LINCOLN — For all the statistical breakdowns and culture signs that illustrate how far Nebraska has come this season, there’s only one measurement players and coaches are using for the rest of November.
Victories. Get them, and all this progress talk becomes reality and a slingshot into 2019. Don’t, and the improvement made since an 0-6 start rings hollow.
“Hungry dogs run faster,” senior center Tanner Farmer said. “We’re hungry. We want to win. We’ve been starving all year and we’ve only got two wins right now.”
The Huskers (2-7) turn to Illinois to begin a season-ending stretch that also includes Michigan State and Iowa. And unlike last week’s game at Ohio State — when Nebraska nearly pulled the top-10 upset against a program that had dominated it the previous two years — players said Monday there are no meaningful silver linings that would accompany any defeat the rest of the way.
A variety of numbers validate the eye test that Nebraska is playing better of late, particularly the past three games against Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman and OSU. Nebraska has halved its penalty total, increased scoring and produced more takeaways (seven) than in its first six contests combined (six). Third-down conversions are up in that stretch by 15 percent and opponent third-down conversions are down by more than 3 percent.
In short, the defense is playing sounder and tackling better. The offense is scoring more consistently. Special teams, well, they haven’t gotten worse. But what’s it all worth if the Huskers can’t go out and beat Illinois, an 18-point underdog that they bested 28-6 amid the ashes of last season?
“You can only get so much better without getting the result you want,” senior running back Devine Ozigbo said. “We’re just gonna keep working, keep getting better. But definitely, wins is the next step for this team.”
Said senior offensive guard Jerald Foster: “I feel great about where we’re at. The next step, definitely, is to finish this season out the right way. We have three games that we feel like we can win, so we’re going to keep pushing forward.”
The Huskers kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium against an Illinois team coming off a 55-31 win over Minnesota that prompted the Gophers to fire their defensive coordinator the next day. Illinois includes senior quarterback AJ Bush, a former Nebraska reserve who found his niche after stops at Iowa Western and Virginia Tech and still talks with some NU upperclassmen.
But junior linebacker Mohamed Barry — who said Bush, a fellow Georgia native, is one reason he came to Nebraska in the first place — said his No. 1 motivator the rest of the month is to send out the 19 seniors in winning fashion. Farmer wants to honor the coaches, who he likens to “father figures,” with results for their hard work. Senior safety Tre Neal hopes to “have the train going a little bit” for what Scott Frost and his staff can do in the future.
Just, please, freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez said, no more almosts or what-ifs. Nebraska needs to be better than that.
“We’ve had some great moral victories this year,” Frost said. “And those don’t count for anything.”
The focus through Black Friday will be on the small things it takes to win games, players said. Key mistakes on special teams and offensive third downs sunk Nebraska against Ohio State. Blown defensive assignments and penalties plagued the team through its 0-6 start.
Now there’s no talk about bowl scenarios or paths to a Big Ten West Division title. The Huskers may not even be able to play spoiler in their final league games. But if they can keep getting better — and earn some wins in the process while trusting the process — it might just be the start of something bigger.
Said Barry: “These three games is gonna tell the story for next season.”
Coldest air of season will arrive in time for Husker game
The coldest air of the season arrives this week, just in time for a chilly Husker game in Lincoln.
A fast-arriving cold front will bring with it a chance for snow on Thursday, forecasters say. The National Weather Service is forecasting about a 40 percent chance for a dusting of snow in the Omaha metro area, and a greater chance along the Interstate 80 corridor.
Canadian air fills in behind the cold front, and by Saturday morning, lows are forecast in the teens in eastern Nebraska.
Brian Smith, meteorologist at the weather service, said temperatures in Lincoln at the 11 a.m. game time are forecast in the low 30s. Because Saturday is expected to be breezy, wind chills could make it seem like temperatures are in the low- to mid-20s.
“It’s going to feel cold out there,” he said, “but some people like that for football weather.”
After some down years, Blackshirts finally are licking their chops again for fumbles
LINCOLN — For Carlos Davis, it was muscle memory.
He didn’t think. He just saw the ball on the ground, and leaped.
“There’s a drill we do every week, every Tuesday, we do a drill. We defeat the cut block twice, and then we jump on the ground and recover a fumble,” Davis said.
That pulsed through the junior’s mind on Saturday against Ohio State. Outside linebacker JoJo Domann came off the edge “licking his lips,” he said, and pummeled OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The ball popped loose, and there it was for Davis, lying dormant on the turf just like at practice.
“I just saw the ball on the ground and it was like muscle memory. I just jumped on it, recovered it, tightened it up, got the ball,” Davis said.
