Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 37, Nebraska 21

MVIMG_20191116_111930

It wasn’t as bad as we expected, was it, Husker Fan?

Wisconsin came to Lincoln and beat Nebraska 37-21, but in the loss NU showed signs of life we haven’t seen all season. Head coach Scott Frost’s offense finally showed signs of life, outgaining Wisconsin 493-482. Fourteen of Wisconsin’s points came from two broken plays, a kick return touchdown and a 55-yard reception that ended up being a clinic on how to miss tackles from the Blackshirts. Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to put points on the board, but failed to cash in.

So in reviewing the game, here’s what we saw.

The Good

Oh Hai Dedrick. In the previous four games, Nebraska running back Dedrick Mills had six carries for 18 yards, eight carries for 30 yards, nine carries for 28 yards, and ten carries for 26 yards.

Against Wisconsin – currently the no. 12 rushing defense in the nation – Mills had 17 carries for 188 yards.

With freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson out injured, Mills had to shoulder the lions’ share of carries, and he answered the bell remarkable, running with speed and decisiveness we haven’t seen this season. If this Mills shows up for the next two games, Nebraska’s quest for a bowl game will be boosted significantly.

Extension Suspense. Just before the game, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Frost was signed to a two-year extension, putting him under contract until 2026. To the locals, the announcement seemed a little strange, as there didn’t seem to be much question about whether Frost’s job was unsafe.

Initially, my thought was that Frost and Moos had at least a suspicion that the rest of 2019 was going to go badly, and to provide some pre-emptive support to head off a disgruntled fanbase. But after listening to other commentary, it does seem more likely that the main reasons for recruiting.

After all, both Florida State and Arkansas fired their head coaches before they finished their second seasons. Sure, Nebraska’s situation is far different from the other two programs – but that’s only if you know the history of Frost with Nebraska. The kids who are being recruited have no such knowledge, and you can bet that coaches competing against Nebraska for those kids aren’t being shy about comparing Nebraska to Florida State or Arkansas.

So Frost’s extension is an inoculation against that negative recruiting. There was little chance Frost wouldn’t be in Lincoln for many years to come. By giving him the extension, Moos is making it that much easier for Frost to be successful.

A Kicker Away. Try this thought experiment with me. Even if everything else remained the same – Jonathan Taylor going over 200 yards, Adrian Martinez’s baffling 20-yard sack and backbreaking interception, Nebraska’s secondary attempting to tackle Wisconsin receiver A.J.  by pretending they are torpedoes without arms – Nebraska was still a competent placekicker away from winning the game.

Nebraska missed a 41-yard field goal and failed on fourth down attempts from Wisconsin’s 34, 15, and 1. Field goals from those positions would have been from 52, 32, and 18 (!) yards. A kicker that could go 4-for-4 from those distances would have added an additional 12 points to Nebraska’s tally.

And don’t forget Nebraska’s disastrously short and misplaced kickoff directly after its first touchdown, which Wisconsin returned for a touchdown of its own. A better kick almost certainly takes the touchdown return off the table, and at least forces the Badgers to drive the field to score. In other words, having a competent placekicker would have taken seven points off Wisconsin’s score.

That adds up to a score of Nebraska (21 + 12 =) 33, Wisconsin (37 – 7 =) 30.

The point of this thought experiment isn’t to find excuses as much as it is to find silver linings. With Nebraska sitting at 4-6 after two straight 4-8 campaigns, it can seem like Nebraska is (in Frost’s words) “miles away” from glory (quote from Mitch Sherman of The Athletic).

That’s not the case though, at least it wasn’t against Wisconsin. Nebraska, even with all its 2019 warts, was still just a competent placekicker away from beating the Badgers.

The Bad

Negatives in Positive Territory. If you have watched Nebraska this year, you know it seems like it has been in enemy territory all the time with precious little to show for it. So I decided to lift the hood and look at what Nebraska’s done against Power-5 opponents this year.

I looked at how many drives both Nebraska and its opponents have had with possessions starting inside the 50, starting inside the opponents’ 25, and what their average points per drive (PPD) resulted from those possessions. Here’s what I found

  Inside 50, NU Inside 50, opp Inside 25, NU Inside 25, opp PPD 50+, NU PPD 50+, opp PPD 25+, NU PPD 25+, opp
Col 5 9 2 5 2 3.8 5 5.4
Ill 8 6 8 4 5.25 5.17 5.25 7
NW 5 7 4 3 2.6 1.43 3.25 3.34
Minn 6 7 1 5 1.17 5 7 7
Ind 9 9 7 7 2.67 4.23 3.43 5.43
Wis 7 7 3 5 2 3.29 0 5.46
Total 40 45 25 29 2.75 3.8 3.84 5.55

What do these numbers tell us? Well, here’s what I took from it.

  • Nebraska has gotten into plus territory and inside its opponents 25 just about as often as its opponents, meaning NU’s offense has been getting into scoring position.
  • In games Nebraska has won (Illinois, Northwestern), Nebraska did better inside the 50 than its opponents.
  • Since Illinois, Nebraska has been bad, but not terrible, from inside the 25. But it has been absolutely horrendous from 50 to 25.
  • Northwestern’s offense was really bad, you guys.

So yeah, you weren’t imagining things. The numbers back up what your perception likely was – that Nebraska’s struggles can really be focused on the area from the 50 to the opponent’s 25 yard line.

And The Weight of Moral Victories

Nebraska lost to Wisconsin at home. Nebraska was a 13.5 point underdog at home to Wisconsin and failed to cover. Nebraska gave up 200 yards rushing – again – to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.

And yet the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was – optimism?

Part of that comes from an offense that finally returned to life. Nebraska outgained Wisconsin even as it lost by 16 points – and that’s hard to do, y’all. But Frost’s calling card has always been his offensive prowess. So the offensive doldrums Nebraska endured for the last three games really did seem like an existential challenge for Frost’s success at Nebraska.

Seeing Nebraska succeed offensively, even in a loss, helped fuel the fire of hope. And even though defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took more than his share of barbs, the fact that Wisconsin’s offense (absent a few chunk plays) had to work its way down the field on the Blackshirts was a pleasant surprise.

Some of this might be the poverty of low expectations. Some of it might just be a fanbase wandering through the desert of mediocrity and desperately clinging to any drop of hope. But whatever it is, in this Upside-Down world that is Nebraska football now, Husker Fan is feeling better about things after a 16-point home loss to a conference rival.

At the very least, though, Wisconsin is stuck having to house the hideously ugly Freedom Trophy for another year. Take that, Badgers.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Barry’s “Rebellious” Quote Helps Explain Huskers’ Struggles

DSC07807

Twenty-one games into Scott Frost’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach, fans are in their feelings far more than they expected to be. After an off-season filled with dreams of unearned glory, the reality of a 4-5 Nebraska squad and a long, arduous rebuilding process stares them square in the face. Everyone connected to the program has struggled for some concrete evidence to base a judgment about how a programs like Nebraska’s can be floundering so badly.

