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Know Your Opponent: Week 4, Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Question marks remain for Scott Frost’s second season, but the Husker rebuild appears to be right on schedule.

Michigan State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The prodigal son returned to Lincoln last year, but last year proved that it’ll take at least a little time for him to lead the Huskers back to the promised land of bowl eligibility. The Scott Frost era got off to a cold start, with Scott Frost Day having to wait until the Huskers’ seventh game. To be fair, their very winnable first game against Akron was rained out, and the next five games were not cupcakes for Nebraska.

The Huskers’ back half of the 2018 season was a very nice turnaround, finishing 4-2. Even their losses were promising, losing by five at Ohio State and by three at Iowa. No getting lambasted by Maryland. No 63-0.

For a rebuilding program, it was the best 4-8 season a fan could could hope for: tangible improvement through the season, and no ultra-embarrassing losses near the end of the campaign. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ had them as the highest ranked 4-8 team in the nation for the 2018 season at 49th (the second best was the Illini at 97th). They pulled in the 18th best recruiting class this offseason according to the 247 composite rankings. Frost seems to have the ship pointed in the right direction.


Offense

The Huskers lose some major contributors on offense, but having a Heisman candidate at quarterback will cover up most deficiencies. Adrian Martinez threw for 2,617 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for 629 yards and eight more scores last year as a freshman. Add in another year of experience with Scott Frost, and it’s not difficult to see why most oddsmakers in Vegas give him the third highest chances at taking home the Heisman behind only Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa.

He won’t have his main weapons from 2018 surrounding him: Devine Ozigbo — their leading rusher with 1082 yards — graduated, as did Stanley Morgan Jr., who put up 1004 yards and seven touchdowns this past season.

However, a few talented Huskers seem primed to take their place. Running back Maurice Washington had 789 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman, so he seems to be the best candidate to help make up for the loss of Ozigbo. Slot receiver JD Spielman returns for his junior year after putting up 818 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Add in Kanawai Noi, a transfer from Cal, Ken’Dale Robinson, the top-rated all-purpose back in the nation for the incoming freshman class, and the 2019 Huskers offense should be very high powered, especially under Scott Frost.

The Huskers’ offensive line loses two main contributors. Starting left guard Jerald Foster and center Tanner Farmer both graduate, along with backup center Cole Conrad. However, despite these worries, the offensive line was a strength for Nebraska last year, and they have some decent, if untested, depth to work with.


Defense

We’ll start with the positives with the Husker defensive line this past season: they return most of their contributors from last year, and they were fairly young. The bad news is that they weren’t very good last year. They finished 112th in both rushing S&P+ and adjusted sack rate in 2018. A bright spot may be defensive end Ben Stille who had five sacks as a sophomore. Transfer nose guard Darrion Daniels is coming in from Oklahoma State to help shore up the line. I don’t want to write the defensive line off because they were so young last year, but I don’t expect the Nebraska defense to be strongest up front.

The Husker linebacking corps should be a fairly bright spot on the defensive side of the ball. They return leading tackler Mohammed Berry for his senior season, and they bring in Nick Henrich, an in-state four-star recruit.

The secondary is a bit of an enigma. It was the strength of the Nebraska defense in 2018, but their top three safeties all graduated. Look for four-star freshman Noa Pola-Gates to possibly step into that void and contribute. First-ballot all-name team corner Dicaprio Bootle returns after leading the team in pass breakups with 15, as does their version of Lamar Jackson who had seven to go with a pair of picks.

Overall, their defense wasn’t bad last year (55th in S&P+), but it wasn’t Nebraska’s strength. With the improvements on the offensive side of the ball, if they just match last year’s production, it could be a very good year for Nebraska Cornhusker Football.


Special Teams

The Cornhusker kickers all return from last year. Both Isaac Armstrong and Caleb Lightfoot return for their senior season after splitting time punting this past year. Barret Pickering is back for his sophomore season after going 40-41 on PATs and 14-18 on FGs.

Ok, I read all that, but this is an Illini blog, so tell me about them too.

Alright, fair enough. Nebraska currently leads the series at 12-3-1, and they also have posted a 5-1 record against the Illini in Big Ten play (the 14-13 win with that Geronimo Allison last-minute touchdown). Last season, the Huskers defeated the Illini 54-35 in Lincoln. In it, the Illini fumbled three times, twice on muffed punts, and AJ Bush was picked off twice. The offense was moving the ball, the defense was getting stops, but the Illini still managed to shoot themselves in the foot. I know it’s a very Beckman-y thing to say, but take away those muffed punts, and it’s a very tight game in the end.

This year’s game at the objectively superior Memorial Stadium will likely be another shootout with both offenses being pretty good and both defenses being suspect. Bill Connelly’s magic numbers predict a 7.9 point margin of victory for Nebraska and 68 percent win probability for the Huskers. Although unlikely, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Illini could pull off a victory on Sept. 21, and seeing the path the Nebraska Cornhuskers are on under Scott Frost, it’s likely going to be the Illini’s best shot to beat Nebraska for a good while.