LINCOLN — Nebraska has committed double-digit penalties in all five of its games this season. So, yeah, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said, it’s been frustrating.
The numbers have been uglier than an ill-timed block in the back. NU is last in the country in penalty yards per game (97.4) and next-to-last in flags per game (10.4). The total includes 14 personal fouls (nine defensive) and 10 offensive holding calls. It spans 29 different players whistled for infractions. It’s spread evenly throughout quarters. The offense has 24 penalties for 198 yards, with the defense (15 for 182) and special teams (13 for 107) not far behind.
“We deserve a lot of the ones we got,” Frost said. “We deserve the ones that were dumb decisions and selfish decisions.”
The coach said his offense has traditionally been flagged frequently in part because of its quick tempo and the volume of plays it produces. Lately, he said, it’s that plus poor technique on the offensive line along with lazy or self-focused play.
NU committed 10 penalties for 100 yards Saturday at Wisconsin. Many of those included chunks of extra hidden yardage that nullified and brought back big plays or returns.
“You just can’t win with the amount of penalties that we had,” offensive lineman Matt Farniok said. “We want to do our jobs the best we can. If it’s a penalty, it’s a penalty. But we’re going to move on, we’re going to keep fighting.”
Spielman coming alive
It was about midway through fall camp, and Frost was worried about JD Spielman.
The Nebraska coach had heard about the 5-foot-9, 185-pound sparkplug and seen his numbers from the 2017 season. But he had yet to witness what Spielman could really do himself — the sophomore was hurt through spring and a little tentative in fall camp. He definitely hadn’t been NU’s best player in workouts.
“About two weeks before the first game, I think it clicked for him with our offense,” Frost said. “He just completely changed and started being dominant on the practice field. Boy, he’s been a playmaker for us.”
Spielman has exploded of late, accounting for 19 catches, 344 yards and three touchdowns combined against Purdue and Wisconsin the past two weeks. His 209-yard performance in Madison broke his own school record for receiving yards in a game.
The son of Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager, is also the second player in school history with consecutive 130-yard receiving games, and his 92.2 per-game average this season ranks 21st nationally.
When informed Spielman doesn’t talk much with reporters, Frost said with a grin that the receiver is pretty quiet with coaches, too. But Nebraska needs a lot more players like him.
“We had a lot of good schemes for him in the pass game,” Frost said. “When we called his number, he made a play.”
Nebraska coaches and players brought up a pair of observations Monday about their next opponent: Northwestern is a team in transition and won’t self-destruct.
To the first point, the Wildcats are working through their options on offense after running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football last month. The team had averaged 3.19 yards per rush in three games before his announcement but is pacing at just 0.66 (36 rushing yards on 54 carries) since playing Michigan and Michigan State.
Meanwhile, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 47 passes for 373 yards last week to help knock off a ranked Spartans group on the road.
“Probably had as much to do with Michigan State as anything, but they found a way to get it done throwing,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “I think time will tell how much their scheme’s going to change based on not having (Larkin).”
Northwestern is also the opposite extreme to Nebraska in that its per-game average in penalty yards (34.2) and penalties (3.2) rank sixth and tied for first nationally.
“They’re definitely a talented team, very disciplined,” NU cornerback Eric Lee said. “They’re going to bring their ‘A’ game like Wisconsin. They don’t beat themselves so that’s just something we’re going to have to do is make sure we don’t beat ourselves as well and bring our ‘A’ game.”
Looking for more hot hands
Nebraska is in desperate need of a third, productive wide receiver.
Mike Williams still believes he can be that guy.
The junior college transfer from East Mississippi Community College said if he were a coach, he’d stick with heavy passing schemes to Spielman and Stanley Morgan, too.
“They have the hot hands,” Williams said.
But he’d like more opportunities to show that he deserves more playing time. Williams currently has four catches for 51 yards this season. Three of those came against Colorado in Nebraska’s opener.
“I know I can do it, but like I said, the opportunity hasn’t presented itself for me to do it,” Williams said.
Right now, the third starting wide receiver is walk-on Kade Warner. Williams was a starter but was replaced by Warner earlier in the season.
“I think just like Coach (Troy) Walters said, it’s just find that guy other than Stanley and JD to make a play,” Williams said. “When the opportunity presents itself, I feel like whoever is in at that point in time will be ready to make that play.”
Inside ’backer spot thin
Nebraska is pretty banged up all around. So the Huskers didn’t practice in pads on Monday.
But they are especially slim at the inside linebacker spot. Transfer Will Honas is out for the year, starter Mohamed Barry is dealing with some soreness and starter Dedrick Young was taken out of last week’s game against Wisconsin.
That leaves sophomore Collin Miller and walk-on Jacob Weinmaster.
“Yeah, I’m so thankful for the opportunities,” Weinmaster said. “Just coming ready to work every day and preparing like you’re the starter, everyone’s gotta do it. Because you never know when your name is going to get called.”
Frost has praised Weinmaster’s play, especially recently, and said Monday that he’d feel comfortable should he start against Northwestern on Saturday.
