As the Nebraska football team returns from its first bye week and prepares to host Indiana on Saturday afternoon, it's an ideal time to sneak a look back at the first seven games and take stock of where the Huskers find themselves at the season's unofficial midpoint.
At 4-3 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play — and coming off a dispiriting 34-7 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 12 — the Huskers clearly hit the bye week at a frustrating moment in the scope of the regular season.
After the game, sophomore wide receiver Kade Warner said that one of the things head coach Scott Frost told the team during a lengthy postgame discussion was to remember, “It’s never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think.”
So, with that in mind, let’s take a straightforward look at the good, the bad, the ugly and the surprising with five games remaining in the regular season.
Big plays and turnovers have dried up. Frost wants his offense to rack up big plays and use an opportunistic defense to create more chances to score. Nebraska forced nine turnovers in the first three weeks and registered 24 “chunk” plays to beat Illinois despite going minus-3 in the turnover department. In three games since, the Huskers have forced just one takeaway and have just 17 “chunk” plays. The offense has subsequently stalled, registering just one touchdown in each game.
A needed break. Nebraska and Michigan State were the only two teams that hadn’t had a bye week in the Big Ten before this weekend. Now, the Huskers have to get healthy, get back to basics and come out of the off week with a sense of urgency.
Two key questions
Where do the big plays come from? Can sophomore running back Maurice Washington return to form? Can the Huskers find any other reliable threats in the passing game? Can the tight ends get untracked? That’s to say nothing of the injuries to quarterback Adrian Martinez and dynamite freshman Wan’Dale Robinson.
Can the defense carry the flag? Early in the season, it looked like Erik Chinander’s unit might be capable. Recently, a staunch outing against Northwestern has been sandwiched by poor performances against Ohio State and Minnesota. There are dangerous offenses remaining on the schedule and NU’s offense has struggled so far. We’ll find out exactly what kind of group Chinander has over the coming five games.
Get the next two. If Nebraska finds a way to beat Indiana at home and Purdue on the road, the Huskers would go into their second bye week at 6-3 overall and 4-2 in Big Ten play, perhaps not in great position to win the West, but bowl eligible and with a shot to recalibrate the sights for a November stretch run that includes Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa.
Lamar Jackson: The senior cornerback is having the type of season he predicted and has gone from head-scratching high-profile recruit to a potential NFL Draft pick. He and Dicaprio Bootle form a rock-solid pair on the edges. Jackson’s maturity and play style are quickly catching up to his natural talent level.
Wan’Dale Robinson: Everybody expected big things from the freshman wide receiver, but he’s met every expectation and more. Before an injury against Minnesota, Robinson had become perhaps NU’s most important skill player. The Huskers need to hope he can return from an apparent left foot/ankle injury quickly.
Quarterback depth: Sophomore starter Adrian Martinez played well over NU’s first five-plus games and sophomore backup Noah Vedral acquitted himself well after Martinez went down with an apparent left knee injury against Northwestern. Can they be better? Absolutely, but the Huskers are much better depthwise than 2018.
Secondary development: Jackson’s not the only player in Travis Fisher’s room who has improved. The group survived a Week 1 injury to junior Deontai Williams and have been pretty solid overall. Now, can they turn the turnover tap back on down the stretch?
Maurice Washington: The sophomore showed game-breaking ability early in the season, but has been slowed almost entirely the past three games (43 total yards on 19 touches). He’s served two half-game suspensions, been in and out of games, and hasn’t shown a lot of burst the past three weeks.
Senior outside linebackers: Husker coaches said before the season that they were relying on seniors Alex Davis and Tyrin Ferguson to be difference-makers on the edge. Combined, they have 18 tackles (four for loss) in 13 games.
Kanawai Noa: Noa arrived this summer and immediately gained a reputation as a fast learner with sure hands. Frost has been adamant that Noa’s played well, but the ball hasn’t found him. Through seven games, the Cal graduate transfer has seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive line play: Nebraska hasn’t been able to run the ball consistently for most of the year. The Huskers ran for 364 yards against Illinois but have just 468 since (3.84 per carry). Only 14 teams in the country have allowed more than NU’s 19 sacks.
Four Nebraska true freshmen have already exceeded the four-game maximum and will not be redshirting in 2019: Robinson, outside linebacker Garrett Nelson, cornerback Quinton Newsome and walk-on linebacker Luke Reimer.
After that group, only wide receiver Darien Chase has played in three games. The Huskers have several that have played in two games — defensive backs Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer, tight end Chris Hickman, running back Rahmir Johnson — and more that have played in one and are surely ticketed for redshirt seasons.
Two interesting nonfreshmen to keep an eye on: junior college defensive lineman Keem Green, who should play in three of Nebraska’s final four games and sophomore kicker Barret Pickering, who could be a redshirt candidate if he misses one more game due to the injury that’s kept him out all season.
A look at the numbers through Week 7
Here’s a look at Nebraska offensively and defensively in general statistical terms compared to the 2018 season.
Total offense (2019 national rank, rank change from 2018)
399 (77, down 52 spots)
Yards per play
5.65 (80, down 60 spots)
Points per game
25.6 (90, down 32 spots)
4.3 per carry (74, down 58 spots)
392.3 (67, up 27 spots)
Yards per play allowed
5.39 (59, up 16 spots)
Points per game allowed
27.6 (72, up 16 spots)
4.47 yards allowed per carry (T-83, up 24 spots)