For the first time in 56 days, Nebraska gets a much-needed break from playing football with its first bye week. The break couldn’t get to Lincoln soon enough.
A week without a game is an opportunity to rest banged up bodies that have gone through the Big Ten blender. But it also gives a chance for the everyone involved—players, coaches and fans—to take a mental timeout after five of the eight games have ended in one-score losses.
Following the 30-23 loss to PJ Fleck and Minnesota last week, Nebraska is currently 3-5 with little momentum as it tries to gain bowl eligibility by winning three of its next four games. It’s not an impossible task—Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa are all winnable games, and even Ohio State has looked human on defense. The Buckeyes have given up 10 passing touchdowns this season, which is tied for second most in the Big Ten.
The bye week can be a chance to look in the mirror and see what can be improved. But one aspect of this whole thing towers over everything else—the Huskers need to figure out how these last four games are going to go. Will they fight for their head coach and assistants, whose seats are getting warmer and warmer after each Big Ten loss?
Scott Frost has repeatedly said his team is close. But close still counts as losses in a results-based industry like college football. The players have the chance to turn that around by not doing what they seem to do every game, something that has turned into a part of the program: making the back-breaking mistake (or mistakes) that turns a possible win into a sure-fire defeat.
At Illinois, it was Cam Taylor-Britt fielding a punt at his own 3-yard line and getting tackled in his end zone for a safety. It was Adrian Martinez fumbling a ball that wound up getting scoop-and-scored from 41 yards.
Against Oklahoma, it was kicker Connor Culp missing two of his three field goals. It was true freshman Kelen Meyer getting an extra point blocked and returned 100 yards for a 2-point conversion after a massive failure in field goal protection.
Against Michigan State, it was Daniel Cerni punting the ball in the opposite direction of where his coverage unit was heading, leading to a 62-yard touchdown return.
Against Michigan, it was Martinez fumbling late in the fourth quarter when he thought the play was over, but wasn’t.
Against Minnesota, it was a juice-less start that had Nebraska trailing 21-9 at halftime. You know how the movie went: the Huskers battled back to trail just 21-16 in the third quarter, but Martinez was flagged for intentional grounding in his own end zone for a safety and the Blackshirts broke down and gave up a 56-yard touchdown run.
“We keep finding ways to lose,” Frost said after the loss to the Gophers. That part is true. But it’s not one person’s fault, it’s a group effort. Both the players and coaches share the blame in these losses.
But if the Huskers want to snap the four-year bowl drought and do the unlikely of turning things around, the bye week needs to be where the process starts. Purdue will be the first test, one that will answer a key question: Will the team fight for Frost and the rest of the coaches?
The Huskers can be a good football team. The potential is there. The talent is there. But there’s clearly a disconnect somewhere in the program. This group defies football logic.
This is an opportunity to recharge the batteries for both parties—the players and coaches. Will the team come back to Lincoln physically and mentally ready to defend their home field against Jeff Brohm, his three quarterbacks, NFL-caliber receiver and EDGE defender, and a defense that is better than it usually is?
If the answer is yes, then Nebraska is one step closer to doing the unlikely of winning three of its next four. If the answer is no, and that frightening Purdue Pete mascot is walking around Tom Osborne Field like he just won a million railroad ties, then it will feel like yet another punch to the gut of the Frost era. One that leaves fans wondering whether he’s is the right guy for the job.