EVANSTON, Ill. — Standing inside what amounted to a storage closet in the southwest corner of Ryan Field Saturday, Scott Frost was at a loss for words. What do you say after a game like that?
Frost’s team almost won… no, should have won its first game of the season. They looked like they were about to. With 1:13 left in the game, Nebraska up 31-24 and Northwestern false-starting at its own 32-yard-line, the Huskers held a 98.7 percent win probability.
Inexplicably, they lost 34-31 in overtime to Northwestern (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) to drop the team to 0-6 for the first time ever and 0-4 in conference play.
What do you say?
“There wasn’t a lot to say,” Frost’s quarterback, Adrian Martinez, said of the coach’s postgame message to the team. “He was proud of us, the way we fought. I believe it was a game we should have won.”
So did just about everyone else inside the stadium.
Trying to gather his thoughts, Frost looked down at a box score that, again … agonizingly … was pretty kind to the Huskers and fiddled with a folded-up piece of paper in between his thumbs. Maybe this is projecting, but it felt like the kind of thing you do when you’d rather be anywhere else than the place you’re currently at.
It's safe to say he probably would have rather been with his team. Three weeks ago, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Frost told reporters a 56-10 loss was rock bottom. He likely didn’t see a day like Saturday coming. Nebraska was Northwestern’s equal both in efficiency and explosiveness Saturday, outgained Northwestern on the ground nearly 10-to-1 but lost the turnover and penalty battles again. It was enough to make the Huskers limp off the field with heads hung low.
“I've kind of run out of words to tell them other than just stick together,” Frost said. “There's no doubt they're better. They deserved to win that game.
“We have to make one more play.”
In a season of almosts, Nebraska has left games feeling like a play here, a call there, a different outcome anywhere would have given them a chance at the end. Make one more play against Colorado or Troy or Purdue and the Huskers have a chance to make things different.
The Northwestern game was a departure from that. There were no chances. Make one more play here, one more play there, make one PAT, don’t clang one kick off the right upright, get one stop on a 99-yard drive and you win. No “ifs” or “maybes” about it.
Make one more play anywhere, win the game.
“[Vince] Lombardi said it that winning is a habit and unfortunately so is losing. We challenged the guys before this game to find a way to make one more play to put us over the top,” Frost said. “We had some guys step up and make some plays today that could have, would have, should have ended the game for us.”
Nebraska scored on its opening possession. A false start on the opening play was followed by a 5-yard pass pickup, which was followed by a 33-yard run which was followed a play later by a 42-yard touchdown pass. Barret Pickering, Nebraska’s freshman kicker, missed a 45-yard field goal try on the ensuing drive. It would have given Nebraska a 10-0 lead. The Huskers didn’t score again until the final minute of the first half.
The offensive line missed a protection on a third-and-10 play in a tie game that resulted in a strip sack and a scoop-and-score for the Wildcats.
That touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half? It would have and should have tied things if not for a PAT pushed wide right. The Huskers went into the break down 14-13.
With a 28-14 lead cut to 28-21 early in the fourth quarter, the offense immediately went three-and-out, got stuffed on third-and-1 and elected punted the ball back to Northwestern on fourth-and-inches.
Nebraska got one of those “lucky bounces” that have been going the other way all season long in the fourth quarter when safety Tre Neal intercepted a bobbled ball at midfield and returned it to the Northwestern 36. The Huskers only got three points.
On the very next drive, Northwestern converted two fourth-and-10s on a 15-play, 62-yard field goal drive. Nebraska was flagged for pass interference twice.
The first play of the final drive was an incomplete pass from Northwestern’s own 1-yard-line that gained 15 because Nebraska got called for roughing the passer. Quarterback Clayton Thorson missed his next pass before completing each of his final six for 5, 11, 9, 32, 27 and the game-tying 5-yard score.
In overtime, the Huskers missed a first down on second down by a yard. Then false-started on third-and-1. Then missed a first down on third down by a yard, again. Then snapped a fourth-down ball in the dirt. Asked why he went for it on fourth-and-1 instead of attempting a field goal, Frost admitted the earlier kicking struggles influenced his decision.
He did, however, reveal that fourth-down call was a designed run for senior back Devine Ozigbo, who had 159 yards and two scores on the day.
Shortly after Nebraska’s postgame press conference ended, the Oregon Ducks’ Twitter account tweeted a photo of a diving Duck with the caption “It’s a game of inches.” That felt too on the nose. (Oregon then beat No. 7 Washington in overtime.)
“Some of the things that are happening to us this year I've never really seen before,” Frost said. When one broken piece of Nebraska football gets patched, another breaks. The Huskers’ most embattled corner, Lamar Jackson, allowed only one completion on seven targets. Senior safety Aaron Williams, a Blackshirt who had earned every stitch of it, gave up 10 on 10 targets. A lot of those contributed to a career day for Northwestern slot wideout Flynn Nagel (12 catches, 220 yards, two touchdowns).
Northwestern made plays when it mattered, like the game-winning 37-yarder in overtime. Nebraska didn’t, and there were plenty of chances.
“A hundred ways we could have won that game and the guys deserved it,” Frost said. “It's overdue.”
Linebacker Luke Gifford took the podium and said the “rah rah” stuff won’t go on anymore with the Huskers. “Those are the types of games we have to finish,” he said. Asked if it’s frustrating to watch the team turn corners only to find more roadblocks, he said absolutely. Even more frustrating, it feels more like a curse than a tangible issue.
“There’s something there,” he said. “Obviously something is causing that, whether it’s mental or something we’re doing in practice or if we’re letting off here and there. You don’t see that, it’s not glaring, so that’s what makes it suck so much.
“We had a really good week of practice, obviously, because we played really well for three-and-a-half quarters. We’ve just got to figure out what that thing is.”
Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry thinks he has a pretty good idea.
“Everyone has to have the mindset that we’re going to win,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s not schematically. I can’t point out any little thing because very week it’s a different little thing. Everyone has to have the mindset that we are going to win this game and come out through four quarters that will we will.”
Players say they’ve turned a corner. Their coach sees it, too. The games are looking better even if the results aren’t, something that’s hard for guys to square away. They have a shot at redemption in a week when a 2-4 Minnesota team comes to Lincoln. Frost is hoping there aren’t many more games like this one.
“This is wearing on me,” he said. “They deserve more. They deserve better than this."
Not much else to say.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.