Nebraska is not a closer. The proof is in the pudding, to use a Thanksgiving Day-related idiom. The pain-staking issues of the Scott Frost era, the close losses against ranked and muddling teams alike, have largely plagued the Huskers this season. Philosophical head butting on play calling peppered some extra seasoning with a new offensive coordinator. But the potatoes came out of the oven still potatoes. Now this staff has just one more try before a new chef takes over the kitchen.
The Huskers are 3-8. A loss against Iowa would complete a three-year stretch where the Huskers won three or fewer games each season. That would be the first time the Huskers have done that since 1946-48. For some context, Nebraska was 7-9 in conference play during that stretch nearly 80 years ago. A loss against Iowa would drop Nebraska to 7-20 in the Big Ten over the past three seasons. The most recent of those 20 stung interim head coach Mickey Joseph. He admitted as much.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to close people out,” Joseph said after the 15-14 loss to Wisconsin. “That’s going to come with maturity.”
Nebraska has led in nine of its 11 games so far. They won three of those games. Nebraska’s offensive first down rate is 62.8%––that’s the amount of offensive drives on which Nebraska gains first downs––and that’s 107th in the country. When playing with the lead, Nebraska’s offensive first down rate is 45.7%. The Huskers average 1.37 points per drive when leading. That would rank among the worst in the country.
When the Huskers hold the lead and need only first downs while cooking clock, much like they needed in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin, they don’t shift the game plan. In the season opener across the Atlantic, Nebraska had eight offensive drives with the lead. As many drives ended in points as turnovers (2) and the other half were punts (three of them three-and-out). Former head coach Scott Frost didn’t know Northwestern wouldn’t beat another team this season when he shared some critiques for new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple after his first game with Nebraska.
“I think our offensive staff has to learn you’ve got to be a little more creative in this league,” Frost told reporters in Ireland, now infamously.
During the first six drives with the lead against North Dakota, Frost’s only win this season, Nebraska’s offense managed three points, a missed field goal, two turnovers and two punts. The Huskers ultimately ran the clock out with two long drives against the FCS Fighting Hawks. Compare that to Nebraska’s offensive performance with the lead in its two conference wins––both under Joseph’s leadership. Against Indiana, two of their six drives with the lead lasted 12 plays, including a 54-yard touchdown drive. Their only drive with the lead against Rutgers lasted 5 minutes.
It’s been heartache ever since. Nebraska didn’t have any offensive drives with the lead against Purdue, just like how they didn’t against Georgia Southern and Oklahoma before or Michigan after. In the only drive with the lead against Illinois, the Huskers couldn’t get a push and threw on third down. Casey Thompson got hit as he threw an interception and didn’t return to the field until last week, missing two games. Nebraska’s offense held the lead for six drives against Minnesota. The first yielded 50 yards and a field goal. The rest brought five punts and one first down. A similar fate followed against Wisconsin. There was the 79-yard, nine-play drive that extended Nebraska’s lead to two possessions. Outside of that, just 15 yards in three drives with three punts. Wisconsin led for just 35 seconds against Nebraska — but they were the last 35 seconds.
“You have to have a winning mindset and a winning culture. You have to have winning coaches and players in the building. Everyone has to be pulling on the same rope, and we have to be doing things right,” quarterback Casey Thompson said on Tuesday. “At the end of the day, it comes down to elite preparation, elite coaches and elite players. Then we have to execute on the field.”
There’s one more opportunity to be a closer this season. And it’s rival Iowa. What lays beyond that is an open-ended quest. Like waiting for a bridge to cross the Grand Canyon. So they’ll stay focused on the one bitter thorn in Husker sides before pulling up a plate of leftovers and waiting for what’s next.