It wasn’t meant as any slight toward Dedrick Mills’ performance. Scott Frost had already said he thought the running back was effective, the offensive staff around him put together a strong plan of attack and the offensive line blocked as well as they have at any point this season. But Frost’s initial reaction when asked a second time about the 188-yard day from the junior running back was significant all the same.
“I’m tired of looking for silver linings,” he said.
Mills had the single best rushing day for a Nebraska player this year. Nebraska put more rushing yards on Wisconsin’s defense than any other team—including the Ohio State Buckeyes—has all season. And it didn’t matter. Nebraska, now 4-6 on the year and 2-5 in league play and losers of four straight games, had opportunities at an upset and whiffed at the plate. Fourteenth-ranked Wisconsin is leaving Memorial Stadium with a 37-21 win over the Huskers.
The margin looks significant, like the Badgers had breathing room. They didn’t. The gap on the scoreboard didn’t match the gap on the field.
Nebraska, and this shouldn’t be discounted, looked a lot closer to belonging than it did the last time a ranked opponent visited Memorial Stadium.
But therein lies the frustration.
“It seems like we’re miles away and we are this close at the same time,” Frost said at the podium after the game.
He pinched his fingers together. Inches.
That’s how it goes sometimes. That’s how it’s gone seemingly every time Nebraska plays this year.
Literal inches away from bringing itself within 10 points late on a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard-line. Nebraska whiffed a block on a bubble screen and running back Wyatt Mazour was stonewalled inside the 1 trying to score. Wisconsin got the ball back and killed the clock.
A couple of arm tackles away from preventing a momentum-changing kickoff return for a score in the first quarter. Nebraska had a 7-0 lead that evaporated in mere seconds when Aron Cruickshank took a short kickoff back 89 yards to score.
“Everyone knows that sometimes there’s an emotional imbalance when that happens,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said.
A couple of arm tackles away from stopping any number of Jonathan Taylor runs on his way to his third-straight 200-yard outing against Nebraska.
A few seconds off on a crossing pattern to Kanawai Noa—or a few inches too low—meant a tip at the line of scrimmage and an interception. It came on the first play of a drive following a UW touchdown to take the lead. Another touchdown followed. Wisconsin went from down four to up 10 in four minutes and 22 seconds.
A couple of feet too far into the white sideline chalk cost Nebraska 15 yards on a 45-yard run from the shadow of its own end zone.
“A few more pieces,” Frost said, “a few more plays, and this whole thing looks different. It’s not going to happen until we have a team that’s ready to go make it happen and we are trying to get them there every single day.”
More: Moos on Frost | Game Gallery | Play of the Game
This is the eighth time under Frost the Huskers have lost while holding an advantage in yards per play. That’s not supposed to happen. Nebraska out-gained Wisconsin 493-482, was better on the ground, was better on third down and had fewer penalties. Turnovers were equal.
“Against a team like that, if you’re going to upset, when you get your chances you have to take advantage of them,” Frost said. “I’ve been telling the team all week, conviction. Go make it happen. Ain’t nobody going to give you anything in life, nobody’s going to give you anything in football. You have to go earn it, you have to go take it and when you go up seven and you have all the momentum and you kick a high ball to the whatever yard line it was caught on, and give up a kick return, you just flushed away a chance to be in control of the game.”
Martinez took a sack in the third quarter that moved the ball from the Wisconsin 24 to the Wisconsin 44 yard line. Frost screamed from the sideline to burn the ball. Before the team went on the field he said no penalties, no turnovers and no sacks.
“We are a few plays away, a few mistakes [away],” Martinez said. “It’s the little things, it is the details. It’s not the first time it happened this season and it’s something we are going to continue to harp on and realize we have to get better at. We are not going to be the team we want to be until we can get those things corrected.”
Frost has the runway to get Nebraska there. A two-year contract extension that will take an initial seven-year deal through 2026 now gives him added long-term security to build how he wants to build. This season, Frost admitted Saturday, was supposed to feature more excitement, more positives.
Nebraska was supposed to be piling up actual victories rather than searching for, and growing tired of, moral ones. Now it has two games left to salvage the year.
Players talked about the desire to play in a bowl game. For seniors, they want to prolong their careers. For juniors, they want to taste what the postseason is like. For underclassmen, they need those extra practices.
Nebraska needs two wins. Next available is Maryland, on the road, next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT. For some, two might feel implausible. For others, two appear just within reach. Take it one game at a time, players say. Go into D.C. expecting to win. Keep building. Keep trying to close the gap.
“In a lot of ways there was more work to be done than we even anticipated before we came to Lincoln, and there are still things to do to get right,” Frost said. “We are going to get this done.
“We are going to get this right.”
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.