At least, I felt adrift and without any good answers. Then I read this quote in a story by Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star from senior linebacker Mohammed Barry, one of the team’s captains, given before the Purdue game (emphasis added):

“We’ve said that stuff three years in a row,” Barry said. “I’m not going to keep putting it on that. I know what teams (with bad culture) look like. There were guys that literally did it deliberately, just wasn’t bought in, wanted to go against Coach. There’s no rebellious people on the team now. That’s not happening. That’s all shut down. It’s just people have to want it more, have to just be disciplined.”

Maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe this comes from a place of never having played football.

But Nebraska’s been through some dark times. The hand-picked heir of a beloved icon was fired less than two years removed from a national championship appearance. The fanbase was torn apart by a forced culture change that didn’t work. A head coach literally said “fuck you” to the fanbase and literally attempted to sabotage the program after he got fired.

But through all that, I never heard of a team in open rebellion against a coach. Maybe it’s happened and we’ve never heard of it. Hearing Barry say it out loud, though, in public is jarring to see, and really puts a new light on the depth of the hole Frost is digging Nebraska’s program out of.

I know, we’re all sick of hearing about culture and knowing where things are going. But seriously, if the baseline you’re having to start with as a new coach is “I wonder which of my guys are going to actively ignore the things I tell them,” you’re starting at quite a disadvantage.

Barry says that rebellious players aren’t an issue anymore – which hopefully is true, although I’m not sure we’d know about it if it wasn’t.  But even this year, Frost’s second, is the first year of just building trust and buy-in, that helps explain why we’re still asking questions about “culture” eighteen games into his tenure.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst has been giving you, Husker Fan, reasons for optimism about Nebraska football going forward. Well, if you want evidence of how bad the problems were when Frost arrived – and therefore how much time he’s going to need to have a reasonable shot to fix them – look no further than Barry’s revelatory quote.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Survival Tips for Husker Fans

IMG_2110

I don’t know what to tell you, Husker Fan.

I know you usually come here for a little analysis of the game and a little big-picture thinking about life as a fan. Usually it involves some pithy invocation of “in all kinds of weather” as a call to persevere.

After Nebraska’s loss to Purdue, I’m running out of things to say. Nebraska football just feels like the sequel to “Groundhog’s Day” that no one needed, where we just see the same gut-punching loss over and over and over again.

At this point, it feels like we all need a little guidance for how to get through these troubled times. We’ve heard quite a bit about what’s OK and what’s not OK, so I thought it was time to look at that in terms of how fans should respond to Nebraska’s current foibles.

A LITTLE SELF-CARE IS OK

I get it, Husker Fan. Nebraska football is an integral part of your life, especially in the autumn. Gameday really is a three day event, covering the excitement of the day before, the game itself, and the day after either reveling or mourning the result of the game.

But these aren’t normal times. Nebraska is 4-5, and all but certainly will not be going to a bowl for a third straight year. To go from the dizzying heights of this year’s off-season Kool-Aid to getting beat by 2-6 Purdue is quite a fall.

So it’s OK to give Nebraska a little space for the rest of this year. I ended up listening to most of the second half on the radio doing yardwork, and it was far, far healthier than watching the television helplessly and obsessively refreshing Twitter. Just after the game was over, I changed out of my game-day apparel and put my Nebraska flag away. I was angry and frustrated and just couldn’t bear to look at the N any more.

It worked. Pretty soon, I was able to get myself into a far more regulated state of mind. One of the great things about sports is that we care so much about things that are ultimately meaningless. But if that’s true, then for our own sanity we have to be able to remember that it is meaningless in the grander scheme of things.

So do what you have to in order to get through these next few weeks – or few months. Not holding Nebraska football quite so tight as you usually do isn’t the same thing as letting it go.

QUITTING IS NOT OK

Look, I know it’s been a painful ride these last few years. But you wouldn’t be reading this if Nebraska football wasn’t a huge part of your identity. And it’s times like these – and unfortunately, Husker Fan, you’ve seen a lot of them – that will truly try your scarlet and cream soul.

But now’s not the time to pack it in. You’ve long ago bought a ticket to this thrill ride called Nebraska football. And sure, right now the roller-coaster car is on a long, long fall – and the track is uncomfortably shaking.

Even with that, though, you had a few shots of joy and excitement. Even in this game, there were many (although, in fairness, not quite enough) get-out-of-your-seat moments that you just don’t get to feel anyplace else. Walking away from Nebraska football means you’re giving those up, and I would suggest that your life would be the poorer for it.

And there’s a bigger stake to it as well. My main thesis about Nebraska football is that it has the potential to be great almost entirely because of it’s uniquely committed fanbase. If Nebraska fans allow the current run of frustration to cool the fire that’s burned since the 1940s, then Nebraska really does run the risk of becoming nothing more than just another midwestern B1G program.

Don’t let that happen, Husker Fan. Nebraska’s football program has the kind of administrative and financial backing it hasn’t had in some time. It has a young and promising head coach – who, we need to remember, is in his fourth season as a head coach. None of that guarantees success, of course, but there’s enough there that should convince you to stay on this crazy thrill ride with the rest of us.

BEING ANGRY IS OK

You can say all the happy, positive things you want, but it’s inarguable that Nebraska’s performances this season simply haven’t been good enough. There’s enough blame to go around to both players and coaches, and I don’t have either the expertise or the energy left to figure out how to apportion those.

But you’ve got every right to be angry about what you’ve seen. You’ve got every right to expect better. You’ve got every right to ask hard questions and expect to see answers.

That anger, that frustration, isn’t negativity. It’s holding a team and a coaching staff to a higher standard.

BEING UGLY IS NOT OK

Having said that, the anger and frustration does not give you license to be abusive. It doesn’t give you license to mindlessly vent your frustration at coaches. It certainly doesn’t give you license to

Mike Schaefer of 247 Sports put it better than I could.

Be angry, yes. Be frustrated, sure. But don’t be an asshole. And if you can’t tell the difference, maybe pipe down and go do some yardwork – or scroll down a little bit and read the bit about your self-worth not being defined by your favorite team’s performance.

BEING REALISTIC IS OK

There’s a certain segment of the fanbase that cannot abide anything other than rabid homerism. And for some people, that’s how they enjoy their experience of fandom, and if that’s what works more power to them.

But not everyone is like that. I find it’s way healthier to be able to look realistically at Nebraska as it is, as best as I can tell. Saying that Nebraska is unlikely to make a bowl this year isn’t negative – and after this game, probably not even much of a hot take. Saying that Adrian Martinez, for whatever reason, isn’t the guy that gives Nebraska the best chance to win isn’t being toxic. Saying that Scott Frost looks like he doesn’t know what to do with this team isn’t showing a lack of faith.

If you’re a Johnny Sunshine, all-optimism fan, then you do you. But a little dose of realism in the fanbase may help all of us be a little healthier.

BEING FATALISTIC IS NOT OK

I’m going to let you in on a few secrets.

Scott Frost isn’t going to get fired. He’s not going to fire all his coaches. Nebraska will, in fact, win another game – heck, they might even find a way to win two more and go to a bowl this year.

Fatalism is a defense mechanism, and an understandable one. If you give up on hope, then you can’t be disappointed. But marinating in that negativity for too long is just toxic. If you decide that everything in awful, you run the risk of losing the ability to see anything but the awful. And pretty soon that will suck all of the joy out of what should be something fun.

