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

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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.

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

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“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: The Double-Edged Sword of Expectations

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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.

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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.

Nebraska Football: How the Cornhuskers Could Fail to Live Up to the Hype in 2019

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For the first time in forever (it seems), Nebraska is the toast of the national college football media preseason. No less a luminary than Phil Steele picked Nebraska as his no. 1 most improved team for 2019. Nebraska has been in the conversation as a dark-horse national title contender. Nebraska just missed being in the coaches’ preseason top 25 poll.

That’s a lot of positive vibes for a team that went a combined 8-16 in the last two years and hasn’t been to the postseason since getting clobbered by Tennessee in the 2016 (!) Music City Bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of reason for such optimism, between head coach Scott Frost’s experience turning UCF around and having legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Martinez back at quarterback for his sophomore season.

But Husker Fan having all the feels in August doesn’t guarantee the long-awaited turnaround for Nebraska football is at hand. Even with all the reasons for optimism, there are ways that Nebraska’s 2019 season could fall apart. If it happens, these could be the culprit.

Center

One of the biggest questions about Nebraska’s roster in 2019, and certainly the biggest question on the offensive side of the ball, is who will play center. Cameron Jurgens, a redshirt freshman tight end converted to the position, seemed to have the pole position for the starting role given how highly Frost has praised him – comparing Jurgens’ potential to none other than Dave Rimington.

That’s about as high of praise as you can give for a center wearing the scarlet and cream, so clearly Frost likes what he sees in Jurgens’ potential. But injuries have sidelined Jurgens from participating in fall camp, and it is unclear if he would be ready to start the season.

That means Nebraska’s best case scenario is to play a redshirt freshman who has never played the center position before, coming in with little-to-no time in fall camp to get ready and to gel with the rest of the offensive line.

If Jurgens isn’t ready, or doesn’t get the nod, then Nebraska will likely turn to redshirt freshman Will Farniok or walkon freshman A.J. Forbes. Neither Farniok nor Forbes has played snaps at center, either, so no matter what Nebraska will be starting a freshman without experience at the most important position on the offensive line.

In Frost’s offense, with its focus on timing and precision, a clean center-quarterback exchange is crucial. The center is also usually responsible for making line calls to ensure coordination between the entire offensive line in their blocking scheme. That’s a big responsibility for a young player, whoever might step up and take on that role.

And a struggle for Nebraska at center could short-circuit much of the offensive progress made in year one of Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, which could result in a disappointing 2019 campaign.

Inside Linebacker

There is, rightly, significant concern about Nebraska’s depth at outside linebacker. Alex Davis, a talented senior who has yet to produce, and JoJo Doman, who has just returned to fall camp after injury, are the most reliable options Nebraska looks to be fielding at a position of need.

But inside linebacker might be even more concerning with regards to depth. Mohammed Barry is the anchor of the linebacker corps (and, indeed, the entire defense), and Collin Miller is hoped to build on a solid end to the 2018 season.

After that? Nebraska is hoping JUCO transfer Will Honas can return from injuries that robbed him of the majority of last year’s campaign, but we don’t know yet if he’s able to return to form. Freshman phenom Nick Henrich’s injury will certainly keep him out of the lineup for the start of the season, and at this point anything Nebraska gets from him in 2019 has to be viewed as a bonus.

Behind those four (and, really, those three), it’s a grab bag. Can Garrett Snodgrass make a leap and gain playing time? How about Jackson Hannah? Garrett Hustedt? Nebraska has a wealth of freshmen in the room, but there’s no clarity who – if any – would be able to successfully fill that role in the middle of the defense against B1G competition to give the starting three a break – or to replace them in case of injury.

Unlearning the Past

This point has less to do with one specific position group and more to do with the team as a whole. Nebraska is coming off two straight seasons of going 4-8. Nebraska has had one winning season in the last four. Nebraska has losing streaks to conference foes like Northwestern (two straight), Iowa (four straight), Ohio State (four straight) and Wisconsin (six straight). Nebraska hasn’t been in a conference title game since 2012, and that one didn’t really go well for the boys in scarlet and cream.

In other words, it’s been a long time – since the current players on Nebraska’s roster were in middle school, at best – since NU has tasted success in football. Of course, everyone is excited and optimistic about the future. All the players love the chemistry of the team and say they are in the best shape of their lives.

That may all be true, but we heard it all before the 2018 campaign, and the 2017 campaign, and the 2015 campaign too. Until Nebraska proves something on the field, it hasn’t accomplished a darn thing.

