Adrian Martinez left an indelible first impression that has Cornhuskers fans eagerly anticipating next season already
Let nobody say Scott Frost’s first season as the head coach of Nebraska football wasn’t memorable. After a massive thunderstorm prompted the first home game cancellation that didn’t involve a world war, a record-breaking sub-optimal start and a tremendous late-season rebound, Frost's culture is fully entrenched in Lincoln. As a result, there are plenty of players to acknowledge and a bounty of bittersweet memories.
Offensive MVP: Adrian Martinez, QB
There are many qualified candidates, but it’s hard to argue that Martinez wasn’t the key cog of Nebraska’s offense. Remove running back Devine Ozigbo, wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. or both, and Frost still would’ve had the potential to score a fair amount of points based on the challenges his quarterback forces opposing defensive coordinators to make.
Defensive MVP: Mohamed Barry, LB
A number of Husker fans had been waiting for Barry to break out and 2018 was most definitely his year. A de facto captain, he walked the walk, talked the talk and propped up teammates when they were down. The most dependable of defenders over the course of the entire season, he finished the year with 112 tackles (55 solo), 10 tackles for a loss, two sacks and five quarterback hurries.
Best Freshman: Adrian Martinez, QB
Again, some arguments can be made about this award, but none carry more weight than Martinez’s. He completed 64.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns with a final quarterback rating of 139.46. In addition, he showed his capability as a dual threat with 629 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Finally, he crushed freshman records and became the first player in Nebraska history to rack up 300 yards of total offense in seven games.
Best Play of the Season: Adrian Martinez to Stanley Morgan Jr. vs. Ohio State
At the beginning of a drive that would lead to three points cutting the Buckeyes’ lead to 30-24, Martinez connected with Morgan on a 46-yard rainbow of a pass which provided the Huskers with the momentum needed to potentially pull off the upset. This play wasn’t exceptionally flashy. It didn’t lead to a touchdown. It will likely be forgotten to the sands of time. However, completely aware that he would soon be crushed by the Ohio State pass rush, Martinez – a true freshman – calmly sat in the pocket with the patience of a senior and delivered a timely, gorgeous pass to his key receiver to give his team hope. Another sign of his tremendous potential and Morgan’s clutch catching.
Best Performance by a Player: Barret Pickering vs. Michigan State
It’d be easy to list Martinez’s accomplishments ad nauseam. Taking nothing away from him, it’s difficult to not give Pickering the nod considering the context surrounding the Spartan-Husker brawl. In what will forever go down as a Tundra Tussle in more ways than one, Pickering didn’t just put Nebraska on the scoreboard with a then career-long 36-yard field goal while the two teams played in a proverbial snow globe. He followed that up with a 20-yarder and eclipsed his earlier personal best with a 47-yard kick that would eventually give the Huskers a 9-6 win. Frost would claim his first true Big Ten-style victory and Pickering’s name was etched in the annals of Nebraska football history.
Best Game (Team Performance): at Ohio State
Big Red fans aren’t keen on moral victories, but it’s important to examine the 36-31 loss for more than what the scoreboard says it is. Nebraska hadn’t caused Ohio State to punt in the last three meetings and was bludgeoned by a combined 181-55 margin over that span. In 2018, a team that lost six straight to open the year had to repeatedly stub its own toes to lose by five in Columbus. Nebraska proved its record misleading of the team’s ability despite the eventual defeat.
Defining Moment: Losing 34-31 in overtime to Northwestern
Speaking of that six-game losing streak, the last time the Huskers opened a season like that was... never. On the surface, this edition of the Battle of NUs may look like a choke job. However, a spark was lit and prompted an "I've had all I can stands. I can't stands no more" attitude that would propel Nebraska to a 53-28 decimation of Minnesota the next week. Their record-breaking start would be followed with a 4-2 finish.
Biggest Surprise: CB Lamar Jackson’s Resurgence
There’s no argument that Jackson hadn’t lived up to his billing as a four-star recruit heading into 2018. He wasn’t physical nor did he tackle well. He simply wasn’t a lockdown cornerback. Jackson was eventually benched during Nebraska’s clash with Purdue in front of a sold-out home crowd. He thought about leaving and considering the rash of players with whom Frost’s culture clearly clashed, his departure wouldn’t have surprised many. However, he responded to adversity by regaining his starting spot and becoming the disruptive defensive back so many in Husker Nation were waiting for.
Biggest Disappointment: Run Defense
No one expected the Blackshirts’ front seven to be world-beaters when it came to defending the run, especially considering some of the backs they’d go up against in 2018. However, surrendering almost 196 yards on the ground per game is absolutely unacceptable for any team with Big Ten championship aspirations. This defensive unit gave up almost five yards per carry on the year as five different players went for 100-plus on Nebraska. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor effortlessly racked up 221 (and three touchdowns), emphasizing the glaring need for an overhaul in this aspect of the defense.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Stanley Morgan Jr., WR
Losing Nebraska’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2014 in Devine Ozigbo will be rough, but the Huskers can recover. On the other hand, with the departure of Morgan, the program's first-ever 1,000-yard receiver, Frost has JD Spielman and an abundance of uncertainty at the position. Maybe Mike Williams or Andre Hunt will improve by leaps and bounds. Perhaps an incoming recruit can make a splash. This is spot easily identified as one where transfers are likely considered as the Huskers need playmakers in the wake of No. 8’s departure and they need them now.
Player to Watch in 2019: Maurice Washington, RB
With moves like this (below) while putting together a freshman season that included 676 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, it’s clear that Washington is currently the most dynamic running back on Nebraska’s roster. One can only imagine what he’ll look like after a year in Zach Duval’s strength and conditioning program.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: What About the Linemen?
Whether discussing the Huskers’ offensive line or the aforementioned defensive woes, Nebraska needs to develop their big men in a hurry to have a shot at navigating a far more manageable 2019 schedule. Martinez will need time to establish a proper connection with his new receiving corps and the prominent running backs have to get into a groove. Above all else, Nebraska’s rush defense can’t be found in the bargain bin again if Scott Frost wants to get his team to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.