“I think we’re a better team than what the results say we are,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said minutes after the Huskers’ 24-19 loss to Sun Belt stalwart Troy on Saturday, “but that doesn’t matter.”
It’s the only point of view that makes sense in a binary profession. You either win or you lose. Poll rankings, bowl bonuses, championships, none of that is awarded based on projected wins. There are no decimal points in the wins or losses columns –– yes or no, on or off, one or zero, win or loss.
Nebraska’s bottom line now says the Huskers are 0-2 after two games for the first time in more than 60 years. The program has also lost six straight games, dating back to last season. You have to go back to 1957 to find the last time that happened at Nebraska, too.
“It’s the same as last week,” senior linebacker and captain Luke Gifford said, “do some good things, but it doesn’t matter. We lost.”
It was shockingly similar to last week. Once again the Huskers had the ball, down five with under 2 minutes to go and Andrew Bunch was in at quarterback. The final offensive drive didn’t end up in a game-winning touchdown this time either.
Once again the Huskers dominated most of the down-by-down numbers –– more yards, more first downs, slightly more yards-per-play, better efficiency numbers and more scoring opportunities. But winning the majority of the plays in the game wasn’t enough to overcome big, big losses on the other plays this time either.
Very little changed about Nebraska’s football program from last week to this week, which might be the most surprising revelation of this young season yet. If last week’s loss to Colorado was full of things the Huskers could fix, the loss to Troy was proof that those planned fixes didn’t take.
And I think, based on some of the postgame comments, what some Huskers are learning early in Frost’s tenure is that simply working the hardest you’ve ever worked doesn’t mean a team has crossed the threshold for winning football games, very winnable football games. While the Huskers' 2018 schedule looked daunting on paper, nobody looked at Colorado and Troy and said "those are two losses." Once you get over the shock, however, the fact that Nebraska is still in the process of learning this very lesson isn’t that out of the ordinary.
That should result in gut-check time this week as a trip to Michigan and the start of Big Ten play awaits. A gut-check sounds good on the heels of a loss, but internally it’s going to be brutally hard for Nebraska's football program.
It’s that way any time a person, player, coach or team has to realize not that it’s best isn’t good enough, but that what it thought was its best wasn’t actually it.
This may be a binary business, but that’s the easy part to understand. The hard part is how all of the fractions add up to the whole numbers. It’s complicated calculus and Nebraska hasn’t passed the test yet.
Frost said he told his team two things about that following Saturday’s loss.
“I just got done telling the team that when things get tough like this, you’ve got two choices: you fight back and you work even harder, or you give up,” he said.
Not long after that Frost said the Huskers have been “working hard enough and they deserve to win.”
It’s not a contradiction. There are numbers you can point to from both of the Husker’s losses this season that will show you that Nebraska “deserved” to win. It’s the majority of the numbers.
But there are also numbers, the easy ones to highlight, that show why Nebraska didn’t.
So the question facing the Huskers at this point is if you’ve worked hard enough to win, but haven’t, what are you going to do now?
And that was part of the second thing Frost told his team as Troy headed home with another road win over a Power 5 opponent to tout in its media guide.
“I also told them that if anyone doesn’t want to stay on board this ride with us, let me know now and we can get off,” Frost said. “I know where this is going, we just haven’t had the results early that we need.”
I’m pretty sure I still know where it’s going, too. It’s the only thing these two losses share with the four that proceeded them last season in this six-game streak that, for Husker fans, must feel like an eternity.
And it’s also what makes these two losses different, even if the binary nature of a fall football Saturday isn’t great at accounting for it.
Nebraska hasn’t been great at accounting for how all of those fractions add up to become the only numbers that matter either, but it’ll come.