10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Colorado
1. Nebraska is still learning how to win again
For as many times as Nebraska looked like a completely different team from last season’s 4-8 debacle, the 33-28 loss to Colorado made it clear that the rebuilding process has only just begun.
Yes, the Huskers seemed to have made great progress on both sides of the ball, as the offense racked up big numbers and the defense came out with an attacking style not seen from NU in years.
But the reality is that this is still a very young team trying to adjust to a brand-new system. As indicated by the countless missed opportunities across the board on Saturday, that adjustment still has a long way to go.
“I told the team I’m proud of them,” Frost said after the game. “I’m broken hearted for them, but I’m proud of them. Looking out on that field we had an offense, the only time we got stopped on offense was when we made mistakes and stopped ourselves...
“When you’re trying to go from an average team to a great team, you don’t beat yourself, and spotting them 14 points is a good way to get beat. Not getting any fourth-and-shorts is a good way to get beat. Giving up third-and-19s and third-and-15s is a good way to get beat. Getting holding calls while you’re trying to run out the clock is a good way to get beat. Getting penalties on third-and-25 when they’re trying to score the last winning score is a good way to get beat.
“We can’t beat ourselves. We’ve got to learn those lessons. We’ve tried preaching them to them a lot. If this team didn’t beat itself today, we would have won that game.”
2. Huskers experience the full Martinez rollercoaster
At some points, quarterback Adrian Martinez looked like a potential future Heisman Trophy candidate.
At others, he looked like a true freshman playing in his first live game in more than a year and a half.
Martinez’s final box stat line glistened, as he completed 15-of-20 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 117 yards and two more scores. But there were several other equally costly moments.
Martinez coughed up a key fumble deep in NU territory that helped Colorado jump out to a 14-0 lead. He also threw a bad interception in the fourth quarter when the Huskers were clinging to a one-point lead.
Expect a few more of those EKG performances from Martinez, whenever he’s able to return to action after leaving the game in the final minutes with an apparent right leg injury.
“I thought he played great, first time out there,” Frost said. “There’s just some mistakes, the freshman mistakes, the first game mistakes that I wish we could have gotten out of our system last week… I thought Adrian played a great game, especially for his first game. He’s going to be a really good player around here.”
3. Early reports on Martinez's injury 'semi-encouraging'
Aside from the final score, the next biggest news to come out of Saturday was Martinez’s injury.
The biggest fear the Huskers had going into the game, especially following the sudden transfer of backup quarterback Tristan Gebbia, was that Martinez would miss any amount of game time and Nebraska would have to turn to walk-on Andrew Bunch.
That nightmare played out exactly against in the first game of the year, and now the most pressing question facing the team going forward is Martinez’s status. Frost said early reports have been positive, but no official updates on the injury have been given out yet.
“It’s semi-encouraging,” Frost said. “We’re going to wait before we talk about it until the doctors and everything see what it looks like.”
4. Turnovers are a major issue
Frost has said time and again that turnover differential is the most important stat in football, and Saturday’s loss showcased exactly why.
Nebraska was its own worst enemy all day, starting with two costly fumbles right out of the gates and then ending with Martinez’s fourth-quarter interception.
Add in three failed fourth-down conversions, and the Huskers gave the football up six total times against Colorado.
It doesn’t matter how much veteran leadership and experience you have; if a team turns the ball over that many times, the chances of victory plummet.
That’s especially true when a defense that is predicated so heavily on takeaways doesn’t produce any.
“Greg Bell fumbling early, Adrian fumbling,” Frost said. “We’ll keep working on ball security, we have been. Being smarter with the ball at the end. Maybe I should hand him a different play when we threw that last interception…
“I’ll talk about our mistakes, and we’ll address them. I think we’ve made some undisciplined plays and that’s what average teams do.”
5. Sometimes aggressiveness can backfire
While it seems unfair to question Frost and his staff after just one game, there were plenty of fans scratching their heads about the way Nebraska handled its late-game clock management and play calling.
Leading 28-27 with 4:49 left to play, the Huskers didn’t let off the gas much with their offensive tempo. Not only did were snapping the ball with more than 20 seconds left on the play clock, they were still calling pass plays that could have stopped time with an incompletion.
