Photo by Paul Bellinger
Nebraska Football

Hundreds of Yards Ahead in the Games, a Half-Yard Short in Practice

September 15, 2018
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In the locker room after Nebraska’s 24-19 loss to Troy, senior wideout and captain Stanley Morgan Jr. addressed the team. He told them they’re not working like they need to. He told them they’re working hard, but they’re not working like they want to win. They think they are, but the results have yet to back that up.

Nebraska now has its first 0-2 start since the 1957 season. A loss next week against a ranked Michigan team on the road would mean the first 0-3 start since 1945 (hat tip to ESPN’s Mitch Sherman on that one). It’s the exact opposite start Husker fans expected under new head coach Scott Frost. And both losses have come the same way.

“It’s the same thing as last week. Do some good things, but it doesn’t matter, we lost,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. “It sucks to keep telling everybody that we’re almost there, we’re almost there, and then have it not happen. It’s where we’re at right now. We've got to find whatever it is to help us take that step.”

Nebraska has six turnovers in two games, three apiece. It has 21 penalties in two games, 11 against Colorado and 10 against Troy. It has outgained opponents 929-648 in two games and it hasn’t meant anything.

“The little things are coming back to get us,” graduate safety Tre Neal said. “If we’re in practice and guys say go 5 yards and we’re going 4.5 yards, that’s not good enough. Where we’re coming up short in practice, we’re going to start coming up short in the games, just like today and last week. It’s little things we’ve got to take care of.”

In the second quarter, Troy had one first down and 3 points. Nebraska was punting away to an offense it had done mostly well to stymie to that point. Junior punter Caleb Lightbourn boomed a 48-yarder, Nebraska got downfield in a hurry and set up solid coverage on the return.

Troy safety Cedarius Rookard made one man miss, freshman Cam Taylor … one guy … and it all fell apart after that. Rookard raced 58 yards for the score. Ten-nothing a week after it was 14-0, and the lead grew to 17-0 in the first half. Nebraska fought back and was in it right until the end, but that one play seemed representative of a larger issue.

A missed tackle here, a block in the back there, a pass break-up that should have been a pick, a touchdown called back for holding, a third-down stop negated by pass interference, the list goes on and on. Nebraska talked about fixing it last week, but Saturday showed they’re still working.

“Just discipline in everything you do. Everything you do in life you have to have discipline,” senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. “Getting up to be at meetings at 5:55 [a.m.] instead of 6. Making sure you’re at every meal on time. Those are the things where we’ve come a long ways but there’s still a little bit left to go. And it shows up on the field on Saturdays when it’s third-and-whatever and you get a penalty.”

The UCF timeline comparisons are inevitable. Frost and Co. took a bad team and made it a great team. That’s supposed to be the end result here in Lincoln. The last time this coaching staff embarked on a rebuild, its first season looked rocky. The Knights started 1-2, had 21 penalties and seven fumbles in those first three games and generally looked the way Nebraska looks now.

The Knights lost to Michigan on the road in Week 2, but Frost said after the game the Knights outhit the Wolverines. Nebraska has outhit its first two opponents. They’ve been the more physical team. They’ve won the battle at the line of scrimmage, for the most part. It, again, comes back to the details.

“I feel like 2016, we played teams that weren’t as great,” Neal, a member of those 2016 and 2017 Knights teams, said. “The teams we’re playing [now], they’re good teams. Colorado had good skill players everywhere, Troy had some good skill players everywhere and I think when teams are matched like that, it’s going to come down to little things — the penalties, the blocks in the back, giving up punt returns for touchdowns — or things you might overlook in practice or overlook during the week. Those are the things that come back to bite you.”

Neal said there was improvement. A week ago, communication needed to improve. This week, he felt it was a little better. A week ago, the defense didn’t force a turnover. This week, corner Lamar Jackson grabbed his first interception at Nebraska. Frost said he liked the attention to detail on special teams more this week than last.

It’s just coming down to finishing things off. Neal felt the defense let its emotions “run a little bit too high” sometimes. “I think guys are trying to make the splash play instead of just doing their job,” he said. They’ve got to get under control. Neal thinks the “sky’s the limit” if the mistakes get corrected.

This is the team’s sixth consecutive loss. The Huskers are 4-12 in their last 16 games. Ultimately, Nebraska just needs to learn how to win again.

“I think the guys need to remember how to win,” Gifford said. “When you get those opportunities, good teams have to shut it down. And that’s what’s so frustrating, you can see how good this team can be.”

Frost challenged the team in the locker room after: fight back and work even harder or give up.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I think we’re a better team than what the results say we are, but that doesn’t matter.”

He told the team after the game if they want out, tell him now because “I know where this is going.” Neal said the team responded to that. There are no smiles in the locker room, this is not the start anyone wanted, but Nebraska hasn’t quit. There’s no indication it will.

“When things go wrong, things don’t go your way, you can’t [quit],” Neal said. “We want fighters, we want guys that want to do it, we want guys that can fight because if guys are folding, you don’t want to be out there with them because they’ll just quit when things get tough again. It’s one of those things where he’s challenging us to just be a team, come together.”

Frost put it nicely.

“The sense I get from them is they want to be great. The effort they’ve been giving us leads me to believe they want to be great,” he said. “We have a tough game next week, and this will get worse before it gets better but it’s always darkest before the dawn. I know where this is going, so I want every guy in that locker room to be on board.”

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