Bear Bryant won 323 football games over 38 seasons as a coach. Or, rather, he didn’t lose 323 games.
I know, that’s not the way anyone likes to view this game. That’s the thing you’re supposed to avoid according to the classic cliché. It’s better to play to win than to play not to lose, right? That’s what we’ve all been taught.
But Bryant, sort of the archetype of the hard-ass, no-nonsense football coach, was pretty clear on this at a 1978 coaches clinic.
“In a well-organized team, the first thing you have to do is keep from losing,” he said. “There are a lot more games being lost than won . . . We lost a lot of games when we were not really beaten, and we won a lot of games when we never really beat anybody. So, we have to keep from losing first.”
Nebraska, at the end of year three under Scott Frost and staff, remains a disorganized team. The four turnovers on Friday at Rutgers were a decent indicator of that, as were the seven first-half penalties. Tying the game and then kicking to the one person you absolutely cannot kick it to—Aron Cruickshank, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Huskers last year as a Wisconsin Badger—was a classic case of what continues to plague Nebraska.
The Huskers still aren’t buttoned-up as a program. The intense devotion to details that defines every football program that wins consistently isn’t there yet.
“We’d have a better record right now if we weren’t doing things like that to ourselves,” Frost said. “It’s hard to overcome those things in any game, much less in the Big Ten.”
Nebraska did overcome it this time, and it required a pretty balanced effort to overcome all of the obstacles the Huskers threw in their own path. The defense held Rutgers to 4.8 yards per play and 2-of-13 on third down. Five of the Scarlet Knights’ 10 drives ended between the 40s, close enough to be threatening, and set Nebraska up with awful field position most of the night, but often a no-man’s land when it comes to decision-making.
The Husker offense moved the ball most of the night, when it wasn’t giving it away. Nebraska’s three touchdown drives in the second half all covered more than 90 yards. The Huskers gained 620 yards, 384 of them on the ground when you take out sacks and kneel-downs. Nebraska hit for big plays in the passing game and the running game, and you were reminded of just how powerful this offense can look at times, has looked at times though not often enough.
In that way, this strange game on a cold night off a short week was exactly the game to summarize this entire season of Nebraska football. That the Huskers gained 600 yards but only had 28 points was precisely what you could’ve expected based on what we’d seen so far in 2020.
But that’s really hard to do. Nebraska is just the 12th team since 2000 to gain at least 600 yards and score 28 points or fewer. It’s just the third team over that stretch to win while nearly breaking football.
That should be the takeaway from what will likely be the last Nebraska game of the season—the Huskers found a way to win. But, if you subscribe to Bryant’s way of thinking, that’s less important than “keeping from losing.”
If we are indeed into the offseason, then it’s time for Nebraska to turn its attention there. It’s the only question that matters for 2021, and the answers aren’t going to be easy to find. This is really the central question of leadership, no matter the arena—How do I get this group, team, company, whatever to a point where I know what we’re going to get?
“Keeping from losing” is another way of saying “make the other guy beat you.” Nebraska’s inability to do that is its defining feature at this point, and it blocks out some of the real signs of progress the program has made. I might be in the minority, but I do see those signs, you just have to look pretty hard to get past, well, the thing that can’t be missed.
It was there again against Rutgers, though this time in a win. Beats the alternative, but the road ahead remains hard.
Maybe that’s why Frost felt somewhat somber in the postgame press conference. Maybe it was just the toll a tough year had taken.
“I really expected us to turn a big corner this year and thought we had the team to do that,” he said. “I still do. Really excited about the future. But I’m worn out, too.”
As we’ve all learned this year, communicating via a video call can be a strange experience. It’s had to know where to look, and Frost kept his head down for most of Friday’s press conference.
But on that answer, his last answer of the night, he looked right down the barrel of that tiny webcam. It punctuated what had just been said.
It’s reasonable to be worn out right now. And I believe it’s still reasonable to be hopeful about Nebraska football, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead.