Nebraska found itself in a fistfight for the first time in the Scott Frost era on Saturday.
The Huskers took some punches, a bunch of punches actually, but responded with some of its own and Nebraska won. In the overall scheme of things that will probably mean more than all of the 40-something-point games the Huskers have had of late and will have more often in the very near future.
But in this one the Huskers’ best weapon was dulled by a combination of another ruthless Michigan State run defense, swirling winds and freezing temperatures. Gray, blustery and 17 degrees is the Spartans’ natural habitat, an environment that seemed custom built for derailing Nebraska’s offense.
And it did.
“I laid in bed last night with my fingers crossed and hands folded in prayer, hoping that we’d be able to throw it,” Scott Frost said.
No such luck. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was 16-for-37 for 145 yards. Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi was about the same –– 15-for-41, 146 yards –– which tells you everything about the passing conditions out there. Martinez and Lombardi are not the same. Not on a normal day. The offenses are not close in terms of output this season, either, but they were on Saturday.
And Nebraska still won.
Some will say it’s proof of concept. Not that there were many questions about Frost's offense in a laboratory setting. It works, and everyone knows it.
But everyone also knows that there will always be days like this in the Big Ten. Not just weather-wise, but games against bloody-your-nose bullies, a role Michigan State is very used to and good at playing. Would the offense work then? Frost was asked about that very contradiction between his offense and the Big Ten’s reputation at his introductory press conference.
That's why Saturday's win mattered more than any other so far this season. It didn't prove anything about the offense. This was an offense-less game. And for that reason, it's hard to say too much about the defense, either defense, other than to tip your cap to all the guys out there trying to make something happen.
Senior safety Antonio Reed did, posting an insane stat line that included seven tackles, an interception, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles, one of which came on a sack in the fourth quarter and allowed the Huskers to tie the game at 6 in the fourth quarter.
Remember when he had a key penalty on Colorado's game-winning drive in the season opener? What a difference a season makes.
"He is certainly one of the most talented guys we have on defense," Frost said. "But talent doesn't matter if you're doing everything the right way, not in the right place. Antonio is that guy now, and it showed today."
Barrett Pickering made plays, too. All of the scoring plays for what is believed to be the first time a Husker team won without a touchdown since 1937. Remember when he missed a field goal against Northwestern, a game that went to overtime? And then, in overtime, with the Huskers facing a fourth-and-1 at the Wildcats' 16, he didn't get the chance to even attempt the kick that could have put Nebraska up three?
Feels like a lifetime ago, a different team ago. Pickering's third field goal, what would be the game-winner, was from 47 yards, a career-long and his first make this season from beyond 40 yards.
"I had enough confidence in him at that point to let him go out and try a long one, and he buried it," Frost said. "It turned out to be the difference. You could pick out about a dozen guys on our team that have gotten just infinitely better as the year has gone along. Those guys are kind of representative of our whole team."
This game, then, was the culmination of this whole year. It’s been a strange one for Nebraska.
Over the first half of the season, it looked like a classic Year Zero situation. Frost was using phrases like “forest fire” and “laying a foundation,” words that connote purification, cleansing. That’s all there is when there are no real results to show.
Then Nebraska somehow turned a corner and jammed a classic Year One into the second half of the season. Things started to build, players started to improve, both those you thought would and some you thought wouldn’t. The result of that wild ride was a 9-6 win in the snow over Michigan State.
It wasn’t proof of concept, it was proof of culture. The Huskers’ have one now, a culture capable of winning even when Nebraska can’t do most of the things it wants to do in a game.
“Good teams figure out how to win any kind of game,” Frost said.
It took half a season to really and irrefutably see it, but here now, with one game left, you can say it: Nebraska is a good team.