Week 0 Recap - Why Nebraska is Nearing Eternal Irrelevance
by Aaron Lynn
College Football returned on Saturday in what is referred to as "Week 0", since the vast majority of teams begin their seasons over Labor Day weekend. Nine FBS teams kicked off a week early, and let me tell you, it is absolutely wonderful to have college football back. Certain fanbases are probably not quite as happy, though...
Game 1 - (0-1) Nebraska Cornhuskers 22 @ (1-0) Illinois Fighting Illini 30
In a game that was the earliest Big Ten conference game ever in terms of the day on the calendar, the Fighting Illini won their first game of the Bret Bielema era. It certainly looked like a Bielema team, as Illinois controlled the time of possession (34:55 ILL, 25:05 NEB), and ran the ball on 48 of their 67 snaps. Starting quarterback Brandon Peters was injured early, and Art Sitkowski, a transfer from Rutgers, stepped in and the offense didn't miss a beat.
Meanwhile, mistakes derailed Nebraska's opener. The Cornhuskers gifted Illinois with the first 2 points of the 2021 season by an inexplicable punt return that resulted in a safety. Later in the game, Nebraska picked off Sitowski, but that interception was negated by a roughing the passer penalty and a 15-yard taunting penalty, which meant that what should have been an interception resulted in a 30-yard gain for the Illini and an eventual touchdown. Nebraska found themselves behind 30-9 with 4:01 left in the 3rd quarter but battled back. Quarterback Adrian Martinez ripped off a 75-yard touchdown and Nebraska put another touchdown drive together late with 2:41 remaining in the game but missed their second extra point of the day. Illinois eventually ran the clock out to win 30-22 and to defeat Nebraska for the second time in a row.
Takeaways for Illinois: It's clear that the team has bought in to the Bret Bielema scheme. The former Wisconsin head coach inherits a deep running back room which carried the ball a combined 48 times. The Brandon Peters injury was very concerning, but thankfully, it appears Peters could be back as early as the next game against UTSA. Overall, it's an excellent win for an Illinois program beginning a rebuild under Bielema. The Illini have the most "super seniors" (athletes who are taking advantage of a fifth year of eligibility provided by an NCAA Covid-related waiver) in the entire country. I still think the ceiling is four or five wins for this team, but they should be competitive in the vast majority of their games.
Takeaways for Nebraska: Oh my... where to begin. This game could not have been more of a disaster. Head coach Scott Frost is entering his fourth year with the program after leading UCF to an undefeated season where the Knights claimed a National Championship. That success hasn't carried over to Nebraska yet, as Frost and company have yet to reach .500 or a bowl game. Nebraska has high expectations and Frost's job is likely on the line this season. It wasn't just that the Cornhuskers lost to a team that has been one of the worst in the Big Ten, but it was the manner they lost the game. Martinez was shaky in the pass game, completing just 6 of 14 passes in the first half. Although a dynamic runner, the improvement passing that many were expecting as a fourth-year starter has not been seen. Special teams was a disaster and the offensive line gave up five sacks.
The "micro" takeaway is that the same Nebraska team that has gone 4-8, 4-8, 5-7, and 3-5 in their last four seasons is still here and hasn't improved. Is this an overreaction to the first game of the season? Maybe. But consider that after games against Fordham and Buffalo, there is not a guaranteed win the rest of the season and there are road trips to Oklahoma and Wisconsin and Ohio State comes to town.
The "macro" takeaway is much more concerning. Say Scott Frost gets fired. Who replaces the coach thought to be the savior of the program and the Cornhuskers' national championship winning QB a couple of decades ago? The rebuild begins... again? Nebraska is no longer bringing in top-notch recruits and has barely been competitive in the Big Ten. In fact, the most important B1G conference game in the last decade was a loss in the Big Ten Championship game to a 7-5 Wisconsin team that dropped 70 points on Nebraska. Nebraska is in serious danger of becoming irrelevant for the foreseeable future. The days of the "blackshirt" defense and National Title contention are a distant memory.
Game 2 - (0-1) UConn Huskies 0 @ (1-0) Fresno State Bulldogs 45
The temperature for the 12:30 local time kickoff was literally off the charts, but somewhere over 120 degrees on the field. The Bulldog offense was just a hot, gashing the UConn defense early and often through the air. Rivers and Cropper caught 61 and 86 yard touchdowns on back-to-back offensive plays for Fresnot State and took an early 28-0 lead. It was a 31-0 contest heading into halftime, and Fresno State was able to rotate the depth chart through the second half both for experience sake and because of the insane heat, where multiple players were cramping after nearly every play on both sides. Quarterback Jake Haenar topped 300 yards while UConn had just 107 yards of offense and had more punts than first downs.
Takeaways for Fresno State: It's hard to put a lot of stock into this game considering the opponent. However, the Bulldogs looked solid and appeared to stay mostly healthy heading into a contest at Oregon this week. It will be a complete reversal for Fresno State who must now face the flat-out scary defense of the Ducks after moving the ball at will against UConn.
Takeaways for UConn: UConn didn't play a game at all in 2020 and isn't even in a conference any more. Not to take away anything from Fresno State, who should be one of the better teams in the Mountain West, but UConn is a homeless football team with almost no hope of being competitive. The glimmer of hope is that Randy Edsall is entering year five in his second head coaching stint with the program, where he has a 76-93 record overall in 16 years including five bowl game appearances, even including a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010. Those days are long gone, however. The Huskies will return home this week (where it won't be 120+ degrees) with a winnable game against Holy Cross. Games against UMass and Yale provide hope that UConn could even reach 2 or 3 wins this season.
