10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Michigan
1. This loss was historically bad
Nebraska has suffered a lot of embarrassing blowout losses in recent years, but this one felt a little different.
Games like this weren’t supposed to happen under new head coach Scott Frost’s watch, or at least that is what many Husker fans had desperately hoped.
But the reality of the situation is that no matter how much progress Frost and his staff have made in rebuilding the program the past 10 months, Nebraska is just not a good football team right now, and more disciplined and talented opponents like Michigan are going to continue to show it.
The Huskers never stood a chance on Saturday, as they fell behind by their largest halftime deficit in school history (39 points) and never once posed a threat to make the contest competitive. For the first time in 73 years, Nebraska is now 0-3 to start a season.
“We got our butt whipped,” Frost said. “Guys are either going to have to figure out how to work hard and get it fixed, or move on to the next guy. That’s not trying to throw anyone under the bus. That’s just the facts of it.
"We can’t keep doing the same things and expect a different result. I think we’ve got a good enough team to be in a lot of games this year and win games this year. We have to be able to execute better.”
2. The offensive line is a mess
Yes, freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez was able to return to action after missing last week’s loss to Troy with a knee injury. But it didn’t make any difference.
The Huskers could have had Tom Brady under center and even he wouldn’t have been able to operate an offense with how porous the offensive line was all afternoon.
Nebraska had zero running game (30 carries for 39 yards) and had Martinez and backup Andrew Bunch running for their lives all day, getting sacked or hurried on eight of their 24 combined pass attempts.
This is the same unit that had no answer for Troy’s front seven a week ago, and against one of the best defensive lines in the country, it had no chance. The Huskers scored just 10 points with 132 total yards, punted nine times, and averaged 2.4 yards per play.
By the end of the game, NU had pulled its entire starting offensive line and put in a group of junior Christian Gaylord, sophomore Boe Wilson, redshirt freshman Hunter Miller, redshirt freshman Trent Hixson, and redshirt freshman Matt Sichterman.
“We need to be able to run the ball and protect,” Frost said. “I think everything needs to change. I felt great about the game plan coming in. I thought we had a lot of good stuff for them, but we couldn’t make any of it work… We couldn’t line up and run our most basic play and get 2-3 yards. We were on our heels the whole day.”
3. Same defensive breakdowns continue
Missed tackles, players filling the wrong gaps, receivers running wide open downfield.
All of the same issues Nebraska’s defense struggled so mightily with all of last season came flooding back against Michigan and essentially allowed the Wolverines to do whatever they wanted.
Michigan scored on its first four drives of the day and didn’t punt until the final seconds of the first quarter. Running back Karon Higdon - who was questionable all week with an injury - racked up 136 rushing yards on 11.3 yards per carry.
While the Wolverines’ offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, the Blackshirts didn’t do themselves any favors either by making one mental error after another.
“I hoped I’d see something different than that,” Frost said of his defense. “We needed to be able to stop their run game to have a chance to stop them. If you stop the run game and force them to pass, you’ve got a chance. When they could pick a play and run it and get yards rushing like they did, then the play-actions are going to open up, the boots are going to open up. They ran it right at us for the first three series.”
4. Special teams keep getting worse
At this point, it’s not out of line to say that Nebraska has some of the worst special teams units in the country.
The same struggles that killed NU in the kicking and return units in the first two games were back again on Saturday, and they were as evident as ever.
Freshman kicker Barret Pickering made his lone field goal, but that was about as good as it got. The Huskers gave up their second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks, this time a 60-yard runback by Donovan Peoples-Jones that made the coverage team look silly.
Tyjon Lindsey’s woes continued in the punt return game, gaining three yards on two returns and muffing another punt for a costly turnover.
In all, four of Nebraska’s 10 penalties in the loss were committed on special teams.
“We’re a team, so it’s on all of us, but to some things that just keep happening, and that means that guys either can’t do it, or won’t do it,” Frost said. “We can’t keep kicking the ball right down the middle of the field 50 yards and giving athletes like they had back deep a chance to return it.
“We’ve got to able to field the punt when it’s bounced off the ground and not muff it and give it to them. Can’t have penalties; I can’t tell you how much we’ve been preaching that and working on it. If it’s not being done by now, either guys can’t do it or won’t do it. We’re going to keep working to get the best guys we can on the field.”
