Fourth-and-Still Searching
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Fourth-and-Still Searching

October 13, 2018

EVANSTON, Ill. –– Nebraska football coach Scott Frost said he’s “kind of running out of words to tell” his team following a loss this season. The latest marked six straight in 2018, the first six-game losing streak in program history.

Before describing the way everyone who coaches, plays or roots for Nebraska feels at the moment, Frost took to the podium and stared at the postgame stat sheet for at least 21 seconds. That may not sound like a long time, but duration is always contextual.

On Nebraska’s four touchdowns drives against Northwestern on Saturday the Huskers ran a play every 20.5 seconds on average. That’s quick, the momentum-based, tempo-as-weapon way this offense is supposed to work. 

But for a man at podium with microphones and cameras waiting to capture the current state of Nebraska football and broadcast it back to the state of Nebraska and anyone elsewhere still paying attention, it felt like an eternity.

What Frost was looking at on that sheet was a box score that slightly favored Northwestern. The Wildcats had 487 yards to Nebraska’s 482, 30 first downs to 24 and, crucially, one penalty for 5 yards to the Huskers’ nine for 89.

But it didn’t look that way with 10:57 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Huskers up 28-21. At that point Nebraska had gained 451 yards to Northwestern’s 283, 22 first downs to 19. It was at that point that Huskers running back Devine Ozigbo (159 rushing yards on the day) was stopped inches short on third-and-1 from Nebraska’s 43-yard line.

On fourth-and-inches, Nebraska decided to punt.

“I’d make every decision different if I knew the outcome,” Frost said of opting to punt. “We had a lead. I think at that point they hadn’t scored a whole lot.”

The Wildcats’ offense had scored two touchdowns at that point, the second coming on a 61-yard pass on the previous drive.

“I didn’t want to give them the ball on the 40,” Frost said. “If we had gone for it and not got it, you’d have asked me the other question.”

He’s probably right about that. Second-guessing is by definition contextual as well. Win and that play is a non-factor. Lose and it's a potential turning point.

That’s not what this is. That decision stood out not because it was the wrong decision, but because it seemed like an out-of-character decision for Frost’s always-attack approach to football.

Earlier this season, up one on Colorado in the fourth quarter at the Buffs’ 42-yard line, Nebraska went for it. Tied with Purdue in the first quarter at the Boilermakers’ 41, Nebraska went for it. The Huskers were stopped both times, but those choices were more mission statements than miscues.

Fourth-and-shorts are almost always that way, and, over his 31 games as a head coach, Frost almost always goes for it. In his first year at UCF in 2016 the Knights went for it nine-of-11 times when faced with a fourth-and-1 outside of field goal range. Last season it was eight-of-nine times. All told, Frost has gone for it 77.7 percent of the time –– a fitting percentage–– over his career. He’s not afraid of high-risk, high-reward situations.

This time, however, Nebraska took the low-risk route, which may have been as good an indication as any of just how much the Huskers needed a win on Saturday.

That strategy actually paid off. Northwestern’s resulting drive ended with a Tre Neal interception, which led to a field goal to give the Huskers a 31-21 lead with 5:41 left.

Then the defense melted down. Over the next two drives the Wildcats covered 161 yards on 23 plays, all of them passes. Three of Northwestern’s nine first downs over that span came via a Nebraska penalty. The Wildcats erased a 10-point deficit, setting up Nebraska’s next fourth-and-1.

The Huskers had the ball first in overtime and called Ozigbo’s number twice to set up third-and-1. A false start on Boe Wilson pushed Nebraska back 5 yards, and that was all the Huskers got back on the next play, a pass to JD Spielman.

Go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 16 or send out true freshman kicker Barret Pickering, who had missed one field goal attempt from 45 yards in the first half and hit from 34 in the fourth quarter?

Nebraska went for this one and a low snap went through Adrian Martinez’s legs forcing a desperate heave that ended in an interception.

Northwestern then ran the ball for the first time since the third quarter, passed it, ran it and kicked the winning field goal.

“Some of the things that are happening to us, I’ve never seen before,” Frost said.

The Huskers’ two fourth-and-1s were all the evidence needed to support that sentiment. They weren’t the wrong decisions, just a reflection of how nobody saw 0-6 coming and nobody’s quite sure how or when the turnaround begins.

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