LINCOLN — Following a weekend that was anything but normal for Nebraska football, some tangible evidence of change arrived at West Stadium hidden not so subtly within stapled packets of game notes.
An updated depth chart. And, oh, was it different.
Some of the elevations were merit-based. Previously unused Eric Lee is now a No. 1 cornerback who played well against Purdue following Lamar Jackson’s second-quarter benching, and walk-on Kade Warner takes a lead spot at receiver after making his first career start Saturday. Other moves — like Carlos Davis at first-string nose tackle and Tanner Farmer at first-string center — were more driven by injuries.
Said running back Devine Ozigbo, coming off a career-best 170 rushing yards and freshly anointed the lone No. 1 at his position: “It’s motivation for guys that are going to go out there and work.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost employed another metaphor Monday for the process of overhauling the football program, comparing the task to building a house on a strong foundation. There’s still “rot” and “termites” to address before the next step can occur. The Huskers made some progress to that end last weekend, despite the 0-4 record they’ll take to No. 16 Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Winds of change blew through Memorial Stadium in the form of personnel changes within every unit against Purdue. Team captains arrived at Frost’s office Sunday — their day off — to ask what they can do to make a difference. Leaders initiated a players-only meeting that same day to discuss what comes next.
“It was just a group understanding of what we need to do, what our mission still is and going out every single day in practice and getting better,” senior defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun said. “It was more relaxed, but understanding.”
None of it may make a difference against Wisconsin, a 23-point favorite that has gone 6-1 against Nebraska during their time together in the Big Ten. The Huskers already failed spectacularly in their first try against a power-football league foe and now face a more potent Badgers group that ranks seventh nationally in time of possession at more than 35 minutes per game (NU is 104th at 27:43).
But the depth-chart shakeup is a message that Nebraska is looking for players it can count on, Frost said. No more “selfish and undisciplined plays” that have the Huskers among the nation’s worst teams in penalties and penalty yardage.
“Some of the changes that you guys are seeing now kind of started last week,” Frost said. “We’re going to play the guys we can rely on, maybe even if they’re not as talented as somebody else. If they’re a guy we can trust to do the right thing, those guys belong on the field.”
As the gut punches have piled up, Frost said players are finally becoming more receptive to what coaches tell them. An example: Skill players do live stretches holding footballs, with assistants often trying to knock them loose. One day early in the season coaches stripped 17 balls out, but the total has dropped considerably after turnovers cost Nebraska against Colorado and Troy.
A turning point against Purdue was when safety Antonio Reed had a shot at a pick-six interception against receiver Rondale Moore, only to miss the tipped ball and later see the visitors score instead. Frost said NU defenders frequently do tip drills, but never with the urgency he saw in Monday’s workout. The coach also witnessed some players — including receivers he declined to mention by name — practicing with more energy than he’d ever seen from them.
Said Frost: “I think finally they realize we better be not just doing this, but doing this with the intent of being great at it.”
Frost said the coaches aren’t infallible. He challenged himself and his staff to scheme better offensive plays on third and fourth downs — especially in short-yardage situations — where Nebraska overall is a combined 18 of 60 (30 percent).
Linebacker Mohamed Barry said the players who emerge from the depth-chart changes and winless start will be ones focused more on the team than themselves. The Huskers need to look ahead — not back — and not overcomplicate their task at hand, no matter how difficult it may appear.
“Keep pushing,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “The result will be there soon enough.”
Frost: Huskers lose linebacker Will Honas for the season; Mick Stoltenberg won’t be back soon
LINCOLN — Nebraska inside linebacker Will Honas will have season-ending knee surgery, NU coach Scott Frost said Monday, while nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg will miss an extended period of time with his knee ailments.
Honas, who played in just four games this year, will be able to preserve his year of eligibility under the NCAA’s new four-game rule. Stoltenberg is a fifth-year senior and may return at some point this season.
Husker defense coming up short on third down, and especially struggles on third-and-long
LINCOLN — On third down, the clang of a bell reverberates through Memorial Stadium.
Taken from AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” the sound rings from the speakers of the video board and usually brings the sea of red to its feet.
But recently, the bell indicates that time is up on the Nebraska defense. And they’re about to break.
The Huskers are last in the Big Ten in third-down defense. They rank 77th nationally, allowing 24 conversions on 61 attempts.
But what’s more, the Huskers force opponents into third-and-8 or longer nearly 40 percent of the time. And of the 24 conversions, half have come on third-and-8 or longer.
“It is frustrating,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said on Saturday. “No doubt.”
