We'll Make It Up As We Go Along
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

We’ll Make It Up As We Go Along

November 02, 2019

Nebraska took its second timeout of the second half with 1:14 left in the fourth quarter. The Huskers had a 27-24 lead. Purdue had the ball, third-and-5 from the NU 9.

A clever Fox producer sent the telecast to commercial break with Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” playing under a shot of Scott Frost.

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me ‘round
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
I guess I must be having fun

Talking Heads were a band that became popular despite its best effort not to by creating obtuse and unwieldy music. (That is a quest I’m very much “here for,” but that’s neither here nor there.) I think “This Must Be the Place” is one of the band’s more popular songs because, compared to the rest of the catalog, it’s not very obtuse or unwieldy. And it’s catchy. And it has an unforgettable opening verse. The Fox telecast didn’t even get to any of the lyrics, just the opening and unmistakable melody, but that’s enough to get anyone who’s heard it singing that first line.

And it said what it needed to say.

Frost is home, of course. He rode in on a swell of savior status following the 2017 season. Didn’t ask for it, but accepting the job meant taking that burden. Everything was fine after one year. 4-8? Same as the season that got Mike Riley fired? No problem, because getting there meant a 4-2 finish to the 2018 season. That meant momentum. Momentum meant a Year 2 jump of some sort was almost certain.

Saturday’s loss at Purdue finally ended that idea for me. Maybe it took me longer than most. After some signs of life on offense last week, I thought Nebraska might be poised to put a little something together over the final four games, particularly with its starting quarterback, another source of offseason optimism, back. Throw out records, just show that this year was a step, even a small one, forward from last year.

Instead, the weekly game of Whac-A-Mole continued against the worst Big Ten team Nebraska has faced to this point. Offense looks good one week? Just wait. Defense plays well for a stretch? There’s always another stretch to come.

“I’ve been in a lot of games at Nebraska already where if we make one more play we win the game,” Frost said. “The defense played well enough to have the game put away in the first half and the offense didn’t play well.”

That sort of flipped in the second half. Nebraska, frequent losers of the third quarter this season, played Purdue to a draw. The offense started finishing drives, but all of the sudden the defense couldn’t get off the field.

The less we say about it, the better
We’ll make it up as we go along

Following that “This Must Be the Place” timeout, Purdue got a look at Nebraska’s formation and called a timeout of its own. Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohn is known to be fond of trick plays. Frost mentioned them after the Huskers’ practice on Thursday, but Purdue’s offense, punchless last week in a loss to Illinois, hadn’t needed any in this game.

But since we’re here and the game’s on the line, why not? It was the place. Wide receiver David Bell took a pitch on a reverse and basically walked in from 9 yards out to effectively end it.

Nebraska was plus-one in the turnover column, which is worth about five points based on national averages, and blocked two punts. The Huskers’ starting field position alone came with an expected point total of 31 in this game, 11 points better than Purdue’s. Yet Nebraska found a way to lose by four.

“We’ve got to get to a point where all three phases are playing well,” Frost said. “That’s on the coaches, that’s on me, that’s on the players, it’s everybody. These are games we should win.”

There are no more games Nebraska “should” win on the schedule. After starting 0-6 and finishing 4-2 in 2018, the Huskers started 4-2 in 2019 and an 0-6 finish is entirely possible.

What do you have then?

You have what Saturday looked like—a clear indication this program is either back to square one, or maybe never really left it, and that’s where it will begin 2020. People won’t know what to make of Nebraska. It will almost be like the last two seasons didn’t even happen and the rebuild is starting anew.

But not exactly like that.

A rebuild never really gets to start anew because you have to carry around the knowledge that the rebuild hasn’t already begun in any measurable way. Being behind schedule gets heavy quickly. Nebraska under Frost has done some things well, but none of them consistently. There’s no one thing to point to right now and say, “while construction might be behind, the foundation is down.” If there’s progress happening in key off-the-field areas—culture, leadership, strength and conditioning—it isn’t showing up on the field.

And all that’s really left then is a question of faith. Do you think what you thought was possible is still possible?

Frost, for what it’s worth, has never really wavered as this season started to sag.

“I came back to Nebraska to get this fixed and I’m going to do it,” he said on Saturday. “We’re gonna get it there. I won’t let anything else happen.”

I still think that’s true, but the evidence for such an argument has evaporated. Everyone who observes Nebraska football just has to go on gut now, but there’s a thin line between faith and naiveté.

“This Must Be the Place” gets at that. It’s a really beautiful song, but, in a very Talking Heads twist, also really sinister. It’s full title is “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”. Home is where David Byrne wants to be, but once there he’s not even sure he’s having fun. It’s a song that, through its construction, forces the listener to confront that very same conflict. The parenthetical in the title, at least to me, suggests that.

Are you swept up by the undeniable melody or actually hearing the lyrics?

Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It’s okay, I know nothing’s wrong, nothing

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