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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Michigan Redemption and the Parallels Scott Frost Might be Able to Draw at Nebraska

November 28, 2021

Jim Harbaugh’s redemption moment was tremendous theater. In a snow globe, with Juwan Howard appearing as if out of nowhere on our television screens and pulling him in for a hug, with students and long-suffering fans alike losing their minds all around him and fully embracing the man who was Public Enemy No. 1 some 12 months ago. 

In toppling the thing no one else has been able to, Harbaugh returned. The smile was back. The quirk was back; in the postgame presser the Michigan head coach was firing zingers at Ohio State’s Ryan Day and talking about beginnings, not ends. On the field, the power that so clearly identified his great Stanford teams was once again there. 

A 42-27 win over Ohio State wasn’t about beating the Buckeyes on the trail or out-glitzing them through the air, it was about taking a battering ram to their front seven every series.

Few will be able to replicate the defensive force that Michigan imposed because few have a player like Aidan Hutchinson. But Harbaugh proved on the grandest stage that even the Ferrari crumples when it hits brick. This game is still won at the point of attack with physicality and strength. 

The natural tendency on Saturday was to think of the parallels between Harbaugh and Nebraska coach Scott Frost. 

Until this season, Harbaugh couldn’t win The Game. His style ruffled feathers. He agreed to a restructured contract prior to the year with the assumption from outsiders being that more of the same would mean change. 

But, really, the comparison ends there. 

Harbaugh reached 10 wins three times in his first four seasons with the club. While Frost’s record sits at 15-28 after four years, Harbaugh’s was 38-14. They were ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP poll in his second year and held three top-15 finishes in his first four. 

Harbaugh has coached nearly twice as many games at Michigan as Frost has at Nebraska and has five fewer losses. In terms of success, the two are incomparable. Harbaugh has also recruited three top-10 classes (per 247Sports) and two other top-15 classes. Frost has none of either. 

Frost fired assistants this year he was close to, some who’d been with him for more than five years. He agreed to a restructured contract with a reduced buyout. His boss said in a round of media interviews the empirical data suggests it won’t work. If it doesn’t next season, the noise will be too loud and the pressure too intense. 

But the narrative this offseason can’t be “Frost needs to do what Harbaugh did.” From a means of operating, the coach can surely learn a thing or two from Harbaugh’s tweaks—according to The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner, Harbaugh was more open to input from voices he’d to that point not given much oxygen to—but if the baseline is 10-win season and playing in November with a trip to Indy on the line, it’ll be a tough standard to achieve. The programs are too far apart. 

Nebraska doesn’t have a Hutchinson or a David Ojabo. It doesn’t have a Hassan Haskins. Michigan’s offensive line certainly looked like one of the best units in the country against Ohio State, and Nebraska’s is far from that. But the state of Michigan offers another parallel that could serve more useful. 

Mel Tucker experienced the funny and frustrating thing about rapidly escalating expectations this season. Start with the bar low, blow past it, and suddenly what you’ve done, however unexpected, isn’t good enough. Michigan State was 2-5 a season ago and picked to finish last in the East during the preseason. The Spartans won their 10th game on Saturday night, the first 10-win season since 2017. Despite losses to Purdue and Ohio State, Michigan State far exceeded what was expected of it, and with a coach and culture locked in longterm, the Spartans look like a program to be taken seriously in the East moving forward. 

Tucker did this in less than 24 months. His roadmap should offer Frost some tips. 

MSU saw 27 players enter the portal last offseason. Tucker, per The Athletic’s Colton Pouncy, viewed it akin to NFL Free Agency. “The portal is here, and it’s not going away,” Tucker said, per Pouncy. “We’re gonna embrace it. I’ve gotten players out of the portal, and I’ve seen guys go into the portal. That’s part of college football now. I try to take the judgment out of it — good, bad, right, wrong — really just look at what is the truth. It’s here. What is it all about? How do you navigate it? Figure it out, and that determines what we need to do next.”  

The Spartans added 15 players via the portal, 12 of whom played previously for Power Five programs. Those players included: 

  • Heisman contender Kenneth Walker III (second nationally in rushing)
  • Quavaris Crouch (75 tackles, three pass breakups, two sacks, a forced fumble)
  • Ronald Williams (39 tackles, eight PBUs, two TFLs, a pick, a forced fumble)
  • Chester Kimbrough (40 tackles, three TFLs, three PBUs, a pick, a forced fumble)

Tucker identified deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball and plugged holes. 

Frost needs to do something very similar to find success in 2022. Nebraska needs better offensive line play. It needs to find supplemental stop-gap-type pieces on defense, considering the attrition that’s about to unfold on that side of the ball.  Frost needs to embrace the portal and “try to take the judgment out of it.” Wan’Dale Robinson’s departure was not a best-for-both-sides transaction, it was a singularly beneficial move for the wideout. Humility goes a long way. 

