There’s a version of this 2021 Nebraska football season where everyone looks back on the season-opening loss to Illinois as just a dumb loss. The Huskers didn’t play well, in eerily familiar ways, and got beat. Counts all the same at the end of the day, but if the Huskers rebound, it’s not a symbolic loss.
There’s also a version of this season where that first game was indicative of everything to come. Same mistakes, same old story.
It was hard to imagine the first version of this in-progress season remaining a viable path if Nebraska didn’t beat Buffalo this Saturday. The Bulls are a MAC team, sure, but a very good one over the past few years. They’re under a new coaching staff now, one that only got a soft open last week as Wagner offered little resistance.
But don’t think those factors made this any less of a high-pressure Saturday. It was.
And Nebraska won without playing a perfect game. That might be more important at this moment, given everything from the past three seasons, than a game where everything went perfectly.
Too often of late, this program has been defined by the mistakes that all football teams make to varying degrees. On all but the extreme ends of the Mistake-O-Meter, winning games is often less about the frequency of mistakes and more about the response to them.
Against Buffalo, Nebraska missed three field goals and had two touchdowns come off the board due to penalties. However you felt about the officiating, the Huskers were still flagged nine times.
But the Bulls committed 10, and missed three field goals of their own. With the Mistake-O-Meter’s needle at zero, favoring neither team clearly, Nebraska put together a 28-3 win, a better win than all but the most extreme optimist could’ve projected.
“We’ve lost plenty of close games around here,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “A win is a win in my book. As a team we knew we were capable of beating this team, we knew we should beat them.”
I was less sure on that last front entering the day.
The setup ahead of Saturday wasn’t ideal. Here comes Buffalo, winners of 15 of its past 21 games over three seasons, while it was still too early for Nebraska to be totally out of the shadow of the ugliness of Week 0. The Bulls are way more interested in playing classic Big Ten football than the Huskers were designed to do. If Buffalo had its way it would’ve controlled the clock, ran the ball at least 60% of the time and done all of that on a playing surface that was nearly 130 degrees before kickoff.
Nothing about that was going to be fun or easy. But the Blackshirts didn’t allow that to happen. Shaky against the run on first downs through two games—vital to being great against the run overall—Nebraska held the Bulls to 3.5 yards per rush, 2 yards below Nebraska’s season average entering the game. Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease had to throw the ball 50 times, a career high. Luke Reimer, in addition to a career-high 16 tackles, also made an interception happen—very literally speaking—and set the offense up for a 1-yard touchdown drive.
This was another step forward for a defense that’s been making steps for three seasons.
The offense? There are hints that passing game might be improving, and that was with three key pass catchers on the sidelines with injuries. Transfer wide receiver Samori Touré already looks better than advertised. He had a two touchdown day and it would’ve been three if not for a hard-to-see penalty.
The run game, remains an issue as does what’s happening in front of those trying to run the football. Minus Adrian Martinez’s 71-yard scramble, the Huskers managed just 3.7 yards per carry. Nebraska’s running backs averaged just 3.4.
Frost said the first-half plays from Martinez and Touré “bailed out” the offense early, and that’s the right way to put up. A 70-yard scramble from your quarterback—Martinez has two on the season now—isn’t a run game. Wins in the Big Ten will be tough to come by going forward if Nebraska doesn’t improve in a rush.
But this Saturday wasn’t ever going to be about fixing all of the ills, either those of the past three years or those unique to the early stages of this season.
It was only going to be about winning and keeping the preferred path open.
Next week, at Oklahoma, will be a better game to see just how far Nebraska has or hasn’t come.
“I think we’ve got a good enough team that we can win about any game we play and we can lose about any game we play,” Frost said.
If that’s true, it would represent progress for this program.
But true or not, you can’t say that after a loss to Buffalo.
The Huskers made sure they didn’t have to worry about it.
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.