NORMAN, Okla. — Nobody will blame Nebraska for kicking itself or wondering what could have been on Saturday against No. 3 Oklahoma.
The visitors and three-touchdown underdogs stood toe-to-toe with the Sooners for the most part, but NU's kicking problems and offensive inconsistency cropped up in a major way over the first three quarters of a 23-16 loss.
In all, Nebraska scored just nine points on its first five offensive trips to the Oklahoma 33-yard line or deeper. The culprits: penalties, two missed field goals and a mismanaged red zone trip that included a scramble to beat the play clock and a third-down sack before a fourth-down interception.
When the Huskers did punch in a touchdown — a short Adrian Martinez touchdown run — freshman walk-on Kelen Meyer attempted the extra point in relief of Connor Culp, who made a career-long 51-yarder earlier in the game but also missed twice to move his season mark to 3-of-8. Meyer, though, had the kick blocked after standout OU defensive lineman Isaiah Coe bulled over NU offensive lineman Ethan Piper and blocked the kick, and the Sooners returned it for two points. Instead of 14-10 — or perhaps a Husker lead had the other kicking operations gone smoothly — the Sooners remained ahead 16-9.
Nebraska did put a touchdown drive together that culminated with a scoring strike from Martinez to Omar Manning to get within seven points in the final six minutes, but the Sooners went to work on the clock from there and picked up two first downs to drain the clock under a minute.
Martinez was sacked twice on a final drive that didn't gain any steam toward a potential game-tying touchdown.
Frost's offense had the ball inside the OU 33-yard line three times in their first five possessions and came away with just three points. The offense stalled out three times — the first driven by penalties — resulting in field goal tries. Culp started his day by hitting a career-best 51-yarder, but then missed from 50 and, most costly, from 35 at the end of the early third-quarter march.
Oklahoma responded with an 80-yard scoring drive to go up 14-3 with 3 minutes, 50 seconds, remaining in the third quarter. Then it responded to Martinez's touchdown run with a 12-play, 65-yard march that reestablished a two-score lead at 23-9 with 10:24 to go.
In a most unpredictable turn, the first half highlighted Nebraska and Oklahoma’s defenses.
The Sooners took the game’s opening drive 74 yards for a touchdown over 14 plays, but saw their final four possessions of the first half end in two punts, a missed 54-yard field goal attempt and the end of the first half.
The Huskers managed to get a career-long 51-yard field goal from Connor Culp with their first drive despite four penalties — three false starts and a personal foul — against its offensive line, which on this day featured Trent Hixson in place of Ethan Piper at left guard.
Martinez hit Manning for 31 yards on a third-and-long to help set up the drive. The Huskers, though, saw another possession stall out in plus territory and this time Culp grazed the right upright and missed from 50 yards.
The Husker run game had little room to work, though Rahmir Johnson became the third back in four games to get featured-type work and ran hard at times.
The offense and special teams did enough over the first 30 minutes to keep the Blackshirts playing in good position. OU didn’t start a first-half drive from farther out than its own 32 and averaged its own 23 on five trips, in part because the offense didn’t go three-and-out and in part because William Przystup in his first action of the year netted 51 and 50 yards on his first two punts of the season.
Just what we all expected the story of the first half to be between these two teams: punting, long field goal attempts and the field position game.
The Blackshirts, if you were feeling greedy early in the game, had their hands on two errant passes from OU quarterback Spencer Rattler and missed a couple of chances at big plays in the backfield.
However, they also held Rattler to 105 passing yards on 19 attempts in the first half and didn’t allow a passing play of longer than 19 yards.
OU got its running game going some, averaging 5.9 yards between mostly Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray, but Nebraska did well enough to keep the Sooners from getting revved up offensively.
When Erik Chinander’s group got its fourth stop of the half in the final 57 seconds, the Huskers knew they’d have the ball to open the third quarter and a chance to take the lead for the first time.
Instead, the offense stalled out in scoring territory and Culp missed, one of too many mistakes on Nebraska's part during a what-could-have-been type of day.