IT’S OK TO TAKE IT ONE GAME AT A TIME

This classic piece of coach-speak might be the most important way to keep your sanity, especially for the rest of this season. I know part of the fun of college football is to think about how a win in each game fits into the grander conference and national scheme of things.

Well, Husker Fan, that’s not an issue for Nebraska this year. But there’s still three games left – and we only get twelve of these for a whole year. It’s time to start looking at these last three games as individual, one-game spectacles. Regardless of what it may or may not mean in the grander scheme of things, Wisconsin is still coming to Lincoln next. We still get to see Nebraska at home in Memorial Stadium – and maybe, just maybe, all the emotional investment you’ve poured into this program will pay off for at least an afternoon.

Same thing with the Maryland game on the road in a few weeks. It’s still a Nebraska gameday. It’s still your chance to get on this crazy thrill ride we’ve all bought into. Regardless of what the broader implications of the result, it’s still a game to ride the wave.

And then the season ends with Iowa. Come on now, Husker Fan, even if Nebraska is sitting at 4-7, how good would it feel to knock off your noisy neighbors to the east? It’s one more chance to feel that adrenaline in your veins, to ride the thrill ride that is Nebraska football for one more time until that long, long offseason.

IT’S NOT OK TO DEFINE YOUR SELF-WORTH BY THE SUCCESS OF YOUR FAVORITE TEAM

When I was younger, I had an epiphany walking out of Memorial Stadium, feeling terrible about myself after another loss to Oklahoma. I was so sad, and so upset, and so tired of feeling like I was a failure.

And then it hit me. All I was doing was watching a game. Why did I feel like a failure? Sure, I was sad and disappointed, but why was I letting the fortunes of a college football team over which I had precious little control govern how I felt about myself?

That realization has always helped me keep sports and fandom in some degree of perspective – although some times, not as much as it should. It’s part of what I worry about when I hear fans talk about their favorite team as “we.” Sure, it makes you feel good when your team wins.

But the dark part of that is times like this. Feeling sad and disappointed is understandable. But I think a lot of the really toxic negativity that you see from fans comes in large part because such a huge chunk of their self-worth is tied up in the success of their favorite team. So, when the team loses, they perceive it as a slight on themselves personally, and respond with anger and ugliness accordingly.

You don’t need to be embarrassed by the team you support. There’s nothing at all wrong with saying that yeah, they’re kinda garbage right now. You’ll find that you get a lot more respect – at least from some fans of other teams – by being able to take it in a good-natured way and put the sport in the perspective it deserves.

I’m not the biggest Jerry Seinfeld fan in the world, but he got it absolutely right with this.

Don’t fall into that trap, Husker Fan. If you’ve read this far, then I already know you are an amazing, wonderful human being. Don’t let Nebraska’s fortunes blind you of that fact.

Be good to each other, fellow fans. We’re gonna need it for the next few months.

GBR, baby.

Why Nebraska Fans Should Not Give Up on Dreams of Glory

DSC08159

I know it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. And yes, I am aware that there is a football season ongoing for Nebraska.

Some of it has been personal challenges, which you aren’t interested in reading about. But, honestly, most of it has been Minnesota. Watching Nebraska’s loss to Minnesota really shook what I thought about this program.

The Ohio State loss wasn’t fun to watch, but given where the Buckeyes are it was at least understandable. Heck, I even wrote about how to respond as a Nebraska fan.

Nebraska bounced back from the Ohio State loss with a gritty (some might say ugly) win over Northwestern at home, and it looked like maybe things had changed.

And then Nebraska went to Minneapolis, and got steamrollered by the Golden Gophers. Nebraska lost 34-7, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that score indicated. While head coach Scott Frost would later say that much of Minnesota’s ability to move the ball came from poor run fits rather than being beaten physically, it was inarguable that Minnesota was the better team.

In 2017, an ugly loss to Minnesota in Minneapolis was the final nail in the coffin of Mike Riley’s tenure as Nebraska’s head coach. With Riley’s firing after the 2017 season and Frost’s arrival, combined with the optimism that surrounded the beginning of this season, the one sure thing seemed to be that the 2017 debacle in Minneapolis couldn’t be repeated.

Well, the debacle was repeated in 2019, and the faith of many Nebraska fans (including myself) was shaken to the core. It wasn’t until Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald wrote this column that I really felt I had some perspective on where Nebraska is as a program.

Chatelain’s basic point is that Nebraska has been down for so long, stuck in this mire for so long, that the expectation of Nebraska as a national powerhouse is no longer reasonable. Here’s kind of the point of the column boiled down.

Nebraska football is the 60-year-old golfer who insists on playing the tees he played at 30. He can’t believe it when his drive doesn’t carry the bunker. Nebraska football is the guy at open gym calling for alley-oops on the fast break. And when the lob comes? It sails over his fingertips out of bounds.

How foolish would it be if Illinois or Purdue stood up in August and proclaimed their Big Ten championship plans? Yet we hear it from Nebraska every year and barely think twice. We encourage it. We see “College GameDay” roll into town and get intoxicated by ’90s flashbacks and then the game starts and, whoa, what happened here?

For years, I’ve told myself it was only a matter of time before Nebraska stumbled onto prosperity again. Even Kansas and Baylor and Northwestern and Minnesota have breakout seasons. Now I’m not so sure.

I share that uncertainty. I’ve written about how there are no guarantees of success, even if Frost is “the guy” for Nebraska. I’ve thought about how familiar Frost’s responses are when Nebraska loses. And, most uncomfortably, when I hear people say with certainty that Frost is “the guy” I’ve had to push away the thought asking myself “do you think that just because it’s what you want to believe?”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chatelain. It takes guts to write a column like this, just like it took guts to face down an irate Bo Pelini in his prime. Chatelain is the prime target of the ultras in Nebraska’s fanbase who can’t abide by anyone not serving up the Kool-Aid of inevitable success right around the corner.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’m willing to reach the same conclusion that Chatelain appears to draw at the end of the piece.

Nebraska football, for better or worse, is a rotten institution. Hollow at the core. The status quo isn’t nine wins and a Top 25 ranking. We’re living the new status quo. And the sooner we all recognize that Nebraska isn’t supposed to beat Indiana, the sooner it might.

First of all, I’m not sure what circumstance would constitute Nebraska football being a rotten institution as “for better.” And while he’s right that the status quo is no longer the nine-win plateau of the Pelini era, the conclusion he seems to draw is that Nebraska won’t pull out of the quagmire in which it is stuck until the expectations of success go away. If Nebraska fans would just be cool with mediocre football, then they could enjoy a once-in-a-blue-moon success story more. And, more importantly, if those expectations go away, then the pressures go away and (insert magic wand waiving here) the wins will return.

Not only is that nonsense, it’s dangerous thinking for the ongoing project of Nebraska football.

For the most part, the teams that are perennial powerhouses have some built-in advantages. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU, and Clemson are all nestled in recruiting hotbeds, making the acquisition of five-star talent much simpler. Oregon is a little bit of an outlier, but the Nike money flowing into Eugene helps compensate for that difficulty.

Nebraska … is not in a recruiting hotbed. There are only a couple of things that differentiate Nebraska from Baylor, Northwestern, Minnesota, and the other programs that Chatelain cites as having “breakout seasons.”

