At the start of the season, Nebraska fans had chalked up the Ohio State game as an ugly loss and were looking at games around it on the schedule. A drubbing at Michigan, in what head coach Scott Frost called the bottom of the program’s descent, seemed to reinforce that expectation.
But that’s not what we got. Nebraska went toe-for-toe against Ohio State for four quarters, leading at halftime, before falling to the Buckeyes 36-31. So as we look back on Nebraska’s unexpectedly game showing in Columbus …
A Glimpse of the Future. There were times when freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez looked like the eighteen-year-old true freshman he is, staring up at the big lights of Ohio Stadium. But there were plenty of times where Martinez looked like a true playmaker – the second coming of Russell Wilson, plus about three inches and twenty pounds, I’m telling ya – and should fill Husker hearts with hope.
Martinez ended the game 22-for-32 in the air for 266 yards and a touchdown, adding in 107 yards on 20 carries with two red-zone touchdowns.
But what might have been most impressive is his resilience. After a truly cringe-worthy decision that denied Nebraska a scoring opportunity in the red zone, there was every opportunity for him to respond like a freshman and melt. He didn’t. He responded with calm and poise, continuing to lead Nebraska on its upset bit.
More than the gaudy stats and flashy moves, that kind of maturity and resilience is what should make Nebraska fans excited to see Martinez’s growth in the future.
Blackshirt Resurgence. The statistics weren’t exactly glittering. But given how Nebraska’s defense has struggled recently, there were clear signs of life in the Blackshirts. While Ohio State’s running game was able to get on track – which isn’t a huge surprise, given the talent on the Buckeyes’ offensive line and in their backfield, combined with a bye week to prepare – Nebraska was still able to hold Ohio State’s offense under 500 yards.
Throwing the ball, Heisman candidate Dwayne Haskins only completed fifty percent of his passes, was intercepted once, and was sacked once. Nebraska turned Ohio State over three times, and scored 14 points off of those turnovers.
Heck, Nebraska even made Ohio State punt. Three times!
Kickoff Coverage. Yeah, in general the special teams was still atrocious. Poor Caleb Lightborne now has a second meme-worthy GIF to be remembered (and not in a good way) for the 2018 season. Ohio State had three kickoff return opportunities against Nebraska, and only got an average of 9.3 yards per return.
Yes, that’s baby steps. But given what a tire fire Nebraska’s special teams in general has been, finding an improvement in any area is an accomplishment.
Missed Opportunities. Yeah, it was fun to see a competitive game against Ohio State in the fourth quarter. But it was oh, so close, to being something more than that. Say Stanley Morgan gets an extra half yard in the fourth quarter to keep a drive alive. Say JD Spielman comes up with that catch, which in almost all certainty would have been a long touchdown. Say Martinez doesn’t have his freshman moment and eats the ball, allowing Nebraska to kick a field goal and keep the score closer.
It’s a true state of the program to recognize that being disappointed at a five-point loss is in some ways a good feeling. But it was just a couple of plays away from being much, much more.
Still a Freshman. Martinez continues to amaze, but he’s far from perfect. The backward-pass turnover to Spielman that killed a scoring drive was the clearest example of a kid who can still let the moment become too big for him. But it wasn’t Martinez’s only mistake. There were throws he missed and running lanes he could have taken to improve his performance and Nebraska’s chance to win.
To his credit, he said as much in the post-game press conference, talking about his mistakes and what he needed to improve. That level of maturity is what makes it difficult to remember how young and inexperienced Martinez is leading a big-time college football program. So when those freshman mistakes happen, keep that in mind.
Special Teams. OK, fine, the kickoff coverage was good. That pretty much covers the good stuff. The blocked punt (which punter Isaac Armstrong could have done nothing to avoid) not only got the Buckeyes on the board, it got the crowd into the game after Nebraska had scored and stopped Ohio State on a fourth down conversion.
And that was after Lightborne’s moment of madness when he almost entirely missed the ball on a snap onside kick, ending up handing Ohio State amazing field position.
Both of those plays served to help kick start Ohio State, a team that was reeling after an ugly loss to Purdue. Had those plays not happened – or, had Nebraska pulled off the onside kick, which looked like it had a real shot if the kick was executed properly – then Nebraska could have held onto the early momentum and taken advantage of what looks to be a fragile Ohio State confidence.
AND THE MORAL VICTORY
I know what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say that there’s no such thing as moral victories. You’re supposed to say that a loss is a loss and anything less than a victory can’t ever be accepted.
I get it. And for a coach and a player, that’s absolutely the right thing to say. Being satisfied with coming close is a recipe for mediocrity. In a game of such fine margins, having anything less than intolerance for defeat is a fatal flaw.
But I’m going to guess that most of you reading this aren’t coaches or players. You’re just fans, watching from the outside, trying to figure out the status of this program to which you have hitched your emotions.
So as one of those interested outside observers, let’s be honest with each other. Saturday’s performance in Columbus was a moral victory.
Sure, this isn’t a vintage Ohio State team. Sure, the Buckeyes made tons of mistakes that helped Nebraska stay in the game.
But it’s not like Nebraska didn’t make its own mistakes as well. A strong case can be made that Nebraska could have – maybe even should have – won this game had it played cleaner and sharper.
And therein lies the difference. After Saturday’s game, more than anything I found myself disappointed after Nebraska’s five-point loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus, with a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity.
That’s … a much better feeling than most Nebraska fans expected to have. Sherman, set the WayBack machine for October 14, 2017. Ohio State was coming to Lincoln, and there wasn’t a Nebraska fan who thought NU could stay within three touchdowns of the Buckeyes. They weren’t wrong, as Nebraska was outclassed in the contest, 56-14.
Now, let’s set the WayBack Machine to November 05, 2016. Nebraska was 7-1, rated no. 10 in the nation and getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll.
(Yes, Virginia, it was only two years ago that Nebraska was a top-10 team)
As Nebraska fans had seen countless times before against top-tier opponents in a marquee matchup, Nebraska melted in the spotlight. The final score was 62-3, and somehow that score doesn’t convey how thoroughly Nebraska was handled by Ohio State.
With Frost’s arrival, Nebraska fans thought that the days of those embarrassing losses were behind them. Then Nebraska traveled to Ann Arbor and were humbled by Michigan, 56-10. After the game, Frost said that it was the low point of his program, and many observers and fans cynically replied by thinking “wait until you go to Columbus.”
Well, look what happened. Nebraska played a four-quarter contest against Ohio State in the Horseshoe. Nebraska faced off against an opponent with elite talent and stood toe-to-toe with a chance to win. Nebraska fans – and players – now have that image in their memory banks, which they can draw on for confidence.
That’s the moral victory. The narrative of Nebraska’s humiliation against college football’s royalty is – for now – rewritten. The opportunity is there for Nebraska now to redefine itself and establish a foothold on the national stage.
I know November 04, 2016, seems like a million years ago. But it is now two years to the date of the writing of this column since Nebraska was a top-10 team getting votes in the College Football Playoff poll. A lot can change in a short period of time in college football – Frost and his coaching staff are banking on that in 2019.