The switches on the offensive line worked, not punting for a half is a helluva fix for punting woes, committing no penalties in that same half looks pretty nice and, overall, all was good in Husker land again after Nebraska had a very happy homecoming, pummeling Northwestern 56-7.
It went so well, in fact, that after three postgame sessions where Scott Frost had to try to make the case Nebraska was getting better even though it lost, this time he had to try to tamp things down.
“We’re a lot better team than we have been,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do still. This was one game.”
Now, the caveat. Northwestern might not be very good this year. In fact, it was entirely reasonable to expect the Wildcats to experience some growing pains, given all they lost from last year’s division-championship team, even if the Wildcats disagreed.
Them: nOrTWeSTerN oNLy rEtUrNs 34% oF iTs pRoDuCtIoN
— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) August 17, 2021
Having Pat Fitzgerald actually wasn’t a terrible argument for Northwestern being at least somewhat immune to a returning-production number that means regression for most teams. And it still might. Fitzgerald’s reputation for putting well-coached, disciplined teams on the field no matter what is well-earned at this point. But right now, Northwestern’s still working through the expected bumps.
Every Nebraska loss is a referendum on the program, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be in year four. If that’s the case, however, beating a team by 49 as an 11-point favorite also has to mean something more than, “well, the opponent wasn’t very good.” It has to, if we’re to fairly evaluate this team.
That’s what I’m saying.
A team has to play well to win by seven touchdowns, and this game might’ve been Nebraska’s best under Frost in terms of complete effort. The 56 points were the most for a Frost team in a Big Ten game. They were also the most a Fitzgerald team had allowed since losing 70-10 to Wisconsin in 2010.
So, knowing that this isn’t vintage Fitzgerald-era Northwestern, how good is 3-3 Nebraska?
I think it might be pretty good. Personally, I was treating Nebraska as closer to 4-1 than the 2-3 it actually was entering Saturday, but it needed to beat a persistent foe—the team that always plays Nebraska close, at worst, and has won half the time—for that to remain tenable. I believed the Huskers were good enough to win about any game—minus maybe Ohio State—left on its schedule before Saturday. How the Huskers looked against the Wildcats didn’t damage that perspective.
But one excellent game doesn’t make it trustworthy enough yet to write any such future wins in ink.
Saturday showed what avoiding colossal mistakes can mean. Play as cleanly as the Huskers did, and things should look good for most teams.
We still don’t know, however, if Nebraska can make some errors and overcome them. That’s the next step, and it will just be lurking there until the Huskers do because the Huskers, most of the time over the past three seasons, haven’t.
Mistakes have become something of a Chekov’s Gun for Nebraska football. If there is a mistake—a wayward punt, a crucial interception, too many penalties—it must cost Nebraska the game. To be fair, it has kind of gone that way.
But it’s always struck me as oversimplified. Football is a game of avoiding mistakes, yes, but no team plays perfectly on every play. The second most-important trait for a football team might be mistake mitigation.
Northwestern didn’t really force the issue there, or Nebraska didn’t by not making many mistakes. So, that box remains unchecked for now. Undefeated Michigan visits next week, and it will probably put it to the test.
If so, it’s a test the Huskers have a chance of passing.
“We’ve been playing pretty well since the first game,” Frost said. “I was really down the first game. Since then, we’ve been consistently getting better.”
Nebraska needed a win over a Big Ten team for sentiments like that to keep carrying weight. It got one, emphatically, and now it has something tangible upon which to build.
Maybe it’s “the spark” that Frost has said has been missing. We’ll see.
There’s a well-worn saying in sports—nothing is as good as it seems or as bad as it seems. Bo Pelini used to say it a lot. Most coaches have it in their repertoire.
It’s real. It’s worth considering no matter if Nebraska loses a heartbreaker or wins easily.
It is, however, a lot nicer to have to worry about things looking too good.
Hasn’t happened often enough around here, but there’s a little more hope now than there was seven days ago.
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.