10 things we learned from Nebraska's win over South Alabama
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways following Nebraska's 35-21 win over South Alabama in Saturday's season opener...
1. The offense has some serious work to do
Maybe it was just some first-game nerves. Maybe Nebraska was holding a good chunk of the playbook back in order to save some surprises for Colorado next week.
Or maybe the Huskers just had an all-around bad day.
Whatever the reasons, no one left Memorial Stadium on Saturday feeling very good about NU’s offense following the 35-21 win over South Alabama.
Nebraska had zero rhythm or consistency with the football, and it mustered just two offensive touchdowns and turned the ball over three times against a Jaguar squad that ranked 107th in total defense and 122nd in scoring defense a year ago.
Head coach Scott Frost made no excuses for the effort on his side of the ball but remained confident that Week 1 would be far more of an outlier than the beginning of a concerning trend.
“That’s as anemic of an offensive effort that I’ve been a part of for a long time,” Frost said. “That’s not the offense that I’ve seen all of fall camp, so we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened today…
“We’ll take a look at it as a coaching staff. I’m extremely excited with the way the offense has played through fall camp. So hopefully this wasn’t indicative of what we’re going to get, but I think the guys are going to be hungry to come back and practice.”
2. Huskers turn the page on Washington’s discipline, for now
One of the biggest questions surrounding the program all offseason was what would Nebraska do with running back Maurice Washington, who was still facing a felony charge in California going into Saturday’s opener?
The sophomore, who was listed as a game-time decision going in, suited up and went through full warmups, even getting some first-team reps during pregame.
After sitting the entire first half, Frost told the Husker Sports Network during his halftime interview that Washington would start the third quarter as the No. 1 back.
Frost said a final decision was made on Washington’s status late Thursday night/Friday morning between the football coaching staff and university leadership. Based on the time Washington missed in the spring, they agreed that a one-half suspension was adequate.
“The decision was made Thursday night or Friday morning between coaching staff, administration and campus that Mo Washington would serve a half-game suspension in addition to internal punishment and discipline he already has,” Frost said.
“We won’t consider any conditional discipline for him until the matter is completely adjudicated. So, the plan was to sit him the first half and play him in the second. He’ll play going forward, and I won’t have any other comment about it until it’s adjudicated in California."
Washington made an immediate impact once he entered the game, rushing for 39 yards on six carries and adding a 13-yard reception. For comparison, junior Dedrick Mills started the game and finished with 45 yards on 15 attempts (with two touchdowns and a fumble).
3. The Blackshirts saved the day
There were concerns going into the year as to how improved Nebraska’s defense would be and whether it would be a liability the way it was at times last season.
As it turns out, the Blackshirts were the ones who kept an otherwise bad day from turning into a total disaster.
Behind a whopping two touchdowns, five takeaways, four sacks, and 10 tackles for loss, the Husker defense not only kept South Alabama at arms’ reach all day but also came up with one game-changing play after another.
Nebraska did not score a defensive touchdown in its previous 15 games coming in, and it ended Frost’s first year with 20 takeaways and 25 sacks. After one game, both of those marks are already well within reach.
“The defense won the game for us,” Frost said. “The defense that I’ve been seeing all of fall camp showed up today… I’m thrilled to see the Blackshirts that we expect, at least for most of the game.”
4. Questions still surround center position
After all the praise Nebraska’s coaching staff heaped onto Cameron Jurgens as the new No. 1 center, it’s glaringly clear that his development is still very much a work in progress.
While the entire offensive line struggled mightily on Saturday, Jurgens’ issues were highlighted with a number of high snaps, including one that sailed over quarterback Adrian Martinez’s head for a 20-yard loss in the first quarter.
Jurgens was eventually replaced by redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the third quarter, but the offense didn’t improve much following the switch.
Frost remained high on Jurgens’ potential after the game, and said the decision to pull him out was all part of the “pitch count” the staff had set for him prior to kickoff.
“We had a plan for a lot of these things going into the game and the plan with Cam was to put him on a play count,” Frost said. “We actually went past that play count a little bit… I assume he’s healthy and ready to go and we’ll keep working him this week along with Will.”
5. Lee’s big day shows patience pays off
Nebraska’s defense appeared to take a major hit in the first quarter when starting safety Deontai Williams left the game with a shoulder injury.
Instead, it opened the door for fifth-year senior Eric Lee Jr. to have his brightest moment yet as a Husker.
Lee, who had worked his way up to the No. 2 safety spot over the offseason, came up with two critical interceptions to go along with four tackles and a pass breakup.
His first interception, which was the also the first of his career, stood as arguably the biggest play of the day when he took it back 38 yards for a score. That turned a 14-7 game into a two-touchdown lead when NU needed any spark it could get.
