LINCOLN — Fourth-and-10 at midfield, clock dipping just below a minute, Nebraska trailing by three and needing 15 yards to reach the outer edge of field goal range.
NU’s final offensive play against Michigan moved with the speed of an urgent, organized fire drill.
The Wolverines crowded seven at the line of scrimmage. Because NU had three wideouts and a tight end spread across the field, this mass of Michigan men represented a “zero blitz” — or a “casino blitz” as some coaches call it because you’re bringing the house. It left four defensive backs in one-on-one coverage. Zero help. Zero blitz.
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick salivated. He called a combination of wheel and curl routes for both sides of the formation, with receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage to create a “rub” that should have given his guys an advantage.
“We had what we wanted,” Lubick said Tuesday, “we had a one-on-one.”
But he also added a caveat.
“I might have had an inside breaking route,” he said.
Michigan’s zero blitz left the middle of the field emptier than a fumigated office. Adrian Martinez got pressure from all angles, especially to his back side, and lofted a deep pass down the Michigan sideline for Samori Touré, who was blanketed by the Wolverines’ best corner Daxton Hill at the UM 20.
Hill had inside leverage, which meant the correct pass to Touré would have been a back-shoulder throw away from Hill and toward the sideline. Martinez rushed and threw it up the sideline. Hill walled off Touré. Game over.
“The timing of the two receivers running the route — the one guy went a little faster than the other,” Lubick said of the route’s execution between Touré and Oliver Martin, who missed four games with an injury. “If we’d been a little bit tighter, we would have had better leverage on the outside route.”
If NU had been a little tighter on the route. A little slower as it rushed. A little more patient before the snap to survey the blitz and audible to a slant route for that empty space.
These issues bedevil Nebraska’s offense in the Scott Frost era — in the red zone, two-minute drill and other situations that resemble a complex escape room. For all the intricate play designs that confuse defenses and produce 30-yard plays — only one team has more of those than Nebraska this season — there are knuckle-biting series of events where the pegs and holes don’t line up.
That’s a natural outgrowth of an offense that — unlike NU’s steadier, seasoned defense — is consistently creative and constantly in flux.
Nebraska has had three starting running backs and five with more than 20 carries. A different combination of receivers has started in each game, and one receiver who started against Oklahoma didn’t log a snap against Michigan. The offensive line has had three starting combinations — soon to be a fourth against Minnesota — and because of injuries, NU has played five tight ends when games are still in doubt.
At the end of the Michigan game, two of NU’s best 50/50-ball receivers — Zavier Betts and Omar Manning — weren’t on the field. Betts was “banged up,” Lubick said. But Manning?
“Omar was — it was just kind of the rotation,” Lubick said. “We feel like the other guys — Omar made a good catch early on. As the game went on, it was kind of the guys who were hot.”
Lubick, also the receivers coach, is given some latitude from Frost to make personnel calls for his position. He and running backs coach Ryan Held are NU’s eyes in the skybox.
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, who had been up in the box, moved down to the field to work with Martinez. All agree the switch has been good so Martinez can be coached through a situational checklist of sorts between series.
Verduzco has to find a spot on the field to watch — far away from the action — then listen to Frost and Lubick over the headset to know how the next series might line up.
Asked this week how he likes the setup, Verduzco looked down for a second.
“Uh, yeah, I think it’s been, I think it’s been — you guys asked me this last time — I think it’s been beneficial for Adrian, because it’s more hands-on for me,” Verduzco said. “I can give him reminders all the way through.”
Verduzco can also get information from Martinez firsthand. For example, the costly overthrow on the third-to-last offensive play of the game was a byproduct of Michigan’s clever decision to overload a pressure with its two best defenders, Hill and Aidan Hutchinson, rushing next to each other.
“He was trying to get that thing thrown hot, and it probably caught him a little bit by surprise because I think, in his brain, he thought he was protected,” Verduzco said.
The pass went inches high of Levi Falck.
“Damn,” Martinez said seconds after the play, captured by ABC cameras.
How often has Falck been the crossing route in that moment? How often has Rahmir Johnson — the pass-blocking running back — seen that Michigan blitz? Johnson went to help on the opposite side of the formation instead of working toward where Hill blitzed. On third down, how often has left guard Nouredin Nouili had to hoof it out on a screen pass thrown 4 yards from the sideline?
Execution — guided by continuity — takes time that Nebraska has in shorter supply with five games left this season.
“We’ve been battling just trying to get this thing cranked up,” Verduzco said. “And we’re close, and, God, it’s just heartbreaking sometimes.”
After each game this season, The World-Herald's Sam McKewon will hand out his Husker Report Card, assessing Nebraska's performance in several areas. Here are the grades coming out of the Minnesota game.