Game 3 - (0-1) Hawaii Rainbow Warriors 10 @ (1-0) UCLA Bruins 44
UCLA ran through the Hawaii defense thanks to running backs Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. The former is a Michigan transfer and had 101 yards rushing and three touchdowns in just six carries. Hawaii struggled to stop the run game and couldn't stop the Bruin pass rush either. Hawaii QB Chevan Cordero was constantly bombarded with rushers and the wide receiver play was lackluster. UCLA took a 31-3 lead into the locker room at halftime and never looked back.
Takeaways for UCLA: There's no doubt the run game looked good (244 yards) and put together several explosive plays. There are two main concerns, however. The first is that virtually no fans were in the stands at the Rose Bowl for the game, and not because of any Covid restrictions. LSU travels to Pasadena next week, and it could be a defacto home game for the Tigers if UCLA fans don't show up. The other concern is that the passing game struggled against Hawaii. It certainly doesn't get easier with Derek Stingley, who is considered by many to be the best cornerback in the country. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was just 10 for 20 with 130 yards, although the opening drive of the second half ended in touchdown after DTR completed four passes in a row finishing with a 44 yard shot to Kazemir Allen.
Takeaways for Hawaii: This game showed some obvious growth areas for the team, led by former Arizona Coach Todd Graham, will need to address. The offensive line allowed far too much pressure which flustered Chevan Cordero, an otherwise talented quarterback who threw a pair of interceptions. I was most concerned with the wide receiving unit, who had several key drops and didn't help out their quarterback at all. Hawaii found themselves behind the chains often, and finally picked up their first third down conversion in the third quarter, averaging more than 10+ yards on conversion attempts. This loss doesn't mean Hawaii won't have a nice Mountain West season, but it did show some glaring weaknesses.
Game 4 - (1-0) UTEP Miners 30 @ (0-1) New Mexico State Aggies 3
The Miners cruised to an I-10 rivalry win as the Aggies played a home game for the first time in over 650 days. UTEP dominated on both sides of the ball. The offense was well balanced with 200+ yards rushing and passing. Jacob Cowing was a highlight film all by himself, as the UTEP wideout caught five passes for 158 yards and had a one-handed grab that was easily the best of the day. The Miners showed depth at running back too. On defense, New Mexico State couldn't stop a UTEP pass rush and struggled to move the ball all day. Jonah Johnson took some big hits throughout the game at quarterback and probably would have been hit a lot more if he wasn't so slippery as a runner. The rush took its toll, however, as Jackson was just 8 for 24 passing. The run game was stagnant as well.
Takeaways for UTEP: This was UTEP's biggest win by points margin since a 52-24 victory over North Texas in 2016. Between 2017 and 2019, the Miners won just two games but won three in 2020. Credit Dana Dimel for taking on this rebuild an putting UTEP on a trajectory where they could reach a bowl game in a season or two, which would be the first since 2014. Not only did UTEP dominate on both sides of the ball, but wide receiver Jacob Cowing was extremely impressive. Running back Deion Hankins was injured and is doubtful for the Miners' game against Bethune-Cookman on Saturday. Overall, it's a good win to start the season (UTEP has now won their last three season openers) but they absolutely need to limit penalties (140 penalty yards were committed!)
Takeaways for New Mexico State: The Aggies were the lone FBS team to play games in the spring (their regular fall schedule was cancelled), and those two games did not go very well. The Aggies lost to D-II Tarleton State by 26 and narrowly defeated Dixie State. It's clear that New Mexico State will have a difficult time winning any games this season entering their fourth year as an independent. During that stretch, the Aggies have just 6 wins. Games against South Carolina State and UMass will be circled this season as possible wins. New Mexico State has a long way to go.
Game 5 - Southern Utah Thunderbirds 45 @ (1-0) San Jose State Spartans 10
The Spartans were the lone team to face an FCS opponent on Saturday. Because of their opponent, it's tough to gauge just how good San Jose State might be, but they did show a lot of positives in the blowout win. Experienced QB Nick Starkel (former stops at Texas A&M and Arkansas) slung it around the field all night, as the Thunderbirds were unable to stop the passing games. There were plenty of deep shots taken and Starkel connected on most of them. There's no doubt he has an excellent arm and some good weapons around him. San Jose State scored touchdowns on their first five drives and the game was never in doubt.
Takeaways for San Jose State: The Spartans have now won 9 of their last 10 games after nearly completing a perfect season in 2020. Last year's Mountain West champions picked up where the left off with a big time passing attack and the run game was efficient and explosive as well. Granted, this was all completed against FCS Southern Utah. A date at USC next week will be an entirely different story. I fully believe San Jose State is talented enough to compete in that contest, but will need to limit mistakes. A facemask and roughing the passer penalties extended the first Southern Utah drive and got bailed out by a shanked field goal. A muffed punt turnover gave the ball back to the Thunderbirds and two different defensive offsides penalties erased a third-down sack and a blocked field goal. A pick-six from Starkel gave Southern Utah 7 points. That will all need fixed. However, if San Jose State can play a near-perfect game, don't be surprised if they give USC a LOT of trouble (and maybe even pull off an upset?)