First, Nebraska’s tradition of success will always give it more benefit of the doubt if there’s even a possibility that the team could be competitive. Having College GameDay show up on campus for a team that went 4-8 the last two seasons and hadn’t beaten anyone better than Northern Illinois is evidence to that proposition.

The second is related to the first. While Nebraska fans are quick to strain their shoulders patting themselves on the back, it’s also inarguable that the dedication Nebraska fans to their team regardless of circumstance (some might even say in all kinds of weather) is unique in college football.

A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed this out after Nebraska’s gut-punch loss to Colorado in Boulder.

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

The problem with Chatelain’s conclusion – it’s the expectations that are sabotaging Nebraska – is the corollary of the above thesis. It’s because Nebraska fans care so damn much, and won’t accept anything less than excellence, that Nebraska can differentiate itself from the Baylors and Northwesterns and Minnesotas and other programs that can’t trip over five-star defensive ends on the way to Zaxby’s for lunch.

If that goes away, then the beating heart of what makes it true that There Is No Place Like Nebraska goes away, and Nebraska really does become another Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota.

Sure, that’s arrogant to say, especially for a program that’s been looking up at Iowa for a while and just got beat by both Indiana and Minnesota. But it’s still true. Nebraska’s ceiling – whether it gets there or not – is higher than those programs, and it’s higher in large part because of the rabid fan base that propels it there.

And while we’re at questioning Chatelain’s conclusion, there’s one predicate to his argument that deserve some scrutiny as well. Chatelain said that there is no other program that has gone through a drought like Nebraska. Let’s consider that, taking a look at the records of six programs:

  # of years W L T Pct.
Program 1 17 133 87 0 .605
Program 2 12 92 67 0 .579
Program 3 22 157 98 7 .607
Program 4 12 77 58 3 .564
Program 5 22 144 99 1 .591
Program 6 17 141 77 0 .647

Programs 1-5 look fairly similar, don’t they? Each one had over a decade of mediocrity on the football field. Care to know who these programs are?

Program 1 Nebraska (2002-2018)
Program 2 Alabama (1995-2007)
Program 3 USC (1980-2001)
Program 4 Oklahoma (1988-1999)
Program 5 Clemson (1991-2010)

What’s the point of this? College football programs, particularly ones rich in tradition, can survive long droughts of success. Nebraska football as a program is far more resilient than we are giving it credit for. Yes, this long run has been painful and difficult. But we shouldn’t fall victim to recency bias (even if the “recency” in this case spans several presidential administrations).

All the pieces are still in place for Nebraska to return to national prominence in college football. Once Frost – or the next guy, if Frost doesn’t succeed – starts seeing success on the field, the underlying pieces are in place to vault Nebraska back to that national spotlight its fans so desperately crave.

But wait, you say. Who is this Program 6 you included in your list? Well, that would be Iowa, from 2002 to 2018, the same sample size as Nebraska. Why include the Hawkeyes in this analysis?

Mainly for a sense of perspective. The period from 2002-2018 is generally looked at from an Iowa perspective as one of the golden eras in Hawkeye football, while the same period has been viewed as a desert for Nebraska. And yet the difference between the two is a total of eight wins – which works out to a difference of 0.471 wins per season over that time period.

You could make an argument that the Iowa perspective is healthier. But it is also an acknowledgment that their current run is a ceiling of success, and that the fans should be grateful for the wins they have, understanding their place in the college football universe. Nebraska fans are not willing to concede that point – and are willing to endure the heartaches of that frustration in exchange for the potential of greater glory.

Which side of that bargain would you take, Husker Fan? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Ohio State 48, Nebraska 7

MVIMG_20190928_211355

“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 …

THE GOOD

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.

THE BAD

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.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 42, Illinois 38

DSC04594

Yeah, I know this is late. Given the level of stress induced by this game, it took a few days to recover.

Nebraska fell behind on the second play of the game and trailed for most of the contest, looking for all the world like it was finding yet another way to lose a game away from home. But late in the third quarter, Nebraska found its mojo and was able to grind out that elusive road win.

Of course, Nebraska missed a chance to make it easy on itself and its fans, having to settle for a field goal after having a first-and-goal at the one, then taking points off the board with a penalty, then missing the ensuing attempt. But a stout Blackshirt defensive stand (along with maybe a missed pass interference call) helped Nebraska escape with its third win of the season.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s cardiac-care win over Illinois …

The Good

Adversity Responded. With 5:40 left in the third quarter, Nebraska was losing to Illinois 35-21, and it looked to all the world like NU was going to continue its futility on the road. But Nebraska was able to rally, scoring three touchdowns and holding Illinois to just a field goal to escape Champaign with a win.

That’s a sign of strength, Husker Fan. It’s not at all difficult to see previous Nebraska squads having that level of adversity stare them in the face and wilt into defeat. Instead, Nebraska accepted the challenge and performed under immense pressure, and emerged victorious. Just like losing begets losing, winning begets winning, and this win coming through a cauldron of adversity can do nothing but provide confidence for the squad going forward.

DubRob. Yeah, this kid might work out after all. True freshman Wan’Dale Robinson led Nebraska in both number of carries (19) and number of receptions (8), for 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. And with Maurice Washington out injured and Dedrick Mills fumbling, Robinson showed he was able to run between the tackles with power in addition to being a matchup nightmare on the perimeter.

And yes, the old white guy is going to try to make DubRob a thing.

Numbers Don’t Lie. Take a look at ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical analysis for the game.

Without getting too far into the weeds, Nebraska putting up 690 (!) yards of total offense against Illinois meant that, just looking at the numbers, NU had a 97 percent chance of winning the game. So yes, that feeling you had of Nebraska trying to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory is borne out by the numbers.

But think about how you’d feel if, somehow, Nebraska didn’t have those turnovers and mental mistakes. If Nebraska was able to put up the offensive show it did and not step on rake after rake, this game would have been a blowout. And maybe the upcoming showdown with the Buckeyes wouldn’t seem quite as daunting.

*looks at Ohio State’s 2019 performance*

Or, maybe it still would seem pretty daunting.

The Bad

Adversity Created. It’s great to overcome adversity. It’s less great when the adversity you overcome is created by your own mistakes and ill-discipline. Illinois shocked Nebraska on the second play from scrimmage with a 66-yard touchdown run from Reggie Corbin. Illinois also scored on drives of 37, 2, 14, and 30 yards, meaning Nebraska handed Illinois four separate point-blank opportunities to score and create a hole for Nebraska to dig out of.

Not-So-Special Teams. Well, so much for Nebraska being Kicker U (as coined by a smart and particularly handsome analyst). With injuries to Barrett Pickering and Dylan Jorgensen, Nebraska has been scrounging for anyone who can kick the ball through the uprights and out of the end zone. Nebraska is (hide the children’s eyes for this) no. 117 nationally in PAT accuracy and no. 123 nationally in field goal accuracy. Nebraska’s inability to get a deep (and high) kickoff has led to opponents having great field position, putting even more pressure on a defense already stretched from offensive inconsistencies.

Nebraska is hoping that Matt Waldoch, a new walkon who played for the club soccer team FC Bugeaters, will help provide some answers. Unless Pickering is able to get back to full health soon, though, it could be a massive source of trouble for Nebraska.

