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Nebraska’s offense has put together three straight quality drives to begin each of its three games this season.
The question for coach Scott Frost and company as it marches through the 2020 season — which came up again in NU’s first win Saturday against Penn State — is how to keep producing consistently after that.
The Huskers marched 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown against the Nittany Lions to open the game. Against Ohio State, NU covered the same distance in four plays. At Northwestern, an eight-play, 36-yard drive stalled due to back-to-back penalties, but covered 47 on the first six snaps.
Totals: 23 plays, 8.1 yards per snap, two touchdowns. That’ll work just fine, thank you very much.
Zavier Betts' first TD showed his potential. He talked afterward about all the work he's putting in to make sure he reaches it fully.
Smooth sailing turned into survival mode for the Huskers, but the Blackshirts hang tough to claim Nebraska's first win of the season.
On Saturday, NU extended it out a little further, cashing in a short field after Cam Taylor-Britt’s interception and then hitting a big play on its third drive in the form of a 45-yard fly sweep to Zavier Betts for a touchdown.
After three possessions, Nebraska had run 20 plays for 140 offensive yards (7 per snap) and had 17 points on the board.
It was a thing of beauty. First a long scoring march. Then a short field after a turnover leads to points — though it would have been seven instead of three had Kade Warner not dropped a touchdown on third-and-goal — and then a quick strike with a big play. Exactly how Frost wants it to look.
But it was a struggle from there. The Huskers’ last 40 plays yielded just 156 yards (3.9 per play) and six points over the final 45 minutes, 1 second.
“Probably the biggest issue is Penn State has a really talented defense,” Frost said afterward. “We need to capitalize still. Maybe I got a little too conservative this time.”
Nebraska played with its first big lead of the season, and Frost said that altered his plan in the second half. It’s a fine line, of course, but the Huskers didn’t play as aggressively and still ended up with the same problems — a turnover and four second-half drives that lasted 1:55 or shorter — that they were hoping to avoid by slowing down.
Nebraska, too, is still trying to juggle a lot of components offensively. It got more complicated Saturday when Dedrick Mills suffered an injury on perhaps NU’s first play from scrimmage. It’s not considered serious, per Frost, but Mills didn’t play after Nebraska’s first drive. The Huskers are already shuffling the deck at receiver a lot, and moving Wan’Dale Robinson to running back more as the game went along only further complicated the picture.
“There is a lot to still improve,” Frost said. … “We’ve got a lot of personnel groups — more than I'm used to dealing with as we're trying to get young guys involved — and the coaching staff, myself included, have do a better job in making sure we get the right people on the field especially to start drives.”
Luke McCaffrey, too, will find some simple things to improve on. He threw a hard ball to Alante Brown over the middle in the second quarter when a bit of touch might have resulted in a big play. On the same drive, a first-down pass to Austin Allen in the flat came out late. The difference between second-and-5 and second-and-10 might not seem big, but being on schedule is particularly important for the Huskers.
On a critical third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, NU ran a crossing concept it likes a lot and used with success against Ohio State. McCaffrey got pressure up the middle, but probably had a first down to Levi Falck if he had seen it rather than forcing the ball to Warner over the middle.
A first down there and NU might have avoided the last-drive drama.
The bottom line: McCaffrey played well overall in his first career start, but Nebraska offensively has plenty of room to make life a little easier on itself even as its rolling through a lot of personnel groupings and looks.
Nebraska's 30-23 win against winless Penn State wasn't pretty, but man, it was needed for Frost and the entire program.
* Two more brief offensive observations: Running between the tackles was a chore for the Huskers against PSU. Defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher was a load inside. Nebraska’s only two chunk runs in the second half came around the end — one each for McCaffrey and Robinson.
On McCaffrey’s interception, PSU’s athletic outside linebacker Jayson Oweh ripped past right tackle Bryce Benhart to get front-side pressure and disrupt the throw. McCaffrey looked to be targeting Allen on a wheel route concept NU had been setting up. Quick pressure, though, ruined the chance.
* Speaking of pressure on the quarterback, Nebraska got it when it counted most. On defensive snaps No. 90 and 91, the Huskers got home thanks to good, team rush. Ben Stille and Ty Robinson got interior push, Luke Reimer provided some juice off the edge on third down and Caleb Tannor took a really good, strong angle on fourth down with the game in the balance.
Penn State ran eight plays from the NU 11 or inside in the final six minutes. Quarterback Will Levis was 0-of-7 and was sacked once.
The penultimate drive was particularly impressive. Starting with first-and-10 at the NU 11, NU veterans Deontai Williams, Dicaprio Bootle, JoJo Domann and Marquel Dismuke each won one-on-one battles to force incompletions.
More of the same on the final drive, particularly from Cam Taylor-Britt one-on-one down the sideline against PSU standout Jahan Dotson.
“That was impressive wasn't it?” Frost said afterward. “I mean, I've been here three years and seen us give up some fades and get past interference penalties. … I think it shows the improvement that those guys have made. (Secondary coach Travis) Fisher deserves a lot of credit for that and I thought they played not just a good game but a smart game."
* If the defense has a bugaboo through three games, it’s third down. Not rocket science, but defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said this week that Nebraska had to try to create more third-and-long chances. Instead, PSU had 4 yards or less on nine third downs and converted six of them.
First-half turnovers helped create the imbalance between PSU’s 91 plays and Nebraska’s 60, but so, too, did the Huskers’ struggle to get off the field on third down.
Similar to the offense, even marginal improvement in that department will make life easier on the Blackshirts, who gave up big gains of 74, 36 and 31 yards and otherwise allowed a very solid 360 yards on 88 snaps (4.1 per play).
* A special teams shoutout for outside linebacker Niko Cooper, who had tackles on Nebraska’s first two kickoffs, including a big hit on the second. The tackles came at the PSU 20 and the PSU 18.
Cooper came in hoping to be an instant impact player on the defense and it hasn’t happened that way, but energy and performance on special teams is critical, and Cooper appears to have bought into his role in that regard.
* A better day punting for William Pryztup this weekend. Not perfect, but downing one inside the 10 and one inside the 20 is solid, and a 53-yarder downwind in the fourth quarter was a good time to hit his best ball of the day.
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