That’s the total difference between Nebraska over two games against Iowa under Scott Frost. Those Hawkeyes teams in 2018 and 2019 were a combined 18-7, the Huskers 9-15.
There’s a lot in those six points. More than just two field goals, though you could certainly start there. Nebraska’s special teams has been woeful in back-to-back seasons. Iowa’s is typically good. That matters. A lot of things the Hawkeyes do well tend to matter. That field-position exchange after Nebraska had tied it with a brilliant third quarter? Vintage Iowa. No panic.
The Huskers had their chances—two huge calls went their way on the final drive alone—but calmness in the face of adversity hasn’t been one of Nebraska’s strengths for a while now. When the Huskers had the ball with a chance to go down the field for a game-winning score, there was indecision there. If you want to take the broad view, that’s probably the one thing the Huskers absolutely have to fix to turn things around.
If you prefer details, well, there are a lot of them and a long time to think and talk about them now.
“We keep coming up just short,” a somber Scott Frost said following the 27-24 loss. “There’s about a hundred ways you can get just a little bit better to make sure the outcomes are different.”
Half of the games Frost has coached at Nebraska have been decided by less than a touchdown. The Huskers have won three of those. With a little bit better luck you might expect Nebraska to go 6-6 in such games, but you can’t coach luck. Luck is what good teams remove from the equation, so file that away under “hope for the future” but wonder about it right now.
What is the impediment here?
In football it’s never just one thing. Attempted answers are trickier than that. But here’s something—in six of those one-score losses Nebraska has trailed by at least 14 points. In four of those games, including both games against Iowa, the Huskers have fought back to tie it or take the lead. Look at the final scores and you can run right down the list of the 24 games from the past two seasons and say, “that coulda been a win” a bunch of times.
But you also have to look at what the Huskers had to do to even get some of those games to that “coulda” point. Going uphill is harder than going downhill. Credit to Nebraska for having some success while doing things the hard way, but it takes a lot of energy. Probably messes with the mind, too. Think about the psychological difference between losing a 14-point lead is lost and erasing one.
“The game is designed to be tough. It’s tough on you physically. It’s tougher on you mentally, probably, so if you are doing things right you just have to learn to push through the good and the bad,” Kirk Ferentz said of his team overcoming the lost lead. “Sometimes the good can be more distracting.”
Nebraska has been on the exhale side of that equation too often over the past two years. “OK, it’s a game again.” It would be natural to feel that way.
Twice now Iowa has been on the other side of that equation and the Hawkeyes put together two drives that ended in game-winning field goals.
“I think this team’s confidence can sometimes be fragile,” Frost said. “That’s the team we inherited and that’s one of the things that we’re trying to fix the most.”
One field goal.
I guess it’s ironic given the Huskers’ struggle to find a kicker this year, but they end the 2019 season having outscored their opponents by three points, 336-333. That’s with eight field goals missed, and more that were never attempted because, well, Nebraska needed six different guys to give it a shot. That point differential should equate to a 6-6 record, which would give Nebraska a chance to win a seventh which would perhaps have a significant impact on how this team is perceived in the offseason ahead.
But this season, the real season, showed just how empty winning the perception battle can be. It colored this season from the very start. No way around that, really. There will be predictions and projections for next season, too, accurate or not. Nebraska was supposed to be better in 2019.
From a raw points perspective, sure. A little bit. The offense scored 24 fewer points over 12 games than it did a year ago. (Remember, eight field goals missed and probably another four or five that you’d attempt with no concerns over who’s doing the kicking.) The defense gave up 42 fewer points than a year ago though nobody’s organizing a parade to celebrate the Blackshirts’ return to prominence at this point.
You could call it a wash if you want to. I wouldn’t argue. Three points better than opponents this year isn’t that much better than 15 points worse from a year ago. It pencils out to about .500 football either way and, as quarterback Adrian Martinez said, “I don’t think anyone wants that.”
But maybe this will be to Nebraska’s advantage at some point. This year the Huskers got a ton of credit for a 4-8 2018 season, bolstered by their coach’s reputation and a strong debut for Martinez. Next year they’ll have none of that. Nebraska will probably get punished too harshly for going 5-7 because college football exists almost exclusively in the extremes.
The Huskers, however, exist in the middle right now. If there’s progress being made in Lincoln, only a few can claim to really, truly know it.
“I think it’s tough to see from the outside in because of the one-win difference,” Martinez said, “but on the inside we can tell the difference. We can tell just how far we’ve come, just how close we are to breaking through and being a good, solid football team.”
Fewer people might believe that now than did a year ago, but it turns out belief, at least externally, wasn’t the missing ingredient.