The Looming Challenge. Nebraska is 3-1, and isn’t all that far away from being 4-0 (and probably nationally ranked) coming in to this weekend’s game. But anyone who has watched Nebraska this season knows that NU has not come close to putting together a truly complete four-quarter performance. Even in Nebraska’s most comfortable win over Northern Illinois, the Huskies missed two wide open deep shots that, had they hit, could have changed the complexion of the game.

And, oh, by the way, the Ohio State squad coming to Lincoln looks much more formidable than had been anticipated this offseason. New head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields look to be hitting on all cylinders. Last week, Ohio State fell behind Miami (OH) 5-0 in Columbus – and won the game 76-5.

The Buckeyes look to all the world like a playoff team. If the inconsistent and ill-disciplined Nebraska team that showed up in Champaign takes the field on Saturday, the Buckeyes will murder them.

And the Unearned Glory

Moments after Nebraska’s win, ESPN made an announcement.

There’s an argument to be made that having Gameday in Lincoln is nothing but a good thing. It gives Nebraska additional national exposure, and can do nothing but help Nebraska’s image in recruiting. While the Buckeyes are a two-touchdown-plus favorite, and there is a distinct possibility of another prime-time humiliation for Nebraska, the presence of Gameday at a program which posted two consecutive 4-8 seasons is a testament to Nebraska’s staying power.

But there’s a darker side to Nebraska getting more unearned attention. Throughout the offseason, the fanbase – and, let’s be honest, the players and the coaches – were bathed in the Kool-Aid of lofty expectations, top-25 rankings, and the trappings of status not yet earned on the field. Sure, the coaches preached all the right things about not having earned anything, but let’s not forget these are college kids having their ears filled with how great they already are.

I refuse to believe all those unearned accolades from the offseason didn’t contribute in part to the slow start against South Alabama and the collapse in the second half against Colorado. Four turnovers and eleven (!) penalties against Illinois – including two on kickoffs as the kicking team – also speaks to a lack of focus and discipline. It’s a disturbing call-back to last year when Frost referred to his squad as playing like “one of the most undisciplined teams in the country.”

Culture change takes time, and one thing Nebraska has clearly not demonstrated is an ability to handle success – the “this is why Nebraska can’t have nice things” syndrome. Memorial Stadium should be electric, with an atmosphere not seen since 2014 Miami, or maybe 2007 USC. And perhaps Nebraska will shock the world and finally get that signature, program-defining win.

If it does, then Nebraska really will have something to puff its chest out about. Until then, basking in unearned glory does little but stunt the growth and potential of a talented squad under a promising and exciting head coach. There’s plenty of glory you can see on Nebraska’s horizon – but getting greedy and claiming it before its earned will bring little but heartache and disappointment.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What To Make Of Nebraska’s 34-31 Overtime Loss to Colorado

DSC06372

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

You heard about it all offseason, Husker Fan. Year two is the year of the turnaround. The undefeated UCF season. How much better Nebraska looked in the second half of 2018. A full year of strength and conditioning. A change in culture.

And the offseason accolades. Oh, how they came in, from far and wide. Adrian Martinez is a Heisman candidate. Nebraska is a darkhorse playoff contender. Scott Frost has brought Nebraska back.

You resisted at first. You saw Nebraska put up two straight 4-8 seasons, something that even five years ago would have seemed preposterous. You knew that there was a lot of losing to clear out of football program’s internal plumbing.

But you couldn’t help it. You had a whole offseason to swim in the Kool-Aid, to be drenched by it, to let it seep into your pores, to let it stain your otherwise-sensible Husker hearts. You wanted it to be true, that Nebraska’s long wandering in the wilderness of college football irrelevance, was finally coming to an end.

You weathered the doubt of an unimpressive win over a Sun Belt team that was 3-9 last year. You went west, overcoming high ticket prices and unfriendly locals to take over Folsom Field in Boulder.

And at halftime, it looked like you had finally been rewarded. Nebraska was leading 17-0, and was thoroughly outplaying Colorado. It looked for all the world like Nebraska had finally – finally – answered the bell and was going to make you proud, let you wear your colors with pride and excitement on Monday.

Then the second half started. The offense bogged down. The defense held heroically – until Colorado hit that flea-flicker. Admit it – as soon as that pass was completed, one thought flashed through your mind.

Oh, no, here we go again.

Here’s the thing. Those kids who wear that N on their helmet? They know what Nebraska’s been through too. They’ve been on the sharp end of those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They had to walk off Ryan Field last year when Northwestern pulled of their upset. They know how close they came to beating Ohio State and Iowa on the road last year – and still lost.

I’m no mind-reader. I’m not in that locker room. But you can’t convince me that once those kids saw that flea-flicker hit, the same thing didn’t come across their minds, too.

Oh, no, here we go again.

It’s not like they quit. Maurice Washington answered that gut-punch in the most exciting way possible. Martinez battled and fought and willed his way into the end zone for what looked like it could be the winning score.

And yet Nebraska couldn’t quite hang on, couldn’t quite close the door. In the third quarter, when Nebraska had the chance to end the game for all practical purposes with a score after halftime, the offense bogged down. The play calling got conservative. Even Brock Huard, FOX’s analyst for the game, observed Martinez’s miss of a swing pass in the red zone as being the result of him being “tight.”

Oh, no, here we go again.

Now all that Kool-Aid soaked giddiness of the offseason is gone, burned away in the fire of another agonizing defeat. A hurt and disappointed fanbase took to Twitter and to the radio airwaves and went after Frost in a manner that would have been unthinkable even two weeks ago.

So now what?

Here’s the thing, Husker Fan. Learning how to win – and believing that you’re going to win – is a real thing. And no amount of offseason work or team chemistry or weightlifting in May can teach you how to do that.

Right now, Nebraska’s football team is haunted by the ghosts of losses past. And with each agonizing close-but-no-cigar defeat, those ghosts descend over the football souls of the kids in scarlet and cream, their whispers in times of challenge growing louder with each loss.

Oh, no, here we go again.

With a little time and perspective, Husker Fan, you’re going to see that this Nebraska team is in such a better place than it was twelve months ago. Last year, two games in Nebraska was 0-2 with a home loss to Troy. Last year, you didn’t see the kind of defensive performance that you saw from this group of Blackshirts, at least until they got gassed in the second half. Last year, you didn’t see the bevy of offensive potential waiting to be tapped.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Nebraska’s guaranteed to turn the ship around. Northern Illinois, Nebraska’s next opponent, gave Utah all it could handle. And Utah is probably better than Nebraska right now. Plus – as you will of course recall – Northern Illinois beat Nebraska in Memorial Stadium two years ago.

So yeah, there’s a disturbingly plausible scenario where the 2019 campaign goes dreadfully off the rails. But we know the kind of coach Frost is – you don’t have the success at both Oregon and UCF that he had by accident. We know how talented this offensive group is – at least, before the ghosts start whispering in their ears and in their coaching headsets.

Losing begets losing, and that’s the trap Nebraska is caught in right now. There’s only one way out of that trap, one way to exorcise those ghosts haunting Nebraska.

Win.