Nebraska’s third-down defense has been in a steady decline since the opener against Colorado. The Huskers held the Buffaloes to a 33 percent conversion percentage, and forced Colorado on average into third-and-9. But on the six conversions by Colorado, four came from third-and-13, third-and-19, third-and-15 and third-and-24. All those conversions turned into points later in drives.
The same happened against Troy in the second game. The Trojans averaged third-and-10, and converted four third downs. But three of the four came on third-and-9, including a key pass interference call in the fourth quarter.
And when Nebraska gets a sack or tackle for loss, and really junk up the opponent’s offense, the Huskers are even worse. Opponents are converting 45 percent of third downs from 13 yards or longer this season.
“Third-and-long situations, that’s where we want to be as a defense,” cornerback DiCaprio Bootle said. “Have their back against the wall and be able to defend that down. But it’s like we say every week. It’s the little things. Little things that break us down that came back to bite us.”
Nebraska’s defense faced 16 third downs against Purdue, and on average, forced the Boilermakers into third-and-7. Three of the seven conversions were from 8 or more yards. And when the Boilermakers converted, it hurt the Huskers.
On Purdue’s third drive, quarterback David Blough made plays of 10 yards or longer on two straight third-and-7s. That drive ended in a touchdown. On third-and-14 from Purdue’s own 16, zero defenders had an eye Blough, who escaped the pocket rushed for 16 yards.
Later on that drive, Bootle was called for pass interference on third-and-4, putting Purdue in the red zone. A touchdown on that drive put Purdue ahead 20-7. On third-and-1 from the Nebraska 6, DJ Knox ran up the middle for a touchdown to make it 35-14.
On third-and-20 in the third quarter, Freedom Akinmoladun was called for roughing the passer. Four plays later, while Memorial Stadium booed, Purdue put the game out of reach at 42-21.
That’s been a bad habit of the Huskers, too. Six times this season, Nebraska has been penalized on third down to extend drives.
“That quarterback was throwing that around well and had good backs so you can’t give them extra downs,” Gifford said. “That’s anyone we’re going to play this year. You do that, you give them extra opportunities, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
As usual, the defensive players chalked up the failures to little things adding up. Something Frost and the staff have been preaching about since Day 1 of fall camp.
But at 0-4, those excuses don’t cut it anymore, Frost said.
“There’s really no difference from a coaching perspective from ‘I can’t do it’ and ‘I won’t do it,’” Frost said. “The people that won’t make good decisions, the people that are hitting people that are 3 yards out of bounds, if that keeps up I’m just going to ride with the guys that are doing it the right way.”
Because it doesn’t get any easier for Nebraska.
The Huskers will head to Wisconsin as a 22 1/2-point underdog next Saturday. The Badgers convert third downs 49 percent of the time, good for second in the Big Ten and top 20 nationally.
“We know we can play defense. We feel like we can play against any offense in the nation,” Bootle said. “But we just gotta clean up the small stuff. Gotta clean up the small stuff.”
No hint of transfers after fourth game
Now that Nebraska has played four games, this would be the week where any player who didn’t want to stay with the program — while retaining their redshirt year — could leave without losing a season of eligibility.
Husker coach Scott Frost said there hasn’t been “a hint of that” within his program.
“People can read into a lot of stuff,” Frost said. “These guys are fighting — and we’re going to keep fighting.”
Frost said NU is just beginning to build its “house” under Frost but has to redo the foundation.
“Sometime when you’re building a new house, you can’t build it on a bad foundation, or you won’t have a house very long,” Frost said. “We had some rot and some termites and we still do. And we’ve got to get all of that cleaned out. You can’t build a structure on a foundation that’s not solid. We’d like to get that foundation built quickly — and we’re working on getting it built as quickly as we can — but there’s still work to be done there. And we’re not going to be ready to finish the house and put the penthouse in until that’s all done.”
Monday’s practice, Frost said, had better attention to warm-up drills and tip drills. A few wideouts, Frost said, practiced better than they ever have. Frost wondered what took them so long. He also didn’t name the receivers to the media.
Bootle atop Big Ten
In just four games, Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle leads the Big Ten with 10 pass breakups. He’s been repeatedly tested this season and got challenged often against Purdue, which attempted multiple deep fade routes against Bootle’s man coverage. Bootle didn’t give up a catch on those plays, but did pick up a 15-yard pass interference penalty.
“I’ve never been in a game where a receiver has been called for offensive pass interference,” Bootle said when asked if he’d ever seen a call go his way in those situations. “… I just know, no matter what, when that ball’s in the air, I’m not getting that call. I have to do everything I can to, No. 1, make sure I don’t get the call and, No. 2, make sure he doesn’t catch the ball.”
