CHAMPAIGN, Ill –– After Nebraska’s collapse at Colorado, head coach Scott Frost said the Huskers’ margin for error was “pretty small right now.”
They made it microscopic at Illinois on Saturday, fumbling four times and losing all four. The Illini had a 15-yard edge in average starting field position. Based on that alone, the expected score in this game was somewhere close to 42-27, Illinois. Three of the Illini’s five touchdown drives on the day covered less than 40 yards.
Partly because of the gifts Nebraska gave, Illinois only managed 299 yards (4.9 per play) on the night. The Huskers had 690. They almost became the first team since at least 2000 to lose a game while gaining 650 yards or more and giving up less than 300. Entering today, 162 teams did that and almost all of them won handily.
That’s Nebraska right now, love it or leave it, but it is 1-0 in Big Ten play, a newly minted member of the 900-win club and next week’s College GameDay host.
Now can it start making things easier on itself?
That’s when you’ll know things are really heading in the right direction.
“I’m really happy with, overall, how we played [and] how much better we got as a team,” Frost said.
If that sounds crazy to you, I get it. It wasn’t until Wan’Dale Robinson, in one of the more memorable true-freshman performances in recent memory, took an Adrian Martinez pass down to the Illinois 1-yard line that anyone at home or in the stands could really feel like the Huskers were going to pull this out. There were less than 3 minutes remaining and Nebraska still found a way to make it interesting, failing to punch it in and needing one more stop to finally earn the right to kneel on it.
But there were successes here, literally, through the high-profile, painful and potent gaffes. Nebraska posted its best success rate of the season, 52.13%, while holding Illinois to 33.87%. The Huskers hit for 23 explosive plays, the most I think I’ve ever tallied for a Nebraska team in a game in the seven seasons I’ve been keeping track. That was all despite an up-and-down first half.
Turnovers, however, are a powerful thing, too. Statistically speaking, look at each one as worth about five points. It typically is based on the exchange in field position alone. Theoretically, the Huskers spotted Illinois 20 points with four fumbles, but got five back thanks to a Cam Taylor-Britt interception. In reality, Illinois scored 21 points off those four turnovers while Nebraska got 7 off the pick. Remove that 14-point difference, in favor of the Illini, from the equation and is an 18-point win in which Nebraska put up nearly 700 yards perceived differently?
But you can’t do that, in real games or with this program based on its recent past. That Nebraska can’t get out of its own way has been the refrain for years. That view is almost always a little too simplistic—there is another team on the field—but this game may have been the perfect example of that preexisting perception. Nebraska hasn’t earned its way out of that, yet.
Maybe Saturday night was a step in the right direction, however. It wasn’t as easy as expected. It wasn’t clean enough to make anyone feel great. But it did provide one of the better postgame quotes from a coach I’ve ever heard.
“We are where we are. We could easily be 4-0 and everyone would be saying how great we are. We’d be a top-15 team,” Frost said. “We could be 2-2 and everyone would be talking about how it’s not any better and the sky is falling.”
He’s right. College football has always been a sport based on perception. Still is, even in the Playoff era. Teams are built up, written off and reconsidered weekly based on what just happened. There’s no way around it.
This game just happened to contain about 50 such cycles in the span of 60 minutes. It has been that way at Nebraska often since about 2004 or so. The Huskers may still have a long way to go to escape that particular rollercoaster ride.
Or maybe they don’t. Wait until next week when Ohio State––maybe “as good as any team I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Big Ten,” Frost said––comes to town. Big game. Huge opportunity. That’ll tell us something.
But even if Nebraska should win that one, it won’t tell us everything. One game never does. It’s the lesson you learn over and over again in this game.
I cannot, however, remember many clearer examples of that than this insane, intense, maddening and memorable night in Champaign.
Be mad. Be happy. Most of all, be uncertain. Everything is on the table right now.
Maybe we’ll do it again next week.
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.