Norman, Okla. –– If you squinted you could almost see it, the way things used to be. There were those crimson helmets with the blocky letters, the white ones with the skinny ones, stripes on the pants, facemasks gray and two teams trading blows in a tight game for 60 minutes.
Open wide, of course, and you saw something much different than simple nostalgia. Oklahoma’s a national-title contender, where it has been for most of this sports existence. Nebraska’s still on a quest to get back there. Been on the road for 20 years now and it’s feeling a car trip when you were a kid.
But if Nebraska uses Saturdays 23-16 loss to No. 3 Oklahoma as something more than the fairly stunning result it was, maybe the destination is actually within sight this time. Maybe it’s not just what you need to hear to keep calm.
The most stunning thing on Saturday was that Nebraska, after struggling to do this with much consistency for much of the past decade, nearly pulled off the upset of yet another unstoppable Oklahoma outfit—they just roll off the assembly line here—by playing Big Ten football.
The Blackshirts allowed just 23 points. Two of those came via special teams, but either way it was the lowest scoring output of Lincoln Riley’s five seasons at the helm. The Sooners have averaged 42 points per game or better every year since his first in 2017. Riley’s first Sooner squad averaged 45.1, three points behind the national leader, Central Florida that season.
Think about what was expected of a Scott Frost-led Nebraska when he was hired, fresh off that year with UCF. Then fast-forward through the next four years to today, and listen to Frost say this.
“We wanted as few possessions for both teams as possible in the first half.”
The two teams each had eight possessions on Saturday, five for Oklahoma in the first half, four for Nebraska. Teams typically average 13 or 14 in today’s college football.
The Huskers didn’t just ugly it up either. If not for a 32-yard deficit in the tackles for loss category, Nebraska would’ve outgained Oklahoma. Barely. On a per-play basis, with the tackles for loss in there, the Huskers held a slight edge, 6.1 to 5.9.
Despite all of that, it’s hard to feel like the offense played well. Played hard? Without question. But it wasn’t clean. The penalties were a problem and most of them point to one position group.
Nebraska nearly overcame thanks to one of Adrian Martinez’s best days. He outdueled Oklahoma’s Heisman candidate, Spencer Rattler. Better passer rating, more passing yards, more rushing yards. Martinez did all of that while being sacked five times and hurried—officially, according to the box score—on four more dropbacks. Rattler was sacked zero times, hurried three.
As has been the case for all of 2021 so far, Nebraska still doesn’t have much of a run game to help Martinez out. The Huskers averaged 3.7 yards per carry, without sacks, to the Sooners’ 5.5.
“Everything in the offense will be better if we can hand it off and get yards,” Frost said.
That will have to be for future games, and it does feel like, after a day like Saturday in Norman, a new season could begin next week. It’s only Big Ten games from here on. Nebraska has to go on the road again to face a Michigan State team that will almost certainly be ranked at 3-0, fresh off a 38-17 road win over No. 24 Miami.
“Everything they want to accomplish is right out in front of them,” Frost said.
He expressed a similar sentiment after the humbling loss to Illinois to start the season.
“I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season,” Frost said then.
The Huskers still have plenty to work on, as was also evident against the Sooners, but Nebraska has so far only taken steps that have brought it closer to the type of season it needs in 2021.
Saturday was another step. For it to mean as much next week as it does right now, holding down that Oklahoma offense, having the ball last with a chance to tie or win the game, can only feel so good.
If you’re a win-the-game absolutist, I get it. In the past, say, 50 years ago to select a year at random, nobody on either side cared how one beat the other. Playing well, or at least better than could reasonably be expected, didn’t mean crap.
If that’s the nostalgia you’re really after, then Martinez did that well on Saturday, too.
“Our guys aren’t into moral victories. We want to win games,” simple as that. “There are definitely a lot of positives to take from today, and we will do that once we watch the film.
“But at the end of the day, we lost the game. So, that is that.”
If Nebraska football can hold those two ideas in its collective head at the same time—this was terrible, this was encouraging—it’s possible it won’t have to do that after games much longer.
Such a future feels a little bit closer.
Not there yet, but closer.
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.