If a single play could sum up the one-step-forward, one-step-back frustration of Nebraska’s 2020 football season, it might just be the Huskers’ first snap from scrimmage against Illinois in mid-November.
Fresh off a win against Penn State, NU entered the home game as a double-digit favorite against the Illini.
The Huskers started with the ball, but gave away 8 yards of field position before the offense even trotted onto the field by needlessly running the opening kickoff out of the end zone and getting tackled at the 17-yard line.
Then redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, making his second start at quarterback, inexplicably pulled the ball on an outside zone run to the right, dashed to his left and threw a pass deemed live and, somewhat surprisingly upheld upon review, to be a lateral to Wan’Dale Robinson, who was draped by a defender.
Illinois pounced on the ball, scored three plays later and never trailed in an emphatic 41-23 victory.
Weeks later, NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander had trouble finding a family friendly way to describe the outing.
“I don’t even know if I’d call it a setback,” Chinander said. “That was, that was, uh … that was just a really, really poor performance from us.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the opening turnover that cost the Huskers. NU’s defense gave up 485 yards, including 285 on the ground.
Three factors that have been problematic for each of Scott Frost’s three seasons at Nebraska, though — turnovers, penalties and field position — all came to the forefront against the Illini on that day.
They did in 2019, too, when Nebraska came from behind to eke out a 42-38 win in Champaign despite an overwhelming 674-299 advantage in yardage and 37 minutes time of possession.
In those two games, one win and one loss, Nebraska turned the ball over nine times and took it away just once, committed 17 penalties for 136 yards (75 more yards than Illinois) and started with worse field position by an average of 7 yards last year and 15 in 2019.
While those are among the more extreme examples of the sludge in Nebraska’s gas tank, it is no surprise that the three areas most often discussed as focal points this offseason are turnovers, penalties and special teams.
“To me, the easiest and simplest answer is that it’s everyday habits that you form,” inside linebackers coach and longtime NFL linebacker Barrett Ruud said Monday. “You’re either working those bad habits every day or you’re working good habits every day. To me, if a guy gets sloppy with his hands in a team mixed practice, he’s going to get sloppy with his hands in a scrimmage, and then it’s going to be in a gameday, too. You just have to be really hard on the day-to-day details because when you let little things slide, that’s when they show up. …
“What you do on a daily basis is what you’re going to be on gameday.”
So, what do the Huskers’ habits look like so far in preseason work?
Asked about his position group’s ball security during camp, quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco earlier this month said, “So far it’s been good. But it doesn’t count in practice. When it counts is during the game.”
Frost expressed frustration last week about the number of penalties his team committed during a scrimmage with Big Ten referees on hand.
“This team needs to understand that they’re good enough to be in every game if we don’t do the things to beat ourselves,” Frost said. “That’s been the thing that we’ve talked to them about the most ever since the end of last season. I hope they get it, think they do, and we’ll keep working on them.”
This week during a radio appearance on "Sports Nightly," he added that NU has refs at about half its camp practices.
Overall, the tone of camp has been positive. Frost called his fourth team “a really special group” on Thursday night.
The coach also suggested that he feels much better about his team’s kickoff units and about his program’s special teams overall.
Football, of course, is a complementary game. Field position turns from a disadvantage to an advantage quickly if you win the turnover battle, don’t commit penalties and play solid on special teams.
“That’s where our focus is entirely as an organization, as a team,” Frost said earlier this month. “I want a team that never beats itself and plays tough.”
Both teams are going to look substantially different on Saturday from last year. Illinois has a new coaching staff, though much of its personnel returns (the Illini have a whopping 22 “super seniors” using the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility). Frost has noted multiple times the UI defense’s physicality in recent years and said this week that they “knocked the snot out of us.”
For Nebraska, McCaffrey and Robinson are both now at new schools, while the starting running back from last year’s game, freshman Marvin Scott, might be running anywhere from fourth to sixth on the depth chart currently.
NU’s troubles, though, cannot be attributed to a couple of players.
So, how much progress have the Huskers made in areas that have cost them several games the past three years and that have been particularly exploited by the Illini?
The answers are coming very quickly.
2021 Nebraska football guide: All of the Journal Star's preview content in one place
The Journal Star's 2021 Husker preview guide comes out in print Sunday. Keep this link saved — we'll be adding new pieces to it every day.
We came up with 12 especially loud Nebraska home games based largely on feedback from Husker fans. Enjoy the memories.
Dating to a 2017 loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska is 9-14 in its last 23 games in Memorial Stadium. Incredible.
Ever wonder what the band name of Nebraska's wide receivers would be? We have. We go through each position on the field in this exercise.
Part of what makes the gameday experience at Memorial Stadium is the sounds. From flyovers to night games, we round up our favorites.
What's your favorite tune that plays over the speakers during a football game at Memorial Stadium? Meet the man at the controls.
Last year's Saturday experience on Stadium Drive was a shell of its usual self. So, yeah, Big Red fans are ready to fill up the seats again.
“You’ve got to keep your focus, because you’ve got the headset on, the fans are going nuts, you’ve got a coach yelling at you, this and that."
There wasn't much need to quiet any opposing crowds in 2020. But the noise is set to return in 2021 — and some places crank it up a notch.
They tell their stories of hostile environments with us, and take some trips down Memorial Stadium memory lane.
The go-to list for all of the words, players and games you'll be talking about around the Big Ten and the nation.
Alabama and Clemson know a thing or two about sitting atop the charts for long periods of time. Who joins them? We treat this list like its Billboard.
Come for the buzzwords, stay for the projected depth chart, where some position battles in Nebraska's two-deep are still undecided.
Steven M. Sipple breaks down the entire Nebraska football schedule, including the ups and downs of each matchup.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.