Down on the sun-baked turf of Owen Field, which half a century ago hosted the best college football game ever played, it felt a lot like old times, with everyone’s blood pumping as the Husker-Sooner game came down to the final two minutes. That in itself was a win for the Nebraska football program, which despite a 23-16 setback Saturday, held a Lincoln Riley-coached team to its fewest points ever and reclaimed a measure of respect it gave away in an opening-season loss at Illinois.
Scott Frost’s Huskers played as hard as, or harder than, the No. 3-rated Sooners. If they had played a smart game, they would have pulled off the upset. The program is slowly — ever so slowly — moving in the right direction, but a lack of discipline — most notably, in the offensive line — continues to hold it back.
This was a fighting, hard-hitting defensive game that Monte Kiffin or Lance Van Zandt would have appreciated, with an out-talented Husker Blackshirt unit fighting hard to make up for its underachieving offensive counterparts. I’ve got to think that Rich Glover, Willie Harper and Bill Kosch enjoyed this game a little more than Jerry Tagge, Jeff Kinney or Daryl White.
It was almost like the 1970s Huskers showed up, except they brought along the 1950s o-line.
No one denies the talent pendulum has swung decisively to Oklahoma, and frankly the talent gap is bigger today than it was in the mid-1970s when the Sooners reeled off six consecutive wins. That’s what made this seven-point margin of victory a surprise. Who was expecting a one-score game? Certainly not the Vegas bookmakers. It’s a tribute to the Blackshirts, who held the Oklahoma offense to three touchdowns and gave the Huskers every chance to win.
A solid effort across the board by Erik Chinander’s unit included six tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and five passes broken up. NU’s third-year inside linebackers, Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer, missed several tackles at the line of scrimmage when they were simply outquicked by OU running backs, but if Nebraska’s third- and fourth-year offensive linemen would show as much improvement as its linebackers, the Big Red would be a force to be reckoned with.
Outside of allowing two or three third-and-long pass plays they’d like to have back, the Blackshirts played as well as they have in years. Chinander’s deep zone coverage kept preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler stymied for much of the game. NU’s defense doesn’t have a good enough pass rush to be deadly, but it’s steadily improving.
Speaking of improvement, in his fourth season as Nebraska quarterback, Adrian Martinez has elevated his play. He’s reined in his natural impulse to try to win the game himself. He is no longer a turnover machine. Against OU, he produced two touchdowns and one meaningless interception where he did exactly what he should have done — tried to make something happen on fourth and long deep in Sooner territory. He’s playing well enough to beat good teams. Even though handicapped by a porous offensive line, Martinez outplayed Rattler. His touchdown pass to Omar Manning was a thing of beauty, and so was the catch by Manning, who has more natural talent than I’ve seen in a Nebraska receiver since Johnny Mitchell 30 years ago, if he can develop it. As for Martinez, though, if he had even a mediocre run game to lean on, he’d be deadly.
Of course, to beat Oklahoma, Nebraska had to run the ball well between the tackles, and the simple truth is its offensive line was too rattled and too undisciplined to get it done. NU would have scored a touchdown on its first drive aside from four penalties by its offensive line. The Huskers couldn’t even crack the 100-yard mark in team rushing, mainly because their o-line allowed five sacks and 10 tackles for loss and committed a half-dozen penalties. It also caved on a blocked extra point that Oklahoma ran back the length of the field for two Sooner points.
Yes, there were the usual special-teams breakdowns, including a missed 35-yard field goal, things Nebraska fans have come to expect every week.
With all due respect to outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson (who also coordinates the kicking game), if Frost had hired an upper-echelon special-teams coach last winter, the Huskers just might be undefeated now. After the game, the main topic of conversation among FOX’s college football commentators (which included former OU coach Bob Stoops) was that the kicking game was the difference in the outcome.
A solid kicking game would indeed make a huge difference. Then again, if Greg Austin were getting the results that Chinander, Barrett Ruud and Travis Fisher are, the Husker would be a threat to win the Big Ten West.
Ahead loom the remaining eight conference games. The Huskers need to make a decisive run to offset the effects of the loss at Champaign, which stinks worse every week. They have a defense good enough to keep them within striking distance in every Big Ten game they play this season. They won’t win many of those eight without a dependable run game, though. What adjustments, if any, will they make to turn it up a notch?