Nebraska was the same, but it was different.
A 28-21 win over Rutgers Friday night was comforting in the way it was secured, but the road there was exhausting.
Nebraska looks exhausted.
The Huskers are 3-5 now on the season. Coaches have had to be careful who they’re around. Adrian Martinez hasn’t seen his family since March. Scott Frost lost his father shortly before the season began. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Frost said, but this has not been an easy year.
If the Huskers are asked to play in a bowl game, they might accept that invite. Frost said Friday night he’d leave that decision to the players. “It took a lot of effort and energy for everybody to get the guys ready to play this week,” Frost said. “If we have to turn around and do it again in six or seven days when we’re going to get home at 4 in the morning, I don’t know how many guys would be excited about that.” Don’t hold the “we want to play” fist-shaking of August against NU should they decide eight games is enough to satisfy the itch.
These eight games have been anything but enjoyable. They’ve been a grind. Lesser teams would have folded. Weaker-spirited groups would have looked at a near-1,300-mile trip to the Eastern seaboard on short notice for an otherwise meaningless Friday night game and bowed out.
Several teams along the Atlantic coast have already signaled their intention to sit on the sidelines for bowl season out of sheer exhaustion.
Nebraska may very well choose to end this strange-as-all-hell 2020 campaign the way it ended a strange-as-all-hell game against Rutgers—on a high note.
In closing out the Scarlet Knights, Nebraska was maybe exactly what it shows the potential to one day be under Frost.
On the final drive of the game, Nebraska ran the ball 10 times out of 13 plays (the last two on the 15-play possession were kneel-downs), converted two third downs, a fourth down from midfield, and waxed the final seven minutes and 35 seconds off the clock.
Nebraska took a 28-21 lead with 9:55 to play on a 1-yard run from Martinez that capped a nine-play, 92-yard drive. Rutgers gained 31 on its next five plays and then cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt took the ball away from them for good with his second interception of the season.
That fourth quarter was a master class in leaning on a gassed defense.
The second half, save for the lone turnover, was as clean as Nebraska has played all season.
The Huskers threw the ball just 11 times in the last 30 minutes, and Martinez completed 10 of those passes for 107 yards. You know, just to keep the defense honest. But NU ran the ball 35 times for 258 yards. In fact, Nebraska had 201 more rushing yards in the second half than Rutgers had total yards.
The home team had the ball for all of eight minutes and 18 seconds in the final 30 of the game.
Nebraska had 11 carries of more than 10 yards. Senior running back Dedrick Mills ran wild, with gains of 43 and 50 yards en route to a career-high 25-carry, 191-yard day.
“The more I ran the ball between the tackles, the more they didn’t want to hit me,” Mills said.
Once Martinez shucked the sleeves from his arms and faded the fumbling from his game, he too was somewhat unstoppable as a runner. The junior quarterback finished with 23 carries for a career-high 157 yards and two scores. He had runs of 41 and 32.
This is what so many wanted from Nebraska a week ago when the worst run defense in the Big Ten came to Lincoln. Instead, Nebraska threw on 15 of 27 first down plays against the Gophers and only attempted 16 second-half rushes.
On that final drive, lined up from the Rutgers 46-yard-line facing a fourth-and-2, Frost did what he’s preached since arrival—he operated without fear of failure.
Nebraska went, knowing that a failure to convert would give the Scarlet Knights momentum, a short field, and more than enough time to work with in seeking a tying score. Frost kept the ball on the ground, and Martinez found the edge for 11 yards before falling down inbounds.
A few plays later on a third-and-3, Martinez gained seven.
Nebraska had 620 yards of offense and simply imposed its will.
With a heavy emphasis on the ground, that’s what this thing is supposed to look like.
As has been the case, it just took Nebraska sputtering through borderline ineptitude to wake up.
The first 30 minutes of Friday night’s affair was miserable. The kind of no-good, very-bad football you expect to find on a Dec. 26 afternoon while you’re at the in-laws nursing an eggnog hangover and Uncle John is snoring in the recliner next to you.
Nebraska fumbled four times in the first half, two of which it lost. Nebraska gave up three sacks. It threw an interception, gave up a first down on a fake punt on fourth-and-14, and was flagged seven times.
“I wanted to see a team that was out there having fun, playing for each other and that didn’t make any dumb mistakes,” Frost said of his expectation heading into the game. “We failed miserably on that in the first half, made way too many mistakes. That’s just been too common in our program. We’ve got to get all that fixed, but it was better in the second half. They played smarter in the second half. I was really impressed with the fight.”
In the grand scheme of things, 620 yards gained with only 28 points scored is statistically improbable, and it doesn’t signal good things about an offense’s day. That’s a team that can do what it wants but can’t close the deal. In the first half, Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way.
The game’s opening drive featured eight plays and three fumbles.
The third drive was a one-play, one-fumble experience. The fourth was a three-and-out. The fifth was a 75-yard scoring drive that featured one of Mills’ explosive runs. Nebraska was intercepted on the sixth drive.
“When we’ve clicked and not shot ourselves in the foot, it’s been pretty good all year,” Frost said. “It just hasn’t been consistent enough.”
Hence the frustration.
Nebraska is all or nothing.
It’s a 96-yard touchdown drive that takes five minutes off the clock and features a little bit of everything, or a fumble-bonanza that makes TV remotes fly across living rooms.
“It starts with me as the head coach,” Frost said. “The details in special teams, the ball security, the dumb penalties have cost us all year. We’d have a better record right now if we weren’t doing that to ourselves. It’s hard to overcome those things in any game, much less the Big Ten.
“We’re a good enough football team to win a lot of games if we don’t do those things, and we’ve got to get them stopped.”
More practice will help. More games with a young team will help. Nebraska’s still building, as maddening as that might be now as Frost’s third year might officially be over.
If there are more games on the way, we’ll see if Nebraska can build.
“It’s been a long year, and I think one way or another, we’re happy with the way we played tonight and we’ll just have to see where things go,” Martinez said. “I’m not sure if this is the last game of the season or not.”
If it is, Nebraska can look at the first 30 minutes—frustrating as they may be—and say, “That’s what we’re leaving in 2020, that’s who we were,” then look at the last 30 minutes and tell itself, “That’s who we can become.”