Not Drafted? No Problem with Hard Work and Confidence Says Gifford
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

In a 9-6 Classic, the Foundation-Setters Became the Win-Sealers

November 17, 2018

Nebraska opened its season at home down 14-0 to Colorado. It fought back only to lose by five on a late go-ahead score from the Buffs. “A good football team doesn’t change up,” senior guard Jerald Foster said then. And that day, Foster believed Nebraska showed the world it was a good football team again.

“If you know football, you can see that this team has … a lot that we have in store and we have a whole lot of hope that’s going to show up in the next game, it’s going to show up throughout this season,” Foster said. “This team, there is something special about us.

“For things to snowball you have to be a bad team, you have to have bad leadership and you have to not be believing in yourself. I believe that we all believe that we’re a good football team.”

Nebraska began the Scott Frost era 0-6. People jumped off the bandwagon. The Huskers looked outmatched in a loss to Michigan and beaten down after a loss to Northwestern. But they never broke.

The “special” feeling around the team has a lot to do with the promise. There’s youth everywhere and Nebraska’s offense entered Saturday’s home finale against Michigan State performing at elite levels with a true freshman quarterback. Foster thinks this offense will be a top-10 outfit next season.

“Bold as it gets but we have too many young guys for it not to work, right?” he said.

The special feeling also has a lot to do with the group that kept things together. This senior class kept things together. It seemed fitting that a 9-6 win over the Spartans on Saturday, Senior Day, was earned and punctuated by seniors.

Stanley Morgan Jr. became the program’s all-time leader in career receptions, passing Kenny Bell with a four-catch, 67-yard day. Nebraska’s first three points were set up by a 35-yard catch from Morgan in the early moments of the fourth quarter. It was the longest play of the day for Nebraska.

Safety Antonio Reed played “out of his mind,” as teammate Tre Neal put it, and made the play of the game with a fourth-quarter strip sack that set up Nebraska’s game-tying field goal. Reed finished with seven tackles (three of them for a loss), two forced fumbles, two pass break-ups and an interception. Reed put on a neck roll this week in practice and Neal started calling him Brian Urlacher. He had an Urlacher kind of day.

Neal, a senior in his own right, had the pass break-up on a fourth-and-four with just under two minutes to play. It turned Michigan State over on downs and put the ball in the hands of the offense for the last time. It was his third of the day.

Devine Ozigbo, who became the Huskers’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2014 with an 18-carry, 74-yard outing, smashed up the middle for 8 yards on a second-and-5 to earn a game-ending first down. Nebraska took two kneel-downs to run the clock out.

“Some of these seniors are the guys that are carrying this,” Frost said. “I couldn’t be happier for them and the success we’re having at the end.”

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Set aside the offense for a moment — because Nebraska’s sputtered for the first time since that Michigan game, hitting for just 3.7 yards a play — and look at the defense. The Blackshirts might have come back Saturday. Like, really back.

Michigan State hit for 3.7 yards a play, too. Reed had the forced fumble and the pick. The defense got stops when it needed them. Michigan State had it first-and-goal from the 10 to begin the fourth quarter and got just three points.

“I don’t know if we put together a game quite like that yet this year and couldn’t have come on a better day. We knew the offense was going to need us a little bit today. It's tough conditions, a good defense. So yeah, we knew what we were going to have to do coming into the game,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. “We played really hard. A couple runs got away from us, I got beat on a wheel route, but we stood up as a defense, got stops when we needed them and that’s what it’s all about.”

Gifford tried to soak in Memorial Stadium at the end. The snow started coming down heavy when the fourth quarter began but the crowd stayed through the end. “I’ve dreamt of that since I was a little kid,” he said. Foster, selfishly, wanted things to end exactly like they did. Defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg was really at a loss for words.

“It’s been a long ride and that felt right, the way to end it at Memorial with the snow coming down and the stadium still packed,” he said. “That was a great experience and that’s one I’ll never forget.”

Matt Davison shared a peek into the locker room after the game. It was a scene of Stoltenberg and Foster embracing Frost. An emotional moment. The young guys on the team wanted the win for the seniors. They wanted to send that group out right. Freshman kicker Barret Pickering hit three kicks in the fourth quarter and scored all of the Huskers’ points. Foster, a blocker on the kick unit, said he’d carry Pickering off the field.

Frost told the team in the locker room if they were playing the first six the way they’ve played the last five, 2018 would have been a fun ride. But the growing pains were necessary.

“This team has been through so much,” he said. “I think the seniors will probably look back on this and think it was a pretty special season after all.”

I asked Foster about those Colorado quotes in the hallway after he wrapped up his media availability. He saw something before anyone else did. He told the team to trust things would get better. It turns out he was right, but how hard was it to keep that faith?

“Not really that difficult,” he said. “With a coaching staff like we have and the players we have, I knew as long as the senior leaders and us senior captains, as long as we kept ourselves focused then they would too. And they did. We got rid of our problems throughout the year and it showed. It’s showing.”

Sure they’d like more wins overall, but the seniors are leaving with no regrets. Bouncing around on the sidelines, with the clock winding down on a win the likes of which Nebraska hasn’t had in a while, in front of a fanbase that kept the support and a team that kept the fight was enough.

“It’s really easy to say things are moving in the right direction but without the actions and the results, it’s kind of hard to believe,” Gifford said. “So getting a win today and doing it like that, coming out and playing hard on both sides of the ball in an old-fashioned game in front of our fans. The whole set-up, I think it kind of shows where this program is going.

“I don’t have any regrets here. I’m excited for the way that we’re leaving this program and it’s been a heck of a ride.”

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