Turn oh no, here we go again, into we did it – and we can do it again. Because winning begets winning, too.

Nebraska has the talent and the coaching in place to make it foreseeable. As long as the team can keep things together mentally long enough to keep pounding on that door, eventually it’s going to crack and open.

Hopefully – maybe even probably – it’ll come this year. This team sure feels set up to have that breakthrough in a way that Nebraska teams in years past haven’t. If Martinez’s demeanor in his post-game interview was anything to judge off of, Northern Illinois should face a remarkably focused and intense Nebraska squad – one with unfinished business.

But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this year falls far short of your fond offseason dreams, Husker Fan. What do you do if that happens?

Even more than other programs, Husker Fan, you are the beating heart of why Nebraska is considered a blue-blood of college football. From a distance, there’s no reason the Nebraska program should be considered alongside the royalty of college football.

Except for you. You’re the ones who painted Folsom Field red, and in doing so you were the spiritual heirs of all those red-clad faithful that boarded the trains and descended on the Rose Bowl in 1941. You’re the ones who have sold out Memorial Stadium since 1962. You’re the ones, ultimately, who provide the platform from which Nebraska has the potential to launch itself back into the college football stratosphere.

You know the tune. You’ve sung the words – probably about a half-count off the beat, because that’s how we Nebraskans roll.

We’ll all stick together, in all kinds of weather, for dear old Nebraska U

So keep the faith, Husker Fan. Yes, this loss will test the strength of your resolve. Yes, you’ll want to cast it all aside in your agony. Yes, you’ll wonder why you do this to yourself, over and over. Yes, your anger and frustration will want to make you lash out and walk away.

Keep the faith. You do this for a reason. You are fortunate enough to be part of this fanbase, fortunate enough to be able to cheer for these young men who literally give their blood and sweat for you. You are fortunate enough to have the kind of emotions – both good and bad – that those poor souls who aren’t fans never get to experience.

One of the amazing things about sports is that ability to feel such intense emotion about something that is ultimately meaningless. You can get the same kind of experiences in politics, or finance, or medicine, or law, or any number of other real-life endeavors. But failure in those have real consequences, where real harm is suffered by real people.

With sports? You have to put up with a little razzing from your Hawkeye neighbors.

Husker Fan, stay with us. Be frustrated, of course. Be angry, sure. Complain and criticize and scream and cry, do whatever you must to get by.

But don’t stop caring. Come back next week. Come back next year. Come back to watch Frost – or the next guy, if it isn’t Frost –  proceed in contest and in victory. Keep the faith that the payoff is coming, that all of this pain and disappointment will repay you with the unrivaled joy and excitement that comes from victory and glory.

And in the meantime, if not enjoy the experience then at least have some observation how bleeding scarlet and cream gives you a rhythm to your life, and a bond with all of your fellow denizens of Husker Nation who are riding the same crazy emotional thrill ride you’re on. Feel those feelings – good and bad – that your friends and neighbors who aren’t fortunate enough to be infected with this particular virus never get a chance to feel.

Because on Monday, it’s Northern Illinois week.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 35, South Alabama 21

DSC09186

“Sit down,

[EXPLETIVE DELETED] be humble”

– Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

After a Kool-aid soaked offseason, Nebraska fans didn’t quite get the relaxing blowout they expected to start year two of the Scott Frost Experience. An opportunistic defense along with a special teams touchdown helped Nebraska surprise a shockingly-anemic offensive performance and survive the Jaguars 35-21.

Even though Nebraska survived and advanced, the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was eerily similar to after the Northern Illinois loss in 2017. So let’s look back at the newly-minted 1-0 Cornhusker football squad and see what we see.

THE GOOD

Defense to Offense. Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has long preached that he wants to see his defense turn into offense for NU to be successful. Well, mission accomplished in week one. Eric Lee’s pick-six to open the second half gave life to Memorial Stadium and looked to be the spark to revitalize a stumbling Nebraska squad.

Unfortunately, a lack of offensive performance allowed South Alabama back in the game, having the ball down 28-21. But after Cam Taylor blind-side sacked USA quarterback Cephus Johnson and knocked the ball loose, Alex Davis fell on it in the end zone and gave Nebraska a 35-21 lead.

Without those two defensive scores, given how invisible the offense was, it’s easy to see a scenario where Nebraska loses this game.

The Hype is Real. All eyes were on electric true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson to see if he could live up to the hype. Although he muffed the opening kickoff (which could have been an eerie foreshadowing of things to come), Nebraska’s offense still found plenty of ways to get the talented receiver the ball in space. Robinson ended up with four carries for 21 yards and three receptions for 33 yards, along with 77 kick return yards. In the process, he showed the speed and elusiveness that earned him a starting spot as a true freshman.

Robinson and Martinez also just missed hooking up on two touchdown passes, with the receiver and the quarterback clearly not on the same page with regards to the route. So in his first game, we saw from Robinson plenty already, with the promise of more to come.

The Book of Eli. An injury to safety Deontai Williams pressed the rest of the depth chart into action, including walkon safety Eli Sullivan. He took advantage of his opportunity, recording four tackles and finding himself all over the field in the second half. While a speedy recovery for Williams would be best for Nebraska’s defense, Sullivan’s performance has to be an encouraging sign.

THE BAD

Up The Middle. If you didn’t know anything else, you’d think that a team with two walkon guards and a center who never played center would be a huge problem in the middle of the offensive line, one that could make a running game struggle and throw the rhythm of an entire offense off.

Well …

While it was exciting to see redshirt freshman Cameron Juergens be able to start at center, it soon became exciting in a very different way when he was forcing Martinez to reach or jump for almost every other shotgun snap. The worst-case scenario was a snap that flew over Martinez’ head, ending up with a “best case” scenario of Martinez recovering it for what would ultimately be a 24-yard sack.

Juergens was replaced in the second half by Will Farniok, and the snaps certainly improved. But Juergens’ superior athleticism was evident, as Nebraska struggled even more trying to run between the tackles. Nebraska pretty much had no running success at all (44 carries, 98 yards, 2.2 yards per carry), but what they were able to get was manufactured on the outside.

In his postgame interviews, Frost talked about a lack of execution. Nebraska fans best hope that’s the case, because if that’s the offensive line play NU has this year, it’s hard to see how they win in the B1G.

Who Was That Guy And What Did He Do With Adrian Martinez? Nebraska’s opening drive was a thing of beauty, nine plays for 81 yards, with Martinez taking advantage of tight end Jack Stoll down the seams.

After that, Nebraska only had 195 yards of total offense. Against South Alabama.

Throughout the rest of the game, Martinez looked tentative both running and throwing. His one interception – and he should have had about three – was a bad underthrow into a whole host of Jaguar defenders. On the bad snap, Martinez was able to pick the ball up and make a play – but ended up falling on the ball rather than take advantage of what seemed to be an opportunity to throw it away.

Martinez still is a sophomore, of course, and expectations for his performance may have been unrealistic. Everyone, even Martinez, can have a bad day at the office. But if Nebraska gets this guy instead of last year’s Martinez, then this could be a long year for the scarlet and cream faithful.

