This one was all about reps.
Reps for the No. 1 offensive line. Reps for the No. 2 offensive line. Reps for young, untested wide receivers. Reps for a long list of running backs. Even reps for the most popular player on any team, the second-string quarterback.
The Huskers’ home opener, arranged at the last minute, comparatively speaking, came off pretty much as Bill Moos and Scott Frost must have envisioned it when they decided to shell out half a million dollars to entice Fordham to come to Lincoln on Labor Day weekend. Everyone knows the Rams have regressed over the past 85 years, from the days their offensive line, which featured Vince Lombardi at end, was known as the “Seven Blocks of Granite.” And of course, that’s precisely why Frost wanted to bring them to Lincoln, so he could rehearse some success before the schedule turns nasty. It was sound reasoning for a team that needs to learn how to win.
There were lots of high-speed reps for Frost’s offense, which thrives when it can pile up the play count. It got 95 offensive snaps Saturday, something unheard of against Big Ten opponents. Will it help generate momentum in future weeks? It’s too early to say.
All those reps were good for the lungs of 85,000-plus fans who had to stay home all last season due to COVID-19, and were anxious to generate some good feelings on a game day in Memorial Stadium. It was the kind of day that used to feel normal. The fans got to relax and enjoy the action as the point spread mounted on a beautiful September afternoon. The coaching staff got a good look at its second- and third-team players. But maybe the most needed repetition was in the mind of Frost the play caller, who kept pounding the run.
There were reps galore for a parade of running backs, who carried the ball 52 times for 226 yards and three touchdowns. The Huskers absolutely must have good production out of their running backs to be taken seriously in the Big Ten, and Southern Cal transfer Markese Stepp seems ready to take over as starter. He ran 18 times for 101 yards.
On the Huskers’ second drive, Frost called a third-and-7 handoff to Stepp, and it paid off with a first down. Frost ran the ball on third and short most of the day, and he ran it on fourth and short, too, including later in that same drive, to get his first touchdown. Frost was willing to hammer the ball against an FCS opponent, on a day when everybody including the Alumni Band was getting reps. Will he remember to pound the ball when he comes up against high-pressure situations? Will he be too squeamish to lean on the run against better competition?
Is this something Frost can get used to doing? Can he commit to the run, including on days when he’s behind the chains and not getting the ball to his wideouts very often? I repeat, will he run the ball regularly on third-and-4 against Buffalo? Against Oklahoma?
Reps, reps, reps. It was a valuable day for the first-team offensive line, which had its good and bad moments. Mostly, it got opportunities to build chemistry and cohesiveness, and meaningful game experience for second-stringers.
Kickoff specialists Brendan Franke of Gretna and Kelen Meyer of Ord, both freshmen, got plenty of reps, and they were flawless, booting the ball through the end zone for a touchback every time. Franke was five-for-five, Meyer, four-for-four.
Adrian Martinez produced points without piling up yardage, and completed more than 70 percent of his passes. He had three touchdowns and no turnovers on a day when he left the game late in the third quarter with a 31-point lead. In came second-team quarterback Logan Smothers. He got 29 snaps in his first-ever Husker game, completing four of seven passes for 50 yards and running four times for 36 yards. In his three series, he led two touchdown drives and fumbled the ball away once.
To win, the Huskers have to succeed with the run, but they don’t have to forsake offensive balance. They had a rare 300/300 day, rushing for 329 yards and passing for 304. Montana transfer Samori Toure, a 6-foot-3 slot receiver, started building some chemistry with Martinez. He made eight catches for 133 yards. Husker tight ends had six receptions and a touchdown.
The Blackshirts allowed 221 yards by halftime, including seven plays of 15 yards or longer, but then things turned around. They got a pair of key interceptions that boosted the Huskers to a 24-7 halftime lead. In the second half, the defense allowed only 71 yards. It marked the sixth consecutive game NU has held the opponent to under 400 total yards, something that had not happened since Nebraska ran off six consecutive victories at the end of the 2012 regular season.
Nebraska’s three takeaways (two interceptions by Deontai Williams and one by JoJo Domann) led to to 21 points.
Run the ball and force turnovers. Rinse and repeat. It could lead somewhere.