The hope with any season opener is that everything will look different. Night-and-day different, as they say. The weaknesses have been shored up. All of the strengths are stronger by 10%. The progress noted in all the offseason press conferences was real.
It’s not a realistic expectation to have, but that’s always the hope. Potential is just too powerful to resist. One day you wake up and the past is just the past, not a reminder, not a standard you’re falling short of, not an impediment, nothing. It’s just old stuff.
That’s the hope every new season offers, and the best way to ruin a day brimming with possibility is to feel like you’ve seen all of this before.
“This looked like the same movie today,” Coach Scott Frost said after Nebraska took a safety on a punt return that shouldn’t have been returned, negated an interception via two penalties on the same play, had a fumble returned for a touchdown, missed two extra points and had a 13-yard punt in a 30-22 loss at Illinois.
“I was just as surprised if not more surprised with those type of mistakes,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “My fumble at the end of the half, that was a big moment for our team.”
You have to take Martinez’s word for it, that the surprise is real. Frost said he didn’t know how the coaches could’ve emphasized avoiding those types of gaffes more in the preseason.
Yet, there they were again, the most consistent part of the Frost era so far.
The popular remedy for Nebraska football is simple—just clean up the mistakes.
Doing it remains hard. That’s true, really, for any team. It’s sort of coaching in a nutshell. The job is to remove variables, create an environment for consistent performance.
It’s important to remember that is anything but simple.
But at Nebraska, it remains ridiculously, comically, I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it hard.
No punt returner is coached to retreat to the 1 to field a punt. No coach will say, “go ahead and taunt, if you’re flagged, we’ll live with it.” That stuff isn’t coached.
It’s allowed, which is more troubling. Whatever was done to clean things up, didn’t work. Now what?
“The one thing we’ve never gotten around here is the spark,” Frost said. “We need to win a couple of close games, string some wins together, get some momentum.”
That might be the most troubling thing of all from Saturday’s nightmare start.
A butterfly isn’t going to flap its wings somewhere and fix the Huskers’ maddening inability to not be maddening. Waiting for some sort of lightning bolt to strike, giving charge to a new version of the program isn’t a plan.
If the missing ingredient, the cure-all, is something you can’t build or acquire, it’s the same as there being no antidote for this kind of football at all.
Momentum was on the table, here. Everyone knew the stakes at the start of a crucial year four for Frost and staff. Beat Illinois, as a 7-point favorite on the road, and a 3-0 start isn’t just possible but probable.
Instead, Nebraska faces a bleak week. FCS opponents are never given enough respect, in the best of times, but Fordham will be the itty-bittiest of bit characters in the week ahead with the Huskers’ sellout streak seeming to be in serious danger. Not fair to the Rams, but how the Huskers lost, and what it might mean, chews scenery.
The Huskers will be a heavy favorite. They’ll win and then we’ll see what happens from there.
“Luckily, this isn’t a one-game season,” Martinez said.
That’s important to note, too, and would’ve been as important if Nebraska had won 42-2.
“I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season,” Frost said. “We just have better players than we’ve had. We’ve got a better team than we’ve had. I expected today to go a lot different.”
That’s always the hope at the start of a new year.
Yet, here we are again. The past is the present. You’ve seen this one before.
It’s the worst place to be at the start of a new season. It’s the worst way this new season could’ve opened.
You could say it’s in the past now, but if the only solution is wait for some invisible hand to offer the nudge Nebraska needs, then and now will remain the same thing.