LINCOLN — As much as you wanted to see the signs Saturday in Lincoln, it just wasn’t there.
All the hype about a great offense led by a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, a defense bolstered by a deep defensive line, a better off-season in the weight room, and another year in Scott Frost’s system, and instant favorite to win the Big Ten west.
That’s not where Nebraska football finds itself at the moment.
This is more than a two-year reclamation project for Frost, anyone who believed otherwise doesn’t understand how far this program had fallen.
Looking beyond the big picture, this was a bad offensive performance and Nebraska still found a way to win with outstanding defense.
That’s a good thing.
“I didn’t know if we’d be a little over confident or not confident enough,” Frost said about his offense. “I just don’t think we executed very well for whatever reason and we’ll get it figured out.”
As shocking as it sounds, Nebraska’s offense was a non-factor in a 35-21 win over South Alabama.
“It’s no secret as an offense we played very poor,” sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez said.
“As an offense it’s unacceptable. Offensively we need to be a lot better. We really came out good in fall camp. This week in practice we could have had a couple more better days. We learned this lesson last year. We’ve got to be consistent. I think it’s a good lesson for this offense going forward. I think it’s good we can get this out in a win. Obviously our offense didn’t come to play the way we wanted it to.
“There’s no excuse. That’s football. It’s not going to go perfect. No matter the situation you have to be ready to play. I didn’t do a good job of it. There were four or five throws I could have made. I obviously threw an interception. This falls on me. A lot of guys did their jobs on offense today and I didn’t. We’ll get it fixed.”
That was perhaps the shock of the day in college football — a feckless Scott Frost offense.
After all, it was a given the Martinez-led offense would be tough to stop — regardless of the supporting cast.
Heading into the fourth quarter against what was a 3-9 squad in 2018, Nebraska clung to a 28-21 lead.
Pretty sure this was not what anyone associated with the program had in mind.
We’ve heard plenty of talk about how far NU has come from season one to season two with this new coaching staff — and not saying there hasn’t been progress — but expectations were this Nebraska team should be able to take apart a lesser opponent early and put it on cruise control in the second half.
The Nebraska offense wasn’t good, Martinez looked indecisive and frankly not as explosive as he was as a freshman. Nebraska finished with just 276 total yards of offense.
On defense, Nebraska looks faster and deeper — as advertised — and made plays when it needed to, minus a busted pass coverage in the third quarter that led to a South Alabama touchdown.
NU now has playmakers on that side of the ball — lots of them.
You get the feeling this unit has taken a step forward. NU had five takeaways in the game, a fumble recovery by defensive end Carlos Davis in the first half, an interception return for a touchdown and another interception by safety Eric Lee in the second half, a fumble recovery for a touchdown by linebacker Alex Davis and an interception by Cam Taylor in the fourth quarter.
For goodness sake, Nebraska won the turnover battle 5-2.
But the offensive struggle is alarming.
Whether you attribute that to a ton of new faces in the two-deep on the Nebraska roster, those game-one butterflies or another round of over-the-top hype emerging from another Husker pre-season, NU’s offense just didn’t physically take over the game.
You kind of expected the Husker offense — even with a bevy of young players — to play fast, make explosive plays and even control the line of scrimmage.
It didn’t happen — not even close.
Martinez was less than spectacular, the running back spot showed little fire power and the offensive line lacked a push. That unit struggled against a feisty South Alabama defensive line — though certainly not at a level with the Wisconsins and Ohio States of the world. Nebraska managed just 98 yards rushing and zero explosive plays.
NU appears to be woefully thin at wide receiver. This offense clicks when Martinez spreads the ball around and there was no indication Nebraska has enough options to do that just yet. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson showed great explosiveness out of the backfield and at wide receiver, but Nebraska will need to find other playmakers, including Martinez using his feet when he can.
Dedrick Mills is a solid back, but it doesn’t appear he’s going to be a game-breaker for Nebraska.
The offense started to find a little traction in the running game in the second half when coaches inserted Maurice Washington into the game. He carried the ball six times for just 39 yards after not playing in the first half.
Needless to say, Nebraska’s offensive line struggled all game long. At no time in this game did South Alabama’s defensive front look tired. In fact, as the game went along they were able to clamp down on the Husker offense with relative ease.
Is Nebraska’s offense fixable?
It’s a fair question when you consider outside of Maurice Washington not starting against South Alabama, the personnel on this offense is what it is. There are no missing pieces at the moment.
The silver lining is Nebraska’s defense was on the field a lot on Saturday, and this unit got after the quarterback and forced a number of big turnovers.
It had that old Blackshirt-dominance feel again.
Remember, this is a young defense with a lot of good talent. You get the feeling the Blackshirts will continue to improve.
Not so sure about this offense.