Getting the football out and jumping on it has been a focal point all season. But only now are balls actually hitting the turf. The Blackshirts forced four fumbles on Saturday. They recovered two of them. The extra possessions turned into 14 Nebraska points.
“They’re taking those (turnover) drills seriously,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said on Tuesday. “You watch the film of those turnover drills beginning of the year, it looks like the ‘Bad News Bears’ out there running around. Now it looks like a real football team.”
The Huskers are much more “ball aware,” Chinander said, a term that essentially means they’re more willing and able to punch balls out during the tackling process.
Nebraska has forced seven fumbles on the year, recovering five. That’s already a significant rise from the past few seasons.
In 2016 and 2017 combined, Nebraska recovered just six fumbles. And it wasn’t much better in 2015, when Nebraska forced seven fumbles and recovered five. And that’s nothing compared to Bo Pelini’s defenses. In 2014, Pelini’s final year, Nebraska forced 14 fumbles, recovering 10.
Nebraska wants to get back to those days.
“When we go to the sideline for timeouts and stuff, we’re harping on turnovers,” corner Lamar Jackson said.
He forced a fumble that wasn’t recovered. On a 7-yard gain, Jackson slipped his hand in between the ball and OSU running back Mike Weber’s forearm and pried the ball out. NU safety Antonio Reed dived for the ball, but swatted it out of bounds.
“All he had to do was hit it the opposite way into the field. Yeah, we gave him a little hard time, but we’re gonna get some more out this week, hopefully,” Jackson said.
Chinander’s new message isn’t just to dive on the ground for loose balls, but to fight and battle for possession. On Aaron Williams’ fumble recovery, Jackson flew into the pile and wrestled an Ohio State receiver off the ball so linebacker Luke Gifford and Williams could keep possession.
“Just getting on the ground isn’t enough,” Jackson said. “We need the ball out and we need to recover the ball, so we’re trying to do all that.”
Nebraska remains one of the worst teams in turnover margin in college football. The Huskers are sitting at minus-4 with three games left.
Illinois is at plus-3, tied for 38th in the country with Michigan State and a handful of other teams. Iowa sits at plus-4. So getting the ball out could change Nebraska’s fate these next three weeks.
“It’s definitely a focus,” Davis said. “We practice that every week. Every week getting those balls out. Actually every day trying to knock it out of the running backs’ hands, same with the DBs. So it’s just starting to pay off for us.”
Nebraska special teams went from ‘really, really good to God awful’ against Ohio State
LINCOLN — Nebraska special teams made national blooper reelslast weekend after a whiffed onside kick. And that is just the most memorable — or forgettable — moment in a series of mistakes that has hounded the unit all season.
“It’s obviously completely inconsistent,” said Jovan Dewitt, the Huskers’ special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach.
The punt Ohio State blocked Saturday for a safety was a matter of one player making a protection check and not communicating it to anyone, Dewitt said. The attempted onside kickoff that Caleb Lightbourn missed came when a recovery possibility was “wide open” based on how OSU had aligned. Nebraska also lost field position when it let a couple of punts roll.
The overall grade from Saturday, Dewitt said, was a far cry from a big week against Bethune-Cookman that included a punt-return touchdown by JD Spielman and some field-flipping punts.
“You go from really, really good to god-awful,” Dewitt said. “Those are the things you can’t have. You can’t be that way and have a chance to win games. The fact that we were able to be in the game and lead the game with those miscues happening speaks a lot to the character of our kids.”
That game against the FCS opponent remains the best by far for Nebraska special teams that have allowed two scores on punt returns and multiple chunk plays on kickoffs. Big Red is 96th nationally in net punting (35.78 yards) and 56th in punt returns (9.8). It’s 91st in opponent kickoff returns (22.36 yards) and 120th (16.88) in bringing back its own kickoffs.
Dewitt said gaffes on special teams are more noticeable than running the wrong routes on offense or blowing a coverage on defense. Mistakes lead to big yardage and, often, immediate points.
Discipline is what the Huskers continue to strive for. Earlier in the season, Dewitt said he was simply seeking players who could run and tackle well. But even as the massive personnel shifts on special teams have decreased from week to week, consistency of play remains elusive.
“Field position changes and scoring changes at every single play,” Dewitt said. “So those are not plays where you can forget to make a communication call or not get in the right fit. Because if you do, she’s over. Someone’s gonna score. And that’s what happens to us sometimes.”
Tight ends emerge
LINCOLN — Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal exchanged a look last week when Nebraska offensive coaches introduced the call that would eventually produce the longest catch of Allen’s college career. This looked like fun.
