Scott Frost’s first season at Nebraska ended up the same as Mike Riley’s last season at Nebraska –– 4-8. That’s where the similarities end.
A 31-28 loss to Iowa on the last play of the game won’t change that. It may hurt like hell for Husker fans, sure. The Hawkeyes have now won four straight in this series and hold bragging rights for another year. They did it by playing Iowa football, which should feel even worse, but in the near future Nebraska football will be where most expect it to be.
And Iowa football will be?
I don’t know. Depends upon how long Kirk Ferentz sticks around. It’s a winning brand of football, for the most part. Iowa didn’t turn the ball over against Nebraska, converted more third downs for a better percentage, won the field position battle and dominated time of possession. That’s how you have to beat a team like the team that Nebraska was over the last half of the season and the team it will be an even better version of soon enough.
In your run-of-the-mill Big Ten game, getting a stop on defense is just holding serve. Michigan State, for example, needs its defense to engineer points through field position and takeaways because who knows when the offense can go out and get some on its own?
The new version of Nebraska isn’t being built that way. Against Nebraska, what it is lately and will be soon, getting a stop is an enormous win. This is a program built to score. The Huskers showed how lethal that approach can be over the last six games of 2018 and Iowa still beat them at it.
That isn’t to say Nebraska’s approach is the only approach or even the best approach, simply Nebraska’s approach under Frost. And the Huskers showed enough over the back half of the season to show that it’s going to be a problem for opposing teams and coaches going forward.
They also showed just how much the details matter, and Nebraska didn’t have the details down in 2018. Adrian Martinez, as good as he was, will have to work on ball security going into 2019. Penalties, though less frequent as the season wore, still popped up at inopportune times. The Huskers never got special team fully figured out and field position suffered mightily for it.
And, as Nebraska has learned numerous times since joining the Big Ten but again on Saturday, Iowa will detail a team to death. They are college football’s auditors. A team better do almost everything right against the Hawkeyes, or it’s going to lose. That’s the brand Ferentz has built in Iowa City.
Nebraska’s fledgling brand is much more aggressive, more there-are-no-rules than follow-the-rules. If one team dominates the game, then the difference in styles is a moot point. But in a toss-up game like this one, Iowa followed the rules better than Nebraska broke them with one key exception.
This game was, in my mind, all but over if the Hawkeyes kicked a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Huskers’ 2 late in the third quarter. Instead, Iowa opted for a fake, didn’t get it and that gave Nebraska a chance to hang around. A 31-13 lead would’ve felt almost insurmountable at that point.
But the Hawkeyes ran a fake field goal instead. It was an obvious, if somewhat illogical, situation for one, and when Nebraska stopped it, thanks to a great stop by linebacker Luke Gifford, Nebraska had life again. It had a lot of life when, facing fourth-and-3 from its own 9-yard line, Nebraska executed a fake punt. Gifford picked it up and took a huge hit to do it, which was fitting, but you can read the future of this series in those two decisions.
Iowa ran a fake with virtually zero stakes. Miss it and Nebraska still has to go almost the entire field just to get back in it. Eschewing points at that point makes no sense, but Iowa did it anyway.
Nebraska ran a fake when its chances of winning the game were essentially on the line. Don’t get it there and the game is in all likelihood over again. But it was basically low-risk for Nebraska at that point and spot on the field. The Huskers had to keep the ball. Punting it back to Iowa wouldn’t have drastically altered the odds.
That will be the difference in this series going forward. Iowa may be actuaries, but they’re not that good at actuarial science. Iowa also doesn’t have, or at least hasn’t had, a weapon as potent as Nebraska’s offense is poised to be. As an independent observer, and 21st-Century historian of college football, you could probably reach that conclusion on your own.
But if you hadn’t, the difference is right there in those two decisions. Nebraska, finally under Frost, believes in what it does, and Iowa believes in what football is.
Both can work, but which do you chose over the next 10 years if you want to maximize your potential gains? Are you risk-averse or risk-tolerant?
In many ways that will be the central question facing Nebraska football going into 2019. The Huskers’ offense, with Martinez returning, will be viewed as known entity and a strength. The defense will be the governor on offseason buzz. Can the Huskers come up with a defense than can force some stops? Force some turnovers? Play well enough to at least give the offense one more possession than the opponent?
As Saturday’s game proved, the Huskers have to be able to force, in this order I would estimate, a) turnovers, b) negative plays, c) stops, and they managed hardly any of those against the Hawkeyes. And thus, the Huskers lost. Barely.
But Nebraska’s offense has an underlying advantage against any team it plays –– and I believe that because I think Frost and his staff believe that –– and the defense will improve, too. Will it ever be Iowa’s lockdown unit? Probably not, but when the offense is scoring 40-plus points a game nobody will really worry about it but in retrospect.
Maybe retrospect becomes a legitimate concern. The Huskers have to reach a pretty high level before that’s the case, however, and they’re not there yet. But they’re close.
One could argue that Nebraska’s 2018 season conveniently became about the future after an 0-6 start, but I would argue there was nothing convenient about it.
Yet here we are. Nebraska didn’t outplay Iowa, as a 10-point underdog, on the road, and still almost found a way to win. For whatever it’s worth, offseason prognosticators will remember that much more than the final score on Friday.
Fair or not, or even wise or not, that will be the scene in early spring 2019. I fully expect the Huskers to show up in some way-too-early top 25s. The numbers get a team that, but going for it in your own territory on fourth down versus going for it on fourth down from the opponent’s 3-yard line is the real difference here. That exchange explains everything about the difference between Nebraska and Iowa.
It didn’t result in a win on Friday, but it will going forward.
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.