It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
When Scott Frost returned as Nebraska’s head coach, games like this weren’t supposed to happen. Nebraska wasn’t supposed to be embarrassed on a national stage. Nebraska’s wasn’t supposed to be the butt of the joke from a fast food franchise.
And, yet, here we are. Before the Michigan game, Frost said that things might get worse before they get better. After the game, he said that Nebraska had hit rock bottom.
How did this happen? How did a Michigan team that struggled at times against SMU the week before so thoroughly dominate Nebraska?
There’s plenty of potential reasons, of course. Michigan has better talent than Nebraska (although, according to the five-year recruiting averages, only three spots nationally better). Nebraska is in year one of a rebuild, with freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez still limited with a knee injury. And apparently Michigan players still had a burr under their collective saddle for Frost saying that UCF outhit Michigan when the two teams played in 2016.
But I thought what might have been the most insightful was a quote from linebacker Mohammed Barry (from Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star):
“The only [players] we would lose are the ones we never really had,” he said. “That’s probably better in the long run. … The guys we are going to actually win with and win championships with would never do that.”
“Let’s just be truthful: There are some people that want it and some people that don’t. That’s why we’re playing the brand of football we’re playing right now. We’re going to get there and it’s all positive, but I hope that if people have any doubt in us and our team that they make their exit now and we get better from here on out.”
Frost had a similar message to the team after last week’s loss to Troy (from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald):
“I just got done telling the team that, when things get tough like this, you have two choices: You fight back and you work even harder or you give up,” Frost said. “I also told them if anybody doesn’t want to stay on board with this ride with us, let me know now and get off. Because I know where this is going. We just haven’t had the results early.”
After Tuesday’s practice before Purdue, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander added to the consideration the quote that the team needs “105 guys who love to play football, period” (according to HuskerMax). Read between the lines and it’s hard not to conclude that there’s a problem in the locker room with players who aren’t fully invested in Frost and his system. If that’s true, it would explain a lot of what we’ve seen at the start of this season.
Football isn’t a game you can play halfway, certainly not at the level of a major college football program. Football is hard. It’s a game of fine margins. At this level, players on both sides of the field are amazingly talented and athletically gifted. Except in the most extreme of physical mismatches, the difference between winning and losing is about which team is best able to work together and commit to its process, and which team is confident enough in its ability to be successful.
Given the quotes from Frost and Barry, it’s certainly plausible to conclude that there are parts of this Nebraska squad that aren’t all-in on Frost’s process. Don’t forget, the elder statesmen of this team are on their third head coach, including one who all but told the team they were justified in bailing on the program on his way out the door.
And as for confidence, well, it’s hard to see how this Nebraska team wouldn’t be reeling. Nebraska hasn’t won a game since October 28, 2017, when it went on the road to beat – Purdue. Since then, Nebraska has lost seven straight, and surrendered 50 or more points five times (including, weirdly, three straight 56’s being hung on the Blackshirts). Nebraska has come close twice this year but couldn’t get over the finish line, then got curb-stomped in Ann Arbor.
So when things started to go badly at Michigan, it’s only human that all those previous losses would come crashing down around the confidence of Nebraska’s players. Just ask Michigan safety John Metellus after Nebraska’s first offensive series ended in an interception (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).
“After that first series, when we went back out there, we just knew they wanted to give up,” Metellus said. “You could just see it in their eyes.”
Now, let’s be clear. Nebraska didn’t quit. Nebraska fought and tried its best against Michigan, start to finish. But trying your best also means summoning whatever confidence you can that you can be successful at something, especially something as hard and physically demanding as top-flight college football. Without that confidence, “your best” is still some percentage less than your potential.
And that’s what Nebraska is facing now. A crisis of confidence in a group of young men that wants desperately to be successful, but hasn’t seen that hard work pay off in almost an entire year.
Which brings us to Purdue on Saturday. The Boilermakers are 1-3, but coming off an upset of nationally-ranked Boston College. Purdue is going to arrive in Lincoln thinking it can beat Nebraska. The bookies agree, making the Boilermakers a three-point favorite.
All of a sudden, the Purdue game has become one of the most consequential games in recent Nebraska history. A win puts Nebraska at 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the B1G. But more importantly, it lets the team remember what winning tastes like, and gives them tangible proof that all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve been expending has a payoff. A win gives Nebraska a legitimate, if narrow, path to six wins and a bowl game.
