Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Here at Nebraska, It’s the Waiting That’s the Hardest Part

October 10, 2021

This Nebraska football viewing experience is an inexplicably unique exercise in cognitive dissonance. Progress is obvious in ways that matter and mistakes are belligerently lingering in moments that make all the progress irrelevant. This is, after all, a bottom-line business. But progress looks different to everyone and only 3% of the Football Bowl Subdivision membership gets a shot to win the thing we play the games for. Nebraska was a wayward football team when I first looked at it in 2017 and a squad that had no business sharing a field with Michigan in 2018 last they met. 

If Oklahoma—now the nation’s No. 4 team—looked underwhelming against these Huskers and Michigan State—now the nation’s No. 10 team—looked underwhelming against these Huskers and Michigan—now the nation’s No. 8 team—looked underwhelming against these Huskers, it says more about these Huskers than it does their foes. They all keep winning. Nebraska’s been the toughest win on everyone’s schedule. This is a good football team. 

But its record is 3-4. 

Nebraska entered Saturday 4-27 against the AP Top 10 since 2000. Nebraska had as many wins against top-10 squads in 1995 as it does in the last 22 seasons. (Sidebar: that ’95 team… yeesh.)

Since shocking Michigan State at home in 2015, Nebraska’s stone has missed its last nine shots at Goliath. 

Scott Frost is 0-10 against ranked opponents. You’re waiting for it to change. You hear the quips about waiting for the thing that won’t come, but you see the light at the end of the path. It’s stubbornly elusive, but it’s there.

Nebraska trampled a poor Northwestern team a week ago. It inspired confidence that Michigan’s arrival would be met with more. And it was. The parallels between this Saturday’s game and the last time Nebraska was in front of a primetime ABC audience are too strong to ignore. The distinction between the two teams that showed up are too glaring to gloss over. Nebraska was ready for this test.  

Frost had a plan for Michigan and it largely worked. He built sequentially, both off the weeks leading up and in-game. Nebraska’s first play was a new cut Michigan couldn’t scout. Nebraska was running the ball on first down 66% of its plays through the first six games. 

That orbit option has become something of a staple for Nebraska in recent weeks. Nebraska was doing variations of stuff out of this with different personnel but it hadn’t gone screen yet. If the running back didn’t get the handoff, it was most likely going to be Martinez coming off the edge with his pitch man. 

Michigan flowed accordingly, Rahmir Johnson leaked out of the backfield with blockers in front and Nebraska was off to the races. Forty-three yards on its first play from scrimmage. Fun Frost. Something we haven’t gotten to see enough of. 

Nebraska ran it 16 times on 28 first-half plays. The ground game yielded nothing—not a first down on the ground, not an explosive run, not a short-yardage win, and only a 2.6 yards-per-carry average.

Frost stuck to the plan.

“I wanted to establish the run game, so we tried,” he said. “We made a few adjustments I think that helped. We needed to be running a little bit of our answers to our option plays. Because with the base stuff they weren’t giving us the pull and the ability for Adrian to get on the perimeter. So we had to kind of manufacture that.”

Nebraska scored 22 points in the third quarter on just 16 total plays. Frost hit the Wolverines with counters you have to think were part of the plan all along. 

Michigan bit hard on the play fake. All four guys at that second level crashed down with their eyes in the backfield. Austin Allen got behind, Samori Touré took away the safety over the middle, and Nebraska got the third rolling with a bang. All that first-half running into the wall paid off.

Martinez hit Johnson for a 41-yard touchdown strike on a beautiful throw later. Three straight successful runs put the Wolverines on their heels, and they lost Johnson on a wheel after a play fake. After an interception on Michigan’s ensuing drive, Frost got Levi Falck a wide open lane down the right sideline to race for a score. NU put 14 points on the board in less than a minute of game clock. 

This was the Nebraska experience that was promised. Window-dressing and identical looks that hit very different and guys running open and the crowd going nuts. Aidan Hutchinson, a surefire first-round NFL draft choice, had 5.5 sacks in five games entering Saturday and wasn’t allowed to impact the game. Nebraska gave its defense the complementary football they deserve. 

It took some tweaking of the formula to get us here, but Frost’s style works. With the best roster he’s had, Frost has Big Ten’d (yes, now a verb) Oklahoma and gone toe to toe with Michigan. That Nebraska is losing is a referendum on luck more than scheme, mental fortitude more than ability.

“It’s hard to imagine the things that have happened to us all happening to us,” Frost said Saturday night.

And he’s right. It is hard to imagine these things that keep happening. And yet we’re continuously supplied with the unimaginable. Nebraska had the ball with exactly three minutes to play in a tie game. A field goal ends the suffering. “I thought tonight was the night.”

