10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Troy
1. Bunch wasn't perfect, but he wasn't the problem
Nebraska was already facing a less-than-ideal situation coming into the game when true freshman Adrian Martinez (knee) was officially ruled out and sophomore Andrew Bunch got the start at quarterback.
But while Bunch became the first walk-on QB to start a game for the Huskers in 20 years, he was far from the only reason they fell to Troy on Saturday.
Bunch ended the day 19-of-27 passing for 177 yards and two touchdowns, and he also threw two costly interceptions, including one on the potential game-winning drive in the final minutes. He was also sacked three times and had three fumbles, all of which were recovered by the offense.
It was hardly a perfect debut by any stretch, but according to head coach Scott Frost and NU’s players, Bunch was not the reason they lost the game.
“I thought he did a great job, getting thrown into that situation…” Frost said. “For what we asked Bunchy to do, I thought he did a great job. We kind of wanted to ugly the game up and lean on him early, and that’s impossible to do once you give up a punt return and turn the ball over and you spot them two scores.
“When we asked him to make throws I thought he made some really good throws and do some good things.”
2. Martinez was not an option
The biggest question facing Nebraska all week was whether Martinez would be able to play vs. Troy after suffering a knee injury late in the loss to Colorado.
While Martinez suited up and went through pre-game warmups, Frost said the freshman hadn’t made enough progress in his recovery for the staff to risk any long-term setbacks on Saturday.
Frost added that even as the game got more and more in doubt, he had no intentions of putting Martinez in against the Trojans.
“No, Adrian wasn’t ready to go today,” Frost said. “He actually looked really good in warmups, but we were just worried about – listen, he’s going to be here a long time and our decision is going to be based on his long-term health more than anything. That wasn’t an option.”
While media and fans were left waiting until kickoff for a decision on Martinez’s status, the Huskers apparently knew much earlier that Bunch would get the call.
“(Frost) let me know pretty early in the week that I was going to get a shot,” Bunch said.
3. Offensive line took a big step back
The play of the offensive line was one of the silver linings of last week’s loss to Colorado. That was definitely not the case on Saturday.
Knowing the situation at quarterback, the Huskers’ o-line put it on themselves this week to be the driving force for the offense and whoever was under center.
The offense ended up rushing for 187 yards on 48 attempts, a modest 3.8 yards per carry. The line also gave up three sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Frost said NU expected Troy’s defense to load the box and stop the run first, but the offense felt they could still force their will on the Trojans up front anyway. It happened occasionally, but obviously not nearly as consistently as needed.
4. Despite solid effort, Blackshirts can't make biggest plays
Coming off a breakout debut against Colorado last week, the defense was again one of Nebraska’s biggest strengths vs. Troy.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, the unit couldn’t come up with enough key plays to change the course of the game.
The most telling drive came on Troy’s final score of the day midway through the fourth quarter, when the Blackshirts gave up three third-and-9 conversions before allowing running back B.J. Smith to sprint into the end zone untouched for his second touchdown and make it 24-13.
Nebraska’s defense still only rendered 17 points, 253 yards of total offense, 12 first downs, and held the Trojans to go just 4-for-13 on third- and fourth-down conversion attempts. Still, the Huskers needed just a bit more given all of the problems on offense and special teams.
“It’s the same thing as last week,” senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “Do some good things, but it doesn’t matter, we lost. That’s the way it is. As a defense, we've got to take that step.
“It sucks to keep telling everybody that ‘we’re almost there, we’re almost there,’ and then have it not happen; it’s where we’re at right now. We've got to find whatever it is to help us take that step.”
5. Special teams becoming a major concern
There were some notable special teams kinks Nebraska had to work out following its first game of the season vs. Colorado. Few, if any, of those seemed to be corrected on Saturday.
Along with the 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by Cedarius Rookard that put Troy up 10-0 out of the gates, the Huskers once again left plenty to be desired in its kicking and return units.
Freshman kicker Barret Pickering – who missed his first and only field goal attempt last week – shanked his opening kick from 33 yards out in the second quarter. To his credit, Pickering responded by making his next two from 23 and 32 yards.
Nebraska didn’t return a single punt in the loss, allowing Troy punter Tyler Sumpter to average a whopping 53.8 yards per punt. Sumpter’s long was a 79-yard touchback, which marked the longest punt by an NU opponent in 20 years.
Husker punter Caleb Lightbourn averaged a decent 42.8 yards per attempt, but he also had a 24-yard kick following a delay of game on the punt team that gave Troy the ball at its 38-yard line earlier in the fourth quarter.
Three of NU’s 10 overall penalties in the loss were courtesy of its special teams.
“It’s got to matter,” Frost said. “It’s got to matter to everybody more. We had great effort on special teams this week, a lot better attention to detail… We’ve got to be able to make some plays on special teams. Those kind of things are the keys in a tight game.”
