Nebraska’s three-game streak of offensive futility was worse than it looked.
For the fifth time since the 2000 season, Nebraska has scored 40 points or fewer in three games — and this run is their worst yet. Nebraska played 10 of 12 quarters against Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan without quarterback Casey Thompson, amassing just 25 points.
Another phase of rough offensive play came in the 2019 season when Nebraska scored 27 points against Ohio State, Northwestern and Minnesota. The Huskers narrowly defeated Northwestern but were far from winning the other two contests before finishing the season 4-1.
Aside from the 2019 season, Nebraska’s other worst offensive stretches in recent memory come from the 2007 and 2009 seasons. In 2007, Nebraska managed 34 points in a three-game losing streak against Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M before going 1-1 the year after. 3 finished.
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And in 2009, Nebraska actually had a four-game stretch struggling to score points. The Huskers accumulated 10 points against Texas Tech, seven points against Iowa State and 20 points against Baylor before ending the run in a 10-3 win over Oklahoma.
So what is the historic diner? In managing those offensive dips, Nebraska only stood a chance thanks to top-notch defensive performances — something that would be difficult to achieve against Wisconsin.
But the good news is that the catalyst for this bumpy turn in fortune may not be there anymore. Interim Nebraska head coach Mickey Joseph said Thursday that Thompson had shown enough in practice to indicate he was ready to return to the field.
“I hope he wakes up feeling the same tomorrow, I hope he wakes up feeling good,” Joseph said. “The last three days have been enough for me to see … If he doesn’t wake up tomorrow and say, ‘My whole elbow is numb,’ yes he will play.”
The difference between Nebraska’s offensive performances with and without Thompson on the field is day and night. Nebraska actually scored all nine points against Illinois with Thompson still in the game, meaning the Huskers only scored 16 points in 2 1/2 games without him.
Thompson’s primary backup, redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy, has passed 15 of 35 for 112 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three games. Sophomore Logan Smothers also played a role with a 10-of-19 passing performance for 96 yards. Incredibly, Thompson still has the most passing yards of any NU quarterback in that three-game streak thanks to the 172 yards he gained against Illinois.
“It’s just different when you don’t have the guy there, and it’s nothing against the other guys — he (Thompson) just got the reps,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said Wednesday. “There’s a chemistry you build between recipients; Chubba and Logan don’t pitch to Trey (Palmer) and Travis (Vokolek), they don’t get those reps and there it’s a different matter.”
And while Nebraska receivers have expressed their confidence in both Purdy and Smothers over the past two weeks, there’s no doubt it’s been different for them, too. Nebraska’s best passing weapon, Palmer, has caught 11 50-yard passes in his last three games, while Vokolek has caught just one 4-yard pass since his touchdown grab against Illinois.
“It was different but at the end of the day we have a lot of ballers in that space,” Vokolek said Tuesday, “all these guys can hurl it, they all know offense and whoever played at the end of every week we have.” trust in her. But it was definitely different.”
Once again, Nebraska’s chances of winning depend on Thompson’s health and his ability to throw the ball effectively against Wisconsin. The Badgers rank 32nd in the nation at an average of 200.2 passing yards per game and are even better at defending the run. Wisconsin only allows 107.6 rushing yards per game, which is good for the No. 16 in the country.
Speaking about Thompson’s status over the past two weeks, Joseph has repeatedly said he wouldn’t let Thompson play unless he could “play at a high level.”
“I see the ball coming out of his hand,” Joseph said Tuesday. “He makes good decisions but I want to see the ball come out of his hand and make sure there is no nerve damage or pain when he throws it.”
Thompson’s ability to throw the ball in practice this week gave Joseph confidence he could play, which may be a godsend given Nebraska’s backup situation.
Purdy is out with a high ankle sprain, leaving a less than 100% smothers as Nebraska’s replacement. Behind him on the depth chart is redshirt rookie Jarrett Synek, a Hastings product who made his Husker debut late in the fourth quarter against Michigan.
But with Thompson on the field, Nebraska’s big-play ability and overall offensive cover are raised as a result.
“Casey played a lot of football; it’s not his first rodeo so we can pick up where he left off,” Joseph said.
Thompson’s return should give Nebraska extra confidence against an opponent who has given the Huskers problems every time they play. Nebraska is only 8-1 against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten, and the Huskers have lost their last eight encounters against the Badgers since a win in 2012. Some of those games were close, like an overtime loss in 2016, and others were blowouts.
But none of those matchups included anything Nebraska will have Saturday — Thompson is playing quarterback.
“Coach Mickey put his bet on the board at our 2012 team briefing, and that was the last time we beat Wisconsin,” Vokolek said. “That would be a big deal but they’re a great football team so it’s a big challenge.”