MADISON, Wisc. –– Nebraska’s Big Ten past, present and future were all there on one play Saturday night.
The past: The Huskers were getting handled by Wisconsin again, 34-17 in the third quarter. Saturday’s 41-24 loss to the Badgers made six straight in the series and seven of eight (check) since Nebraska joined the conference. I guess this is the present as well but it felt so much of a recent vintage that I hardly noticed. I looked like just about any Nebraska-Wisconsin game this decade. The Badgers have outscored the Huskers by an average of 18.5 points over eight games in the Big Ten.
The more symbolic present: Quarterback Adrian Martinez dropped a beautiful pass down the sideline to true freshman running back Maurice Washington for a 33-yard line gain. Good things happened for the Huskers on this play. Good things that were wiped out by a holding penalty. It was one of 10 Husker penalties on the night.
The future: That play was more than just Martinez to Washington, two true freshmen. Washington got walloped on the play by Wisconsin safety Scott Nelson. It was a brutal, though not intentional from my view, helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in a targeting penalty (offset by the Nebraska hold) and ejection.
But it’s what happened after the hit that finally offered a glimpse of what Nebraska will one day look like through the fog of an 0-5 start.
Washington didn’t just bounce right back up from the hit, he immediately started moving his finger in a circle, the universal symbol for hurry it up. Flags notwithstanding, the offense had a little momentum, the catch came after a JD Spielman reception for 15 yards and a Washington run 5. The freshman, who didn’t arrive on campus until August, knows what that can mean for this offense. He wanted to keep it rolling.
This is the only Nebraska offense Washington has ever known. Maybe that’s an advantage. Maybe it allows him to see more clearly what it will one day be. He’ll be a big part of that future. Washington finished with 27 rushing yards on five carries and added 53 yards on four catches.
“Mo Washington made a couple of mistakes but man, is he going to be a good player,” Frost said.
This is the only Nebraska offense Martinez has ever known, too. Frost said it’s still a work in progress at times –– “There were a couple of plays in the first half where he threw to the wrong side or his eyes were in the wrong place,” Frost said –– but this vision of the future continues to look occasionally brilliant right now. His throw to Washington was on the money, and it didn’t even count towards the 384 yards Martinez threw for on the night. That was a career high as well as a school-record for a freshman.
An 18-year-old freshman. Frost mentioned that multiple times. Senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. just found out Saturday how young the guy is that he’s caught 20 passes from this season.
“I'll tell you guys all the time that the future is bright for these guys,” he said. “I mean, I just today found out Adrian is 18. I didn't know that. I mean, these guys are young and these guys just keeping working and coming to practice every day and I like that.”
The final glimpse of the future on that one play is a little bit older. Spielman, a sophomore, had nine catches for 209 yards. That yardage total broke the record Spielman set last year against Ohio State with 200. He is the only receiver in school history to have two 200-yard games.
Perhaps more important than that, right now and going forward, “he’s a warrior,” Frost said.
Spielman’s role in this particular play was as Washington’s protector of sorts. After Washington took the hit, Spielman was there to jaw with Nelson. It was a veteran move from a player playing his 17thgame at Nebraska. The more games he has left in red, the quicker the Huskers’ turnaround will be.
Maybe that’s why Frost was oddly upbeat after this loss. Michigan was “rock bottom.” Then Purdue, a week later, felt like an unexpected gut punch. After this one, however, Frost ran off the field. Not a sprint, but much more than half-jog common to coaches after a game.
Then at his press conference he smiled a few times. Frost has said multiple times over the past few weeks that he “knows where this is going.”
On Saturday it seemed like Frost really felt it. Maybe for the first time.
“We weren't very many plays and very far away from being in a game with a chance to win with that team, and I think our guys can see that,” he said. “I think they can see the progress they've made, especially in the last week. I'm excited to be their coach and I'm excited for the rest of the season.”
It was the happiest we’ve seen Nebraska’s head coach after a game during this rough start.
If it rubs off on those whose follow his every word, it might be the most positive game against Wisconsin, still the class of the division, in seven years, even if the result looked about the same.
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.