Through one specific lens, Nebraska’s closer-than-it-looks 38-17 win over North Dakota was “perfect.”
Games against an FCS opponent always have a high potential to be thankless. Early in the week, the Huskers were a three-touchdown favorite over the Fighting Hawks, a line that ballooned to 30 overnight from Friday to Saturday despite Nebraska looking for its first win since last October. The first Saturday of last October.
It had been a while. A win over North Dakota was never going to be able to remove all of the dents and scratches this program has obtained over the 11 months since last winning a game. Beat the Hawks by the expected margin, whether that’s 22 points or 30, and it’s, well, expected.
Do less than that, and an already-on-edge fan base gets even edgier. The Huskers’ win on Saturday fell somewhere in the middle, and that’s why Scott Frost, though it’s safe to assume he would’ve preferred 56-7, thought maybe 38-17 was perfect.
His message to the team after the game: “This team can be a great team, it’s not right now.”
“That puts us in the perfect position to have the potential to be good, but know that we’ve got a lot of work to do and things to fix,” Frost said.
Also, fair enough. Saturday’s game certainly showed the tricky high-wire act this 2022 season seems bound to be.
Nebraska appears to have the running back it needs to get where it needs to go this season. Anthony Grant rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns a week after rushing for 101 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern. It might be fair to say he’s earned every one of those yards as both weeks his experience in the backfield looked like that of a commuter trying to exit a crowded subway car.
Does Nebraska have the offensive line it needs to get where it needs to go? I’ll remain skeptical of that for another week, and maybe more skeptical than I was after last week’s game.
If the Huskers’ can somehow shore up the o-line play, Nebraska might have an offense capable of getting where it needs to go this season. If nothing else so far this season, Nebraska is six-for-seven in the red zone this season, scoring six touchdowns. That was a persistent problem a year ago, and newcomers are leading the way. Fifty-two of the Huskers’ 66 points so far this season have been scored by players who weren’t on the roster a year ago. The new blood on offense has worked on the field.
Does Nebraska, however, have it working on the sidelines? Frost was asked who called the plays in the second half, when the Huskers put up 290 of their 437 total yards and 31 of their 38 points. His answer wasn’t “offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.” It was, instead, “I’m not ever going to get into that.” Do with that what you will. It might be the only thing people get into over the week ahead.
The balancing act for Nebraska this season is sort of baked in given all of the offseason changes, and it might be the most interesting thing to watch going forward.
The Husker newcomers probably know of what came before them. They certainly at least heard all the talk about close losses and the half-joking “best 3-9 team in the country” stuff, but that’s vastly different than living it.
We saw this play out on the postgame podium in Ireland a week ago. A visibly hurting Garrett Nelson, and we’re not talking physical pain, spoke about how hard it is to keep coming up just short. He’s got the scars from the Frost era to prove it.
Thompson, seated two chairs down, said “We’re going to be fine.” He doesn’t have the scars. At least not Nebraska scars.
Maybe that’s the best hope yet for Husker fans in 2022, after a day that’s unlikely to offer more than “well, beats losing.” Maybe if the new blood, which hasn’t lived the pain of the recent past, can help the old guard just play football, Nebraska can simply improve as they do.
That seemed to be Frost’s hope.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys, on the team, on the staff,” he said. “Those guys see our team and the talent on our team and they’re really, really confident in who we are. We’ve got some old guys who have battled through a lot of adversity and been a good team before and haven’t won.
“As the head coach, you’ve got to balance telling them they’re a great team to keep their confidence up with being honest with them and making sure we’re continuing to get better.”
For 30 minutes against North Dakota, it looked like this Nebraska season might topple over the edge. Eyes were wide open and bulging, arms were waving in the circles of someone trying to maintain balance, a few onlookers probably even looked away.
Nebraska didn’t fall off the ledge, but it didn’t look like it was confidently headed for solid footing any time soon either.
Maybe that’s the only way this game could’ve gone. Maybe it was the perfect day.
Probably could go either way.
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.