College Football Is Dumb and Wonderful. Purdue lost to Nevada. Minnesota struggled at home against FCS South Dakota State. Florida State lost at home to Boise State. Tennessee lost at home to Georgia State. Iowa State needed three overtimes to beat Northern Iowa at home. Kansas needed a miracle to beat Indiana State at home. West Virginia labored to beat James Madison at home.

The point being is that college football is a game played by college kids, which means it is subject to wild, unpredictable, seemingly random results, especially early in the year. It’s why the sport is such a glorious mess, and something that you can’t possibly stop watching.

AND THE READJUSTMENT OF EXPECTATIONS

All this offseason, the Nebraska fanbase got itself all worked up thinking that NU was on the cusp of its return to greatness. Visions of playoffs danced in their minds, and Nebraska was a trendy darkhorse pick even to win a national title.

While that was fun for the offseason, there always was a danger that the reality may not match the expectation. And with a fanbase that has been promised and let down so much over the last two decades, there was always a danger of a backlash.

Now, let’s be clear. Nebraska is 1-0, and all those dreams are still alive. But after watching Nebraska labor to beat a Sun Belt team that went 3-9 last year, a few fewer tickets to Pasadena may be purchased in the Cornhusker state.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Watching Nebraska against South Alabama felt much more like NU in the last five years as opposed to a redux of the nineties. And that’s a good thing. Nebraska is still a team coming off two 4-8 seasons. While there’s lots of promise, a game like this shows that there’s plenty of work for Nebraska still to do.

But if you’re down, Husker Fan, think about this. There wasn’t anyone in Memorial Stadium watching this game that didn’t think it felt like Northern Illinois in 2017, or any of the other myriad of games against outmatched opponents Nebraska would find a way to lose.

And yet Nebraska didn’t lose. Nebraska found a way to win. It was a way that no one really expected. But there’s no style points listed in the standings – 1-0 is still 1-0, regardless of how ugly it was.

Maybe that’s part of the culture change Frost is trying to establish. Instead of underperforming and finding a way to lose, Nebraska opened 2019 underperforming and finding a way to win.

Baby steps, Husker Fan.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: 2019 Season Projection for the Cornhuskers

DSC07952

Once again, the calendar turns towards September, and another college football season is upon us. As Nebraska fans finally enter into South Alabama Week, it’s time for the annual Double Extra Point season prediction.

As always, we will use a four-part metric to look at the upcoming season, in an attempt to bring a little more objectivity to the analysis. Each game will be broken down into four different categories:

Better Win Expect to win all games
Should Win Expect to win more than half of games
Might Win Expect to win less than half of games
Won’t Win Expect to win no games

Once all the games are categorized, we’ll add up the categories and see where the model suggests Nebraska’s record will sit at the end of the season. Of course, we’ll also include a mostly-pure-guesswork Fearless Forecast of the score as well – although, fear not, the “official” DXP prediction will be from the model.

All statistics are from the season preview by Bill Connelly of SB Nation (now of ESPN, of course).

South Alabama (home, August 31)

Assuming the weather cooperates, Nebraska should have a relatively straightforward home opener. The Jaguars are coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2018, and is breaking in a new quarterback, wide receiver corps, and secondary. Memorial Stadium in year two of the Scott Frost Experience might not be the place to do that.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 55, South Alabama 17

Colorado (away, September 07)

The Colorado athletic department tried very publicly to avoid having Nebraska fans invade Folsom Field. That … didn’t work so well, as it inspired Husker Twitter to create its own hashtag and lit even more of a fire for Husker Fan to make the trip west.

Colorado beat Nebraska last year in Lincoln, and does have Laviska Shinault, probably the best wide receiver Nebraska will face this season. But the Buffaloes did go 5-7 and fire their head coach. Nebraska will be new head man Mel Tucker’s first big challenge, and Colorado won’t be catching NU playing it’s first game ever under Frost.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 38, Colorado 24

Northern Illinois (home, September 14)

If there was a canary in the coalmine about Nebraska’s soon-to-be-disastrous 2017 season, it had to be the Huskies’ 21-17 upset of Nebraska on September 16, 2017. Two pick-six interceptions from Tanner Lee put Nebraska in a fourteen point hole that it did climb out of, only to surrender a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to stun the scarlet and cream faithful and give them a vision of things to come that season.

Northern Illinois is coming in with a new head coach, and coming off an 8-6 season in 2018. But the talent difference, combined with the 2017 experience that some on the roster were present for, should help Nebraska avoid an upset bug twice.

Better Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Northern Illinois 20

Illinois (away, September 21)

This isn’t exactly a trap game, as it’s so early in the season and Nebraska really should still be feeling like it hasn’t earned anything yet. Plus, Illinois gave Nebraska some degree of fits last year before NU pulled away late. Lovie Smith is probably coaching for his job, and Illinois’ still have B1G caliber athletes, which will be a step up from the week before.

Combine that with a trip to notoriously sleepy Champaign and an inevitable look-ahead to next week (particularly if Nebraska is 3-0), and this game screams ugly, scrappy, survive-and-advance win.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Illinois 23

Ohio State (home, September 28)

Has Nebraska football advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule? I think Nebraska football has advanced to the point where there’s no Won’t Win games on the schedule!

After all, Ryan Day has taken up the mantle from Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback in Justin Fields that has all the talent in the world but hasn’t shown it yet on the field. Nebraska will be the biggest test for Day’s new Buckeyes. And if this is 4-0 Nebraska versus 4-0 Ohio State, Memorial Stadium will be crackling with the kind of energy it hasn’t seen since the 2014 Miami game.

Even with Nebraska’s near miss in Columbus last year, calling a win is still a tall order. But the change in how this game is viewed should be evidence enough how things have changed in Lincoln

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Ohio State 28, Nebraska 24

Northwestern (home, October 05)

If Nebraska has a bogey team in the B1G, it’s the Purples. Nebraska has better talent than Northwestern, yet just about every year the Purples manage to combine their physical play and ruthless efficiency to take advantage of sloppy Nebraska and steal a win. This year, Northwestern will be starting Clemson (!) transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback, which will give the Purples more talent under center than they’ve had – well, ever, in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

So this game is certainly no gimmie, especially coming off of the Ohio State tilt a week earlier. Still, perhaps more than any besides Ohio State, that Northwestern loss in 2018 stings, and this year’s Nebraska should be sharpened for revenge.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 41, Northwestern 31

Minnesota (away, October 11)

Otherwise known as the B1G Pre-Season Hype Train Bowl, the divisions two national media darlings square off in Minneapolis. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects than Nebraska has less than a 50 percent chance to beat two teams on its schedule, Ohio State and … Minnesota.

That seems to be giving a lot of home field advantage to TCF Bank Stadium, which is … nice, but it’s no Death Valley. If Nebraska’s defensive line is what it appears to be this preseason, NU should be well poised to earn a second straight win over the Gophers.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Indiana (home, October 26)

Coming off of a bye, Nebraska gets to catch a breather before facing a Hoosier squad that went 5-7 in 2018. The talent level for Indiana is improving, and tailback Stevie Scott should be a handful for any defense.

But Indiana still looks to be a rebuilding B1G East school trying to find its footing. Coming off a bye, Nebraska should have plenty to take care of the Hoosiers at home.

Preview data from Corn Nation.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Indiana 21

Purdue (away, November 02)

Quick, name the last game that Mike Riley won!

