MADISON, Wisc. — Nebraska lost 41-24 Saturday night. Nebraska dropped to 0-5 on the season because of it. In the postgame, there was … optimism. Unexpected optimism from the head coach and reciprocated optimism from the players.
There was optimism stemming from one simple fact: Nebraska feels close.
“That was definitely how it felt and definitely what we showed,” running back Devine Ozigbo said. “Just little things here and there done a little bit harder, a little bit better, this game’s pretty different and our whole season is pretty different.”
For the third time this season, the Huskers had more than 500 yards of offense on the day. Quarterback Adrian Martinez had his second-straight game topping 400 total yards. Wideout JD Spielman earned his second career 200-yard day; he’s the only Nebraska wide receiver to reach that threshold. Running back Maurice Washington flashed something pretty special.
There continue to be little things that hurt the Huskers. Take, for example, a second-quarter hands-to-the-face penalty on a third-and-12 pass that goes for 20 yards and puts Nebraska in the red zone. The game was 13-3 Wisconsin at that point. Nebraska ended that drive with a turnover on downs.
“I feel like if we score on that drive it’s an entirely different game,” Spielman said.
There were a lot of those moments.
“You go in and score when it's 3-nothing them and it's a different game,” Frost started. “Get to the spot a little bit quicker and make a tackle, it's a different game. Not getting penalties when we're going in to score, that's a different game.
“The boys are close. They're close. They've just got to make those plays.”
Long-term, Frost says the task at hand is getting more players into the program who can make those plays. They’re thin at a lot of spots right now, he said. But in the short term, he’s proud of the way the team battled.
“The guys we've got are plenty capable of winning games this year and we're close,” he said.
What needs to change for Nebraska moving forward will be the way it opens games. That was a theme throughout most of the postgame media availability. Nebraska trailed 20-3 at halftime and failed to score a point in the first quarter, a frame the Huskers have been outscored 50-14 in through five games.
“I don’t like playing from behind and I feel like we’ve done it too often this year,” Martinez said.
“I’m tired of being down and having to fight back into the game,” Spielman added. “For once I want to start up and just control the game from then on.”
If Nebraska can do that and play with a lead, the offense could open up even more. Martinez passed for nearly 400 yards with no real rushing threat to speak of. The run-pass split was almost 1:2 and Martinez’s scrambles made the yardage look better than it was. Running back Devine Ozigbo said the backs expected be more involved but Wisconsin’s start forced an adjustment.
On the flip side, Frost said the Huskers felt they had a weaker Wisconsin secondary they could take advantage of. So they did. And, at times, it worked. “A lot of the stuff we called worked,” Frost said. Thus, the optimism. That was against a ranked Wisconsin team on the road.
“We’ve done it and that’s why everybody’s so hopeful,” Ozigbo said. “I feel like we took a step forward today, it just obviously wasn’t enough. We just have to continue to keep taking steps forward and have it to where that little glimpse of our offense showing is how it is all the time. That’s somewhere I definitely think it’s headed.”
Nebraska has seven games left in its season and bowl eligibility feels like a long, long, longshot at this point. So Nebraska will take the little wins when it gets them, wins that show things are moving in the right direction. After what was rock bottom two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there have been several.
“Sometimes when you're sick, you've got to puke it out,” Frost said. “I really think last week was a turning point for us, believe it or not. I saw a team come together. I saw a team practice the best it’s practiced all year. I saw a team start loving each other and start holding each other accountable. They came out here and fought. We weren't good enough to win the game but I really feel like it was a turning point for us and that's what I told them in the locker room.”
With two departures from the team in the last week, one of them coming from a starting running back one day before the game, players seem to feel like they’ve got the ones who are going to stick.
“When people leave, you start to figure out who’s there and who’s not,” Spielman said. “It makes it more special to the guys that stick around.”
Strength coach Zach Duval tweeted something Friday, “Embrace the Process.” It felt symbolic. Obviously, a play off the famous “Trust the Process.” But trusting implied the end result might not come. Embracing on the other hand, embracing means you know the light at the end of the tunnel is coming. Nebraska feels like it got a little closer to it.
“We’ve been through so much as a team already, the ups and downs, little things not going our way,” Martinez said. “We’re battling through adversity, we’re getting closer as a unit. Knowing we’re going through this struggle together and knowing that we’re going to be back, we’re going to get this thing turned around. We just can’t lose the faith.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.