This triple-option stuff works. Nebraska has the quarterbacks to run it. Even if you just sort of stumbled into it, it would be wise to lean harder into what works. At the root of Frost’s coaching philosophy, he’s been about running the football. Nebraska needs to use the portal this offseason to capitalize on that strength. Early indications from our own Greg Smith suggest Frost’s plan is to do exactly that. Youth can’t continue to be an excuse. This team needs to grow up quickly. This is the bed Frost has made.

There’s a ways to go before Frost reaches the success Harbaugh has enjoyed—and maybe he doesn’t have the runway left to even get there—but maybe he can fast-track that redemptive moment most want by taking some pieces from Tucker’s rebuild. 

Other thoughts:

>> Nebraska finished the season without a running back reaching 500 yards. 

It’s the second straight year that’s happened. 

Rahmir Johnson finished with 495 yards. A bit of context would tell you that had Johnson not been banged up, he probably hits 500. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Nebraska said all offseason it wanted to run quarterback Adrian Martinez less and the quarterback still ended the year as the leading ball-carrier for the third straight season. 

This is the first time since the 1959 and 1960 seasons Nebraska has gone two straight years without a running back reaching 500 yards. 

Logan Smothers, in relief of a quarterback who broke his jaw and needed season-ending shoulder surgery, ran the ball 23 times against Iowa and took one sack. 

Martinez has exited every season beat to hell. Nebraska has to find a reliable running back. Jaquez Yant looks like he has the makings of a darn good one, but 47 carries all year for a guy who averaged 6.3 yards per touch isn’t enough. 

For whatever reason, Nebraska has been unable (unwilling?) to fully invest in one running back for a season since Devine Ozigbo left town. That needs to change. 

>> Logan Smothers’ first throw was one of his more impressive, I thought.

The timing and anticipation there is good for someone who I suspect didn’t throw much to Samori Touré during the season. Smothers puts it right where he needs to. And there’s some confidence needed to put that ball right over the linebacker. A touch more behind Touré and it might be an interception. That’s a tight window, and for it to be the first pass of Smothers’ first start is encouraging. 

The big play to Omar Manning in the third quarter was also encouraging. 

The ball was underthrown, but Smothers couldn’t drive through as he was taking pressure right in his face. Still, that was a long-developing route and to stand in the pocket and give your guy a chance is a good sign. Smothers has confidence. In a first start, that’s what you look for. 

Some of the mechanical things you’ve heard about coaches trying to work out of his throw will continue as he develops. It’ll be important to manage expectations. 

Iowa had no tape on the quarterback it was facing and Nebraska did extremely well to keep him out of passing downs (second and 8 or more, third/fourth and 5 or more); the Huskers ran 85% of their plays from standard downs. 

It was one game, but Smothers showed signs of promise. Another offseason of development should serve well. (I think it’s also important not to lose track of Heinrich Haarberg in all this, I’m high on his ability.) 

>> It was tough to see Smothers hang his head after the late interception. Young players make mistakes, and Smothers made a few at crucial junctures, but Nebraska’s issues have been larger than the quarterback all year and the Iowa game was the same story. When Frost said the punt block returned for a touchdown was the game-changing play, he’s right. 

Special teams were again a disaster. With the season now complete, Nebraska officially allowed 25 points directly from special teams plays—23 of which came against a conference slate NU went 1-8 against while breaking even in point differential. Add in the other two safeties NU took, the scoop-and-score allowed, and the pick-six given up, and NU gets to 43 points surrendered by its non-defensive units. 

NU gave up 272 points in 12 games. Take those non-defensive points off the board and the Huskers would have a top-20 scoring defense. The defense alone gave up only 19 points a game this season. Nebraska’s offensive and special teams errors gave away 16% of the total points opponents got on NU this year. 

Hiring a full-time special teams coordinator doesn’t immediately fix the issue. Ohio State and Michigan have the most efficient special teams units in the country, per Bill Connelly’s SP+ system; Ohio State’s unit is run by a full-time coordinator, Michigan’s coordinator splits duties as a tight end coach. There isn’t a straight-line correlation. 

But Frost has been sending mixed signals about special teams since Jovan Dewitt left. It either matters or it doesn’t. And there’s one thing he has yet to try. If it doesn’t work and it matters to you to fix it, you try and fix it. 

After the Iowa game on Nov. 26, Frost said: “Special teams two weeks in a row. It is not new this year.”

And yet, after the staff changes were announced and Frost met with the media on Nov. 10, he had a completely different tune: “Mike Dawson has done a great job running special teams. … Our special teams are vastly improved. Our specialists, we need to continue to get better in those roles, but our coverage units, when you watch the tape and compare, I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made.”

Which is it? 

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