Expectations for Nebraska football coming off a 4-8 record in Scott Frost’s first season skyrocketed when the program was ranked 24th in the preseason poll this year.
Suddenly, the Cornhuskers went from rebuilding to a popular Big Ten West Division champion pick.
The jump in Frost’s second year centered on Adrian Martinez and JD Spielman making a case to be the Big Ten’s top quarterback-receiver tandem, along with anticipated defensive improvements. They haven’t necessarily lived up to that hype yet. Losses to Colorado in the second game of the season and by 41 points at home vs. No. 5 Ohio State on Sept. 28 knocked Nebraska from the Top 25 discussion.
Still, the Cornhuskers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) enter Saturday’s game vs. the Gophers (5-0, 2-0) at TCF Bank Stadium with a chance to surpass the number of victories they had all last year. Overcoming undisclosed injuries to Martinez and Spielman to beat Northwestern 13-10 last Saturday was a confidence boost. Spoiling Minnesota’s undefeated record now might just get Frost’s squad back in the title hunt before getting to rest during a bye week.
“It’s a one-week season,” Frost told reporters. “Whatever our guys got, they need to pour it into this week to give us the best chance.”
Will Martinez and Spielman, a former Eden Prairie standout, be healthy enough to play Saturday? As of midweek, Frost hadn’t revealed their injuries or how healthy they are, other than saying his two offensive stars are “all right.”
Neither of them played in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, but backup quarterback Noah Vedral and receiver Wan’Dale Robinson stepped up to lead the Cornhuskers to victory in the game’s final minute. The biggest play of a six-play, 42-yard drive was Vedral’s 32-yard pass to Robinson. Lane McCallum’s 24-yard field goal won the game as time expired.
Nebraska’s offense minus its stars relied heavily on Robinson, who had 186 all-purpose yards (123 receiving on seven catches). The Big Ten Freshman of the Week helped his team generate just enough offense against a stifling Northwestern defense.
Frost got a huge lift when it counted from his defense, which faced heavy criticism when it gave up a combined 82 points in losses to Ohio State and Colorado.
“We got to be a little bit more consistent,” Frost said about the defense. “But there’s definitely been some vast improvement. And the majority of time this year, I’ve been really pleased with our play.”
Much of the talk about the strength of Nebraska has focused on the offense, but Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said the defense he’ll face is formidable, especially on the line.
“This is going to be the biggest and strongest D-line we’ve played all year up to this point,” Fleck said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us up front. We know that, and their linebacking corps is deep. Their secondary has been around for a while.”
If meeting or surpassing preseason expectations means winning the Big Ten West, the first big step for the Cornhuskers toward achieving that goal will be defeating Minnesota for the second consecutive year Saturday. They won 53-28 in Lincoln last season.
Beating the Gophers helped to springboard Nebraska to win four of its last six games — and be picked entering the 2019 season to be the surprise contender in the division.
That distinction arguably belongs to the unbeaten Gophers right now, but Frost’s team has an opportunity to prove otherwise.