The first half of Nebraska’s loss on Saturday was so Minnesota-y that I pulled my copy of “Husker Football: The Movie”––the 2018 remake, sadly, not the original––and watched that again. I didn’t want to, not again, but it was preferable to this Fleck flick that I happened upon on cable. Boundless enthusiasm has never really been my thing.
I like something grittier, sometimes even sadder. Occasionally, not often, I’m in the mood for a comedy. Something breezy. But not today.
“Husker Football”—again, the remake, not the original—is a bit of a departure from the standard Hollywood fare. The hero faces a great challenge in the first act, as they all do. The hero endures many challenges throughout the second act and fights valiantly, as they all do, setting up the third act. But maybe the hero had to fight too hard because, as we all know by now, this is a tragedy. The hero is exhausted, keeps falling short, no matter how many times you watch it.
Test audiences, predictably, hated the ending upon release and there’s been no critical reappraisal to change that.
But after 30 minutes on Saturday, the known ending was preferable to the one that was unfolding. Was this Saturday matinee really about a team, Minnesota, getting everything it wanted? Where’s the tension in that?
That’s what it was for the first two quarters. Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck talked this week, as I believe he does every week, about how much he “believes” in field position and possessing the ball. The Gophers had a 12-and-a-half minute edge in time of possession in the first half, so large that a small half-yard edge in field position didn’t matter. Minnesota led 21-9.
“When you play a team like this, if you’re ahead you’re in good shape,” Scott Frost said. Nebraska wasn’t, as it often isn’t.
Fleck also said, in that same press conference this week, that the Gophers, down two good running backs, know they have to get “creative” to win games. In the first half, Minnesota threw 17 passes and ran the ball 19 times, when you remove two kneel downs, a 53% run rate. The Gophers entered the game running the ball on 70% of plays. Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, the leading returning receiver in 2021, had seven catches for 128 yards on the season entering the game. In the first half Saturday, he had nine catches for 100 yards.
“I give credit to them, they had two weeks to look at us and I thought they did a good job, in the first half especially, they were grinding us out in the run game and then hitting some hard-sell [run-pass options] and play-actions off of that,” Frost said. “We didn’t really have an answer in the first half.”
Nebraska did in the second, particularly on defense, but the question I’m thinking about now and probably will continue to ponder throughout the long off-week ahead: When was the last time against a Big Ten opponent that the Huskers went out and created the kind of game they needed to win the game?
That’s what Minnesota did. The greatest danger for Nebraska on Saturday was that the Gophers, under Fleck, are good at doing that and the Huskers, under Frost, are not. Styles make fights, as they say, and scripts make movies, as nobody who is not a writer says.
Minnesota deferred to the second half to start the game, forced a three-and-out, got a 62-yard field as a result and then took more than 6 minutes to score a touchdown, a lead it would never relinquish. The entire first half was exactly what Fleck and the Gophers wanted, which was as predictable as Nebraska battling back in the second half and coming up short. Minnesota played to type, and Nebraska played to run the best plays, which, to just murder this movie metaphor, is the difference between writing, directing and acting a great scene versus writing, directing and acting a great film.
When does it ever change?
When Nebraska finally comes up with a comprehensive plan to engineer the sort of game it wants against a Big Ten opponent.
You could argue this year’s Northwestern’s game was that, though I would argue that a 70-yard pass on the first play, a pretty big outlier, makes me wonder how that game unfolds if it’s incomplete or worse. It wasn’t Rutgers in 2020, a game the Huskers trailed at the half due to turnovers. Maybe it was the Purdue game a year ago, in which Nebraska had a two-touchdown lead after 30 minutes and was outscored by four in the second half. If not that, probably the Maryland game in 2019, which was 34-0 Huskers at the half.
Forget about mistakes and one-score losses for a moment. The number that matters more right now is that Frost is 4-13 in Big Ten road games. The four wins are Illinois and Maryland in 2019, Purdue and Rutgers in 2020. You could say, if you’re being generous, Nebraska came out and created the type of game it wanted in two of those. Against Illinois and Rutgers, it had to battle its way back from an unfavorable start, precisely the thing that is harder to do against opponents of a similar strength.
Don’t focus on the end of games or the mistakes that are impossible to miss. Rack your focus to the entire game, the whole story. This is still the best team of the Frost era—which most seemed to believe at the start of the day and most won’t right now—but it is painfully easy to miss until Nebraska exerts its will on an opponent of consequence.
The Huskers always do well in the second act, but these stories are set in motion in the first and remembered by the third. If you put on the “same movie again” at halftime, it was probably because you knew it was the only story arc left on Saturday. Maybe there’s a director’s cut or an Easter egg you’ve never uncovered.
There wasn’t and there won’t be until the Huskers undergo a full rewrite. Nebraska will very likely be favored, as it was on Saturday and in the opener at Illinois, in one of the remaining four games. Bowl eligibility will require something we haven’t seen before. Given the choice between the easy way to enter a needed off week and the hard way, Nebraska chose the hard way.
It always does.
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.