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If a single sequence during Nebraska’s 23-16 loss at No. 3 Oklahoma on Saturday illustrated the counterbalancing progress and frustration that the Huskers are seeing offensively on a weekly basis, it would be NU’s first possession of the fourth quarter.
The Sooners had just scored to go up 23-9 and Nebraska started pinned on its own 13 after running back Rahmir Johnson, who played the best game of his NU career to date, tried to make a play on the kick return and instead ran into a wall of defenders well short of the 25-yard line.
Before the Huskers could snap the ball on the first play of the series, they had to burn a timeout to avoid a delay of game, which would prove critical. If everything else plays out the same, NU could have used it with 1 minute, 47 seconds left had almost a minute more to work with on its last-ditch drive at the end of the game.
After burning the timeout, though, a flash of what the offense can be. Oklahoma rotated its safeties when NU motioned Wyatt Liewer toward Zavier Betts' side and Betts, the freshman receiver, beat press coverage on the snap and took off up the left sideline. Martinez put a perfect ball on him and the safety that rotated to the middle of the field either didn’t have deep responsibility or didn’t do the job. Either way, NU gave Martinez a clean look at what was happening and a clean pocket and he delivered a 55-yard strike to Betts.
Oklahoma got called for sideline interference, which took a minute to sort out among the Big Ten officiating crew working the game, but then Nebraska got in its own way again. The players on the field lined up in trips to the left and coach Scott Frost started trying to signal something in from the sideline and then pointed to the clock repeatedly. Martinez realized the play clock was running low again and, not wanting to burn a second timeout on the same drive, called for the snap and dove forward for a loss of a yard, essentially sacrificing the down to preserve the timeout.
“I didn’t want to burn the timeout,” Frost said after the game. “We called trips right, it either got signaled in wrong or they lined up wrong. Adrian made a decision not to burn a timeout and to try to get what he could on the play. Those things can’t happen. I don’t know exactly what happened.
“I wasn’t watching the signaler, but that was costly.”
Martinez missed Allen narrowly in the end zone on a nice design that was covered pretty well. Then on third-and-11, OU rushed four and spied Martinez. The Sooners got immediate pressure off both of Nebraska’s tackles and sacked him for a 6-yard loss. On fourth-and-17, NU had Levi Falck, Liewer and Samori Toure on the field and Martinez scrambled around before throwing an eventual interception.
The good? Nebraska appears to have some dudes that Martinez can get the ball to.
The bad? Even when that does happen, too many other things — disorganization and pressure on Martinez in this case, but also penalties, too many negatives in the run game and continued kicking woes — too often negate the progress.
One thing is clear, though: Betts and junior Omar Manning can help Martinez a lot as Huskers return to the Big Ten grind, as can Oliver Martin when he returns. And their impact may only be surpassed by what having tight ends Allen and Travis Vokolek on the field at the same time can do for the offense.
NU saw that picture for the first time in 2021 when Vokolek returned from a left foot/ankle injury suffered in camp. It’s a good-looking one.
That quartet combined for 12 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown Saturday and will be leaned on going forward. Add in NU’s leading receiver Toure, Martin perhaps in the next couple of weeks and then the rest of the receiving rotation, and the Huskers can make life difficult on defenses going forward if Martinez keeps playing the way he has been since about halftime of the Illinois game.
“We look different with those guys out there,” Frost said. “I thought the tight ends did a great job in the run game. We need to keep putting the ball in the air down the field and back people up. Omar and Zavier are going to help us do that. We’re more of a complete team today, we’ve just got to finish drives. It seemed like we were handling the line of scrimmage and running on them well until we’d get down inside about the 25 and then didn’t move everything the same way.”
The issue, of course, is that the errors are going to hurt no less against a resurgent Michigan State team this weekend. They’ll hurt no less against Michigan or at Minnesota and it would hardly be a surprise if even a bad Northwestern team makes the Huskers pay for the type of errors that are still cropping up.
