Most of my drive home from Columbus, Ohio, this past weekend was spent thinking about how Week 2 already felt high-stakes for the 2020 Huskers.
Every Nebraska-Wisconsin game should be high-stakes. If the Huskers are to get where they hope to go, that has to be the case. Nebraska, however, has struggled to make it so, losing every game between the two since September of 2012. As the Big Red fiddled with various versions of what it wanted to be, the Badgers just kept being the same and the wins followed.
That was the hill Nebraska was going to have to climb again on Saturday and it took a lot of churning and yearning to even have the chance. The Huskers needed a change agent, I decided, as I rolled along under gray skies and intermittent rain, and this was the kind of game that could be that. Without putting too much into a five-touchdown loss, Nebraska’s game against Ohio State was easy to overlook based on the final score and Wisconsin’s 45-7 win over Illinois to open the season was easy to overvalue for the same reason. Oh, and quarterback Graham Mertz completing all but one of the passes he threw.
At least that’s what I thought back when I hadn’t even considered the potential for a cancellation. I wondered how big of a favorite Wisconsin would be on the opening line. The Badgers were a 9-point favorite, which quickly ballooned to 10.5 or 11 before reports surfaced that Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19. By Wednesday morning, the line was down to Wisconsin by 3. By lunch––following additional positive tests, including head coach Paul Chryst and backup quarterback Chase Wolf—there was no game.
This was precisely the scenario the Big Ten hoped wouldn’t happen, had left itself no room to deal with through its offseason of unrest, and here it was six days into the season.
Assign blame if you must. Entertain conspiracy theories if you will. These are defense mechanisms, hard-wired, for a world that often doesn’t make sense. In a year that doesn’t make sense, these seem to have become default settings. Don’t like thing? Try to open it with the program that doesn’t even recognize thing. Trying to open a spreadsheet with a word processor won’t offer any answers but it will offer a blank page on which to write whatever helps you cope.
Back in reality, this exact scenario felt somewhat inevitable. I hoped it wouldn’t happen to any program, but it seemed likely that it would. Nebraska, through no apparent fault of its own, got a bad draw. And so it goes.
This is a particularly tough game to lose—for the opportunity it presented, for what might have been—but it’s lost. In some ways, that only underscores the bigger battle Nebraska is trying to fight here.
For too long Nebraska football has been a program adrift. It’s highly susceptible to the vagaries of the game itself. Excellent football is really about controlling as much as you can in a game that is really hard to control and Nebraska remains a work in progress.
Saturday’s game was meant to be the latest opportunity for the Huskers to exhibit some control, and I liked Nebraska’s chances for that game to be this. Really did, regardless of who could or could not play quarterback for the Badgers.
The challenge was going to be the same. Can you do what you want to do better than Wisconsin can do what it wants to do with any and all limitations on either side in place?
That’s what every football game is. It is sad that Nebraska won’t have one this weekend, but no long-term goals are lost here. If anything, they’re highlighted.
Over 51 games as a head coach, Scott Frost has now had three games canceled and one postponed (due to a hurricane). It’s an unlikely run of disappointment and one that has now appeared in all but one of his seasons as head coach.
But nothing about this changes anything about the challenge ahead for Nebraska football. It’s still trying to get better. The Huskers won’t have the chance to show that this week against the team it, probably, most needs to beat. Is that really what you want, though, beyond an “I just want football” frame of reference? Talk about title races and tie-breakers all you want, the only real objective is to be better at football and, sometimes, results only obscure that fact.
If Nebraska had gotten that big win against a key opponent under extraordinary circumstances, what would it have even meant?
I don’t know. At this point, any potential catalyst is good for the Huskers. I felt that way on Sunday and maybe Nebraska missed an easy chance to get that belief-building game under its belt here. You would only know in hindsight.
Here’s what I know now: Winning football games isn’t entirely random. There’s more randomness than we’re willing to admit, but the game’s history shows that it’s not a complete crap shoot either.
It would’ve been nice to have another data point, for Nebraska to declare itself against another high-stakes opponent. After the year we’ve had, however, was it ever reasonable to expect that?
Nebraska football needs to keep getting better. The challenge is the same. The schedule, unfortunately, is not.