And that’s the danger, if Nebraska happens to hit a bump in the road this season. Say things go wrong and Nebraska gets knocked off by Colorado in Boulder. Say Ohio State finds its mojo and does to Nebraska in Lincoln what it did to Michigan last year. Say Nebraska has an unfathomable clunker and loses on the road to Illinois or at home to Indiana.

In other words, what happens if the reality of Nebraska’s 2019 campaign doesn’t quite match up with the lofty expectations? Is there a risk that the sounds of Nebraska’s football failures in this last decade start to echo in the players’ minds? Could the prospect of a promising season slipping away start to make the jerseys weigh a little heavier on the backs of the players, prompting a downward spiral?

This isn’t to say that this doomsday scenario will happen. Indeed, given the combination of Frost’s accumulated talent and track record of success, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

But it’s not impossible. And it’s one that Nebraska fans will have to be cognizant of when (not if) NU hits a couple of bumps in the road this season. A serving of patience from a fanbase that is understandably desperate for national relevance will go a long way to help avoid a challenge turn into a disaster.

GBR, baby.

 

Nebraska Football: The Most Important Quote from Adrian Martinez at B1G Media Days

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Last week, the college football season unofficially started with B1G Media Days in Chicago. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez was one of Nebraska’s three player representatives, and got a lot of attention from the local and national media.

Martinez is mature, almost preternaturally so, in his interactions with the media, and it was remarkable to see him hold court. But one thing he said stuck with me as having the potential to be the most significant insight about Nebraska in 2019, in response to a question about NU’s rematch with Colorado (as reported by Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity).

“First things first, we definitely have to focus on South Alabama. They’re going to be a tough team and that’s going to be a big one for us.”

Now, on the one hand, the “one game at a time” mantra is a classic example of Crash Davis’ advice to learn your clichés as an athlete. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Over the last decade, one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges has been avoiding the head-scratching poor performances against sub-par opposition. Take a look (if you dare) at the times Nebraska has stubbed its collective toe in unexpected ways:

Date Opponent Score
Sept. 15, 2018 Troy L 19-24
Sept. 17, 2017 Northern Illinois L 17-21
Oct. 03, 2015 at Illinois L 13-14
Sept. 06, 2014 McNeese State W 31-24
Nov. 22, 2014 Minnesota L 24-28
Oct. 26, 2013 at Minnesota L 23-34
Nov. 05, 2011 at Northwestern L 25-28
Oct. 24, 2009 Iowa State L 7-9
Sept. 22, 2007 Ball State W 41-40

I included Ball State to show that the history of underperforming goes all the way back to the Callahan era, with Nebraska needing a miracle defensive play to avoid an upset to Ball State at home. And for the Pelini era, the McNeese State win is also included because Nebraska absolutely should have lost at home to an FCS team absent a miraculous game-saving touchdown from Ameer Abdullah.

For over a decade now, Nebraska has baked underperformances and losses to inferior teams into its football culture. Head coach Scott Frost couldn’t magically change that with his arrival, as last year’s loss to Troy (!) proves.

This year, expectations for Nebraska are sky-high, especially coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. While the schedule does set up favorably, to meet those expectations Nebraska will have to break losing streaks against teams like Ohio State (four straight), Wisconsin (six straight), Iowa (four straight), and Northwestern (two straight) to reach those lofty goals.

Just as important, though, to Nebraska finally turning that proverbial corner is to avoid embarrassing itself. Beating a team like Ohio State or Wisconsin loses a lot of juice if Nebraska doesn’t take care of business against a team like South Alabama or Northern Illinois – and NU’s history over the last decade or so suggests NU is vulnerable to such a sub-par performance.

So it’s a very good sign that Martinez is talking about South Alabama instead of taking the bait and looking ahead to Nebraska’s rematch in Boulder. Rebuilding a winning culture (or, dare I say, a winning tradition) includes taking care of business against the minnows as much as it means winning the marquee games.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Need to Emerge for the Cornhuskers

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As the calendar has turned to July, excitement about the 2019 Nebraska football season is turning to a fever pitch. Multiple national outlets are predicting Nebraska to win the B1G West and be a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender, even coming off consecutive 4-8 seasons.

There’s plenty of reasons for that optimism, of course. Head coach Scott Frost has a proven track record of success, including his remarkable turnaround of UCF. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez put on an amazing show last season – the second coming of Russell Wilson, at times – and should do nothing but improve in 2019. Nebraska’s schedule is far less daunting on paper than last year’s, with no Michigan and games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home. And if you look at the analytics, Nebraska’s expected wins from 2018 shows the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the final record suggests.

But the 2019 Nebraska squad is young, with significant holes to fill from a team that has been 8-16 in the last two years. So if Nebraska is going to match those lofty expectations, these players must be able to be effective.

