Scott Frost felt like Nebraska played its best game of the season on defense against the Buckeyes.
That’s in spite of the 36 points on the scoreboard and the 481 yards of offense in the box score.
“There were some signs of things that happened on defense that were really encouraging to me,” the head coach said Monday during his weekly press conference. “Forcing turnovers, playing as hard as we did, getting more hats to the ball, being a little more physical, seeing some big hits. Every week it’s gotten better. They probably played their best game.
“They played a good team Saturday and I thought they battled. Statistically, we gave up too many points. We need to get some field goals instead of touchdowns and do better in the red zone. Overall I think offense and defense played well enough on Saturday to win a game.”
Nebraska was opportune in ways it hadn’t been early in the season. Ohio State put the ball on the deck six times and lost two of them, a lot of those fumbles the result of heavy Nebraska hits or punch-outs from behind (all things they’ve been trying to carry over from the practice field). The Buckeyes threw an interception, too. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who entered the game a fringe Heisman contender atop the Big Ten in yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage, had maybe his worst day of the year.
All those things were pleasing. It has been a trying season for that side of the ball. There were points where the more vocal minority were calling for a defensive coordinator change. That side hasn’t played the way most hoped for; Nebraska is 13th in the conference in scoring defense.
Throughout it all, Frost’s confidence in his staff remains extremely high.
“It hasn’t been easy for any of us — the players, the coaches, I’m sure the fans,” he said. “We’ve had to struggle through some things. The best thing to do as a leader when you’re struggling through things is be consistent and stay the same and keep your messages the same and keep encouraging.”
Chinander has done that. Players say this staff didn’t flinch when the team was 0-6 and it hasn’t changed now that wins have come their way.
“After this season, regardless of how it finishes, the thing I’ll be most proud of is most teams if they had the start to the season we had would shut it down, would have started fighting, would have gotten worse,” Frost said. “This team keeps getting better, keeps playing, culture keeps getting better, there’s relationships being developed, there’s a lot of things being built even through some trying times.
“That’s not easy to do. Leaders like Coach Chinander and others are the guys that helped see that through. Not one coach turned on any players, players aren’t turning on each other, players aren’t turning on coaches.”
Several seniors spoke during the morning, some talked in Columbus after the game, most of the message has been the same: they’re jealous of the guys that get to stick around.
“The best thing I heard all week is one of my young guys came to me and told me one of my old guys told him he was so jealous of the young guy that he was going to get to be around here for three more years because of what the players can feel is happening and where they know it’s going,” Frost said. “That’s great to hear that even a senior going out the door wishes he could stay here with us a little while longer and with his team a while longer.”
After the Ohio State game, Buckeye coach Urban Meyer called Nebraska a 2-7 team no one wants to face. Asked if that was good to hear, Frost sort of shrugged and scrunched his face. “I suppose that’s good to hear, it’s not much of a consolation,” he said. “We’ve had some great moral victories this year and those don’t count for anything.”
Not entirely true. The moments here and there — like the defense not folding after Ohio State began its first drive at Nebraska’s 22-yard-line — serve as reminders to the guys in the locker room things are moving towards something special. The defense is getting there.
“We’re getting closer and closer every time we go out,” Frost says.
Other News and Notes
>> Running back Maurice Washington got dinged against the Buckeyes but Frost said he’s fine and practiced with the team Monday.
>> Asked how the freshman responded to playing in Ohio Stadium, Frost said “I don’t think there’s a moment that’s too big for him.” The biggest thing for Washington to work on is his strength and conditioning.
>> Special teams was a mess against Ohio State. Really has been all season. That unit ranks 117th in the country by S&P+. The “offense and defense played well enough on Saturday to win a game” comment from Frost earlier on? Well, after that Frost said, “I’m not sure you can say that about our special teams performance.”
Asked if some of the issues can get fixed on the fly or if they have to wait until the offseason, Frost said it’s a little of both.
“We watch every game, every snap of practice, we know what happened and what went wrong,” he said. “Some things can be fixed now, some things are going to need other help to get fixed. The blocked punt on Saturday was a missed communication that can’t happen. Those guys have done that 200 times in practice. They changed the protection on one side and one guy changed it and didn’t tell the other two. Those things can’t happen in a big game.
“Some of the other things that happened, we’re probably going to have to wait and address in the offseason.”
>> No one seems to like the alternate jerseys Nebraska will wear against Illinois on Saturday.
“I like the black cleats,” linebacker Mo Barry said. “The pants, I guess. I don’t know what else to say.”
“I don’t speak on that stuff,” safety/linebacker JoJo Domann said. “I’m just going to be here Saturday playing.”
Frost is fine mixing it up every once in a while, but it seems as if Nebraska won’t be trying to reinvent the wheel anytime soon.
“In general, I think there’s a dozen brands in college football that you recognize, and those schools probably are better off, in my opinion — just my opinion — sticking to tradition,” Frost said. “We have a strong enough tradition here. Everybody in the country, when they see that ‘N’ on the side of the helmet, knows what it stands for. Not to say we won’t mix it up occasionally, but there’s power in what we wear every Saturday.”
>> Specifically on Illinois, Nebraska will be welcoming a team that a week ago lost its defensive coordinator after giving up 63 points to Maryland, then beat Minnesota 55-31 and forced the Gophers to fire their defensive coordinator.
On the offense, Frost said starter and former Husker AJ Bush has helped the Illini offense to look “completely different.” On defense, he said he probably knows a little of what to expect given his time in Tampa Bay and his familiarity with former DC Hardy Nickerson (Nickerson played for the Bucs from 1993 to 1999), but with head coach Lovie Smith now calling the plays things might be a little different.
“They’re some different. You can tell obviously it’s in the same scheme,” he said. “I finished my career in Tampa and Hardy was a legend down there, so I’ve got a ton of respect for him and Lovie. I’m familiar enough from those days back then with how that defense works to kind of recognize things. There are some differences, but I don’t know how much of the difference was just a game-planning thing for that team and how much is going to carry over.”
>> Devine Ozigbo is 204 rushing yards away from the first 1,000-yard season at Nebraska since Ameer Abdullah did it in 2014. Would that mean something to Frost, knowing Nebraska’s history with running backs, to snap that streak? Yeah, it would.
“Our first goal obviously is to win games and we’re going to do whatever we have to on offense to win games but I’d love to see Devine get to 1,000,” he said.
Nebraska also has two guys within striking distance of having 1,000 receiving yards.
No one in program history has ever broken the 1K threshold receiving and both Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman are in position to do it in the same year. Morgan has 725 after setting the program record for single-season yardage last year with 986 yards. Spielman is at 747 yards.
“I was just made aware of their numbers today — because I don’t really look at that — but I think it’s possible for all of them to do it if we play well on defense,” Frost said. “If those guys hit those benchmarks, that probably means we put ourselves in position to win some games.”
Asked if those tangible records would matter on the recruiting trail, Frost said probably, but kids can see already the offense Nebraska is selling. (Greg Smith will have more on that later in his recruiting notebook.)
>> Domann credited the defensive coaching staff with the way things went Saturday in Columbus.
"I mean, those coaches earn their paychecks," he said. "They earn every penny of it. They game-planned Ohio State so hard. They put us in the best positions to succeed and they do that every week. This coaching staff, even though we did start 0-6 and all that, they showed up to work every day and they brought it. Most days more than us. It's the days where the players can match the coaches intensity is where we are doing something special."
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.