Final Take: Huskers blow a major opportunity to take a step forward
BOULDER, Colo. - You really can't tee it up much better.
Nebraska was up 17-0 at halftime over Colorado. There were an estimated 30,000 Husker fans in the 52,829 seat Folsom Field. Nebraska had the national TV FOX 2:30 window.
It was all there on Saturday for NU to take a major step forward and deliver an impressive road victory that would've showcased the entire program from the team to the fanbase.
Then the third quarter happened. NU came out of the locker room flat from the get-go. They started with the ball and had a chance to build on their 17-0 lead, and before the first play was even run, head coach Scott Frost was forced to call a timeout because his offense wasn't ready. This set the tone for the entire second half for the Huskers (1-1), as NU did nothing on their first four possessions of the half, opening the door for Colorado (2-0) and allowing them to storm back with a 34-31 overtime victory.
It was the classic Nebraska we've been accustomed to seeing over the years. Just when you think the program is going to take that big step forward they take one back. As Frost said after the game on Saturday, this one stings in a lot of ways. It stings how they gave up the lead to the Buffs. It stings to see Buff fans storm the field and taunt the 30,000 Husker fans that traveled to Boulder as they celebrated on the field.
“I’ve only been a part of a couple that were tougher than this,” Frost said. “As a coach, you try to stay calm on the sideline and do your job. That was tough today because of the emotion. After the sluggish start at the beginning of the third quarter, I think our offense kicked it into gear a couple of times when we needed it to. We didn’t play well at the same time offensively and defensively in the second half. This was one of the hardest losses I’ve been a part of.”
The loss clearly had an effect on quarterback Adrian Martinez as well.
The sophomore finished 16-of-26 passing for 290 yards but finished the game completing just 7-of-17 passes after connecting on his first nine in a row. Martinez also had three costly turnovers that hurt the offense on Saturday.
“We let our fans down, we let Coach Frost down, and I wanted this game. We wanted this game,” Martinez said. “We had that mindset coming in, and we lost, plain and simple. We are going to have to bounce back. It’s tough, but like I told the guys in the locker room: ‘Remember this. Remember this feeling. Let's not feel it again.’ It’s tough, and stuff happens. Good teams bounce back, and great teams would be even better.
"That’s where my head is at right now. Obviously, I feel terrible. We wanted to win this game, but we are going to bounce back.”
A frustrated Martinez was later asked if the low snap in overtime was a factor on the play where he took a sack, putting the Huskers in a very tough situation offensively.
The entire play sequence was rough, and NU went from having a chance to win the game to having their walk-on punter kick a 48-yard field goal in overtime.
“You got to make things happen,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for anything. That’s on me. Whether the snap is 5,000 feet over my head. I don’t care. There’s no excuses. I think that’s an important thing for this team to know, and a lesson for myself. Regardless of where the snap is, who gives a shit. I have to be able to make the play.”
Now on to the breakdown...
What I saw on Saturday
***I've been to every Nebraska road game since 2000. The scene in Boulder was about as special as I can remember. I truly believed all along we'd see a crowd like this. Different people doubted me, but this was a game Husker fans wanted. They wanted to be in this stadium. Its unfortunate things had to end the way they did.
***Maurice Washington is a difference-maker. You saw it right away what he meant to Nebraska's offense on Saturday. He's got another gear very few players have.
***The situation at wide receiver is a concern for Nebraska right now. After JD Spielman and Wan'Dale Robinson, the Huskers have gotten absolutely no production from their other wide-outs. Kanawai Noa has also been a disappointment.
I clearly jumped the gun on my newcomer take about him and Dedrick Mills, as neither has made the type of impact we expected. They need more guys on this offense to step up and make plays.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in Kanawai (Noa),” Frost said. “The ball doesn’t seem to be finding him right now. We’ve got to make it happen. We didn’t get it to JD (Spielman) enough. Wan’Dale (Robinson) did some good things when we got it to him, we’ve got to get it to him more.”
***Nebraska's defense got tired. There's no doubt the heat, the altitude and the number of plays they were on the field in the second half played a factor. When Nebraska's offense punted four straight times to start the second half, the defense lost a step. They were not getting to Steven Montez at the same rate they were in the second half and they were missing far too many tackles.
***It was great to see Luke Reimer back on the field. He came up with a huge fumble recovery on the fourth-quarter strip by Cam Taylor-Britt.
***The situation at kicker is a real concern. Nebraska is going to be in a lot of tight games and they need Barrett Pickering back on the field. The fact that he didn't even travel to Boulder tells you it may be more serious than we even realized.
***Lamar Jackson had a big interception and also some clutch pass break-ups on Saturday. They did a nice job keeping Laviska Shenault in check, as he had just 31 yards receiving on five catches. If you told me that would be his stat line going into the game, I would've really liked the Huskers' chances to win.
***The Nebraska crowd noise was a factor at times for Colorado. We saw some communication-related penalties by CU clearly caused by the Husker crowd noise.
***It will be interesting to see how this team comes back next week. Northern Illinois is no joke. They played Utah very tough on Saturday. They will test the mental fortitude of this team.
The final grade out
Rushing offense: C-
Nebraska had very little flow or consistency to their rushing offense on Saturday. Maurice Washington had one nice run, and Adrian Martinez made a couple of 10+ yard runs. After that, it was a very steady diet of nothing. Dedrick Mills added just 24 yards on 8 carries. He has not provided the type of production we thought at this point. Martinez also had two costly fumbles.
Passing offense: C
After a hot start, Martinez cooled down. His swing pass touchdown to Washington was more a special athlete making a play. The Husker receivers were not getting open either or making plays. Martinez also held on to the ball too long. The protection was good for most of the day. The 65-yard pass to JD Spielman to start the game should've set the stage for more big downfield passing plays.
Rushing defense: B+
Nebraska held Colorado's ball carries to just 106 yards rushing on 29 attempts. They didn't allow a run of 20 yards or longer. There were some missed tackles, but this was a good enough effort to win this game.
Passing defense: D
It wasn't Laviska Shenault who got going on Saturday. Instead, K.D. Nixon burned the Huskers for 148 yards on six catches. The Buffs had big strikes of 96, 57 and 26 yards that turned this game. Steven Montez finished with 375 yards passing. There were key missed tackles and assignment errors that allowed most of this to happen. The flea-flicker out of the end zone turned the game. NU punted it down to the 4-yard line, and they answered with a 96-yard score. After getting three sacks in the first half, the Huskers got none in the second.
Special teams: B-
Nebraska forced a turnover on special teams, but it came on a play that would've been a touchdown if not for Cam Taylor-Britt's strip on Shenault. Armstrong had a nice day punting averaging of 46.2 yards on five attempts. NU didn't have a single return on the day. The missed field goal in overtime is really not on Armstrong, but more on the offense for putting him in that situation.
Sean Callahan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be heard each day at 6:45 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap-Tuesday's at 7 pm.