Cameron Jurgens

Jurgens arrived in Lincoln as a highly-touted tight end prospect. But an ankle injury and a crowded tight end room gave Frost an opportunity to propose a position change for Jurgens. And not a small one either – from tight end to center. Jurgens took to the position change well, according to Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I mean, shoot, you get to line up and hit someone every play, what’s wrong with that?” Jurgens said. “I love it. I get to be physical every play.”

It’s a great attitude. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Jurgens starts at center in 2019 – and it’s likely that he will – it will be his first time taking a snap in anger at the position. Given how crucial the center position is, and what a big ask it would be for Jurgens to go from tight end to starting B1G center in less than a year – Nebraska will need Jurgens to be a quick study.

Dedrick Mills

Devine Ozigbo’s breakout senior season last year was a delightful surprise, and helped salvage the position after transfer running back Greg Bell failed to deliver and ultimately transferred out of the program. But Ozigbo is with the Saints now, and the fate of Maurice Washington is very much up in the air.

Nebraska does have some talented freshmen coming to campus. But the bulk of the responsibility for success at the running back position will come from Mills, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Georgia Tech.

Mills arrives with power-five running back experience, and looks well suited to hit the ground (pardon the pun) running on day one. But we haven’t seen him in a Nebraska uniform yet, certainly not against B1G defenses. How Mills answers that call will go a long way towards how well Nebraska will be able to meet the lofty expectations it carries this summer.

Wan’Dale Robinson

Of course, Robinson almost didn’t end up in Lincoln. Originally Robinson committed to Kentucky, but with the persistence of the Nebraska coaching staff Robinson changed his mind and became one of the standouts of Frost’s first recruiting class.

While Nebraska does have a crowded receivers room, no one quite has the combination of speed and elusiveness that Robinson brings. A perfect fit for Frost’s Duck-R running back/wide receiver hybrid, Robinson has the potential to bring an entirely new dynamic to Nebraska’s offense. And with a shaky receiver corps after J.D. Spielman, if Nebraska’s offense is going to shine it’s going to need some extra dynamism in 2019.

Deontai Williams

It’s not like Williams didn’t see the field in 2018 as a sophomore. He played in 12 games, and at times flashed the kind of athleticism that could make him a special talent at safety. But he struggled to maintain playing time, particularly behind seniors Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, and Tre Neal.

Well, that’s not going to be a problem this year. Williams has the athleticism and talent to be an impact player on defense, particularly at safety. But Nebraska needs Williams to be far more consistent if he’s going to take on a starter’s role.

Darrion Daniels

It’s a little strange to say that a player is going to be critical on the defensive line, given that it is likely Nebraska’s strongest and deepest position group. But this is also the group that struggled mightily against the run, and was likely Nebraska’s biggest Achilles’ heel against power-running B1G teams like Wisconsin and Iowa.

So Nebraska needs much better play, particularly in run defense, from its defensive line. But even more so, a graduate transfer like Daniels can bring leadership, attitude, and a level of toughness and experience that might help Nebraska’s defensive line find its potential and be a leader amongst position groups in 2019.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Lack of Development Fuels Nebraska’s NFL Draft Streak Being Snapped

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This year, Nebraska broke a 56-year streak of having at least one player selected in the NFL draft. After suffering through two consecutive 4-8 seasons, and having the memory of seeing streak after streak fall in the early 2000s, Nebraska fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu at the end of the last round of this year’s draft, seeing players from such football powerhouses such as Valdosta State, Idaho, and Morgan State get selected over any Cornhuskers.

What made it worse for Nebraska is that two Omaha kids who didn’t end up as Huskers – North Dakota State’s Easton Stick went in the fifth round to the San Diego Los Angeles Chargers and Iowa’s Noah Fant went with the twentieth pick in the first round to the Denver Broncos.

After Iowa had four draft picks this year – including two tight ends in the first round – if there was evern any question about whether Iowa-Nebraska is a rivalry, you can put that to bed.

(Also, for no really good reason other than to pour fuel on the fire, here’s a great article by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity explaining how Iowa could have two first-round tight ends and still end a season no. 92 nationally in yards per play and no. 79 in pass yards per play).

Still, the fact remains that recently Iowa has done a much better job of getting Hawkeyes into the NFL than Nebraska, even though Nebraska is recruiting better talent. Take a look at the comparison of the last six years’ worth of recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and NFL draft picks (the rounds of each pick are in parenthesees.