Lee’s second pick came in the fourth quarter, when South Alabama was trying to mount one last comeback down 14 with just under five minutes left to play.
Frost said he was proud of the growth Lee had shown over the past two years, especially considering that Lee and fellow safety Marquel Dismuke was not in his “good graces” in 2018.
“Those two guys have persevered through a lot,” Frost said. “They’ve been in my bad graces a little bit going back to when I first got here. They’re doing everything the right way now. They’re good teammates.”
6. Taylor proves his value as all-around playmaker
There was plenty left to be desired from Nebraska’s performance on Saturday, but the effort put on by Cam Taylor-Britt definitely did not disappoint.
Arguably the most versatile weapon on NU’s defense, the sophomore was everywhere against South Alabama, making one momentum-shifting play after another to keep the Huskers in control.
When all was said and done, Taylor-Britt finished second on the team with five tackles, including a sack, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and an interception.
One of his two biggest plays came when he lit up USA quarterback Cephus Johnson on a blindside blitz, knocking the ball loose for Alex Davis to recover it in the end zone for a touchdown.
The other was when the Jaguars marched deep into Nebraska territory and were about to cut it back to a seven-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter. Instead, Taylor-Britt jumped in front of a Johnson pass at the two-yard line and ran it all the way back to the 50.
It was a memorable individual performance, but not one that surprised any of Taylor-Britt, his coaches, or his teammates.
“I’m more comfortable this year not being a freshman cornerback and now playing DB,” Taylor-Britt said. “Just being here is a lot better. I know a lot more than I did last year, so it helps that I can be loose and play my game.”
7. Robinson shows glimpse of future potential
It didn’t take long for Wan’Dale Robinson to make his official Nebraska debut, as he had the ball in his hands on the first two touches of the season with the opening kickoff return and a two-yard rush on the opening offensive play.
The heralded true freshman ended up with 131 all-purpose yards on the day, including tying for the team lead with three catches for 33 yards and four carries for 21 yards. His 39-yard kickoff return in the third quarter was longer than any NU had all last season.
It was a solid start for Robinson in his first career start, but Frost said as the former four-star recruit continued to work his way into better football shape, his impact would only continue to grow.
"I thought he had a good first day,” Frost said. “I think if the offense could have kept the ball longer, he could have gotten more opportunities. He's going to be more versatile as time goes on and as he learns and is more comfortable in different spots… I thought Wan’Dale did some pretty special things when he had the ball in his hands, and we'll keep looking to get that done."
8. Domann makes his case for a Blackshirt
After the Blackshirts were handed out last week, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said JoJo Domann was one player who was right on the cusp of earning one of the coveted practice jerseys.
Based on his performance on Saturday, the junior made a serious case to put himself over the top.
Just like he did in the second half of last season, Domann found a way to make one play after another in the snaps he got vs. South Alabama. He ended up with four tackles, two TFLs, and a pass breakup.
More importantly, he provided some life to a defense that was also a bit sluggish out of the gates.
9. With Pickering injured, Jorgenson steps up at kicker
Word started to surface late this week that Nebraska might be without its starting place kicker vs. South Alabama, as sophomore Barret Pickering was scratched from the lineup with an injury.
That meant that freshman walk-on Dylan Jorgenson would be called upon to handle the kicking duties in his first action as a Husker.
While he missed his only field goal attempt of the day – a blocked 31-yarder in the just before halftime – the former Lincoln Southwest product made all five of his extra points and properly placed all six of his kickoffs short in the corner with one touchback.
It will hopefully be a short-term replacement, but Jorgenson did what he was supposed to do
"Dylan did a good job...” Frost said. “I love Barret. He's got a little tweak right now, so we decided to hold him out of this game. It was good to see a walk-on kid from right here in town to come in and hit some kicks for us. The kick before half would have been big for us, but first game I thought he did a really good job."
10. Bring on Colorado
As soon as the "tune-up game" was over, Nebraska had already locked its sights onto next week’s significantly bigger test at Colorado.
Judging from the players post-game comments, the Buffaloes have been in the back of the Huskers’ minds for a while now.
“My coach don’t like them, so I don’t like them,” senior defensive lineman and team captain Darrion Daniels said. “That’s the mindset. If my teammates got some beef with them, then I’ve got some beef with them…
“I felt like last year we were the better team, so if that’s the way it was last year then I know we’re the better team this year.”
There’s a thought that NU might have been holding things back a bit on Saturday in an effort to give Colorado as little game film to study as possible.
True or not, there should be no shortage of motivation as Nebraska prepares for its rematch of a game that turned the course of last season.
“I had last year’s game circled on my schedule and I have this year’s game circled on my schedule,” said Lee, who played high school ball at Highlands Ranch (Colo.) Valor Christian. “Being able to go play against those kids - and I know a lot of the kids on their team. I’m just excited to go back out there and take CU down.”