Nebraska Football: Cornhuskers' Biggest Challenges for the Rest of 2019

Adrian Martinez has taken a step backward as a sophomore

Scott Frost wasn't interested in the hype surrounding his Nebraska Cornhuskers prior to this season. Even with a No. 25 ranking in the AP poll, he didn't give his team a single vote in the Coaches Poll. Late into Nebraska's season, we're starting to see why that might've been.

 

After a shaky 3-1 start, the Big Red has seen its problems snowball. Try as they might, finding stable footing has eluded their grasp ever since the calendar flipped to October. But the season is not lost for the Huskers; their bowl chances remain alive at 4-5 (2-4 Big Ten) with No. 15 Wisconsin, Maryland, and No. 23 Iowa left on the schedule.

 

The end is in sight for Nebraska, so we review the most unenviable problems that Frost has to address with all the duct tape, super glue, and chewing gum he can find.

 

1. Starting quarterback confusion

Adrian Martinez was supposed to be one of Nebraska's sensational sophomores. After tossing for 2,617 yards as a freshman, he was supposed to be the name to follow Marcus Mariota and McKenzie Milton as yet another quarterback to flourish under Frost. He still may over the course of his career, but this year has been far from kind, and his stat line tells only part of the story.

 

It's worth noting that he has missed two games this season versus one last year, but Martinez has shown a five-point drop in completion percentage and has thrown for 25 fewer yards per game. Some of that has to do with the graduation of leading receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., but the reason for this regression is one of the biggest question marks in Lincoln today.

 

2. Multiple depth dilemmas

Before the season began, running back Maurice Washington looked to be another dangerous weapon on Martinez's level. However, he hasn't been effective between the tackles, and stringing him out to the sidelines often resulted in a win for defenses. He was still capable of popping off a big play, as evidenced by his play against Colorado, Northern Illinois, and Illinois. Then he practically disappeared.

 

Dedrick Mills has been effective in spurts, but his number has been called less and less each week. Instead, Frost has leaned on wunderkind Wan'Dale Robinson to do what Rondale Moore did for Purdue last season. To the credit of Robinson's ability and toughness, perhaps the Kentucky native's load has been even heavier.

 

Robinson has seen three double-digit carry games in 2019 and has generated a great deal of the Big Red's overall offense. With no other backs seeing significant time, he's been targeted and stuffed in recent losses to Minnesota and the Boilermakers, gaining only 53 yards on 20 carries combined.

 

This problem is compounded as Nebraska has had a season-long issue finding receivers to assist JD Spielman. Robinson has proved to be a good second option, but he can only handle so much punishment. The next three most prolific wideouts on the roster (Kanawai Noa, Mike Williams, and Kade Warner) have a grand total of 22 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns — both belonging to Noa.

 

Tight end Jack Stoll has been working hard to become a safety valve in the passing game but only averages 20.3 yards per game and has one touchdown catch. This only simplifies an opponent's defensive game plan to isolate the Huskers' two biggest threats, and that has to impact Martinez's morale.

 

3. An offensive line out of sync

At one point, center Cameron Jurgens' high snaps appeared to be the main source of headaches on the Big Red's offensive front. Now, Jurgens seems one of the most reliable linemen, a stalwart on a unit that is tied for 81st nationally with 21 sacks allowed.

 

Backup Broc Bando has stepped in occasionally at guard and has looked serviceable, but the starting lineup remains static. They do appear to be clicking more down the stretch. But a unit missing two prominent starters from last season still starts and stops far too often, knocking Frost's play-calling out of rhythm as a result.

 

4. Confusion on defense

There have been several instances in which key members of Erik Chinander's Blackshirts appear to be lost in their assignments. The back seven have been pulled out of position repeatedly, especially at the linebacker spots. Outside linebackers such as Alex Davis, Caleb Tannor, Garrett Nelson, and JoJo Domann have seen some success, but the interior corps often find themselves taken out of a play.

 

There could be some paralysis by analysis here. Occasionally inside linebackers and safeties appear to freeze momentarily, giving their offensive counterpart an extra step or two. Naturally, this provides better opportunities for them to make a big play.

 

This has also resulted in several quarterbacks not known for their running ability exploiting the Huskers' second level. Northwestern's Aidan Smith, Indiana's Peyton Ramsey, and Purdue's Jack Plummer all found room where there usually was none against other defenses when facing Nebraska.

 

5. Shattered special teams

A good chunk of this has been straight-up bad luck. Losing kicker Barret Pickering to injury before the season began was bad enough. Punter Isaac Armstrong gave a valiant effort against Colorado handling both his usual duties and those of a kicker. But his inexperience caught up with him in overtime, resulting in a pulled kick that gave the Buffaloes a victory.

 

One of the best stories of Nebraska's season came in the form of Lane McCallum. A walk-on transfer from the Air Force Academy, this former safety carved his name into Cornhusker lore by booting a game-winning, 24-yard field goal as time expired versus Northwestern.

 

The position's uncertainty has forced Frost's hand on fourth down far more than is ideal. Nebraska ranks 104th nationally at converting in such a scenario with just over a 41 percent success rate. With all this going on, it's easy to see why Nebraska has had difficulty building confidence let alone finding an identity this season. Fortunately, they still find themselves with opportunities to make a statement before the year ends.

 

And, yes, bowl eligibility is still technically on the table. But the Huskers are going to have to buck these trends in a big way to make that happen. Doing so would go a long way to restoring a winning attitude on and off the field in the future. Frost remains resolute in what he and his staff can do. With an early signing period right around the corner in December, good news can't come soon enough.

 

— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces). To contact him, click here.

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