Nebraska’s offensive outing Saturday against Buffalo was, to use a technical term, weird.
The Huskers compiled 516 total yards on just 61 snaps, good for 8.5 yards per play, the third-best single-game mark under fourth-year head coach Scott Frost behind only 9.0 against Minnesota and 8.9 against Illinois in 2018.
The biggest difference in those games? NU scored 53 and 54 points, respectively.
On this day, the Huskers scratched out just 28 despite the per-play efficiency.
That is in part because slightly more than half (261) of Nebraska’s offensive production came on four plays — quarterback Adrian Martinez’s 71-yard scramble in the second quarter, his two 68-yard touchdown strikes to Samori Toure and a late 54-yard completion from Logan Smothers to tight end Chris Hickman — and in part because Nebraska squandered scoring opportunities that harmed only the margin of victory on this day.
The Huskers had the ball in good field position on every one of their possessions against the Bulls and generated nine scoring opportunities. They ended in four touchdowns, three missed field goals and two punts — both followed touchdowns being wiped off the board due to penalties.
It could be argued the offense left 27 points on the field due to missed kicks and penalties, though the number more safely sits at 20 since a hold on Bryce Benhart did appear to enable one of the touchdown passes that got taken away. The other penalty, offensive pass interference on Wyatt Liewer, was on the opposite side of the field from what appeared to be a touchdown pass to Toure and had no bearing on the action.
“It’s hard to complain about a game against a good team where you win by three scores and have 500 yards on offense or whatever we had, but it didn’t feel like that and I wasn’t satisfied, so we have work to do,” Frost said.
So, what to make of the outing then? One takeaway is that Martinez has played extremely well in back-to-back weeks. Against Fordham and Buffalo, the junior quarterback completed a combined 30-of-42 passes for 496 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 145 and two more scores. Even better, he played turnover-free and really only put the ball in jeopardy one time — a fumble recovered on the second snap against the Rams — in nearly 120 plays.
The question, of course, becomes whether he can keep that up with a big jump in competition inbound from Oklahoma. Even against Buffalo, Martinez dealt with significant traffic in the pocket. He navigated it well, but the OU athletes — and then the Michigan State front seven after that — will be more dangerous than the Bulls.
“It’s hard to explain outside of just having that awareness of where those guys are in space and time and when they are bringing pressure and when they aren’t,” Martinez said. “I had a really good feel (against Buffalo) and it’s maintaining the calm feet and pocket awareness and having the trust that I can get out of any situation back there.”
The other takeaway is this: Nebraska essentially played a well-managed game Saturday. It wasn’t exactly a ball-control approach — the home team had it for 28 minutes and UB for 32 and Buffalo ran 22 more plays than Nebraska — but the offense helped the defense and vice versa.
In fact, the only time Buffalo started outside its own 25-yard line in 14 possessions was when Nebraska’s punt-return unit had a disastrous play for the third straight week. And the Blackshirts coaxed a missed field goal out of that situation.
Otherwise, Erik Chinander’s group had plenty of green at their backs for most of the day and used it to their advantage. UB running back Kevin Marks ripped off one run of 30 yards on a third-and-1, but other than that the Bulls’ longest play was 21 yards, a completion just before halftime.
That’s a continuation of a solid trend for NU, which allowed just five chunk plays against Buffalo after eight from Fordham and six by Illinois. In 2020, the Huskers allowed an average of 9.6 and in 2019 an average of 10.8.
Now, the Huskers have not yet faced a truly dangerous offense. That changes radically on Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma.
What Nebraska showed Saturday against Buffalo is part of the formula for success: Win the field-position game, make the Sooners go the length of the field, limit big plays, operate turnover-free and generate some big hits of your own.
There are still critical pieces missing, though. The Huskers will likely have to do all of that plus avoid the big special teams mistake, kick the ball through the uprights, do better than nine penalties for 71 yards (Buffalo certainly didn’t help itself with 10-for-88) and generate more push up front to help their young backfield get going.
* The competition-level caveat is clear, but if Martinez plays like he has the past two weeks, he’s going to help keep Nebraska in a lot of games this fall.
Consider this: Martinez didn’t take a sack Saturday even though he had faced pressure upward of 10 times in 24 dropbacks. Five times he scrambled for a total of 90 yards (highlighted by the 71-yard jolt in the second quarter), even a couple of the incompletions that, if you’re being greedy, you’d like to see Martinez hit, could easily have been negative plays without Martinez’s mobility and speed.
The junior certainly looks healthy and looks a step faster this fall, as coaches and teammates said throughout camp.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder overall has 34 carries for 256 yards (7.5 per) through three games. His sack-adjusted rushing looks like this: 28 carries for 293 (10.5 per carry) and three touchdowns.
He is also averaging a career-best 9.8 yards per passing attempt so far and has not yet turned the ball over in 74 passing attempts. Four passing touchdowns match his eight-game total from 2020, and Saturday marked his first game with multiple touchdown passes since Nov. 23, 2019, at Maryland.
* The first touchdown pass to Toure was good recognition of man coverage with no safety help, and Toure made a shoulder fake to run past his defender up the middle of the field. The second 68-yard scoring connection, NU used motion to get Toure matched up with safety Marcus Fuqua, who turned to run on the snap but was already essentially beat down the field.
* A decidedly nonexpert take, but Saturday looked like the best Nebraska’s inside linebacking trio has played, and by some margin. Luke Reimer had a big day, of course, but Nick Henrich (eight tackles) appeared to play well and Chris Kolarevic (four) looks more comfortable than he did a couple of weeks ago.
* Senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann is playing off the ball a ton as Nebraska essentially plays mostly in a 4-3 or variations of one, but he’s finding more and more ways to make plays as the season progresses. On Saturday, he knifed up to stop a completion for a negative play, closed ground on UB quarterback Kyle Vantrease quickly to force a fourth-down throwaway and sniffed out a misdirection play (something he’s become very good at) as part of a five-tackle day.
* Chinander showed what looked like a new personnel group at one point against Buffalo on a third-and-11, with Ty Robinson, Ben Stille and Pheldarius Payne up front, Luke Reimer and Caleb Tannor at linebacker and then essentially a dime look in the secondary with Domann, safeties Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams and all three of Cam Taylor-Britt, Quinton Newsome and Braxton Clark at corner.
Might see more of that against the Sooners.
* At one point, too, NU had Payne and Garrett Nelson lined up as essentially inside linebackers and both rushed the passer from there. Unique, perhaps one-off look, but maybe OU will have to scout it.
* Nouredin Nouili got a couple of snaps at right guard in the third quarter when starter Matt Sichterman cramped up. As it happens, NU ran the ball well that drive but stalled out when Martinez was pressured on back-to-back snaps.
In other offensive line work, Brant Banks got a series at left guard early in the fourth quarter with the rest of the starting offensive line in. Then, No. 2 left tackle Teddy Prochazka and center Trent Hixson joined starting left guard Ethan Piper and right tackle Bryce Benhart for the 68-yard TD pass with 5 minutes, 53 seconds, to go.
Once the full No. 2 offensive line was in, it looked the same as last week left to right: Prochazka, Banks, Hixon, Nouili and Ezra Miller.