5. Martinez's return made little difference
Nebraska’s biggest reason for optimism going into the game was Martinez making his return as the starting quarterback, but his presence did little to change the final result.
Martinez’s first pass of the day was a 32-yard completion to Stanley Morgan Jr. His second throw was intended for a wide-open J.D. Spielman, who may have scored had he gotten the ball.
Instead, the ball was tipped and intercepted by Michigan for the game’s first turnover. Martinez ended up completing 7-of-15 passes for just 22 yards while being sacked four times.
His impact as a runner was even less, finishing with minus-12 yards on seven carries (including sacks).
“Adrian’s going to be a great player at Nebraska for a long time,” Frost said. “I hope he never experiences a day as rough as this one again.”
6. There were no bright spots
Even in some of the worst recent Nebraska losses, there have generally been at least one or two areas that could be considered positives.
There were none on Saturday.
The Huskers did nothing to feel good about whatsoever in the loss, putting forth disappointing and frustrating efforts in every aspect of the game.
Nebraska’s postgame notes highlighted things like Morgan catching three passes for 61 yards, cornerback Dicaprio Bootle breaking up five passes, Pickering making a 35-yard field goal, and running back Wyatt Mazour scoring a touchdown in garbage time.
When those are the standout performances, it says everything you need to know about how bad this loss really was.
“I think our whole team needs to see what it looks like right now to play at (Michigan’s) level,” Frost said. “We weren’t ready to play at that level today.”
7. NU's quarterback situation nearly got even worse
Just when it seemed like Nebraska’s quarterback situation couldn’t get much scarier after Martinez went down vs. Colorado, there was a brief moment when it looked like it was going to get drastically worse.
The Huskers opted to sit Martinez to start the second half to prevent any potential injury given how much he was getting hit. But on the very first play of the third quarter, Bunch took a hard hit and had to leave the game.
Martinez came back in and Bunch eventually returned, but that moment showed just how close NU was to things becoming a disaster at the most important position.
Frost himself said his team was operating with just two quarterbacks, meaning that even though freshman walk-on Matt Masker traveled to the game, he was an emergency option at best.
“The game was over at halftime. We didn’t want to play him anymore,” Frost said when asked why he decided to pull Martinez out. “My heart was in my throat when Andrew was down. We’ve only got two guys, so we’ve got to make sure to protect them any way we can.”
8. Mistakes in practice showed up on gameday
Following Thursday’s walk-thru session, Frost was directly asked if he felt his team had a bad practice that day.
His answer was a firm no, but he admitted on Saturday that it actually most certainly was.
“We’ve got to practice better,” Frost said. “I was frustrated Thursday, it wasn’t very good. I didn’t want to say it before the game, but we were missing on details on Thursday. If you’re missing on details on Thursday and expect to be right on Saturday, it ain’t going to happen.
“Guys are either going to have to figure it out, or we’re going to have to get some guys that are going to want to do it.”
9. Frost insists this is rock bottom
Last week Frost predicted that the worst was likely still yet to come even after a home loss to Troy. It turns out he was right.
Frost’s message to the team after the game was that the Michigan loss was going to be the lowest point of the Huskers’ rebuilding process this season. Not because he was just being hopefully optimistic, but because it had to be.
“I told them I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom right here,” Frost said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a game like that. We’ve got beat in every phase. We’re going to find out who loves football and who loves each other, and who’s going to band together…
“We got to find a way to get better. We’re not ready to beat a team like this, yet. The key word to me is “yet.” I know where it’s going, it certainly isn’t happening as quickly as I would like, but I’m kind of excited because it’s not going to get worse than this. It’s only up from here.”
10. There could be even darker days ahead
Nebraska is three games into the Frost era and the season is already on the brink of falling into a total collapse.
The 0-3 start is bad enough, but the Huskers are getting worse by the week and reverting more and more to the disaster of a team that we saw in 2017.
The schedule won’t get any easier from here, either, and unless Frost and his staff can find a way to salvage what’s left of the Huskers’ confidence in a hurry, results like Saturday’s could easily become the norm.
Nebraska is at a crossroads for merely maintaining any positive momentum going into the offseason, and there is so much work to be done.
“There’s a lot of things that need to get fixed,” Frost said. “Our execution, our strength and conditioning, our nutrition, our recruiting. There’s a lot of things we’ve talked about. Those things don’t happen overnight. I think it was pretty clear: we’re not ready to compete against a team like that.”