Yep, it was that bonkers last-second 25-24 win in West Lafayette that kept the faintest spark of hope alive, before an overtime loss to Northwestern (of course) the following week snuffed it out. Of course, head coach Jeff Brohm didn’t have phenom Rondale Moore to deploy in 2017, and the Boilermakers rode Moore and Brohm’s innovative offense to wreak havoc.

Unfortunately for Purdue, Moore is one of only three (!) returning starters on offense. Nebraska-Purdue could be one of the most fun games to watch in the coming years, with Brohm’s offense facing off against Frost’s, but until the Boilermakers reload the talent level shouldn’t be quite even.

Data from Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preview. Yes, the hardcopy magazine.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 51, Purdue 41

Wisconsin (home, November 16)

Well, here’s the acid test to see how far Nebraska has advanced in year two of Frost’s reign. Sconnie will bring in the best running back in the country in Jonathan Taylor, who pretty well single-handedly beat Nebraska in 2017 as a freshman. But Wisconsin also brings back questions at quarterback and a bruised ego from a sub-par 2018 campaign.

The Badgers have a six-game winning streak over Nebraska. If Frost really is going to return Nebraska to an era of national relevance and conference championships, that path leads through Wisconsin.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 35

Maryland (away, November 23)

A trip to the east coast, sandwiched against two physically and emotionally challenging games, going to a stadium that will likely have less than 20,000 fans, at the end of November.

Now that’s a trap game.

Maryland’s talent is better than you think, but even a year removed from the unparalleled disaster D.J. Durkin left, new head coach Mike Locksley will have a challenge on his hand rebuilding the Terrapins. And a public spat with a Michigan assistant coach probably isn’t going to help things.

Should Win

Fearless Forecast: Maryland 27, Nebraska 24

Iowa (home, November 29)

Wisconsin may be the bellweather game for Nebraska’s growth in the B1G West, but it’ll be the last Black Friday game (for two years, at least) that will really tell the tale of Frost’s second season in Lincoln. Iowa fans have been clamoring for this to be a rivalry (even though they’ll never admit it), and Nebraska fans are thiiiiiiiiis close to accepting the role.

Accept it, Husker Fan. Iowa will be bringing in a very Iowa team to Lincoln. The Hawkeyes may well have the best pure pass rusher Nebraska will face in A.J. Epenesa. But they will not have first round NFL draft picks Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson running down the seams. This game should come to the fourth quarter, potentially with the B1G West title on the line.

Might Win

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Iowa 28

Conclusion

Let’s count up our categories and see what the model predicts for Nebraska’s 2019 campaign.

Category Number Forecast Wins
Won’t Win 0 0
Might Win 4 1
Should Win 6 4
Better Win 2 2
  Total projected wins 7

So, the DXP model puts Nebraska at 7-5, which at this stage would probably feel a little disappointing for Nebraska fans. It shouldn’t be, given where the program has been and the promise being shown. And the fact that 7-5 would be seen as disappointing for fans – as well as for players and coaches – is a testament to the importance of expectations, as pointed out by a smart and particularly handsome analyst.

For those who want to feel better about the upcoming season, the Fearless Forecast has Nebraska at 9-3, and that’s with a trap-game loss to Maryland. The best thing about predictions, though, is that we’re about to get some additional data to see just how accurate (or inaccurate) our models are.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

DSC07807

It has not been easy to be a Nebraska fan in the last couple of decades. After three national titles in four years at the end of the 1990s, Nebraska’s football fortunes have fallen to the point where NU had three losing season in the last four years.

That’s been really hard on a fanbase, particularly when you add that failure on the field to the arrogance of Steve Pedersen, the immaturity of Bo Pelini, and the incompetence of Mike Riley. The football played, as well as the recruiting levels and (particularly) the development of talent has steered the program into a steady decline.

The arrival of native son Scott Frost as head coach pumped life and hope into the fanbase, but it didn’t result in immediate change on the field. Nebraska started last season at 0-6, and ended the season at 4-8.

These ongoing struggles would cast down into the hearts of any fanbase. Is the new landscape of college football really such that Nebraska’s time in the sunlight of national relevance is over? Is it time for Nebraska fans to finally give up the ghost of glories past and accept its new, lesser standing in the pantheon of college football?

Frost doesn’t think so, as he said in an interview with BTN (and quoted by Saturday Tradition):

“You know, I hear people worried about expectations for us,” said Frost. “I’m not too worried about it. I actually think it’s good for our football team. I think expectations have been way too low in Lincoln for way too long. Having expectations was just kind of life around here. I think it helps our guys. We need to be confident. We need to expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Why are expectations for a team like Nebraska so important? How can expectations of a fanbase – which, let’s be clear, has been the source of suffering throughout this new millennium – help a football program be successful?

Take a look to Nebraska’s neighbors to the east to find the answer.

https://twitter.com/TalkHuskers/status/1163821777954443264

Now, let’s be clear. Since the turn of the century, Iowa has been a better football program than Nebraska. Iowa has won more games, won more conference championships, and both gone to and won more bowl games than Nebraska. The Hawkeyes hold a four-game winning streak over their scarlet-and-cream neighbors to the west.

But there’s little question that Iowa and Nebraska simply have different perspectives of their place in the college football world. Iowa fans are comfortable with their place winning eight to nine games in a season, and enjoying the occasional run for glory when the stars align properly.

And sure, after what Nebraska fans have been through, most would move heaven and earth to get back to that level of success. But let’s be honest, that’s not the expectation level Nebraska fans have for their program in the long run. It’s not the expectation level that Frost has.

If you step back, Nebraska really has no business being amongst the giants of college football in the 21st century. Nebraska is a small, rural area with no natural recruiting bed upon which to rest. Without that, how could Nebraska hope to compete on that national stage?

The two things that at least give Nebraska a plausible chance at a higher ceiling are its history and its fanbase. Nebraska’s place as a historical blue-blood of college football acts as a magnifier for its success on the field – if a blue-blood like Nebraska (or Alabama or Notre Dame) begins winning, that program’s history will increase its visibility.

The other element that provides a higher ceiling for Nebraska is its fans. The expectation of a championship-level program is what drove a powerful local son like Pedersen out of the athletic director’s position. The expectation of success is what made the dismissal of a man like Pelini – who, let’s not forget, never won less than nine games – possible.

Nebraska fans have not waivered in that expectation, to have a championship-level football program. Those expectations are energy, the same energy that drove swarms of red-clad fans to take trains west in 1940 to see their mighty men play in the Rose Bowl, and have led Nebraska fans to sell out the last 368 consecutive home games.

That energy has been the source of great pain recently, of course, as the football team has fallen woefully short of expectations. But the energy of those expectations are what drove painful change within the athletic department – change that could have been avoided had those expectations not been present.

Of course, the challenge is to balance long-term expectations of a program with short-term expectations of a season’s outcome. It is possible to hold those lofty expectations for the program as a whole and still hold measured expectations for the coming season.

(This may or may not be foreshadowing next week’s season prediction column.)

But in the main, Frost is right. Expectations for any program – but particularly for a program like Nebraska – are a critical difference between a program that has a championship-level ceiling, and one that does not.

GBR, baby.