Patience has been eroded after just two games.
Two games. That’s all it took.
Maybe this was to be expected; comments like “we’re further along here than we were there” don’t really gel with patience. When you make the Kool-Aid look so enticing, you can’t get mad at people when they indulge in it. But this struggle was to be expected too, right?
Realistic expectations put a ceiling at, what, seven wins? Anything higher was kidding, best-case scenario stuff or just not really paying attention to the details. Nebraska’s schedule is brutal. Losses were going to come. Do you want your program losing to teams it paid to come to Lincoln? No. Did anyone expect the first three weeks to look like they have? No. But the first three weeks don’t even really look like they do.
We could throw out hypotheticals all day. What if Nebraska played Week 1 against Akron and worked out the kinks before Colorado? What if quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t get hurt against Colorado? What if Martinez played against Troy? Things might change, yes, but I’m struggling to really figure out what looks so dire about Nebraska’s current predicament.
Two weeks in, two losses in rather, and Nebraska has had two win expectancies in the green. Nebraska’s statistical profile against Colorado was that of a team that wins 93.3 percent of the time. Against Troy, it was less, but still at 54.8 percent.
What isn’t working?
It’s not the run game. The Huskers’ rushing offense ranks third in the Big Ten in average output. Through two games, they have run for 516 yards. They had a better two-game stretch once in three years under the last regime (538 yards against Oregon and Northwestern in 2016). Nebraska has played one fewer game than the rest of the Big Ten and only three schools have more 20-yard runs. Nebraska has seven; it had 10 all of last year.
I tracked rushing success last season. Nebraska gained 2 yards or less on 44.5 percent of runs (minus kneel-downs and sacks) and 5 yards or more on 33.6 percent of runs. Those numbers have flipped so far; 35 percent of runs have gained 2 yards or less while 45.9 percent have earned at least 5 yards.
That’s progress, isn’t it? Plus, the passing game has been more efficient. Nebraska completed 65 percent of its passes twice last season; it has done so in both games to begin 2018.
It’s not the defense, either. As catch-all metrics go, Nebraska ranks 58th in defensive S&P+. It ranked 109th last season. NU’s run defense ranks 20th in the country; it was 115th a year ago. Go by yards-per-carry instead of yards-per-game and the Huskers jump to 14th nationally. Opponents converted 43.1 percent of third downs a year ago and that number has dropped to 33.3 percent this year. Only one other team in the Big Ten has given up fewer 10-yard runs.
Oh, and there’s the sacks. The Sack Tracker™ has been my favorite part of the season. The team has 10 sacks through two games after just 14 all of 2017. They haven’t had 10 sacks through two games to open a season since 2005.
And who knows, maybe Nebraska’s defense looks completely different against Troy if not for a ridiculous second-quarter targeting call on linebacker Mo Barry, who, in the first game, looked like one of the team’s best players. We’ll never know.
What I do know is Nebraska’s two biggest weaknesses last year were its defense and running game. Both have been, dare I say, strengths out of the 2018 gates.
So, why the losses?
That’s rhetorical, obviously. We know the reasons for the losses. But the symptoms aren’t any different from those that pop up with every other team that goes through a rebuild in college football. Penalties and turnovers. They happen. Especially when you go from slow to Frost Fast.
UCF fumbled the ball 16 times in Year 1 under Frost. The Knights were penalized seven times a game. But guess what, the five most-penalized teams a season ago (including UCF, who had more in Year 2 than Year 1) had a combined record of 51-14.
Does Nebraska need to cut out the holds and blocks in the back on special teams? Absolutely; field position is hurting the team right now. But procedural penalties will always be there. You can’t just look at the number in the box score, wave your fist in the air and yell, “Bad!” There’s no context to it. The highest-scoring offense in college football in 2017 was penalized 109 times.
Greg Bell fumbled in his first game. He didn’t in his second. That one definitely signals progress. At the end of the day, the Huskers have been one throw away from winning in two different games. That we’re to the point of questioning the same coach that shared a national title with Nick Saban last year is laughable.
“Coach Frost, he comes in with a message that it's his fault. But no, it's not. It's our fault. We lost the game. We're actually on the field,” Cam Taylor, a true freshman defensive back, told reporters after the loss. “He can do all that he can but we just got to play ball."
Frost and the rest of his staff have done well to shoulder the criticism. In the long run, it’s probably better discontent be directed at them than their 18, 19, and 20-year-old players. The fact they’re so willing to bear it is honorable. But the point to be made here is there shouldn’t really be this much criticism in the first place.
Nebraska looks like a good team. Nebraska also looks like a young team that hasn’t yet figured out how to reach its potential. Both can exist in unison. Linebacker Luke Gifford said the team needs to re-learn how to win. Defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg worded it a little differently.
“The guy that is going to have my respect is the guy who gets up every time he’s knocked down,” he said. “That doesn’t matter if you’re 0-2 or 2-0. It doesn’t matter the circumstances. If you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. I don’t care who you are or what you’re doing but those are the guys that I want to ride with, the guys that earn respect."
I didn’t hear that last year. I know for damn sure that’s progress.
And I also know Nebraska has those guys in its locker room. So pull out those “In Frost We Trust” t-shirts, take a deep breath and sit tight for just a little while longer.
“You’re going to be fine,” Troy head coach Neal Brown said postgame, directing his comments to the NU fanbase. “Those guys over there, Scott Frost and those guys they have on defense and that staff in particular, they’re going to get it done here. They’re going to win and they’re going to win big. They’re doing it the right way.
“Nebraska is going to be fine.”
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.