A loss, on the other hand, would make that albatross hanging around the neck of the Nebraska football program that much heavier. A loss to Purdue could put a catastrophically-bad season – 2-10, maybe 1-11 – on the table.
We will see on Saturday how much confidence Frost and his coaches can inject into Nebraska as a football team. But we will also see how the Nebraska fanbase responds to what feels like the other side of the college football looking glass.
This dope worried that a blowout loss to Michigan could start to turn Nebraska fans against Frost and the program and, if that happened, could start a cascade of events that could sink Frost’s chances of being successful. To their great credit, Nebraska fans have not done so (with very few exceptions) and have held fast to the faith that Frost will eventually right the Big Red ship.
There are a number of objective reasons for holding fast to that faith. Frost’s pedigree – learning from coaches as varied as Tom Osborne and Chip Kelly – suggests he has the experience to know what he’s doing, particularly on offense. His success at UCF is undeniable. His time both as a top-level college player and an NFL veteran gives him his bona fides. And his charisma and connection to both players and recruits keeps people listening to what he has to say.
But, let’s face it, Husker Fan. Part of the reason you’re continuing to believe is because you kinda have to. Giving up that faith condemns you to despair for the foreseeable future. Despair that the Nebraska team in which you’ve invested your passion (as well as your time and money) will never be more than the butt of a snarky social media manager.
You have the experience of recent Nebraska football history, from Frank Solich’s fumbling of Osborne’s mantle, to the experience of Bill Callahan and Steve Pedersen, to the plateau and drama of Bo Pelini, to the jovial mismanagement of Mike Riley, to 0-3 in 2018. Balanced against that, you have all of the legitimate reasons to believe in Frost’s ability to resurrect Nebraska as a national football power.
None of us know the future. So Husker Fan, you’re faced with a choice given those competing arguments, as to how you respond. And many of you are making the kind of choice we saw the android chief operations officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise face in Star Trek:The Next Generation.
Lt. Commander Data: Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android – nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form. However, I realized that if I was simply a machine, I could never be anything else; I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept. So I chose to believe… that I was a person; that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors. It is a belief which I still hold.
Lieutenant Worf: How did you come to your decision?
Lt. Commander Data: I made… a leap of faith.
Star Trek:The Next Generation, “Rightful Heir” (S6:E23), quote courtesy of IMDB (emphasis added).
That’s what you’re doing now, Husker Fan. Certainly if you’ve made it this far, you’re choosing to make that leap of faith, choosing hope over despair even in the face of current evidence.
You may be doing it in part for your own history, honoring your forebearers who introduced you to Nebraska football. For me, that’s my dad, with his comically-trinket-ladened Nebraska hat, taking me down to a frozen Astroturf field after Nebraska’s Halloween evisceration of Colorado in 1992 to throw around a stocking hat like it was a football. It’s my mom, who still comes to the home games with me to share the experience (and to sneak in a little time to spend with each other). I suspect many of you who have read this far have a similar story as to why Nebraska football is important enough to expend this energy.
And even if there’s not a sentimental attachment, don’t lose track of one very important thing – this is supposed to be fun. At the end of the day, it’s just a football game. No one is going to lose their life or their freedom as a result of a college football game.
That blessed silliness is what makes an emotional investment in a sporting event so powerful and so liberating. As fans, we can wrap ourselves in the minutiae of the game and the roster, and surrender our emotions to the highs and lows of the contest. We get to feel those intense, authentic, irreplaceable feelings of joy and sadness that only come from following a game over which we have no control of the outcome.
And, win or lose at the end of the contest, life goes on around us. We can invest fully, experience those emotions fully, and walk away at the end of it with nothing lost outside of the feelings we chose to put on the line.
If that’s why we all get on this ridiculous roller-coaster in the first place, then why not choose hope? Why not make that leap of faith and believe in the possible, especially when there are still good reasons to think those dreams could come true?
A smart and particularly handsome analyst suggested that a particular song should be sung at Memorial Stadium by the whole crowd every home game. At this stage in the life of the program, it seems like we need it more than ever.
Don’t stop believin’, Husker Fan.