ANN ARBOR, Mich. –– “I thought this was going to be a tough game,” said the Michigan professor sitting next to me in the press box on Saturday. This was at 12:31 p.m., just 31 actual minutes into a nightmare of an afternoon for Nebraska. The game clock showed there was still 8:58 left in the first quarter, 14-0 Michigan.
At 12:33 p.m., the same professor asked the fellow Michigan Man seated next to him when in-state rival Michigan State played. That’s because it was already clear there wasn’t much more to see at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines’ dominance was so sudden and complete that even at 14-0 there was no question about how the rest of the afternoon was about to unfold.
“I didn’t see this coming,” he said at 12:37 p.m., after the third Michigan touchdown of the first quarter.
I didn’t either. Not talking about this loss in particular, because a loss in this game was likely.
I’m talking about any loss like this. I didn’t think we’d see it in Year 1 of the Scott Frost era at Nebraska. It’s probably the most complete loss of his still-young career. There was, of course, the blowout the last time Frost visited Ann Arbor, a 51-14 loss, but that one came with at least a few positives.
This one didn’t.
“I told them I honestly believe this is going to be the bottom right here,” Frost said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in a game like that, but we got beat in every phase.”
People expected some losses, sure. A traditional power in disrepair isn’t renovated in one offseason. But not this kind of loss. Win totals varied, but the common expectation among Nebraska fans seemed relatively simple: Husker fans expected to see a team that improved week-to-week.
Instead, Nebraska has actually gotten worse each week of this 2018 season, from a decent loss against Colorado to a more surprising and disappointing loss to Troy to utter destruction in Ann Arbor.
Whatever anyone thought Nebraska football was going to be coming into the season was completely razed on Saturday. It’s not that all of the work these coaches, staff and players have put in to this point was worthless, but that we’re learning that the work put in hasn’t resulted in what was never fair to expect –– shortcuts.
If the first two weeks weren’t convincing enough that this turnaround was going to take some time, 56-10 proved it in a big way. Is Michigan the best team in the conference? Probably not. Best in the division? Probably not that either.
Way better than Nebraska right now? Yes. Emphatically, yes. The 61-total-yards-at-the-end-of-the-third-quarter kind of yes.
But Frost has a luxury only afforded to coaches early in their tenures. He can simply double down.
He mentioned that he knows where things are headed again this week. He mentioned that things aren’t happening as quickly as he’d hoped.
So the question again this week will be “why?” Frost mentioned that people “read in” to his comments about buy-in a week ago, but then offered a pretty clear explanation for “why,” though it was a short one.
“There’s nobody jumping off the ship,” he said. “Now, a 100-percent commitment to being the best they can be? I haven’t seen that from a lot of guys yet.”
Some might again read that as placing the blame on the players.
I read it as expert opinion from a guy who saw it work at his last stop.
What I think we’ve learned through three frustrating weeks of Nebraska football is that buy-in isn’t the problem. Rather, buy-in was the easy part.
Maybe too easy. Who couldn’t believe in Frost, back at his alma mater, coming off the season he’d just had?
It was easy to expect good things. And it would’ve been easy to expect them to just happen as well.
Maybe that's why neither I, nor the Michigan professor, never saw Saturday coming, but it showed just how wide the gap between expectation and execution actually is.
“Just because Coach Frost is here it doesn’t mean that he’s the savior,” Tre Neal said. He’s seen it first-hand, too.
But it’s not going to result in any wide-scale changes to the philosophy. Nebraska’s early struggles may have tested the faith of some. Not Frost.
“They brought us in here to get it right and we’re gonna get it right,” he said.
The “they” were waiting for Frost as he boarded the bus following the largest defeat of his career as a head coach. Athletic Director Bill Moos gave a couple of quotes to the media.
“We’re putting the building blocks together for the long term and I know we’ll be there,” Moos said. Standard stuff.
University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds was waiting, too. He didn’t say anything, but what he did said more. Bounds offered Frost a quick half-hug and a smile.
Nobody was worried. That might be the only sign of how far Nebraska football has already come. Even at 0-3.