At least there’s this: It wasn’t a one-score game.
Ohio State beat Nebraska by nine, 26-17, and that one point keeps it out of the popular narrative even if it’s practically no different than losing by seven or losing by 10.
Also, Nebraska missed two field goals with its replacement for the place-kicker who had missed too many field goals. Factor that in, too.
It’s all part of the story.
But if you’re looking for new ways in which Nebraska can improbably lose under this staff, this game provided one of those as well. Since 2018, Scott Frost’s first season at Nebraska, only five teams had held Ohio State to 26 or fewer points in a game prior to Saturday, and those teams were 3-2 against the Buckeyes. No team had done it this year. You’re not going to get a 60% win probability against Ohio State anywhere.
Point is, hold Ohio State to fewer than four touchdowns and you’re doing everything you need to do to win. Nebraska, at least defensively, did everything it needed to do to win and didn’t yet again.
That’s the difficult spot Athletic Director Trev Alberts find himself in over the remainder of this season. It’s clear, particularly in 2021, that Nebraska is good enough to play this way against the best teams on its schedule, yet it’s also clear that Nebraska never, to this point at least, comes out on top.
What do you do with that?
“This is going to pop at Nebraska,” Frost said. “It just is. We’re doing too many good things right. There’s too many good young players. We’re putting ourselves in position to win too many games and just not making a play or catching a break.”
He’s right, but of course he has the most incentive to take up that particular argument. That’s not the question Alberts has to answer before the end of the year, however. Alberts has to ask why that’s consistently the case.
Nebraska didn’t lose on Saturday when it punted with 5 minutes left in the game or when it missed its second field goal near the start of the fourth quarter or when it punted four straight times on offensive drives spanning the second and third quarters.
Nebraska lost after the first three drives.
It’s brutally hard to hold this Ohio State offense––leading the nation at 47.3 points per game entering Saturday––without a score for three straight drives. Rutgers did it this year, but the score was already 52-6 at that point, garbage time. Oregon, in its Week 2 win over the Buckeyes, did it twice. The Ducks got three stops, engineering a 7-0 lead to start the game and then did it again on the final three drives, nursing a 35-28 lead, to win the game.
Nebraska’s defense did the same to start on Saturday, but the score was 0-0. The Blackshirts did it again in the second half, but wasn’t able to dent a 23-17 lead.
Just to be clear, almost no team does this in a straight-up game against Ohio State. It’s why the Buckeyes are the Buckeyes.
Missing a field goal early in the game is tough break on its own, but it compounds. When Ohio State lead 3-0, from Nebraska’s perspective it should’ve been tied. When Ohio State was up 17-10 at half, it should’ve been 17-13. Throw in another missed field goal for Nebraska—the Huskers are now 8-of-16 on the year––and when the Buckeyes kicked their last field goal, effectively putting the game away, it could’ve been, perhaps should’ve been, within reach.
The best-case scenario when Nebraska got the ball with 1:25 left was for the Huskers to zip down the field, get a touchdown and hope for an onside kick, the exact, improbable scenario Nebraska left itself with the past two games. But the odds of that working are terrible. It’s a prayer because Nebraska doesn’t take advantage of what it actually earns, which has been the story since 2018.
“I bleed for Nebraska,” Frost said. “I’ve lived in O’Neill and Lincoln and McCook and Wood River, I was born in Crete. I bleed for this. We’re giving everything we have and pouring everything we have into this.
“Nobody’s more disappointed than me that it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s too many good things happening for us not to get over this hump.”
Statistically speaking, there’s no doubt in my mind that is true. Do exactly what Nebraska has done since 2018 and there’s no doubt that the Huskers should win more games.
There are some games over that span that make you ask, “How did the Huskers lose?” I don’t think Saturday was one of them. Nebraska did 90% of what it had to do to have a chance to win against Big Ten-bully Ohio State. Unlike the Minnesota and Purdue games, it created conditions favorable for such a narrative-changing win, and most teams can’t even manage that against the always-powerful Buckeyes.
But Nebraska wasn’t able to take advantage of the advantages few teams are even able to create. A team has to be nearly perfect to beat Ohio State. Nebraska, in all honesty, probably lost it with a 13-yard punt that led to the Buckeyes’ first touchdown drive in the second quarter.
That made it 10-0, which isn’t all that bad against Ohio State normally, but in game where you’ve played well enough to lead 3-0 or 6-0 or 10-0 it’s nearly fatal despite all the back-and-forth that may or may not come. At that point, the score doesn’t reflect how well you’ve played.
That’s the persistent problem for Nebraska under this staff, and what do you do with that? It’s easy to argue both sides. Either this is statistically improbable, or it’s inevitable with the same leadership involved. The loss to Ohio State supported both sides of the argument, or it supported neither.
We can debate across that divide until the end of time, but it’s one man’s decision, and his career, fairly or unfairly, will be decided by that decision which nobody, no matter how certain they may seem with no stakes involved (i.e. on Twitter), would want to make.
Maybe Alberts sees it differently, but from my perspective playing well enough to win, yet again, only makes the decision less clear.
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.