“We have some things to fix and a lot of things to build on,” Frost said.
* Just a couple of quick notes to point out, again, how well Nebraska’s defense held up against OU. The Sooners' longest plays from scrimmage against the Blackshirts went for 23 yards. Running back Kennedy Brooks found that much on a run play and then Marvin Mims matched it on a trick play early in the third quarter to help spark OU’s second touchdown drive. Oklahoma had nine “chunk” plays overall (runs of 10-plus, passes of 15-plus) which was the most NU has allowed this year by one.
However, it’s still below the average allowed by Nebraska last year (10.7).
OU earned what it got, but failed to score 27 or more points for the first time in 65 straight games.
* A lot of players played well, but linebacker JoJo Domann and Luke Reimer stood out.
Domann is so versatile that Erik Chinander didn’t call a single snap of defense with an extra cornerback in the game. Between Domann and NU’s safeties, each of whom are comfortable and competent in coverage, the Huskers feel like they can play their regular personnel against anybody.
Reimer is turning himself into a complete player. He showed the all-around game last week, but he’s also a load to handle when he rushes the quarterback and is typically Nebraska’s best chance of getting home with four rushers.
* The Huskers showed a couple of offensive wrinkles that will be interesting to watch going forward.
Freshman tackle Teddy Prochazka played some wearing No. 46 and aligning as a tight end. The extra lineman look was part of essentially a jumbo running package. It got mixed results on Saturday.
On a second-and-1 in the second quarter, NU tried to run behind Prochazka and right tackle Bryce Benhart and Johnson got stuffed for minus-4 yards.
To Nebraska’s credit, though, it stuck with the look at times and did some good work with it on the opening possession of the third quarter. That drive ended in a missed field goal when Martinez was pressured on a third-and-10 even though OU only rushed three. Can’t have that.
Martinez’s fourth-quarter touchdown run came out of the jumbo package and the Huskers went unbalanced to the left with it. Prochazka and Benhart lined up outside of left tackle Turner Corcoran and left guard Ethan Piper. To center Cam Jurgens’ right: Guard Matt Sichterman and three tight ends. That’s technically 14 personnel — four tight ends and a running back — for what has to be the first time in Frost’s tenure as a head coach.
It worked, too. Chancellor Brewington motioned across to provide a kick-out block and Martinez powered in over the left side.
* Martinez is still facing pressure far too often. OU’s athletic defensive front gave the Huskers problems throughout the day even though rarely brought more than four defenders.
According to Pro Football Focus data, Martinez was pressured 18 times in 36 drop-backs. The Journal Star credited Martinez with seven scrambles for 42 yards (including one play that was logged as a sack) and then he was sacked four other times.
The NU offensive line doesn’t have to morph suddenly into a road-grading, Secret Service-level protection outfit in order for this offense to get rolling. It does, though, have to avoid the drive-altering, catastrophic errors. Free runners at the quarterback when the defense is only rushing three or four, two penalties before the first snap of the game, minus-4 on second-and-1 after productive first-down plays. Those kinds of things get you beat against good teams and keep points off the board.
* Last one: Jurgens picked up two penalties for unnecessary roughness. On the first one, he tossed a defender to the ground but got popped when he jumped on the guy after depositing him to the turf. The second one was well-covered on Saturday. Yes, he threw the guy to the ground after the play ended behind him. Yes, his explanation of not hearing the whistle and the fact that the defender was still locked up with him also give some sympathy to the case he made after the game for himself.
Bottom line: Nebraska needs guys up front playing more like its center and not less aggression from him.
The Beatrice native wasn’t perfect, but he played physically and explosively. Not only that, but he’s got his snapping to a point where the Husker staff is comfortable pulling him and getting him on the edge in their power running stuff. More of that. He’s fun to watch in space. Here’s betting Frost and company think the same thing.
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