Flags an ongoing hindrance as Huskers lead nation in penalty yards
LINCOLN — Nebraska has committed double-digit penalties in all five of its games this season. So, yeah, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said, it’s been frustrating.
The numbers have been uglier than an ill-timed block in the back. NU is last in the country in penalty yards per game (97.4) and next-to-last in flags per game (10.4). The total includes 14 personal fouls (nine defensive) and 10 offensive holding calls. It spans 29 different players whistled for infractions. It’s spread evenly throughout quarters. The offense has 24 penalties for 198 yards, with the defense (15 for 182) and special teams (13 for 107) not far behind.
“We deserve a lot of the ones we got,” Frost said. “We deserve the ones that were dumb decisions and selfish decisions.”
The coach said his offense has traditionally been flagged frequently in part because of its quick tempo and the volume of plays it produces. Lately, he said, it’s that plus poor technique on the offensive line along with lazy or self-focused play.
NU committed 10 penalties for 100 yards Saturday at Wisconsin. Many of those included chunks of extra hidden yardage that nullified and brought back big plays or returns.
“You just can’t win with the amount of penalties that we had,” offensive lineman Matt Farniok said. “We want to do our jobs the best we can. If it’s a penalty, it’s a penalty. But we’re going to move on, we’re going to keep fighting.”
Spielman coming alive
It was about midway through fall camp, and Frost was worried about JD Spielman.
The Nebraska coach had heard about the 5-foot-9, 185-pound sparkplug and seen his numbers from the 2017 season. But he had yet to witness what Spielman could really do himself — the sophomore was hurt through spring and a little tentative in fall camp. He definitely hadn’t been NU’s best player in workouts.
“About two weeks before the first game, I think it clicked for him with our offense,” Frost said. “He just completely changed and started being dominant on the practice field. Boy, he’s been a playmaker for us.”
Spielman has exploded of late, accounting for 19 catches, 344 yards and three touchdowns combined against Purdue and Wisconsin the past two weeks. His 209-yard performance in Madison broke his own school record for receiving yards in a game.
The son of Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager, is also the second player in school history with consecutive 130-yard receiving games, and his 92.2 per-game average this season ranks 21st nationally.
When informed Spielman doesn’t talk much with reporters, Frost said with a grin that the receiver is pretty quiet with coaches, too. But Nebraska needs a lot more players like him.
“We had a lot of good schemes for him in the pass game,” Frost said. “When we called his number, he made a play.”
Nebraska coaches and players brought up a pair of observations Monday about their next opponent: Northwestern is a team in transition and won’t self-destruct.
To the first point, the Wildcats are working through their options on offense after running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football last month. The team had averaged 3.19 yards per rush in three games before his announcement but is pacing at just 0.66 (36 rushing yards on 54 carries) since playing Michigan and Michigan State.
Meanwhile, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 47 passes for 373 yards last week to help knock off a ranked Spartans group on the road.
“Probably had as much to do with Michigan State as anything, but they found a way to get it done throwing,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “I think time will tell how much their scheme’s going to change based on not having (Larkin).”
Northwestern is also the opposite extreme to Nebraska in that its per-game average in penalty yards (34.2) and penalties (3.2) rank sixth and tied for first nationally.
“They’re definitely a talented team, very disciplined,” NU cornerback Eric Lee said. “They’re going to bring their ‘A’ game like Wisconsin. They don’t beat themselves so that’s just something we’re going to have to do is make sure we don’t beat ourselves as well and bring our ‘A’ game.”
Looking for more hot hands
Nebraska is in desperate need of a third, productive wide receiver.
Mike Williams still believes he can be that guy.
The junior college transfer from East Mississippi Community College said if he were a coach, he’d stick with heavy passing schemes to Spielman and Stanley Morgan, too.
“They have the hot hands,” Williams said.
But he’d like more opportunities to show that he deserves more playing time. Williams currently has four catches for 51 yards this season. Three of those came against Colorado in Nebraska’s opener.
“I know I can do it, but like I said, the opportunity hasn’t presented itself for me to do it,” Williams said.
Right now, the third starting wide receiver is walk-on Kade Warner. Williams was a starter but was replaced by Warner earlier in the season.
“I think just like Coach (Troy) Walters said, it’s just find that guy other than Stanley and JD to make a play,” Williams said. “When the opportunity presents itself, I feel like whoever is in at that point in time will be ready to make that play.”
Inside ’backer spot thin
Nebraska is pretty banged up all around. So the Huskers didn’t practice in pads on Monday.
But they are especially slim at the inside linebacker spot. Transfer Will Honas is out for the year, starter Mohamed Barry is dealing with some soreness and starter Dedrick Young was taken out of last week’s game against Wisconsin.
That leaves sophomore Collin Miller and walk-on Jacob Weinmaster.
“Yeah, I’m so thankful for the opportunities,” Weinmaster said. “Just coming ready to work every day and preparing like you’re the starter, everyone’s gotta do it. Because you never know when your name is going to get called.”
Frost has praised Weinmaster’s play, especially recently, and said Monday that he’d feel comfortable should he start against Northwestern on Saturday.
» Depth chart movement wasn’t nearly as drastic as last week, but there were still noticeable changes Monday to begin Northwestern preparation.
The headliner was at punter, where junior walk-on Isaac Armstrong replaced Caleb Lightbourn, a junior whose 25 consecutive starts rank second on the team. There’s a new No. 1 at kickoff returner, where Maurice Washington takes over for Jaron Woodyard.
At slot receiver, Wyatt Mazour and true freshman Miles Jones now share the “OR” designation behind starter Spielman. Now-departed Tyjon Lindsey had held the second spot. Devine Ozigbo continues to have the top honor at running back but is now backed up solely by Washington, who had shared the No. 2 spot with the transferring Greg Bell.
» Lee said he likes the “open communication” of planning defensive schemes. He said players have more feedback this year than in the past, with their suggestions often prompting coaches to add or subtract elements of any given game strategy.
» Barret Pickering said his 54-yard field goal that came up short during the Purdue game was a result of trying to drive the ball too hard instead of trusting his leg strength. Pickering said he’s made field goals from 55 yards in practice.
» Nebraska’s players came closer together in the last week, Frost said, as the team rid itself of “culture killers” and focused on “culture keepers” and “culture promoters.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to lose a few guys to get to that point, sometimes you’ve got to bench a few guys to get to that point,” he said. “Whatever it takes for the guys to understand.”
» NU will play its only regular-season game on grass this weekend at Northwestern. Nebraska has not mown its grass fields since last Thursday, Frost said, to prepare for the long, often mucky turf at Ryan Field.