Halfway Through 2019
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Halfway Through 2019, Huskers Will Need a Year 1-Like Rise in Year 2

October 06, 2019

Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight a month from now, we’ll look at this game as the moment when the Huskers, having won the most Big Ten-y of Big Ten games, saved their season. It’s possible.

It’s also a hard argument to make after Nebraska (4-2, 2-1) went to the wire again with Northwestern (1-4, 0-3) in a 13-10 win decided on a field goal by a walk-on safety. #UndefeatedinOctober still lives for the Huskers. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Northwestern played the game it wanted to play, executed the plan it always hopes to execute and had much the best of it on Saturday. The Wildcats held Nebraska to a season-low 32.8% success rate. They allowed six explosive plays. Northwestern’s offense, moribund as it was coming into Saturday at a sleepy 3.93 yards per play (129th nationally), outpaced Nebraska’s offense in both categories.

A team that does that should win the game, but the Wildcats had the game’s lone turnover—a questionable one given that the Huskers probably could’ve been flagged for pass interference on the late interception—and that set up a magical finish where an in-state walk-on quarterback led a drive that set up the game-winning field goal from a fellow in-state walk-on. But in-state walk-on hardly paints the full picture. Lane McCallum is a transfer safety from Air Force who never thought he’d be kicking six weeks ago. The game-winner—McCallum’s third attempt on the day following one make and one miss—barely got over the defensive line, but, because it did, got over the crossbar, too.

“I’m 44 years old. I could’ve jumped as high as he kicked that, but it got through,” Scott Frost said of the game-winner. “I think we were due a break somewhere.”

Maybe that’s true. Injury luck certainly wasn’t on the Huskers’ side on Saturday with Adrian Martinez and JD Spielman both icing their lower appendages in the second half as this one was decided. But football—undeniably good football, the kind Nebraska hopes to play one day—is largely about removing the randomness from the game.

Nebraska isn’t there yet. Teams like Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa have made a living in the Big Ten of late by reducing randomness. It’s not an accident that entering today the Huskers were 1-11 against those teams the last four years. They have been average enough that they’re highly susceptible to randomness and that’s not the goal.

“We need to play better,” Frost said. “We need to finish a couple of those drives. They’re a really well-coached team and they don’t beat themselves very often. They kind of did today.”

Indeed, Northwestern kind of did.

With a little over five minutes remaining in the game, the Wildcats took over at Nebraska’s 25-yard line. Northwestern completed a pass for 5 yards, a solid start to a potential go-ahead drive and it was at that point that Spencer Tillman, providing color commentary for the Fox telecast, asked if Nebraska “was better off than it was” at the end of 2017. Based on 55 minutes of play on Saturday, it was a hard to say “yes.” Here the Huskers were again, on their home field, fighting uphill against Northwestern.

But then the Wildcats were flagged for two uncharacteristic penalties, a chop block on what would’ve been a gain for a first down followed by a false start, that put them in a second-and-25 and eventually forced a punt. On the next drive Northwestern threw the interception with a minute remaining. For 58 minutes, Northwestern was peak Northwestern, giving itself a chance to win by not making the big mistake.

In the 59th minute, it made the big mistake and that was the difference.

I thought Nebraska was poised to play better than that in this one. Frost has said at multiple times this season that the Huskers need to embrace where they are right now, that they are better than they were a year ago. I agreed, as recently as four days ago, on both fronts.

And I still agree, but now we’re talking about degrees. Small degrees. 

Saturday’s win sent me back to the drawing board. Northwestern’s defense hemmed in the Huskers’ offense to a surprising degree. Northwestern’s offense, despite the low point total, had more success than Nebraska’s on a down-by-down basis. The only difference between the two teams really was the fourth-quarter interception, which still feels to me like a missed call.

“It’s one-week seasons for use right now in our division,” backup quarterback Noah Vedral said after the win.

He’s right, but I expected Nebraska to be a little further ahead than that at this point. I thought they were, even with the Ohio State annihilation on the books.

But Saturday said otherwise. Nebraska won and reserved the right to change its fate going forward, but I thought this game might be a chance to start the metamorphosis. Instead, halfway through the season, it’s looking like the Huskers are going to need to show similar gains over the second half of the season that they did a year ago.

Where the Huskers left off in 2018 was expected to be the starting point for 2019. Maybe that was too simplistic of a view because what we’ve seen in 2019 so far shows that it wasn’t.

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