“It’s déjà vu all over again!”
– Yogi Berra
It started out like a day for history to be made. ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in Lincoln, for the first time since 2007. Gabrielle Union was the celebrity picker (news flash – she picked Nebraska) and the NU program enjoyed the national spotlight. And after a gutty come-from-behind win the week before, the fanbase was ready to turn the page.
History, though, stubbornly refused to comply. Nebraska fell behind 17-0 after Ohio State’s first three possessions, and 38-0 at halftime. Adrian Martinez was, at one point, 2-for-7 with three interceptions. Nebraska fans didn’t get to release their balloons until well into the third quarter, when Dedrick Mills notched NU’s only score of the game.
So for a rough evening for Nebraska fans …
Ohio State: Before we get into looking too much at Nebraska, a word needs to be said about the 2019 Buckeyes and how good they looked. J.K. Dobbins looks like an elite NFL-caliber running back, moving at a different speed than everyone else on the field. Justin Fields looked completely comfortable in his first test on the road. And Ohio State’s defense looked fast, strong, and smart.
Sure, Nebraska’s mistakes and turnovers helped grease the skids towards a blowout. But given the talent disparity, it would have taken a clean game from Nebraska and mistakes from Ohio State for the contest to be competitive. Even had Nebraska played that complete game – which Nebraska was not even close to accomplishing – Ohio State’s ruthless efficiency proved far too much for Nebraska to keep up with.
All Our Goals Are Still In Front Of Us: Yeah, that was no fun. But even going into the season, no one seriously thought Nebraska was on a level playing field with Ohio State. The first step for Nebraska’s return has to be competing in the B1G West. And that question is still very much open.
Nebraska’s next four games are home to Northwestern, at Minnesota, home to Indiana, and at Purdue. While nothing is for sure, these are all far more navigable waters than Ohio State. Even going 3-1 in this stretch would put Nebraska at 6-3 overall – bowl-eligible – and 4-2 in conference.
Then, Nebraska gets Wisconsin at home, at Maryland, and Iowa at home on Black Friday. If Nebraska can get to that three-game stretch at 6-3 (or better), then we get a much fairer judgment on NU’s progress in year two of Frost’s progress.
The Sea of Red: Particularly as the team struggles, Nebraska fans run the risk of breaking their collective arms patting themselves on the back, leaning into former athletic director Steve Pederson’s (!) moniker of being “the greatest fans in college football.”
Having said that, there is something pretty unique about this fanbase.
(By the way, it looks like Nebraska has found it’s answer to Wisconsin’s Jump Around, including work from local artists The Killigans.)
Earlier this year, a smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that it’s the loyalty of the fanbase, as much as anything else, that differentiates Nebraska from other programs and raises the potential ceiling for the program regardless of the natural disadvantages of being a school from a small and rural population area.
So keep the faith, Husker Fan. You’re doing your part, and you need to have the patience and the wisdom to let the program catch up.
Adrian Martinez: In many ways, Nebraska’s second-half turnaround was on the back of a remarkable performance by its freshman quarterback, which masked deficiencies throughout the roster.
This year, Martinez just isn’t the same quarterback. His accuracy throwing deep is nowhere near what it was last year. His decision-making has been – put charitably – questionable. His ball security has been eerily-reminiscent of another Martinez who played quarterback at Nebraska recently.
There’s still plenty to love about Martinez. We’ve all scene the transcendent Martinez last year that came into this season as a Heisman candidate. We’ve seen flashes of that Martinez at times this year, like when Martinez led Nebraska’s comeback win against Illinois.
But even with a more manageable part of the season upcoming, Nebraska is going to need more from Martinez if it is going to avoid further disappointments.
No Guarantees: Most Nebraska fans, even after watching NU take another nationally-televised pounding, were still very much on team Frost. He’s the right guy, the prevailing wisdom amongst the fanbase held, and he just needs time to undo the damage years of neglect and malpractice had done to a once-proud program.
There’s still every reason to think that’s true, of course. But the hard thing to accept is that just because something could happen, even that it should happen, doesn’t mean that it will happen. Football is a strange game, and strange things happen – who would have ever predicted that Nebraska would be resting its placekicking hopes on a mid-season walk-on from the FC Bugeaters soccer club?
And Nebraska is still swimming in some pretty dangerous waters. Ohio State and Michigan still stand in the way of a conference title. Wisconsin and Iowa are still well-established programs who know exactly who they are and how to win consistently in the B1G. Minnesota and Purdue will continue to get better and better.
