Nebraska’s second attempt at a late scoring drive on Saturday night against Michigan started with such promise.
The stakes were higher this time around, to be sure, because the first attempt — a drive that began with 3 minutes flat remaining in a 29-all game against the No. 9 Wolverines — ended with a disastrous Adrian Martinez fumble that would have been even worse had the Husker defense not forced a field goal rather than surrender a touchdown.
So now Martinez is back on the field with his offense and 1:24 to go from their own 25-yard line. No timeouts left, three points ties the game instead of winning it.
In these situations, call them two-minute drills or clutch drives or whatever your preferred term, offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has some core tenets.
“It’s a combination of, as coaches, trying to put them in the best plan in terms of plays we think are going to work in the two-minute situation we’re going to have, and then the players having confidence enough to execute it by practice and repetition over and over and over again,” he said Tuesday.
NU started with one of Martinez’s favorite targets and one of Samori Toure’s favorite routes. The senior receiver, singled out to the left, ran a variation of a corner route and Martinez hit him for 25 yards.
The pair hooked up twice on similar patterns in a crisp 83-yard, two-minute scoring drive just before halftime against Fordham earlier this year. Different point of the game and different stakes, but a similar success.
Then the wheels fell off. Nebraska needed 20 yards to feel good about being in field goal range, though likely would have sent Connor Culp out to try to tie the game had the possession yielded even 15 more.
Four straight incompletions followed, however, and the Wolverines celebrated.
This has been the unsightly norm for Nebraska on offense in end-of-game situations. When a team plays as many close games as the Huskers do, there are going to be a lot of late, clutch situations. NU’s not been able to crack the code.
According to Journal Star stats, Nebraska has started a possession with less than four minutes remaining in regulation either tied or needing a score to tie or win in 13 different games over the past 3½ seasons.
The production on 16 total drives: three points and one win.
They came on the same date, when Noah Vedral hit Wan’Dale Robinson for 32 yards against Northwestern after a Lamar Jackson interception at midfield. Lane McCallum somehow sneaked a low field-goal attempt through the uprights for a walk-off, 13-10 win.
Even that drive was preceded by a Nebraska three-and-out from midfield that began with 3:08 remaining and ended with a punt, giving the Wildcats another chance, which Jackson snuffed out.
On the other 14 chances, Nebraska has turned the ball over on downs five times, turned it over four times, punted two other times, headed to overtime twice and ran out of time once. They've averaged 3.7 yards per play all told and failed to generate a first down eight times.
Two-minute chances, of course, come in all different shapes, sizes, situations and with a variety of success probabilities. Last year against Northwestern, Luke McCaffrey engineered a 13-play, 78-yard drive in the final 2:14 that got the Huskers to the doorstep, but NU turned it over on downs when a throw to Robinson at the goal line came up short.
Conversely, defensive line coach Tony Tuioti lamented the Blackshirts’ inability to get the ball back to its offense this year at Oklahoma. The Sooners got backed up all the way to their own 4-yard line with 5:37 to go and leading by seven, but managed to run all but the final 47 seconds off the clock. Going 83 yards with no timeouts in that amount of time? Not likely. Same with the task of going 87 yards in 54 seconds with no timeouts, as was the case Aug. 28 at Illinois.
Failure in the two-minute drill, in other words, comes for multiple reasons. But failure has been the overwhelming outcome for the Huskers late in games.
“There’s certain things that just are unacceptable. You saw one of them Saturday,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said Tuesday of his position’s performance during two-minute situations. “Can’t take a sack, get the ball out of bounds, all those sorts of things. It’s a little different profile for you when you’re in a two-minute situation.”
Verduzco's "unacceptable," naturally, was referring to Martinez’s fumble against the Wolverines. That also happened last year against Iowa. Nebraska had crossed midfield, trailing 26-20, when Chauncey Golston ripped through the Nebraska offensive line and sacked Martinez, forcing a fumble that the Hawkeyes recovered, sealing the game.
On Nebraska’s second chance Saturday, the finish proved anticlimactic.
The biggest miss came when Martinez threw high for senior Levi Falck, who had room to run on an underneath crossing route.
“They were pressuring him, right? So 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. “I think that flashed in his brain.”
Michigan pressured again on fourth-and-10. In fact, when the Huskers tried to hurry up to the line and snap the ball quickly — they went to a “tempo” play, which Lubick said means NU has an abbreviated signal so the offense can move quickly — the Wolverines responded by blitzing seven and leaving no help for four defensive backs against NU’s four receivers.
“There were coaches from their sideline blitzing as well,” Verduzco quipped.
“To be honest, that play, we could have executed a little better, but we had what we wanted,” Lubick said. “We had one-on-one and they played cover zero on us. If you’d asked me, ‘Hey, they’re going to play cover zero,' I might have had an inside-breaking route, but if you’d have told me they’re going to play fourth-and-10, cover zero, and we get one-on-one matchups, that play would have been at the top of my list.
“We just didn’t execute it the way we needed to execute it.”
NU ran a scissors concept with its two receivers working to create space for each other — similar to the ball Robinson caught in 2019 to set up the game-winning field goal and thrown to the same region of the field at Memorial Stadium — but Lubick said the “initial angle” that Toure and Oliver Martin took wasn’t enough to provide a natural rub and make the play difficult to defend. Martin got out ahead of Toure, who was bending his route to the outside.
“That’s a play we’ve rehearsed all the time in that kind of situation and, ideally, we thought we might get a rub on the perimeter and if we do, it’s probably a touchdown,” Verduzco said. “It didn’t happen that way.”
In a way, the late-game failures are emblematic of Nebraska’s struggle to hone details in general. A missed block here, a missed assignment by a receiver there. A missed throw by the quarterback or a struggle to play complementary football between the offense, defense and special teams.
“Be quick but don’t hurry, right?” Verduzco said of the challenge. “A couple weeks ago, (Green Bay Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers was playing the 49ers and, what did they have, 32 seconds? And it was just like, (two) passes, field goal, they win the game. But that’s from years of experience and so on and so forth and being around the same kind of guys that he’s always had.”
The odd part: Nebraska’s actually scored touchdowns in two-minute situations going into halftime in each of its three wins this year.
Those drives look like this: nine plays and 83 yards in 1:58 against Fordham, four and 80 in 58 seconds against Buffalo, and five and 59 in a minute flat against Northwestern.
“I think we’re a really good two-minute team,” Toure said. “I feel like we’ve shown that throughout the year. There has been multiple games where, whether it is right before halftime or at the end of the game, in two-minute (situations) where we are moving the ball and everyone’s aware of the situation."
For Nebraska this year, the only payoff has come before halftime, and the Huskers have also allowed two opponents (Illinois and Michigan) to score before halftime after failed two-minute drives.
Bottom line: Over Frost’s tenure at Nebraska, close games have led to game-winning and game-tying drive opportunities, and the Huskers haven’t been able to get over the hump. Saturday might have been the best chance yet.
“When all you need is a field goal and you get 25 yards on the first play, you've got to like those odds,” Toure said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it done. It’s something we’re going to have to work on.”