Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Was a 24-17 Minnesota Loss Bad, Or Just Ugly from Nebraska’s Point of View?

December 13, 2020

Someone whose input and perspective I very much value posed a question after yesterday’s game: was a 24-17 loss to Minnesota bad? Or has Nebraska become the team that if others lose to it’s the “bad loss?” It’s a question that stopped me, made my mind wander. 

Was this loss to Minnesota a bad one? On the surface… probably not. Minnesota won 11 games a year ago. It has since taken a step back into the middle of the Big Ten West pack, but Nebraska hasn’t left that group in some time. Neither team was great. Neither was bad enough to get their coach fired the morning after.  The game didn’t move the needle much for anyone outside the respective fanbases, I’d imagine. 

It certainly looked bad, though, if you’re watching through scarlet-colored lenses. 

But that alone doesn’t necessarily alter the stakes. A 2-4 Nebraska team lost by seven points to a 2-3 Minnesota team. Will anyone in five years be knocking others over to point out Minnesota was also missing 33 players because of COVID? Probably not. It’ll just be another loss. 

Ope.

Wait.

There’s the problem.

Since I joined the beat, I’ve seen 15 Nebraska wins and 28 Nebraska losses. Mike Riley’s on the hook for eight, Scott Frost 20. (You can make the argument a few of the early Frost losses should go on Riley’s record, but that card has since expired.) 

Is it problematic that Frost in three years has nearly as many losses as Nick Saban in his 14 at Alabama? Is it problematic that Frost has the same number of losses as Bob Devaney in his 11 years at Nebraska? 

Maybe a little. But we can cherry-pick elite coaches to compare résumés and make Frost look bad all day long. Those coaches are best-of-their-generation kinds of guys. Is Frost that? Early signs point to no. 

That might be a problem, but then again it might not. Frost’s mentor coached 20 years at this program before reaching the mountaintop. 

Frost wasn’t the talk of the town as a new-hire simply because he was an alum, he was legitimately one of the most attractive coaches in the carousel in 2017. Florida, yes, perennial-Playoff-expectation-having Florida, wanted him. Frost just hasn’t yet lived up to his own set of expectations. 

What’s the reason why? Why is Nebraska now the “bad loss” for others?

That’s a problematic question with an easy answer.

Nebraska’s offense has no identity. 

No discernible quality that one could point to and say, definitively, “that’s what you’ll get when you play those guys.”

Optionality? Nebraska has only a handful of plays that work. 

Speed? Tempo hasn’t been the same threat it was in Orlando.

Power? Nebraska played the worst run defense in the conference and refused to feed a senior running back that can best be described as a bruiser. 

What’s the identity? That’s been the question for 28 losses.

Someone else Saturday questioned why “the media likes Chins,” referring to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. Why does Chinander seem to get a pass when Frost and the offense are so heavily dissected? 

Frankly, Chinander’s done his job.

Wild stance to take after that game, right? 

Nebraska took a 14-10 second-quarter lead and on the immediately ensuing drive for Minnesota the Gophers went 75 yards in six plays to take the lead back. That was the drive that featured the dropped interception/targeting/touchdown sequence. 

Nebraska got to within one score with 4:42 to play in the fourth quarter and just needed a stop from the defense to get the ball back and have a chance to tie the game. The offense never got the ball back. Minnesota ran out the rest of the game on the legs of tailback Mo Ibrahim. 

Just one more stop. That’s what the offense asked of the defense. 

Problem is it’s what the offense always asks of the defense.

The defense is certainly the easier side to target. “Just stop the other team from scoring!” Playing defense in college football tends to become a “did you do your job” discussion more than it should. Make no mention of the fact Nebraska has held Big Ten opponents under 30 points four out of seven games this season. Nebraska did that three times in nine 2019 league games and twice in 2018 league play.

They’ve also posted four-year bests in yards per carry allowed, stuff rate, yards per play allowed, and red zone touchdown percentage.

That side has shown steady improvement at all three levels.

Minnesota had 11 real possessions Saturday. It was turned over on downs twice. It was forced into a fourth-quarter three-and-out that Nebraska turned into a field goal because an Adrian Martinez touchdown was wiped away for a hold. 

Minnesota had four scoring possessions. Three of them began on Nebraska’s half of the field. Two of the three touchdown drives came off Nebraska turnovers. 

“I thought we played well enough defensively to win the game,” Frost said.

Which means the offense played poorly enough to cancel them out. 

Nebraska is averaging just 23.3 points a game. If the Huskers score 23 points or fewer against Rutgers next Friday, they’ll post the worst season by scoring average since at least 1969 (23.1). The number has gone down each of Frost’s first three seasons, and it’ll represent the lowest against Big Ten opponents since 2016.

The side everyone in the country expected to be better has steadily gotten worse and the means by which Nebraska can go about fixing that seem evasive.

While some think its as easy as changing the quarterback, Nebraska’s starter is unquestionably a better thrower than its backup, and the third-string guy is a true freshman. 

Plus, Nebraska had another one of those offensive stretches against Minnesota. 

A six-play, 75-yard drive that had gains of 8, 47, 7, 2, 3, and 8 showed Nebraska’s talent and scheme. Wan’Dale Robinson exploded through a massive hole the line had created for 47 yards, then Austin Allen capped the drive with his first career receiving score, standing all alone in the end zone. 

On the very next drive, Nebraska went 73 yards in 13 plays for another score. No negative plays, gains of at least 5 yards on seven of the 13 plays. That’s winning football. It’s there for the folks watching closely every week.

“I think the guys were in good situations,” Frost said. “At times we operated well. At other times we just didn’t execute very well. We’ve got to make sure we play better than that and coach better than that.”

Consistency. Nebraska fans have been hearing about that for three years. Why can’t Nebraska find it? Why did Frost take the ball to start the Minnesota game after two straight weeks of second-half-opening scoring drives that sparked second-half confidence? Why did Luke McCaffrey briefly replace Martinez Saturday and immediately throw two passes?

Nebraska can’t seem to figure out how to blend what it wants to be with what it is and what works. 

Sometimes the scheme or the sheer talent on the team has been enough to overcome that. 

Other times, though, look like Saturday. 

So, is a loss to Minnesota a bad loss? Probably not. Losing in such a familiar fashion to close out a year three? That’s not good. 

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