So steel yourself, Husker Fan. Frost is the guy that gives Nebraska right now the best chance to win. But if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen, then the next guy will get his shot too – just so long as you stay with the program in tough times. You know, the whole “in all kinds of weather” thing.
The Poison of Kool-Aid: It was unavoidable, all offseason. Even coming off a 4-8 season, Nebraska was a team on the rise. Nebraska was going to surprise. Nebraska should be a pre-season top-25 team. Nebraska should win the B1G West. Nebraska is a dark-horse playoff contender.
We all talked ourselves into it, didn’t we? Coming off a 4-8 season, we started by thinking that getting to a bowl would be a good sign of progress in year two. Then, as we all steeped in the Kool-Aid, the expectations rose. Eight wins became the bottom-line expectation. Then nine became the benchmark. Talk of a ten-win season became more and more common.
In retrospect, it all seems a little silly, doesn’t it? Those lofty expectations were all based on fervent hopes combined with aching desperation borne from decades of wandering in the desert of college football’s desert. They were phantoms conjured in the minds of the faithful, without any substance and based on nothing anyone actually saw on the field.
In general, there’s nothing wrong with hope and excitement for things to come. But the problem now is that the expectation of Nebraska’s fan base has become utterly divorced from reality. Steady progress, like a six-win season and a bowl game, is dismissed as a disappointment (even by Frost).
So after that long, cold, reality-check of a shower that was the Ohio State game, Husker Fan, expectations need to be recalibrated. A bowl game is a legitimate target. An eight-win season – which, let’s remember, would double their wins from each of the previous two seasons – should be celebrated. Cold showers are no fun. But they are very effective in cleaning off the sticky, artificially-sweetened Kool-Aid Nebraska fans have been bathing in for the last few months.
AND A SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE
It was a game that had been anticipated for months, a high-stakes game on the national stage. On the strength of its dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, a young team looked forward to making a mark on the national stage. But the offense sputtered, unable to keep up either offensively or defensively, and the game was decided at halftime.
No, not last night’s debacle for Nebraska. This was the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, when Ohio State was humbled 31-0 against Clemson.
Apart from a little schadenfreude, why bring this up? Well, a couple of reasons.
First, it’s good to remember that football is a game of emotion and momentum. Even the most talented of teams can let games get away from them and have the score balloon. Even a team like Ohio State can be on the wrong end of a blowout at times.
Second, of course Nebraska fans are going to flash back to all of the horrible and nationally-televised embarrassments of years past. And yes, never mind the score difference, there was little to distinguish the 2019 blowout against Ohio State to the 2017 version.
But it’s also not fair to say that this is what Nebraska always does in the brightest of spotlights. Last year, Nebraska had a pretty bright spotlight when it went to Columbus and nearly pulled off an upset. Last year there was a pretty bright spotlight when Nebraska went to Camp Randall and fought valiantly against an under-achieving Wisconsin squad. Last year there was a pretty bright spotlight on Black Friday, even with nothing to play for, as Nebraska came within a hair’s-breadth of knocking off the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
Tom Osborne used to say that “big games” were the ones you lose, expressing his frustration with never getting credit from a fanbase for winning challenging games. Well, as much as Osborne would ever express frustration in public, apart from dropping an occasional “dadgumit.”
Look, I get it, Husker Fan. Y’all were jacked up and ready to finally see Nebraska announce itself on the national stage. But there’s a little of Osborne’s lament going on here. Sure, seeing Nebraska get undressed on national television is an uncomfortable reminder that it is a squad as currently constituted that is not ready for the national spotlight.
But this isn’t an all-hope-is-lost scenario. This isn’t Mike Riley 2.0, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Frost has a pedigree of success. He’s already seeing results in recruiting. He’s got an athletic administration behind him to the point where Nebraska is about to get a 155-million-dollar new athletic facility.
Of course, there’s no guarantee this is all going to end in glory for Nebraska. But there’s enough reasons to believe that the whole Scott Frost experience could work here that fans should not lose hope.
Nebraska’s got seven games left to play this season, and none of them are against Ohio State. An eight-win season is still well within Nebraska’s grasp, and achieving that off of two straight 4-8 campaigns should be viewed as a tremendous accomplishment.
So dust yourself off, Husker Fan. It’s Northwestern week.