BOULDER, Colo. – Over the past two seasons, the offenses and defenses of Nebraska and Colorado have played 313 downs of football. Nebraska won 55% of those downs. Colorado won two games.
It usually doesn’t work like that. The more efficient team on a down-by-down basis wins about 80% of the time. The Huskers were that both years and won 0% of the time against the Buffaloes.
Someday, when the Huskers are good again you may stop to reflect on what changed. After all those years of failing to get over the hump, how did it finally happen? Then you’ll look back on these two Colorado games and it will become clear: Oh, Nebraska stopped losing games in which it played well enough to win.
Good teams make it boring. They pick up mundane third downs. They tackle well. They gain 4 yards on the ground on first down. None of those things are that exciting. When you watch one of these games with no rooting interest, it’s the sort of thing that makes you switch to another game. “If the Bulldogs could’ve just gotten a stop there maybe the Wildcats were in trouble,” you might say during these games. But the Wildcats weren’t in trouble. They got the first down, maybe nudged a 17-point lead to 20 on that drive or maybe even just punted but flipped the field. Anything that’s not a mistake helps.
“We were 17-0 at halftime and I think a quality of a good football team is not letting that get to you,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said.
Make enough exciting plays early, then be good enough to make and keep it boring late. Nebraska, under Scott Frost, has never really been hurting for the exciting plays. But Nebraska football, for more than just the past two years, has struggled to make and keep it boring.
How long does it take to re-learn that specific skill? Saturday’s loss to Colorado was a clear indication that making-it-boring wasn’t all squared away in the offseason. This loss—like last year’s, the Huskers had an edge in yards per play, success rate and explosive plays—felt frighteningly familiar. Teams that do those things should win, even if the turnovers are 6-2 in favor of the opponent (as they are in this two-game series now). Nebraska has shown it can do the things that lead to winning.
But it’s still figuring out that last part. All offseason you could make a great case that Nebraska’s last six games of the 2018 season showed that those games were behind the Huskers.
Saturday showed they are not. After a summer where a lot felt possible for this football team—and everything minus an undefeated season still is—now we have an actual signpost saying: You Are Here.
It’s not that far from where the Huskers were last year. I’m not sure this game told us much about Nebraska’s ceiling or floor in 2019, but it was pretty clear on something else. This game said, “Nebraska is still the team that can lose like that.”
“I’ve only been a part of a few as tough as that one,” Frost said.
Nebraska looked like the preseason top-25 team it was for the first two-thirds of this game. The offense was efficient, on-schedule and explosive in the first half. The defense was even better. The Buffs’ first seven drives didn’t cross the Huskers’ 40. The defensive line was in the backfield often, the secondary holding down a talented group of receivers. At that exact point you could say things like this and have them be true:
40 plays in and the #Huskers’ defense has yet to give up a play longer than 11 yards. 3.0 yards per play so far for the Buffs.
— Brandon Vogel (@brandonlvogel) September 7, 2019
It was remarkable. Colorado feasted on explosive plays last week against Colorado State. It didn’t have its first one Saturday until less than four minutes remained in the third. The Buffs hit six such plays over the last 33 they ran. Nebraska’s defense was good until it wasn’t, and the Huskers’ offense had the same trajectory only it got an earlier start.
That offense wasn’t good from the very first drive of the second half. Nebraska had to call a time out coming out of the half because it wasn’t aligned correctly. The drive got off to a nice start with a first down and then an explosive play. The odds a drive will end in a score when it includes those two things are quite good. Thanks to a penalty and a sack on third down, it didn’t.
That’s a good-team drive. You’ve put a beating on a team, on its homefield, for a half. And you’re getting the ball to start the second. A crisp touchdown drive nearly ends it right there most of the time.
Nebraska didn’t have that sort of drive on Saturday. It couldn’t make it boring.
The Huskers aren’t there yet.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.