Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

A Bad Game from Nebraska When You Most Expected It, So It Goes

October 17, 2021

This Nebraska football viewing experience is an inexplicably unique exercise in cognitive dissonance. Progress is obvious in ways that matter and mistakes are belligerently lingering in moments that make all the progress irrelevant. This is, after all, a bottom-line business. But progress looks different to everyone and onl…

What? If it’s the same movie shouldn’t I get to write the same thing? 

“Little details got us beat,” said Nebraska coach Scott Frost after this week’s 30-23 loss to Minnesota. “I know the guys are tired of hearing that. I’m tired of saying it, but that’s what it is.”

A false start, a stumble at the goal line, a missed extra point, lots of the same kinds of things that keep plaguing Nebraska. You’ve heard all this before. 

“It’s football, man,” said quarterback Adrian Martinez. “Some guys make mistakes, and we’ve got to continue to play through them. I know (running back Jaquez) Yant would want that one back and we would, as well. You can’t really explain that.”

If you’re looking for a piece that’s going to kill a redshirt freshman running back for stumbling, look elsewhere. Hard to get too worked up over one itsy bitsy misstep, but that late third-quarter, fourth-down, goal-to-go play was about as illustrative of Nebraska football as it gets. 

Nebraska’s margin for error is so minuscule that a stumble is the difference between winning and 3-5. 

It’s six inches away. Literally and figuratively.

Nebraska was within a score of top-10 teams in three of the last four weeks when it faced Oklahoma and Michigan State on the road and Michigan at home. Whatever you feel about the quality of those squads, they are still unbeaten. Go ask a Sooner fan you met a few weeks ago if they’d trade their stressful-as-all-heck 7-0 start for the right to say they’re “the best three-win team in football” 

Nebraska’s a good football team. I wrote as such last week. Most of that still applies. Nebraska has goods and it lacks a finishing touch. That’ll get you beat. That’s football, man.

Martinez’s tone feels pretty similar to mine. Feels like a shrug.

It felt like Nebraska was due for a bad game. The perfect kind of letdown-lookahead sandwich. Emotional game against Michigan a week ago, much-needed bye on the horizon. They’ve punched with so much vigor in the last few weeks I started to wonder how long they could keep it up. The crash came in Minneapolis.

Nebraska lacked energy against Minnesota to start. There were legitimate reasons for minds to be elsewhere. They could even argue they’re allowed to be sluggish. Eight games in eight weeks is tough. But this was the schedule Frost wanted and created at the last minute (relatively) so tired legs or lethargic attitudes isn’t an excuse that will carry much weight. Especially not given the stakes.

The Gophers did what they wanted. Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck has eaten Scott Frost’s lunch in three of their four meetings. 

“That was truly culture versus skill,” Fleck said on his show this weekend. “That’s what I saw today. Whatever anybody else wants to say about us or our program or our culture, feel free. We’ve been called every name in the book, but culture versus skill. On paper, we’ve been underdogs the last few weeks. Our guys don’t listen to all that stuff. Our culture keeps everything really tight, they believe in it, they live it, academically, athletically, socially, spiritually, and everybody’s held to a high standard. And that will not come down for anyone here.”

Nebraska’s a good football team. 

The updated SP+ numbers from ESPN’s Bill Connelly still has it ranked No. 23 in the country because it does things on a football field that generally correlate to winning ball. 

But Minnesota dominated time of possession 38 minutes to 22 minutes, as Fleck wanted, despite committing the game’s only two turnovers. Its first drive of the game salted nearly eight minutes off the clock. Fleck wanted to play to his team’s strengths. His quarterback, Tanner Morgan, didn’t make crippling mistakes. His best (available) running back went over 100 yards with a score. His best receiver bullied Nebraska’s younger corner when targeted. Fleck had the right gameplan. 

Martinez was off. The defense missed tackles. Yant slipped. Connor Culp missed more kicks. The players have to play better.

The reigning Big Ten kicker of the year has missed six of his 12 field goals and four extra points. A fourth-year quarterback took a safety on an intentional grounding call in the endzone he never should have taken. When was the last time you saw Nebraska’s safeties attempt a tackle by wrapping up? 

Frost gets blame because he’s the head coach. For Saturday, spread it all around. Nebraska just has to be better, plain and simple. Sooner or later the unexplainable missteps will stop. Nebraska might have lost good will but it didn’t erase progress. 

The Huskers—and I know this will be unpopular—remain right where they have been for an uncomfortably long amount of time: trying to figure out those last six inches. 

Other thoughts:

>> Does Nebraska ever go under center? I understand the realities of the position the Huskers were in, but if the players themselves are saying “going under center changes things for everyone involved in the handoff” it’s probably worth listening to.

“There are exchange problems you could worry about and it just takes repetition,” he said of being under center versus being in the gun. “Running backs, hitting the hole is different out of the gun than it is when you’re under center, you have different landmarks, different aiming points for handoffs, things like that, and those things have to be worked on, and that takes time out of practice. I play on the team and we run what is called. … But we feel confident in what we had called there, and I’m sure we would do it again and have faith in our guys.”

If Yant doesn’t slip, the 245-pound running back with a head of steam runs into the 210-pound safety in front of him and gets six inches to score. If Nebraska goes under center and fumbles the exchange—which we’ve seen shotgun teams do—Frost gets skewered for not staying within his wheelhouse. 

>> It seemed like just a few weeks ago wideout Samori Touré was near the top of the national receiving table for downfield production. One catch for 1 yard against Minnesota was all that was out there? Meanwhile I’m looking at Kentucky try to force-feed Wan’Dale Robinson—its best wideout—the ball in its biggest game of the year. Robinson, once a Husker who grew unhappy with his role, had 17 targets and 12 catches against Georgia Saturday. Getting the best wideouts on the field and involved in the game is way bigger an issue than it should be around here.

>> Nebraska trailed Minnesota 21-9 after the first half. In Frost’s 40 games as the Husker head coach, his team is 3-19 when trailing after the first half.

The three wins came against a 7-6 Michigan State squad in 2018 (they trailed 3-0), a 6-7 Illinois squad in 2019 (they trailed 21-14), and a 3-6 Rutgers team in 2020 (they trailed 14-7).

>> Remember Chase Contreraz? If not, it’s fine, he has yet to play in two years with the program. Contreraz was a junior college kicker added to the program in the 2020 class who was viewed as the likely starting place kicker before Culp became available in the transfer portal. Is he still around? Frost’s commitment to Culp is admirable. It’s time to give someone else a shot.

>> The remaining four games on the schedule: No. 25 Purdue (4-2), No. 5 Ohio State (5-1), at Wisconsin (3-3), and No. 11 Iowa (6-1). 

Nebraska needs to win three of those games to earn a bowl bid. 

Under Frost, Nebraska is 1-10 against that foursome.

As it enters its bye week, NU is going to be facing a chance to completely rewrite the narrative of its season. A good team will understand the stakes and bring its A-game. A team that believes in its coach will fight. A team that believes in itself will fight. Husker athletic director Trev Alberts will get all the answers he’s looking for. 

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