Happy Scott Frost Day to all who celebrate!
Nebraska is such a fascinating team to cover. I think those that equate Nebraska football to Indiana basketball are accurate. Both are teams that were once glorious as a national power but have fallen on hard times. Both believe the next hire is the return to glory hire. Both get caught in cycles where the next guy is THE guy, then when he doesn’t get it done in 3-4 years he is tossed away for the next GUY. Nebraska football is in year 5 of Scott Frost, and it is the “produce or else” year. Indiana basketball is at the “No, really, we’re back now!” phase of heightened preseason expectations.
Under Frost, Nebraska has never even gotten that far.
In relation to Purdue, Nebraska has been an interesting yearly matchup since they joined the Big Ten. The teams are split evenly at 5-5, with only one of those 10 meetings coming before the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten (way back in 1958). Purdue has won three of the last four, including two in a row in Lincoln. If not for a last minute one point win in 2017 the Boilers would have a 6-4 lead in the series.
This really is a make-or-break year for the Huskers. It’s hard to believe, but they have yet to make a bowl game under Frost. He has barely won more games in four years than he did in his final season at Central Florida. If he can’t at least get to a bowl game this year who knows where Nebraska goes next.
2021 Record: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten
Bowl Result: None
Blog Representation: Corn Nation
Series with Purdue: Series tied 5-5
Last Purdue win: 28-23 at Nebraska on 10/30/2021
Last Nebraska win: 37-27 at Purdue on 12/5/2020
Head Coach: Scott Frost (15-29 in 5th year at Nebraska, 34-36 overall)
Last Season for the Cornhuskers
Nebraska accomplished the impossible last year. They went a dismal 1-8 in Big Ten play, but somehow had an even point differential in conference play of 239 to 239. The one victory was a dominant 56-7 win over Northwestern. That means they lost eight games by 49 points total. It took a lot of absurdities for that to happen, too. They gave up the first points of the entire college football season on an illegal forward pass out of the end zone on a punt return.
It didn’t get much better from there. Seven of their eight conference losses came by one score, with the eighth by just nine to Ohio State after a late score. The one non-conference loss came to Oklahoma on the road by a touchdown. Nebraska played a tough schedule to be sure. They played Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota tough. All of those teams won at least nine games. For whatever reason though, they could not get over the hump in close games.
It has not just been a one year issue under Frost. Since coming to Nebraska in 2018 the Cornhuskers are just 5-20 in one score games. That includes a pair of losses to Purdue in 2019 and 2021.
I know the advanced stats nerds have argued that “Nebraska graded out to about 7-8 wins, actually”, but the actual results on paper have shown that this is a team that consistently cannot get it done in close games under this coach. They have done the old “coach pay cut, new coordinators” gambit that is the hail mary of doomed coaches heading into this season, but since this is the seventh game of the season there is a fair chance Frost won’t be around by the time it happens.
Gone is long time starter Adrian Martinez. Martinez consistently teased that he was going to be great with over 2,200 career yards rushing and 30+ TDs to go with a decent amount of passing yards, but he was still making freshman mistakes even last year as a fourth year starter. The Purdue game turned on his pick-six to Jalen Graham that was a really bad throw.
Martinez often gave them a great chance to win AND was the reason they lost, which is a strange place to be. He is off to Kansas State to finish his career, leaving Texas transfer Casey Thompson as the likely new starter. Thompson had 10 starts at Texas. He is not the runner Martinez was, but he is a solid passer who threw for 2,113 yards and 24 TDs against 9 interceptions last year. His best game was a 358 yard, 6 touchdown performance against Kansas.
Nebraska is also betting heavily on transfers to change things around. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple added Trey Palmer from LSU (30 receptions, 344 yards, 3 TDs), Marcus Washington from Texas (18-277-2), and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda from New Mexico State (37-578-4) to completely overhaul the passing game.
The Huskers will pass a lot, but Rahmir Johnson (495 yards, 4 TDs) should be solid in the running game. Martinez has long been their top rusher, but this is going to be very much a pass first team just like we will see a week earlier in Maryland. Last season Nebraska moved the ball just fine, ranking second in the conference in total offense. Can they keep that up under entirely different personnel while also finishing drives?
Much like the offense, the defense wasn’t that bad last year. They were in the middle of the pack in the conference at 22.7 points per game and weren’t awful against either the pass or the run. They just struggled to get sacks or turn teams over, so opponent shad chance after chance to move down the field. They gave up 38.9% of third down conversions too.
Garrett Nelson led them in sacks with five coming off of the edge and he returns to give them something to build around. He also had 57 total tackles as a hybrid end. Ochaun Mathis, a transfer from TCU who had 12.5 sacks a year ago, will also play a large role up front. Mathis had a single tackle in TCU’s game at Purdue in 2019.
At linebacker Nebraska has a lot of experience with Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich. Reimer had a team high 108 tackles and Henrich was second with 99. Reimer also had an interception and six pass breakups. Nebraska is also rolling with more transfers in the defensive backfield, including Tommi Hill from Arizona State and Omar Brown from Northern Iowa. Quinton Newsome was also a starter at corner a year ago.
Nebraska Special Teams
If you’re in a lot of close games it does not help to be 50% as a team on field goals. Once again, Nebraska is relying on a transfer to change things, as Tommy Bleekrode is coming in from Furman to take over placekicking duties. Brian Buschini also arrives from Montana, where he averaged an impressive 46+ yards per punt.
In the return game there was not a lot of note. Alante Brown returns as the primary kick returner, but his longest kickoff return was only 19 yards.
Yes, they have new coordinators. Yes, there are a ton of transfers from big name programs. Yes, Nebraska has had some terrible luck in close games. The results still speak for themselves. A 5-20 mark in one score games in four years of one coach goes beyond luck. At some point you have to prove it, and this is the year Frost needs to prove it. You know who else was famous for dropping one-score games? Danny Hope. Even he was 10-11 in games decided by one score before he was fired.
Nebraska is likely not going to get blown out. They play hard and seem to be in every game. At some point they have to get over the hump though. So far they have not proven they can do that, and the desperation heave of multiple transfers is their next chance to do that. If they can come together and play cohesively it could work. They could even be 5-1 coming to West Lafayette against a light schedule, so this is a dangerous team.
So much of how Nebraska does this year seems to hinge on their season opener against Northwestern in Ireland. If they lose that to a Northwestern team that was a bad a year ago there is a definite sense of “here we go again”. I think Purdue pulls this one off, as aside from the disastrous start in 2020 we have had Frost’s number. Purdue 27, Nebraska 21