Bootle said he’s long known, back to his youth football days, offensive pass interference is an unlikely call from officials.
“I’ve had people pull my facemask when I’m looking for the ball, I’ve had people pull me down by the shoulder pads — you never get the call,” Bootle said. “I don’t even look for a call.”
More praise for Warner
Kade Warner parlayed his first career start into a spot atop Nebraska’s depth chart. Coaches and players have seen the kind of steady performance in practice that led to the redshirt freshman walk-on’s successful debut at receiver.
“He’s Mr. Consistent,” NU quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “I think if you’d have asked us about him back in spring ball, we’d say he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing, he’s a guy we can count on out there. I know where he’s going to be on the field and that’s nice to have as a quarterback. I can rely on him to catch the ball, to run the right route, to block his guy. I think that’s definitely a good thing right now for us.”
Warner made two catches for 16 yards against Purdue and was also a presence on the edges, helping spring Devine Ozigbo on his 18-yard touchdown run to open the game.
Coach Scott Frost said two marks of good football squads are special teams and perimeter blocking. Warner has been an upgrade for Nebraska in the latter category.
“Kade’s a good teammate,” Frost said. “He plays as hard as he can and he’s where he’s supposed to be
» Wisconsin doesn’t beat itself, Frost said, which is the “polar opposite” of where Nebraska has been so far this season, Frost said. The Badgers “grind it out” on offense, often limiting the opponents’ possessions, and have some of the Big Ten’s best inside linebackers on defense.
“This is a ‘tough guy’ game whenever you play a team like this,” Frost said.
» Spielman scored the highest grade among college receivers over the weekend according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Spielman became the second Husker in history to have two games where he had at least 10 catches, joining former NU running back Marlon Lucky.
» Wisconsin has won six of seven over Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. NU’s lone win was a 30-27 victory in Lincoln in 2012.
» Running backs Greg Bell and Maurice Washington had their best practices of the season today, Frost said. Those practices coincided with Devine Ozigbo becoming the undisputed No. 1 running back. Ozigbo is faster and stronger because of an offseason in strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval’s training regimen.
» Frost said whoever plays center — Tanner Farmer or Cole Conrad — will have their hands full with 6-foot-2, 342-pound Wisconsin nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. “A grown man,” Frost said of Sagapolu. Farmer played in Conrad’s stead after Conrad got hurt against Purdue.
» Junior corner Lamar Jackson was benched Saturday against Purdue after his holding penalty negated an interception by Marquel Dismuke.
After the flag, coach Scott Frost turned to the bench and told junior Eric Lee he was in.
And last year’s starting corner got his first real shot of the season.
“It’d definitely been awhile since I’ve been out there,” Lee said on Monday. “I felt like I did fairly well, felt like I had a lot I can improve on and that’s something I’m going to go over with Coach (Fisher) on today.”
Lee is listed as the starter against Wisconsin, alongside Bootle. It’ll be Lee’s first start since the 2017 season. He didn’t record a pick last year, but feels like he’s improved a lot in 12 months.
“I feel like my mindset has just changed drastically,” Lee said.
That phrase, no fear of failure, it really sticks with Lee.
“Just allows me to play more freely.”
Frost said Monday that Lee wasn’t someone who had it “figured out” at the beginning of the season. But he’s done everything right so far this fall and deserved a shot at playing time.
“There’s a lot of guys that we had to work with and help to understand how we want things done and what it takes to be that kind of person, that kind of good teammate. Eric has figured it out,” Frost said.
» Senior Tanner Farmer will start at center this week, after the last few weeks at right guard.
Those changes came, he said, because Nebraska is trying to play more guys who love the game of football.
“Some guys that don’t really show their love for the game, they’re getting weeded out,” Farmer said. “We’re getting some guys in there that they want to play.”
Football was his first love, Farmer said. He started at the age of 5 and wants to play forever.
“I cherish being able to be part of this, the Nebraska experience being part of football,” Farmer said. “ We’re just trying to fill up the lineup with guys who feel like that.”
» Ozigbo spoke with reporters Monday after declining interviews Saturday following his career-best rushing output against Purdue. Quarterback Adrian Martinez credited the offensive line as well as the unit’s better overall understanding of the schemes for helping the senior bust loose.
“There’s also the threat of me keeping the ball on certain plays along with the fact that Devine’s running hard,” Martinez said. “I think you can go back on a lot of those plays and see him going full speed. That’s a big part of it, just being decisive and making those cuts. I don’t think guys wanted to tackle him.”
Nebraska at Wisconsin
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday (Pregame: 1:30 p.m.)
Where: Camp Randall Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM