Prior to Scott Frost’s arrival at Nebraska ahead of the 2018 season, a Cornhusker offense had gained at least 500 yards in a game 42 times. There’s a little bit of Solich in there, a good dose of Callahan, a lot of Pelini and a dash of Riley. Overall, Nebraska won 92.9% of those games.
Since Frost’s arrival, the Cornhuskers’ offense has gained 500 yards or more nine times in 20 games. That’s as many 500-yard games as this staff engineered in 26 games at Central Florida. The Knights went 9-0 when doing so. Teams gaining 500 yards, since the start of the 2018 season to today, are 496-92 (.844) collectively.
Point is, a team should win when it gains 500-plus yards, even in today’s up-tempo, big-play, high-scoring game. If it doesn’t, that team has failed pretty spectacularly in some other way.
Nebraska, under Frost, is 5-4 in those games. It was 2-0 this season before Saturday, when the Huskers put up 514 yards to 455 for Indiana and lost 38-31.
Yards, of course, are not how we keep score in this game, but in this case they do point to something. Perhaps the central question for this program right now.
This offense is designed to put up those kind of numbers on anyone, even in the rough-and-rugged Big Ten. That’s the plan. This thing is being built to be offense-first. So, when the Huskers are producing the type of numbers the plan is meant to produce, why have they only won about half the time?
The reasons Nebraska is losing those games are easy enough to identify. (And, no, they don’t all fall on the defense as nice and neat as that would be after this team just lost in uniforms meant to honor the program’s defensive tradition.) Frost provided the following laundry list:
“We got the chance to put the game away early if we don’t fumble and let them run it 60, 75 yards back to our 3. We go for it on a fourth-and-1 and we have a receiver that doesn’t get on the ball when he’s supposed to and then we miss a field goal . . . Can’t give up fade balls on second-and-30, whatever it was. Can’t have bad eyes. Can’t punt balls out of bounds and kick balls out of bounds. Can’t have them picking up that many third downs. And I’m sure I’m missing a lot of them.”
Yeah, there were more.
Can’t turn it over twice to a team that had six takeaways over seven games. Can’t cross the opponent’s 40 eight times and come away with 31 points (3.9 points per trip) when the opponent does it seven times and comes away with 38 (5.4). Can’t get a good-enough game from a struggling run defense, only to have the strong-to-this-point pass defense give up 11 explosive passes when it had allowed 30 (4.3 per game) all season.
But, again, those are all reasons, not an answer to the central question—what is preventing the plan from working?
The answer is elemental and unsatisfying. Nebraska isn’t very good at doing the things good football teams do.
“We’re just OK right now,” Frost said and it felt like the most damning-but-comprehensive thing he could say.
This is no conference for sloppy football, and Nebraska is learning that lesson the hard way right now.
Indiana, in its third season under Tom Allen, is 6-2 and has enough wins now to go to the 12th bowl in program history because it does the little things well. Minnesota smashed Nebraska three weeks ago and moved to 8-0 on Saturday because it doesn’t give opponents a pressure valve. The Gophers, in their third season under P.J. Fleck, exert pressure by engineering advantages, keep it on and let it work for them.
Those are just the latest additions to the Big Ten’s smart-football club. Wisconsin and Iowa live there. Ohio State does as well, though it gets overlooked with all of the talent the Buckeyes have. When Northwestern and Michigan State are good, that’s how those teams do it, too.
Until Nebraska figures that part of the equation out, it’s not going to win consistently in the Big Ten. It’s really not any more complicated than that. The execution threshold in this conference is high. Nebraska’s ability to execute in all phases, right now, is low.
Elevating that execution level isn’t going to be easy. It goes right to the heart of coaching. How do you minimize uncertainty?
No Nebraska coach since Tom Osborne has yet figured that out and, just in case this wasn’t already clear, that stretch has shown that the job itself, with all of the tradition and unparalleled support, doesn’t provide any answer on its own.
As Indiana was salting away the win on Saturday after quarterback Peyton Ramsey found the final pressure valve—a lack of contain on third-and-long—Frost removed his headset and bent over, putting his hands on the turf. It was a strange posture, but one clearly of frustration.
He knows the problem. He knows none of the solutions have worked to this point. His teams can be good at the thing they want to be best at—Frost has more 500-yard games to his name since 2017 than all but the following Power 5 coaches: Lincoln Riley, Urban Meyer, Mike Gundy and Nick Saban—but that’s still not enough.
That is still a good sign for the future, but right now it must only make the growing pains hurt even more.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.