It was another difficult season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Once again, Nebraska stayed home for the bowl season after compiling a losing record, failing to make the progress fans had been hoping to see by this point in the tenure of Scott Frost. But Nebraska is not making any drastic moves with the head coach just yet and hopes the 2022 season sees a return to the postseason.
The 2022 season will be a critical one for Frost, but it is worth recognizing Nebraska had plenty of chances to score some notable wins during the 2021 season. The breaks just never seemed to fall Nebraska's way in close contests from start to finish. Let's take a look back at some of the positives from the 2021 Nebraska football season and hand out some awards for what we witnessed.
Offensive MVP: Adrian Martinez, QB
Nebraska's quarterback at times was the entire offense in 2021. Martinez was the team's leading rusher with 525 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground to go with his 2,863 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. Martinez was a bit of a roller-coaster to watch for Nebraska as he had his highs and his lows, but he was a big reason why Nebraska's offense had chances to win as many games as they did.
Defensive MVP: JoJo Domann, LB
One of Nebraska's most consistent players on defense came at the linebacker position with Domann. He was second on the team with 9.0 tackles for a loss and second on the team with two interceptions. Domann received second-team All-Big Ten recognition for his efforts in the 2021 season.
Best Freshman: Rahmir Johnson, RB
Nebraska may have been led on the ground by their veteran quarterback but some other younger players got their feet wet running the ball as well. One of them was Johnson, who finished as Nebraska's second-leading rusher with 495 yards and four touchdowns (also second).
Best Play of the Season: Samori Toure goes 72 yards for a touchdown vs. Ohio State
Nebraska looked like it was poised to be run out of their own stadium by Ohio State when the Buckeyes came to town, but a long touchdown pass from Martinez to Toure helped prove otherwise. Toure turned on the jets and left the Ohio State secondary in his rearview mirror on his way down the field for a big touchdown for the Huskers.
Best Performance (Player): Adrian Martinez vs. Michigan
In early October, Nebraska looked like it was going to knock off a surging Michigan team that would eventually go on to win the Big Ten championship and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff. Martinez had his best overall performance against the Wolverines' stingy defense with 291 passing yards and three touchdown passes, to go along with 38 yards and another score on the ground. Unfortunately, a late turnover continued the story of the season for the Huskers and Michigan pulled out the win in Lincoln.
Best Performance (Team): Oct. 2 vs. Northwestern
After starting the year off with a 2-3 record marred by close losses to Illinois, Oklahoma, and Michigan State, Nebraska took out their frustrations on poor Northwestern in Week 5. Nebraska rolled up 657 yards of total offense on the Wildcats in a 56-7 blowout, the widest margin of victory for the Cornhuskers in 2021. Northwestern is a team that has been pesky for Nebraska since joining the Big Ten, but this was a total bloodbath that had some thinking the Huskers might be a contender in the Big Ten West, but it was also the last win they would have in the 2021 season.
Defining Moment: Fumble on third-and-1 vs. Michigan
There are two solid choices for the defining moment that showed just how close Nebraska was to scoring a major victory. Martinez being intercepted by Oklahoma early in the season is one of the plays of the year in college football and is certainly right up there, but Martinez's fumble against Michigan was probably even more defining. As good of a game as Martinez had against the Wolverines, fumbling the football on third-and-1 after gaining the yardage to move the chains late in the fourth quarter to allow Michigan to kick a go-ahead field goal was the perfect example of how Nebraska just could not catch a break in the 2021 season.
Biggest Surprise: Five straight seasons without a bowl trip for Nebraska
How can this possibly be? In an era with more than 40 bowl games and the instant creation of a bowl game this year just to accommodate the surplus of bowl-eligible teams, Nebraska is staying home for the bowl season for a fifth consecutive season. That is four straight seasons without a bowl trip under Scott Frost, whose program only won three games in 2021. But the more this result happens, perhaps the less surprising it gets as each season passes.
Biggest Disappointment: Not finishing games
All season long showed Nebraska may have taken a couple of steps forward but still has to learn how to finish games. Too many times this season Nebraska was in a position to win a game but let it slip through their hands. This was the case in the final game when Iowa outscored the Huskers 19-0 in the fourth quarter for a 28-21 victory that helped the Hawkeyes win the Big Ten West and advance to the conference championship game.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Samori Toure, WR
Nebraska has been lacking in big-play receivers, so the loss of Toure is a tough one to make up for going into next season. Toure was Nebraska's leading receiver with 46 receptions for 898 yards and five touchdowns. There will be plenty of opportunities for younger receivers to step up in the Nebraska offense moving forward.
Player to Watch in 2022: Logan Smothers, QB
With Adrian Martinez expected to move on after entering the transfer portal, Smothers will be the name to watch at the helm of the Nebraska offense. The former four-star recruit is a dual-threat signal-caller like Martinez, but Smothers is raw on experience despite appearing in six games for the Huskers in 2021. Having a full off-season to work with new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will be beneficial for Smothers going into next season.
Offseason Storyline: Coaching staff overhaul
Scott Frost is already busy reshaping his coaching staff as he enters a pivotal 2022 season in Lincoln. Among the changes on the staff is the addition of Mark Whipple, who comes to Nebraska after working with the Pitt offense and coaching quarterback Kenny Pickett to an ACC Player of the Year/Heisman Trophy finalist season. The pressure will be increasing in Lincoln for Frost if things don't improve next fall. And with a lagging recruiting class compared to their Big Ten peers, Nebraska may have to hope for the best with what they have if they are going to make any noise in the Big Ten west next season.