Here are five of the biggest questions still facing Nebraska as it gets ready for its new home opener against Penn State this week.
1. Will there be a quarterback change?
The question that lingered all offseason now has never seemed more real, as Nebraska’s quarterback situation is at a tipping point following the loss at Northwestern.
Rather than mix in redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey in a variety of roles like he did at Ohio State, head coach Scott Frost instead kept him strictly as a quarterback on Saturday.
Adrian Martinez got the start, as expected, but after nearly three full quarters of missed opportunities and one big mistake – an interception in the end zone late in the third – Frost made the move to give the keys to McCaffrey for the rest of the day.
That included keeping McCaffrey in when the game was on the line in the final minutes and NU needed a touchdown to stay alive. McCaffrey marched the Huskers down the field and fell a last-second pass shy from potentially sending the game to overtime.
Frost declined to comment much on the quarterback situation going forward after the game other than reiterating that he felt good with either player running the offense. But with what went down in Evanston, it’s hard to see Nebraska waiting much longer to name McCaffrey the guy.
2. What is Cam Jurgens’ injury status?
It wasn’t until Nebraska took Ryan Field for pre-game warmups that we learned it would be without starting center Cam Jurgens vs. Northwestern.
Jurgens apparently suffered an injury against Ohio State and had practiced on a limited basis over the next two weeks. He did not make the trip to Evanston, and that left the Huskers having to shake up their offensive line at multiple spots to fill his void.
Frost decided to replace Jurgens with senior Matt Farniok, who had just moved from right tackle to right guard this offseason and made his first start at center on Saturday.
Senior Boe Wilson, NU’s No. 1 left guard, took over for Farniok on the right side, and redshirt freshman Ethan Piper made his first career start at left guard.
The revamped line held its own, for the most part, but Jurgens’ absence was pretty noticeable, especially in the interior run game.
Nebraska needs all hands on deck to finally earn that desperately needed first victory.
3. Can Nebraska play a clean game?
It doesn’t much matter who Nebraska is playing week to week if it continues to find one way after another to shoot itself in the foot.
For the second straight game, the Huskers continuously set themselves back with dumb penalties – nine, to be exact – while turning the ball over twice deep in Northwestern territory.
Nebraska has now committed 17 penalties and four turnovers through its first two games this season. That doesn’t even include three other fumbles NU managed to recover.
The Huskers aren’t going to beat anyone making that amount of self-inflicted mistakes week-in and week-out, and nothing will change in the final results until those are fixed.
4. How will the Huskers fix their red zone woes?
Nebraska’s offense, aside from the penalties and turnovers, played well enough to beat Northwestern.
The Huskers racked up 442 yards of total offense, averaged 5.2 yards per rush, and had 28 first downs. More often than not, those numbers lead to victories.
But all of those yards came up empty when all was said and done, as NU managed a whopping 13 points as a result.
Nebraska was dismal inside the red zone, scoring just one touchdown on six trips inside the Wildcats’ 20-yard line and seven inside the 25.
The one touchdown drive was one play for three yards, as Dedrick Mills’ scoring run was set up by an interception and runback by Myles Farmer.
Frost put all of the blame for the numerous missed opportunities squarely on his shoulders, so he’s well aware of how critical it is for a team like his – which has zero margin for error – to capitalize in those situations.
5. Which team is more desperate?
Saturday will (hopefully) finally mark Nebraska’s 2020 home opener, and it couldn’t pit two teams more desperate for a win against each other.
Since beating Northwestern at home last year on Oct. 5, 2019, the Huskers are just 1-7 over their last eight games.
This week’s opponent, Penn State, is also in turmoil after dropping to 0-3 this season in an embarrassing 35-19 loss to Maryland that wasn’t nearly as close as the score might indicate.
So what’s going to give?
It’s still early enough for both teams to turn their respective seasons around, even with only five games still (tentatively) remaining.
Saturday’s loser, however, will fall into a hole that could prove too deep to climb out. This is about as must-win of a week as could be for both teams, and every coach and player on the field will know it.
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