Year NU Recruiting NU Draft Picks UI Recruiting UI Draft Picks
2019 18 0 40 4 (1, 1, 4, 4)
2018 23 1 (6) 39 3 (2, 2, 4)
2017 23 1 (5) 41 4 (3, 4, 5, 5)
2016 26 4 (3, 3, 4, 6) 47 1 (7)
2015 30 3 (2, 2, 5) 59 3 (1, 3, 4)
2014 35 3 (2, 3, 6) 58 4 (3, 3, 4, 4)

Please, don’t start with the whole thing about how recruiting rankings don’t matter. You’re wrong. So if Nebraska has been an average of 21.5 recruiting ranking spots better than Iowa over the last six years, why are so many more Hawkeyes hearing their names being called by Roger Goodell (or an orangutan) at the NFL Draft?

Three words. Development, development, development.

Iowa has a formula of drafting kids that fit their scheme and their culture, developing and improving them, and sending them to the NFL. It’s been amazingly effective in helping Iowa overachieve what their recruiting rankings say it should achieve. Wisconsin follows the same model.

Nebraska has struggled mightily in development. Bo Pelini had his share of NFL success, but that tailed off towards the end of his tenure. And even for a dope who wrote a near-tear-stained goodbye to Mike Riley, it’s hard not to see Nebraska’s recent NFL drought (no first-rounder since 2011, no second-day draftee since 2015, only two total in three years) as an indictment on Riley’s tenure in Lincoln.

Nebraska’s NFL pipeline was already slowed to a trickle almost immediately after Riley arrived. And when Scott Frost and his coaching staff took over, they had difficulty hiding their shock and contempt at the state of Nebraska’s physical and mental conditioning.

So, Husker Fan, you can look at this two ways. First, it should be a cold splash of reality as to the state of the program. As fans, we convince ourselves that glory is always just around the corner, just about to fall into our grasp.

Having Nebraska’s NFL streak snapped should be a stark reminder that while NU may have the recruited talent to compete and in at least in the B1G West, the shocking lack of talent development means Nebraska still has a big hole out of which to climb.

The silver lining? Nebraska’s current coaching staff understand the importance of development, and has a track record of taking far less heralded talent and sending them to the NFL. That’s the hook you hang your hope on for 2019 and beyond.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Osborne’s Legacy as Athletic Director Defined by Big Ten Membership

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Earlier this week, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos announced that Fred Hoiberg would replace Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. For a long-suffering fanbase, Nebraska basketball fans were very excited, and Moos received a lot of praise for his hiring of Hoiberg and head football coach Scott Frost.

Of course, Moos deserves a lot of credit. In fourteen months, Moos has basically remade the face of Nebraska’s two most prominent revenue sports. And with that praise, inevitably there came some discussion about how Moos’ performance as athletic director compared to Tom Osborne. As summarized by a smart and particularly handsome analyst:

Initially I had thought that criticizing Osborne for anything amongst the Nebraska fanbase would be a dangerous proposition. But it turns out there is a contingent of the fanbase more than willing to question Osborne’s tenure at the helm of Nebraska athletics.

That tenure is, of course, open to criticism. It was Osborne’s decision to hire Bo Pelini as a replacement for Bill Callahan. Pelini ended up being a very divisive figure in the Nebraska fanbase, and was not able to deliver the success fans wanted in his seven-year tenure. Osborne also hired Tim Miles as head men’s basketball coach. Miles’ inability to deliver an NCAA tournament win in his seven-year tenure, combined with fans’ frustration about Osborne-hired head baseball coach Darin Erstad, has soured some on Osborne’s tenure as athletic director.

It’s fair comment. Osborne’s major hires as athletic director were certainly defensible at the time, but none have panned out. And coach hiring is one of the primary metrics you would ordinarily use to judge the success and legacy of an athletic director.

But notice the word “ordinary” there. Osborne was not Nebraska’s athletic director in ordinary times. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the summer of 2010. Nebraska was still in its unhappy marriage with the Big XII conference, but the problems were growing. Northern schools like Nebraska were always concerned about how the league tilted in favor of Texas, and the announcement of the Longhorn Network made those concerns even more stark.

Things really got serious, though, when rumors began to swirl that Texas was in conversation to take Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech to the then-Pac-10 conference. With Missouri already having flirted with the Big 10 and Colorado with the Pac-10, it seemed almost a certainty that the Big XII would not survive for long. And for a program like Nebraska, without a massive population base, being frozen out of a conference home was an existential threat.

It was Osborne that faced down that threat, along with then-university chancellor Harvey Perlman. Osborne and Perlman ultimately pulled off the biggest pre-emptive strike, convincing the Big Ten Conference to accept Nebraska as a member.

