This feels like a crisis point for the immediate future of Nebraska football.
The Huskers went off as a two touchdown favorite over Illinois, fresh off a win over then-winless Penn State that was saved by two key stops from the defense. That defense got its Blackshirts and then broke out the Blackshirt alternates for this game that the experts and betting public fully expected Nebraska to win.
After four plays, the Huskers trailed 7-0. Illinois scored the most points it had in a first half of Big Ten football, 28, in a decade. The Illini were a big-play offense coming in, and were that again on Saturday, but the thing you probably couldn’t have seen coming was Illinois winning on a down-to-down basis. It did that, too. The Illini’s 50% success rate was its third-highest in a game since 2018.
Nebraska’s offense, laboring all season long minus maybe the Ohio State game, couldn’t keep up. Luke McCaffrey’s second start didn’t go as well as the first. Facing a three touchdown deficit in the first half rather than having one really underscored the limitations of the Huskers’ offense right now. Its best runs are quarterback runs Scott Frost said they don’t want to use as often as they do. Wan’Dale Robinson again got double-digit touches, but with few other real threats even his grit and ability aren’t enough. It may not have the receivers or the quarterbacks right now to challenge teams down the field and you can’t just will that into existence. Also, the explanation of facing a “very good defense” isn’t available either. The Illini ranked 119th nationally in success rate allowed, 86th in explosive-plays percentage.
To complete the trifecta, Nebraska’s last chance to get back in this game was on the first drive of the second half. The defense forced a three-and-out, only for Illinois to run a comically easy fake punt that allowed the Illini to keep the ball for the first half of the third quarter.
Nebraska couldn’t even hold well on Saturday. A second-and-12 run in the third quarter featured a holding penalty from the Huskers, but the play itself went for no yards so the Illini declined the 10 free yards.
The failure in this one was comprehensive.
“I was embarrassed by our level of execution in all three phases,” Frost said. “I didn’t think we had the juice we had last week.”
It was indeed a juice-free kind of day, which is the one thing Nebraska’s fans won’t accept. They shouldn’t accept it.
While it’s important to never make too much of one game or the newest piece of information, this loss sent the mind to some dark places.
This year was always going to be a strange one. I think the baseline hope for Nebraska in a virus-shortened season was to see the program take another step towards where it hopes to be eventually. Fans may have hoped they’d be close to that by season’s end, but closer would’ve been enough.
With today’s loss, you have to wonder how the Huskers are going to avoid a one-win season before they get to the Big Ten’s plus-one week. Nebraska won’t be favored over Iowa or Purdue, both on the road. The home game against Minnesota to close the regular season might be viewed as a tossup.
Whether that doom scenario unfolds or not will be decided in the weeks to come but the point right now is that it seems possible. Perhaps even likely. One win. Year three.
That’s a disastrous spot to be in at this stage. No player is using up any eligibility this season, but what’s the excitement level for running things back right now in 2021? What are you selling right now?
“If I pay attention to what’s going on outside, that’s certainly a fair judgment to make after today,” Frost said. “I know what I have in that locker room. I have a bunch of high-character kids, and I have growing talent. We’re going to get it fixed. I have as much or more confidence today than I’ve had.”
Credit to Frost for the consistency of that message, but he’s losing followers quickly. Nebraska was the butt of most of the social-media jokes on Saturday, none more savage than one from the Illini themselves.
None of that stuff matters, of course. Jokes have a lifespan of seconds in today’s world. Illinois deleted the tweet.
What might’ve mattered on Twitter were the tweets from those directly affiliated with the program. A few young players, who did not play in the game, shared sentiments that the Huskers were wasting talent. Two current commits expressed either shock or second thoughts on Saturday.
Who knows? All we really know after perhaps the worst day of the still-young Frost era is that none of this looks like what success looks like. The games feel like independent events—could be good, could be bad, who can say?––rather than part of any process much less progress.
There doesn’t seem to be a unifying idea behind all of this, beyond “get Nebraska back to what it was.” That’s kind of an impossible standard, one, and, two, there’s mounting evidence that it weighs pretty heavy.
Saturday was just the latest exhibit.
But Frost says he still sees the progress, despite the circle of people in the same group continuing to grow smaller.
He also said he “didn’t really see this coming.” He said that three times.
When you boil it all down, that’s really how Saturday happens. Good football is about reducing uncertainty.
Nebraska football, 28 games into its fourth rebuild this century, still rolls around in it.
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.