If you were hoping Nebraska could wash away all the sins of last week’s inexcusable level of play against Illinois, maybe you were disappointed by the Huskers’ 26-20 Black Friday loss at Iowa.
But Nebraska was never going to eradicate that disappointment in one week, and a short week at that.
What the Huskers (1-4) did do was play well enough to beat a Hawkeye team (4-2) that could very well be undefeated at this point. Iowa’s two losses this season, to Purdue and Northwestern in the first two games, came by a total of five points.
That’s of no solace to anyone who bleeds red, of course, but it does offer some crucial evidence to support statements like this:
“I was embarrassed last week with the way we played and the way we approached the game, and that’s on me as a coach,” Scott Frost said after the game. “I told the guys in the locker room after, I’m not embarrassed to coach this team, I’m proud to coach this team.”
And that, in a big-picture sense, is what Nebraska gained in yet another loss. It’s the difference between last week and this week, which both go in the same column.
No getting around that. This is a bottom-line business. The only ones who actually feel the cruel reality of the nature of this business, however, are the coaches. Everyone else just opines on it.
The loss to Iowa, at least, provides some proof for the consistent “we’re making progress” comments from the Huskers’ head coach. This was progress.
Nebraska had a success rate of 49.2% against a defense that averaged 38.4%. It hit for an explosive play on 19% of snaps against a defense giving one up 9.4% of the time. It rushed for 4.7 yards per carry (not including sacks) against a defense giving up 3.5 entering the day and passed for 7.0 yards per attempt (including sacks) versus a group used to giving up 5.1. The Huskers’ defense was better than expected in all of those categories, too.
And yet, Nebraska still lost. After getting an essential three-and-out in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 game, the Huskers fumbled the punt setting up an Iowa field goal. Still, that blow wasn’t fatal. After a missed field goal—and I still can’t believe Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn’t punt rather than try a 50-yarder––the Huskers were left with two minutes to go 68 yards for a game-winning touchdown. A missed block 48 yards from paydirt resulted in a strip sack and that was that.
That remains the defining feature of the Huskers since Frost arrived in 2018—playing well enough to win, yet finding a way to lose.
“We needed one more drive somewhere,” Frost said. “We need one less fumble, one less penalty, one more stop, one more call. That’s the kind of game you’re going to have to win against Iowa and Northwestern because they don’t give you anything easy. And Wisconsin.”
That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. Those teams that Frost mentioned execute on a more consistent basis than Nebraska is capable of right now. One game, nice as it would’ve felt to win, wasn’t going to change that, which, I think, is the point Frost has been trying to make all along.
To this point, Nebraska is 1-2 against Northwestern since 2018 with a total point differential of -8 points. It’s -12 in three straight losses to Iowa. The Wisconsin series, the final boss for West Division ascension, is 0-2 and -33 in favor of the Badgers, but the Huskers have had two good days offensively against Wisconsin. A game against the Badgers this year would be a valuable data point, but it’s not to be.
Against the three teams Nebraska needs to catch up to most in the division, the picture, after this latest data point, isn’t quite as bleak as things felt last week. That doesn’t excuse the collapse against Illinois, but if you entered Friday thinking a win would “make it all better” that’s not actually how building a program works.
Nebraska’s success against Iowa was unpredictable, but Iowa still won predictably—by having a field-position edge, by winning the turnover battle, by being more consistent.
That, really, is still the hurdle this coaching staff is still trying to clear. “Button things up” is the phrase Frost used at least three times in the moments after the game, and, given the closeness of the games, Iowa remains the Huskers’ hardest button to button.
Six days ago, the Huskers showed up to a wedding shirtless. This week they just missed a button. Which is closer to the real person Nebraska football is at this point?
I’m not 100% sure at this point, but I lean more towards the Nebraska that you can’t yet describe as buttoned up rather than the Nebraska that becomes the discussion of a wedding to which it was merely a guest. Because it was shirtless.
Frost felt strongly enough about that point that he harkened back to the uneasy start to his career as a Husker, when he was, one, berated by some for being a home-state kid who didn’t go to the home-state school, and then, two, lost his second game as the starting quarterback in 1996, just Nebraska’s second loss in 28 games.
“I’ve been doubted in this state before,” Frost said. “I’m sure there’s some out there right now, but I know what happened last time and it’s going to happen again.”
What happened was 24 wins in Frost’s remaining 25 games as Nebraska’s starter, a conference title and a national title.
There’s no reason to think any such run is close for these Huskers, but Black Friday at least didn’t make that dream feel further away.