Nebraska scored 50 points in the second game of the 1995 national championship season, the fewest points in the first three games by the way. The 50 came against Michigan State—to the Spartans’ 10—in East Lansing. The game was Nick Saban’s first as Michigan State’s head coach.
“To put it bluntly, guys, I felt our players quit,” Saban said, referring primarily to the second half.
He had credited Nebraska before taking his own team to task, adding: “And if they quit, they won’t play, not here. I don’t know who we’re going to play or what we’re going to play with, but I’m not going to play with people who won’t give effort, that won’t try as hard as they can try, won’t play with toughness and won’t play responsible football like they’re supposed to do.”
Saban had been the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator the previous four seasons, under Bill Belichick, so the Huskers’ 50 points and 666 total yards stung even more.
That’s how his nearly five-season tenure at Michigan State began—“nearly” because he resigned before the Spartans’ Citrus Bowl game to become the head coach at LSU.
In any case, a season later, Nebraska scored 55 points in its opener at Memorial Stadium, also against Michigan State—this time to the Spartans’ 14. Afterward, Saban said he had been disappointed in his team’s preparation for what was its second game. The Spartans had defeated Purdue the week before, 52-14. “These guys went to the prom in May,” he said of his youth-laden team.
“They beat Purdue last week and they said, ‘Hey, this is easy.’”
Of course it was not.
Michigan State’s defense held up better. Despite the points, it allowed only 298 yards of offense. The Husker Blackshirts carried the day, intercepting three passes—two returned for touchdowns—recovering a fumble and sacking Spartan quarterbacks seven times.
A footnote here: the 1996 Michigan State game was Scott Frost’s first at Nebraska. He ran 10 times for 58 yards and the game’s first touchdown and completed five-of-11 passes for 74 yards.
I mention these games not for the purposes of nostalgia, as in “this is the way things used to be with Husker football”—a popular refrain of late—but rather as a means of including Saban, the coach against whom all are measured collegiately these days, in this discussion, or at least something that’s part of his coaching philosophy: “Trust the process.”
That Nebraska would be 4-4 and scuffling to be bowl eligible with four games remaining isn’t something I claim to have anticipated. The Huskers have fallen short of expectations to this point, and such a statement might still apply in the early evening on the day after Thanksgiving. But even if that’s the case, Nebraska fans shouldn’t despair. Rather, they should trust the process.
This is in some ways a learning experience for Frost, who has had to deal with only two losing seasons as a coach, including nine as a full-time assistant and two as a grad assistant. Central Florida was 6-7 his first season in Orlando and then Nebraska’s 4-8 season a year ago.
The meeting he had with the team prior to Monday’s practice as well as his obvious displeasure on the sideline during the Indiana game have been topics of much discussion this week.
They are part of the process, for both the coach and his players.
“As a position coach, or any coach, you get irritated about certain things,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said after Wednesday’s practice. “But in terms of how he (Frost) handles himself, he’s a cat that . . . at least here in the building and going from day to day, moment to moment, he’s a guy that doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low about these things, has a real positive outlook and realistic outlook, on where we are and what we’re doing and where we plan on going as we move forward.”
Even though it might not seem so, the program is definitely moving forward under Frost.
“Awe, man, I tell you what, I think he always does a tremendous job in the locker room, pointing out just what needs to be (pointed) out, and how he pulls that stuff out of his head, I have no frickin’ idea where it comes from,” said Verduzco. “I can only suspect it comes from him being around Coach (Tom) Osborne. But it always seems to be the right thing to say at the right time.
“And to me it’s just frickin’ unbelievable.”
Frost can have no better influence than Osborne, not Saban, not anyone. Still, Saban’s wisdom applies when considering where Frost’s second team is.
Trust me here. Trust the process.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.