A fresh start is coming for Nebraska football, but first the Huskers have to survive the end to this season.
Nebraska will, of course, but Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor sort of made you wonder as No. 3 Michigan never really got uncomfortable during its 34-3 win.
The Huskers, however, were made uncomfortable in ways that are still almost hard to believe.
The game itself was never supposed to be fun for the Huskers. They were 30-point underdogs, playing without starting quarterback Casey Thompson. On that front, you could perhaps argue Nebraska played well enough.
Michigan was content, mostly, to just run the ball in near-freezing temperatures, but the Huskers made the Wolverines earn their points—driving 12, 6, 12 and 10 plays while building a 24-3 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Starting quarterback Chubba Purdy was at least effective enough early on to keep the Huskers in the game. The Florida State transfer was 6-for-12 passing for 56 yards and had five rushes for 39 yards before an awkward slide late in the second quarter sidelined him. Four plays later, Michigan return man A.J. Henning was tackled near Nebraska’s sideline on a kickoff and slid into offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s legs.
Over the course of about a minute of game clock, Nebraska lost its quarterback and offensive coordinator. Purdy wouldn’t return (high ankle sprain), but Whipple would call some plays from the booth despite Mickey Joseph saying he wouldn’t during a halftime interview.
In that context, 34-3 looks almost decent. Despite playing under an interim head coach, without its top two quarterbacks and offensive coordinator for a stretch, Michigan was almost exactly as good as projected and so was Nebraska.
Which is to say the Wolverines were much, much better, but no more than expected.
If that sounds like the dreaded “moral victory,” so be it. It’s kind of all that’s left in this strangest of seasons, and I’ve never really had a problem with that particular lens. All things considered, Nebraska hung in better than it probably had a right to, and that at least says something about these players and coaches as they await the arrival of a new beginning.
Some will be there for it and some won’t. So it goes.
There was a moment shortly after Scott Frost was fired when I thought Nebraska might be a little undervalued as a destination for a new coach. Sure, you’re always going to have to wrestle with the Huskers’ history. Are such heights even reachable in Lincoln anymore? We’ve had that discussion for years now.
But in a more immediate sense, Nebraska really wasn’t as bad as Frost’s final record looked. All those one-score losses had to be worth something, right? I think so, and I thought they’d be worth the most to the next head coach.
Maybe that’s still the case, but the Huskers’ weaknesses have really been writ large of late.
The offense basically doesn’t work without Thompson. The last two-and-a-half games have proven that emphatically. Nebraska, Joseph in particular, wants to run the ball, but the Huskers can’t. There’s a general lack of depth across the board. The defense, since Bill Busch took over after the loss to Oklahoma, has played well enough to keep Nebraska in games, but it can’t win on its own, which shouldn’t be the expectation right now anyway.
Watching Michigan never have to get out of second gear to win as expected offered some painful symmetry. The Wolverines are 10-0 for the first time since 2006, arguably even better than last year’s team which won the Big Ten and went to the College Football Playoff. Entering last year, Jim Harbaugh got the Frost deal—reduced salary, staff changes, prove it.
At the time Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced Frost’s restructured deal, he said there wasn’t “a lot of empirical evidence” it would work. The bright, blinking example was Michigan’s 2021, though it’s hard to think of a lot of others, to be fair.
But, it had just happened. Nebraska’s dream 2022 season was something that even approached Michigan’s 2021, unlikely as that may have always been. It didn’t resemble that season immediately––when Nebraska lost the opener to Northwestern, which still hasn’t won since––and so it wasn’t ever going to be.
In 2018, Nebraska went to Ann Arbor as 18-point underdogs in Frost’s third game as head coach. The Wolverines raced to a big a lead in a 56-7 win. This was way before anyone started thinking Harbaugh might get fired, before he stalled out only to revive the Wolverines. They held Nebraska to 132 total yards and Frost called it the “bottom” for Nebraska, saying the Huskers weren’t ready to beat a team like Michigan yet, but that “the key word is yet.”
It feels so long ago.
On Saturday, the Huskers gained 146 yards in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines didn’t need to race out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter because this better version of the Wolverines knew it could just grind this game down. Five years ago wasn’t rock bottom.
Maybe Saturday was. Maybe it doesn’t matter because change is coming.
I still think, given the context, it went about as well as was fair to expect. And maybe that says everything as another season comes closer to its end.