Remember the Alamo? Northwestern wanted to play the Huskers. Then Nebraska scored 66 points
Nebraska and Northwestern played four nonconference games — the first in 1902 on Antelope Field — but none carry the same weight as a statement game in the 2000 Alamo Bowl.
Northwestern, the co-Big Ten champions, had been vocal about the opportunity to play Nebraska.
The Huskers quickly quieted such talk.
No. 9 Nebraska pulverized the No. 18 Wildcats 66-17 before 66,028 at the Alamodome. The 66 points were the most ever scored by a team in a postseason bowl game, and the scoring total was one of a number of records the Huskers set in finishing off a 10-2 season.
The Wildcats, 14½ point underdogs, weren’t lacking confidence.
“We don’t pay attention to papers,” Northwestern defensive lineman Dwayne Missouri said in the weeks leading up to the game. “Most of the season we’ve been underdogs. We just look at it and say that’s funny.”
Nebraska was seemingly the underestimated team.
“All week, to add to the spice, the Wildcats were yapping,” Tom Shatel wrote in the Dec. 31, 2000, edition of The World-Herald. “They talked about how they were going to rough up Eric Crouch. They talked about their no-huddle offense like it was a computer chip only they could read. They smirked all week as if they knew something.
“Yawn. What a letdown. Nebraska was bigger, stronger, faster and better than Northwestern. Thanks for coming. And drive home safely.”
While that was the biggest win in the series, the most exciting probably ended in the hands of former Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp.
Setting the stage: The year is 2013. Nebraska is coming off a 34-23 loss to Minnesota, putting a major damper on NU’s Big Ten title chances. The Blackshirts allowed three Northwestern touchdowns in the first 20 minutes, digging itself into a 21-7 hole.
But then the light turned on. The Huskers held the Wildcats to three points the rest of the way, using a Quincy Enunwa touchdown reception and an Avery Moss pick-six to tie the score before Northwestern hit a go-ahead field goal with 1:20 left.
So the Huskers, behind fifth-year former walk-on quarterback Ron Kellogg, went to work.
Kellogg fielded the shotgun snap at his own 45, scrambled back to the 39, took three steps up and launched a Hail Mary that was tipped by the Wildcat defense into the waiting hands of Westerkamp for the game-winning score.
» Eight of 11 matchups between the Huskers and Wildcats have been decided by 12 points or fewer. Nebraska won the three that weren’t.
» Nebraska is 7-4 against Northwestern, including 4-3 since joining the Big Ten. The Huskers have never lost at Ryan Field.
» After Saturday, Northwestern will be the 24th most common opponent in Nebraska football history with 12 games played.
» Nebraska is 11-5 all time on Oct. 13, including a six-game winning streak from 1900-1934 and a four-game winning stream from 1979-2001.
» Nebraska has two players from Illinois — senior offensive lineman Tanner Farmer and senior running back Mikale Willbon. All time, Nebraska has 99 players from Illinois — 82 scholarship athletes. Desmond Bland is signed for the 2019 class.
» Northwestern has one player from Nebraska, redshirt freshman punter Cody Gronewold, a Lincoln Northeast graduate.
» The average score between the two teams is Nebraska 29.91, Northwestern 19.45.
» In 2017, Northwestern beat Nebraska 31-24 in overtime. It led to this infamous quote from then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: “There’s no reasonable reason — considering where the defensive program was at — to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in the game, to win the game. The strain was spectacular, right So we could just go back and look at the game. Do you see the strain? Do you see it, or no?”
» Depth chart movement wasn’t nearly as drastic as last week, but there were still noticeable changes Monday to begin Northwestern preparation.
The headliner was at punter, where junior walk-on Isaac Armstrong replaced Caleb Lightbourn, a junior whose 25 consecutive starts rank second on the team. There’s a new No. 1 at kickoff returner, where Maurice Washington takes over for Jaron Woodyard.
At slot receiver, Wyatt Mazour and true freshman Miles Jones now share the “OR” designation behind starter Spielman. Now-departed Tyjon Lindsey had held the second spot. Devine Ozigbo continues to have the top honor at running back but is now backed up solely by Washington, who had shared the No. 2 spot with the transferring Greg Bell.
» Lee said he likes the “open communication” of planning defensive schemes. He said players have more feedback this year than in the past, with their suggestions often prompting coaches to add or subtract elements of any given game strategy.
» Barret Pickering said his 54-yard field goal that came up short during the Purdue game was a result of trying to drive the ball too hard instead of trusting his leg strength. Pickering said he’s made field goals from 55 yards in practice.
» Nebraska’s players came closer together in the last week, Frost said, as the team rid itself of “culture killers” and focused on “culture keepers” and “culture promoters.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to lose a few guys to get to that point, sometimes you’ve got to bench a few guys to get to that point,” he said. “Whatever it takes for the guys to understand.”
» NU will play its only regular-season game on grass this weekend at Northwestern. Nebraska has not mown its grass fields since last Thursday, Frost said, to prepare for the long, often mucky turf at Ryan Field.
Nebraska at Northwestern
When: 11 a.m. Saturday (6 a.m. pregame)
Where: Ryan Field – Evanston, Illinois
Radio: 103.1 FM