And to his credit, Nebraska seemed to believe that too. Frost said in the past everyone has looked over their shoulder in penultimate moments, waiting for the inevitable disaster. Against Michigan, he felt the team was convinced they were going to win.

To a degree, a coach’s most important job is that right there. Frost took over a broken program and fixed the culture. Nebraska has endured gut punch after gut punch, humiliation after humiliation from a group of college football peers that seemed—until as recently as this weekend—to relish in the heartbreak, and continued to fight back as if the week before didn’t happen.

Unsightly loss to Illinois? Hang 50 on the FCS guys coming to town. Lose a winnable game in Norman? Hold a legitimate Heisman candidate running back in check. Give up the punt seen ‘round the world? Bludgeon Northwestern. Frost hasn’t lost his team, and there’s increasing confidence he won’t no matter what comes down the pipe. That reflects glowingly on his ability to build. 

Yet despite all the good you see, all the reason for optimism and hope, these things continue to end one way. And that fact is inescapable for me.

Nebraska is 19-52 against ranked opponents since 2000. Of course that isn’t Frost’s issue, but it’s his burden to correct. The marquee games go one way. That much hasn’t changed. This season, four games have been decided by eight points or less and all four have been Husker losses. Over the course of the tenure, Nebraska is 5-16 in one-possession games. Riley was 8-10. Bo was 17-13. 

How long does Nebraska wait before “I thought tonight was the night” becomes “we got it done.” Adrian Martinez kept Nebraska in the game with his brilliance in the third and early fourth quarters. And yet it was Martinez who fumbled at the end when Nebraska could afford just about any result except a turnover. 

The same was true two weeks ago in East Lansing. Nebraska had a shot at the end because it had Martinez on its side, and it was a third-down interception in overtime that ended the game. The record in late-game situations is unsightly.

I’m having a hard time squaring those two realities. From a value standpoint, Martinez is one of the country’s most productive quarterbacks. He is the period best period quarterback period in the Big Ten. 

Nebraska lost by three and it’s natural to want to point to the field goal situation on its opening drive. Frost elected to roll the dice on fourth-and-two from the 3-yard-line and Michigan played one of Nebraska’s pet plays exactly right. We could argue the decision (I didn’t like it) but it had no bearing on the outcome. 

My knee jerk reaction was to question the screen call on third down with 1:09 to play, but on second glance, Nebraska was one block away from a first down, maybe more. 

It hurried on fourth and threw a low-percentage pass to Touré that fell incomplete. Michigan gave Nebraska zero blitz on the game’s last meaningful play; what else was Martinez to do? He knows heat is coming, he knows he’s going to have to get rid of it quickly, and he knows he needs a chunk play. Your best receiver one-on-one is the move in that spot. Michigan’s two defensive backs to the field navigated the switch release well and Martinez was a touch off. 

Nebraska played an excellent game against a really good opponent. It lost. That happens.

The uneasiness stems from the degree. The question on everyone’s minds right now is how much longer is this going to happen?

That’s a good football team. 

It’s just 3-4. 

Nebraska needs to go 3-0 against Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin, or it has to pull an upset of No. 2 Iowa or No. 6 Ohio State just to make a bowl game. Failing to do so would mark five straight years without a postseason appearance, something that was presumed to be a baseline standard for the year. Nebraska feels like it can hang with anyone in the country. Looks that way, too. But “hanging with” isn’t quite “took down.”

How much more can you take? After Saturday it seems fair to say the answer this program has been looking for was roaming the sideline in a black polo Saturday. And that’s probably the toughest part. Maybe the best course of action here is to just keep waiting.

Stick to the plan. Hope to hit Allen for the score. 

Other thoughts:

>> With 11 tackles and three passes broken up Saturday, Cam Taylor-Britt had his best game of the season. Many had been waiting for the fourth-year corner to break out and play up to that best-in-conference potential, and he finally did against the Wolverines. 

>> It’s probably time for folks around the country to start looking at Nebraska’s defensive coordinator if they have a lower-leverage head coaching position to fill. 

>> Iowa turned the Madden sliders up, or down, or just off altogether. National averages dictate a team will recover 50% of fumbles in a game and intercept 20% of its passes defended in a game. Iowa has recovered 58% of fumbles and intercepted 38% of its defended passes. The Hawkeyes have an expected takeaway value of 11.4 and yet they have produced 20 real takeaways in six games. It doesn’t matter how inefficient the offense is if that holds, and the fact it continues to hold week after week means it might be so unsustainable it’s actually sustainable. They’ve broken things.

>> Here are your post-Week 6 Big Ten power rankings. 

  1. Iowa 
  2. Michigan 
  3. Michigan State
  4. Ohio State
  5. Penn State
  6. I have absolutely no idea
  7. Nebraska
  8. This
  9. Middle
  10. Part
  11. Just
  12. Sucks
  13. Illinois
  14. Northwestern
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