Frost has built his coaching pedigree off of being an aggressive play-caller, and he didn’t have any regrets about how he handled the end of the Colorado game.
“We’re always going to be aggressive,” Frost said. “We wanted to go score and put them on the safest pass play that we knew to run to get it started. It wasn’t quite late enough in the fourth quarter to think we could just run the clock out with their timeouts, so we’re going to stay aggressive all the time, we go for the score.
“We should’ve thrown to the right and we threw to the left, and those are things that Adrian… he’s the type of kid that won’t make the same mistake again.”
6. The running game is back
Nebraska’s running game had gotten progressively worse over the previous three seasons to the point where it was essentially a non-factor in the offense at the end of 2017.
That all changed in a major way on Saturday, as the Huskers dominated the ground game for 329 of their 565 total yards of offense.
The total marked NU’s most rushing yards since posting 458 against Illinois back on Sept. 27, 2014, and it was the first 300-yard rushing effort since tallying 310 at Northwestern on Sept. 24, 2016.
Nebraska had 243 of its 329 rushing yards in the first half alone, which were more than any full game total it had all of last season.
Martinez led the way with 117 yards, while Bell followed just behind with 104 on 13 carries. Martinez and Bell also combined to average a whopping 7.8 yards per carry.
7. The return of the pass rush
Sacking the quarterback was a true rarity last season, as Nebraska managed to get to opposing QBs just 14 times in 2017.
After just one game, the Huskers are already halfway toward equaling that total this year.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s aggressive and creative blitz schemes were apparent right away, helping the Huskers pile up seven sacks against Colorado.
Not only did that top last year’s season high of five sacks vs. Illinois, it also tied for the most by an NU defense since the 2009 Big 12 Championship against Texas (nine). The Huskers also had seven at Michigan in 2013, vs. Idaho State in 2012, and vs. Idaho in 2010.
“We knew we could do it,” Gifford said. “That’s just Coach (Chinander) believing in us, and we believe in the back end. They can lock it up back there, so we have the ability to pin our ears back and get after it.”
8. Farmer, Wilson are the top backup options at center
The center position had been a lingering question mark since the end of spring ball when Michael Decker retired from football and suddenly left Nebraska with a lot of inexperience at the position.
Senior Cole Conrad eventually emerged as the No. 1, but it was still unclear what the Huskers would do if Conrad had to miss any time.
Well, Conrad got dinged up right away, and the answer to that question came in the form of senior Tanner Farmer moving from right guard to center and sophomore Boe Wilson replacing Farmer.
Conrad returned to the field the next possession, but Wilson stayed in at guard for another drive before Farmer came back in.
Nebraska didn’t substitute much on the offensive line in Week 1, but it’s clear that Wilson is far and away the next man up in the rotation.
9. Gifford, Barry shine at linebacker
Two of the main benefactors of Nebraska’s shift in defensive philosophy look to be linebackers Luke Gifford and Mohamed Barry.
Both players ended up putting together career games in the loss.
Barry led the way with a team-high 12 tackles, while Gifford followed up with 11 stops and tied Freedom Akinmoladun for the team lead with 1.5 sacks.
The main difference was that the Huskers’ new scheme allowed for Gifford and Barry to maximize their athleticism.
“That’s what we’ve been taught,” Gifford said. “Coach (Zach) Duval has taught us that all summer and it was good to be able to go out there and do that. Obviously, we have to get stops when it counts and we didn’t do that, but there was a lot of good that we can take away.”
10. Special teams need work
As good as Nebraska’s offense and defense looked at times on Saturday, the special teams had a rough day from start to finish.
Punter Caleb Lightbourn had a decent outing with three punts for a 42.7-yard average, but that was about the only highlight for the Huskers in the game’s third element.
Freshman kicker Barrett Pickering missed his first and only field goal attempt from 43 yards, and Colorado averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return.
Tyjon Lindsey had three punt returns for minus-two yards, and kickoff returner J.D. Spielman didn’t make it past the 20-yard line on either of his two kickoff returns.
The return teams also got flagged for three penalties on NU’s six return opportunities.