6. Once again, little mistakes add up
For the second time in as many games, Nebraska was its own worst enemy on Saturday.
The turnovers, the penalties, and the pure fundamental miscues across the board all added up to become a major factor in victory and defeat.
“Little things lead to (big) things, and the same things bit us today,” Frost said. “Spotting them points, giving up special teams plays, turning the ball over, dumb penalties. I can’t tell you how much we talked about that all week, and it happens again.”
The Huskers have now committed a combined 21 penalties for 172 yards, given up six turnovers, and put the ball on the turf for seven total fumbles, losing three, over their first two games of the season.
“Everything you do in life you have to have discipline,” Gifford said. “Getting up to be at meetings at 5:55 instead of 6, and making sure you’re at every meal on time. Those are the things where we’ve come a long ways, but there’s still a little bit left to go.
“And it shows up on the field on Saturdays when it’s third-and-whatever and you get a penalty for whatever it is. It’s just shooting yourselves in the foot, and I think that goes back to discipline.”
7. Washington was a bright spot
There wasn’t a whole lot for Nebraska to feel good coming away from its loss to Troy, but freshman running back Maurice Washington’s emergence was a bit of a silver lining.
Washington had a decent official debut with eight carries for 28 yards vs. Colorado, but he took a major jump in his second game as a Husker with 14 rushes for a game-high 92 yards against Troy. He also added three catches for 14 yards.
It wasn’t just the overall production that impressed, but also Washington’s ability to create positive runs out of unlikely situations.
Whether it was breaking tackles in the backfield or even recovering a Bunch fumble and picking up two yards out it, Washington provided a much-needed boost to an often-stagnant Husker offense.
8. Barry's ejection was a major loss
As if there wasn’t already enough working against Nebraska’s favor on Saturday, having to play more than half the game without its best overall linebacker certainly didn’t help the Huskers’ cause.
Junior inside linebacker Mohamed Barry was flagged for a personal foul and then ejected from the game for a targeting penalty midway through the second quarter.
A player who was NU’s highest-graded linebacker on the team last week vs. Colorado according to Pro Football Focus, Barry left a massive void on NU’s defense following his departure.
Barry had three tackles in the limited action he saw, and while junior Will Honas ended up leading the team with eight total tackles, losing Barry’s speed and athleticism at the position impacted the defense the rest of the game.
Frost said he didn’t get a good enough view of Barry’s penalty to know whether it was a legitimate call, but he could say for certain that it was a mistake and nothing more.
“I know Mo, and he plays his tail off and he’s not malicious,” Frost said. “So, if it happened, it wasn’t intentional. That’s all I would say about it.”
9. Frost still high on program's trajectory
Frost still high on program’s trajectory
As bad as things may feel following Nebraska’s worst start to a season in 61 years, Frost remains confident that his program is still very much on the right track.
While the results have been rough, he said after the game that he’s seen enough positives over his first nine months on the job to know that plenty of progress has and will continue to be made.
However, Frost made it a point to draw a line in the sand for anyone in the program who wasn’t 100-percent bought into what he and his staff were trying to build.
“I just got done telling the team, when things get tough like this you’ve got two choices: you fight back and you work even harder, or you give up,” Frost said.
“I also told them that if anybody doesn’t want to stay on board with this ride with us, let me know now and get off. Because I know where this is going. We just haven’t had the results early that we need.”
10. Like Frost, players believe they will bounce back
Frost issued a public challenge to his team following the loss to Troy, and based on their post-game comments, the Huskers have accepted it with open arms.
“We’re going to fight back. I don’t see any other option,” senior offensive lineman Jerald Foster said. “There’s no quit in this group. We’re going to fight back.”
Said Bunch: “I don’t think there’s anybody in that locker room that’s going to give up. That team is full of a bunch of fighters that are going to come to work on Monday the same way we always have.”
Foster said senior wide receiver and captain Stanley Morgan Jr. was one player in particular who was “passionate” in addressing the team in the locker room following the loss.
Fellow captain and senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said the overall morale of the team was still holding up despite the difficult start to the year, but there was no doubt that the best medicine the Huskers needed was to finally taste victory for the first time in 11 months.
“That is something we need to do. We have to do that,” Stoltenberg said. “The No. 1 way to do that is to show up on Monday and make sure we’re doing our preparation. If there is a hangover from a game like this, where it is kind of a big letdown, then it is kind of going to just pile on.
“So, the No. 1 thing that I have to do is make sure that the guys in my position group, guys on the defense, more holistically the whole team, is just stay together. No one is getting upset or frustrated to the point that they’re not willing to work or do their job. That’s the No. 1 thing we have to do in order to get that feeling back.
“It is killing me and it should, it should be killing everyone. And it should be just that much more motivation.”