from the first half remains, it will be a frustrating season in Lincoln.