The play called for Allen to look like a blocker for a few beats, then release down the sideline. The only Ohio State defender in the area Saturday — needing to choose to cover running back Devine Ozigbo or Allen — picked the former, freeing the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Aurora graduate for a 41-yard gain.
“We executed it all during the week all perfectly, so we knew it was probably going to be called in the game,” Allen said. “We did, and we executed it perfectly.”
Said position mate Jack Stoll: “You get a little smile on Monday when you see it on the call sheet. It’s great seeing Austin going out there and making some plays.”
Tight ends have been more involved in NU’s passing game of late, accounting for seven catches and 116 yards in the last two weeks. They had 14 grabs for 183 yards in the previous seven contests.
The top players at the position are all young. Stoll, a sophomore, leads the way with 14 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown. Rafdal, a redshirt freshman (four catches, 67 yards) and Allen (two, 54) are next, followed by true freshman Katerian Legrone (one, 8).
“We’re young, but trust level has grown a lot,” Allen said. “Coach (Scott Frost) has a lot of trust in his players; he’s going to ride or die with the guys that are on the field, guys that are on the team.”
Morning practices help
Nebraska is on its 10th straight week of practice and game prep. The team isn’t tired yet.
“We just go to work every day, and you don’t even think about (being tired) to be honest,” Stoll said. “It’s just strap it on, go out to work, have some fun. The hard part is going to class every day, to be honest.”
Part of the reason the grind of the season hasn’t set in yet is because the team is having fun, Stoll said. The other part, though, is morning practices. Stoll is in bed by 9:30 p.m. and up before the sun. And that routine has helped him recover, he said, and prepare for Nebraska’s 11 a.m. games.
“It took some getting used to, waking up early, but now it’s definitely helped us, especially getting up for some of these 11 a.m. games,” he said. “When we got a 6:30 wake-up call, you’re used to it throughout the week.”
Stoll also likes that throughout the afternoon, you can think about what you learned at practice, and watch film during the day.
“As opposed to sleeping and kind of forgetting it and then coming in in the morning to watch film,” he said.
Illinois run game a handful
Watch for the cutback.
That’s one warning Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has for his Blackshirts as they prepare for Illinois running back Reggie Corbin, who is averaging more than 9 yards per carry and has 13 runs this season of 20 or more yards, which leads the Big Ten.
“You really got to get some hats to the ball,” Chinander said of Corbin, who torched Minnesota for 213 yards. “Take good angles on him.”
Illinois’ rush offense involves “a lot of triple option elements,” Chinander said. Illinois’ offense is similar to that of Rich Rodriguez, who piled up points and yards at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona.
Illini quarterback AJ Bush — who spent 2½ years at Nebraska — is a deft runner, too. He has 472 rushing yards in seven games.
“The best thing he does is he can read it — he can make a quick decision — he can pull it, he can give it, he can pitch it and when he runs it himself, he’s very effective,” Chinander said of Bush.
Chinander didn’t recall much of a conversation with JoJo Domann. He asked the sophomore to play outside linebacker, and Domann agreed.
Domann had a big game against Ohio State — seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble — and quickly became valuable as a wide-side hybrid linebacker/safety. Chinander said Domann is helpful against spread teams that deploy three wide receivers. Against more power-based teams such as Iowa, Wisconsin or Michigan State, Domann may have a different role.
“He’s physical enough out there and he’s really good in space,” Chinander said. “He’s a good tackler, he’s a good football player, he’s just kind of savvy. He’s one of those guys who can kind of wiggle into stuff and get in the zone he needs to get into.”
Defensive tune changing
When Chinander used to gather the defense on the sideline early in the season, he’d usually hear silence.
“Crickets,” he said. “It’s me talking to myself.”
But that’s changed. Now, there’s noise and excitement. After Nebraska botched the onside kick against Ohio State, for example, Chinander noted that half of his defense wanted to hold OSU to three points and the other half wanted to hold the Buckeyes to no points at all. NU indeed got a stop, turning over Ohio State on downs.
“Now they’re talking, ‘We need a turnover, we need a score on defense,’” Chinander said. “It’s becoming a real thing.”
With friends like these …
Defensive linemen Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun knew Bush, the Illinois quarterback, fairly well when he played at Nebraska from 2014 through the 2016 training camp.
So they plan to say hello Saturday — in their own way.
“We’ll say hi to him when we tackle him,” Akinmoladun said.
“I’ll say to him when he’s on the ground and I’m on top of him,” Carlos Davis said. “I’ll give him a welcoming. ‘Welcome back. I’ve missed you.’”
Illinois at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM