The Cornhuskers have struggled mightily, but Adrian Martinez is one reason to be encouraged about the future
It’s hard to think anyone saw Scott Frost’s first year as Nebraska football’s head coach beginning with a historically bad start. Certainly, the Big Red wouldn’t go a calendar year without winning a football game, right? Well, here we are. Nebraska has opened 2018 with an 0-6 record, a feat never before accomplished in 129 years of football and is on a 10-game losing streak dating back to last year.
While just about everything that could go wrong in the first half of Frost’s inaugural season has gone wrong, there is hope that the latter half can boost morale and thrust the Huskers into the heart of recruiting season with some much-needed momentum. Let’s review the positives so far — yes, there are some — along with what to keep an eye out for as the year winds down.
Offensive MVP: QB Adrian Martinez
We saw the difference between Martinez and walk-on backup quarterback Andrew Bunch when the latter was forced into action versus Troy. Martinez is everything Frost wants in a quarterback. In his last three games alone, he has connected on 101 of 119 passes for 958 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also added 290 yards and a score on the ground. Without him, Nebraska’s chances to win tank.
Defensive MVP: LB Mohamed Barry
Essentially a captain in all but official title, Barry is one of the Big Ten’s leading tacklers and one of Nebraska’s most ferocious defenders. While it would be very easy for a struggling Husker defense to give up entirely, Barry has done anything but. He’s given his all on every snap and has earned a place at the head of the table.
Best Moment of First Half:
Tie: Adrian Martinez’s first college touchdown vs. Colorado (41-yard run)
Martinez juking out Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon for a seven-yard TD run
Best Newcomer: Adrian Martinez
Easily one of the best players on the entire roster, you’d never guess the true freshman didn’t play a snap of football during his senior year thanks to injury. He’s drawn comparisons to former Scott Frost pupil Marcus Mariota and it’s easy to see why. If Nebraska fans have anything to look forward to in the second half of the season, it’s his development.
Biggest Surprise: Nebraska’s Historically Bad Start to the Season
It’s rather impressive how the Huskers continuously shoot themselves in the foot and manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Cleaning up penalties
We’ve reached a point where if the Huskers have a big play on offense, everyone has to look around to ensure no laundry is on the field. If Nebraska can clean up its act, there are a few games left on the schedule the Huskers have a legitimate shot of winning. If they can cut their usual number of flags drawn per game in half moving forward, winning three games is an attainable goal.
2. Continued maturation of the offense
Part of this goes hand-in-hand with No. 1. We’re seeing holding and hands to the face penalties, false starts from senior captain offensive lineman Jerald Foster among other undisciplined actions. However, you can still see how dynamic the offense is despite the yips. Martinez is coming into his own and is a treat to watch. JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr. are as dependable as can be with the former making his case for a potential captainship in 2019. Use of the tight end has finally stepped up to where it was anticipated to be early in the season.
With a more disciplined offensive line, Nebraska can win shootouts if need be and let’s be honest. That will likely be a necessity a time or two as this season draws to a close.
3. Any defensive improvement
Watching the Husker defense has been a chore on many occasions this season. However, it’s important to take into account the recent revolving door of defensive coordinators that have brought their own special schemes with them each time. That doesn’t absolve defenders of all on-the-field sins, though. By the midseason point, there should be some improvement and we’re not seeing much if any.
Nebraska held onto a 10-point lead with 5:41 left to go versus Northwestern this past Saturday. The Wildcats would then score on a 15-play, 62-yard drive that saw them convert two 4th-and-10 situations leading to a field goal. They’d then get the ball back and complete a 99-yard touchdown drive in one minute and 50 seconds that sent the game into overtime where the Wildcats would eventually chalk up the win.
This is the kind of effort that will cause Nebraska to keep losing games this season and in the future. It needs to be cleaned up immediately one way or another.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 2 at Ohio State
Keeping things respectable against the current conference favorite to make the College Football Playoff would be ideal. In the end, forcing the Buckeyes to punt would be a step in the right direction. They haven't done so against the Huskers since 2012.
2. Nov. 23 at Iowa
Quarterback Nate Stanley has helped guide the Hawkeyes to a 5-1 start showing that they can most certainly stiff-arm lesser competition. However, after a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin in the de facto Big Ten West championship game, one has to wonder if Iowa can match what another remaining Husker opponent did in besting Penn State at Happy Valley. Regardless, the Hawkeyes should have a three-game winning streak heading into regular-season finale with the Big Red at the very least.
3. Nov. 16 Michigan State
Nebraska gets the Spartans fresh off their tussle with Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes, so keep your eyes on this potential trap game for the green and white. Michigan State has been all over the map thus far having dropped a 10-point loss at home to Northwestern but rebounded to topple a top-10 Penn State team in Happy Valley. The Spartans do have one of the conference's best rushing defenses but are susceptible to the pass. Could Adrian Martinez vs. Brian Lewerke be brewing?
4. Oct. 20 Minnesota
This Saturday's Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy has Vegas giving Nebraska the favorite's nod despite the Huskers' winless record. That's a tip of the cap considering the Golden Gophers were able to give Ohio State all it could handle at the Horseshoe. Solid play from quarterback Zack Annexstad and receiver Tyler Johnson will be vital if 3-3 Minnesota wants to snap its three-game skid.
5. Nov. 9 Illinois
The Illini have looked downright respectable at times and like the Illinois we've all come to expect at others. The 3-3 Illini's lone Big Ten win was a 38-17 dismissal of Rutgers, but their other two conference bouts resulted in losses by a combined score of 109-31. Look for Illinois to use running back Reggie Corbin to give their suffering passing game (117th in the nation) a breather.
6. Oct. 26 Bethune-Cookman
With a band that's tough to beat, the Wildcats are obviously being paid for what Husker fans are hoping will be a track meet in the home team's favor. They're 4-3 on the year thus far, good for third place in the MEAC and lost both games played against FBS opponents (North Texas and Florida Atlantic.) Bethune-Cookman may put up an uncomfortable amount of points for Big Red fans, but they more than likely give Nebraska the most important thing the Huskers need right now: a win.
Note: Nebraska will be wearing these alternate uniforms for the November 10 game versus Illinois. They are inspired by the first team to play at Memorial Stadium with this season marking the Huskers’ 96th calling the venue home.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) plus keep up with tat-filled features on his Patreon page.