The move was, to say the least, contentious. Nebraska would be abandoning rivalries with its former Big 8 partners that had lasted for over a hundred years. It would be sailing into uncharted territory, having to be the new guy on the block and competing for attention with blue-blood programs like Michigan and Ohio State.

But in retrospect, the move has paid off. Indeed, the decision to move Nebraska into the Big Ten is the most important one in the history of the Nebraska athletic program. Doing so has all-but-guaranteed Nebraska’s ability to continue as a top-flight college athletic program for the indefinite future. It has funneled more money into the program’s coffers (to the tune of $37 million dollars for fiscal year 2018, according to USA Today).

The importance of that decision, though, can only be seen in imagining the counterfactual. Take, for example, Connecticut athletics. Sure, UConn and Nebraska don’t have the same history or national brand. But it’s not like UConn has no history – in basketball terms, UConn has been a blue-blood for a long time.

Before the conference realignments in the early 2000s, UConn was a founding member of the Big East conference, which was a premier college basketball conference and a member of the BCS. Big East membership for UConn guaranteed the Huskies a seat at the table as a major program in both NCAA revenue sports.

Then the Big East fell apart. Between 2011 and 2012, West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Notre Dame all left the conference for different homes. Seeing the danger, UConn tried but failed to get itself into the ACC. Trying to stay relevant in football – the all-important sport for revenue purposes – the remaining Big East school made a last-gasp grab and added Tulane.

But adding Tulane – and the travel to Louisiana that the addition would require – was enough for the Big East’s basketball-only schools (St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence, Marquette, DePaul, and Villanova) to break off and form a new conference. That left UConn truly without a home.

Now, UConn is competing in both football and basketball in the American Athletic Conference, a “non-power-five” conference. In addition to being all-but-frozen out of the College Football Playoff and being a “mid-major” in basketball, the move has had significant financial implications for UConn. The AAC’s television payout for 2016-17 was $74.47 million – compared with the Big Ten’s payout of $531 million for the same period, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

(A great breakdown of the Big East’s collapse can be found at SB Nation.)

Again, Nebraska isn’t UConn. But it’s not hard to imagine a dystopian future for Nebraska if Osborne wasn’t able to secure Big Ten membership. Imagine a world where Texas takes those four schools and Colorado to the Pac-10. Texas A&M and Missouri bolt for the SEC. And let’s imagine that Notre Dame rather than Nebraska becomes the Big Ten’s twelfth member.

Where would Nebraska be in that scenario? The remaining five teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, and Nebraska) would have been without a conference home and scrambling. While Nebraska would certainly be the most attractive of those remaining, it’s easy to see how NU could have ended up in the Mountain West with schools like Wyoming, or in a far-flung nationwide conference like Conference USA.

Either of those scenarios – which would be best-case scenarios without the Big Ten golden ticket – would put Nebraska athletics in a very similar circumstance to UConn’s current plight. It was Osborne’s leadership (along with Perlman and the rest of the Nebraska brass) that helped NU avoid disaster and protect its place amongst the elite of college athletics.

So criticize Osborne’s coach hires all you want. But solely on the basis of getting Nebraska into the Big Ten, Osborne deserves a statue for his tenure as Nebraska athletic director.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 31, Nebraska 28

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Nebraska’s 2018 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with Iowa kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Nebraska 31-28. Head coach Scott Frost’s squad made up a 28-13 deficit and tied the score, but wasn’t able to keep Iowa from getting into position to win the game at the end.

With the loss, Nebraska falls to 4-8 for the second straight season, and the third year without a bowl game. So as you prepare for another maddeningly-long offseason, let’s take a look back at this year’s Heroes Game.

THE GOOD

Culture change. In the last two games against Iowa, Nebraska did not respond well to Iowa’s challenge. In 2016, Nebraska entered the fourth quarter clinging to an ember of hope, down 26-10 but still within two scores. Iowa responded, though, by putting up fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points and notching an emphatic 40-10 win.

In 2017, hard as it is to remember, Nebraska and Iowa were tied 14-14 at the half. But a 28-0 explosion for Iowa in the third quarter left little doubt, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 56-14 romp in Lincoln.

This year, Iowa was pushing Nebraska around, with a gutsy fake field goal failing and leaving Nebraska within 15 points, down 28-13. This time, though, Nebraska didn’t fold. Instead, Nebraska reeled off 15 straight, tying the score and requiring Iowa to hit a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard a whole bunch about judging the season not by wins and losses but by a nebulous concept called “culture change.” Well, Nebraska’s response against Iowa this year, compared to the previous two, is hard evidence of just what that culture change looks like.

Record-breaker. It’s hard to fathom that wide receiver Stanley Morgan is going to end his Nebraska career playing on three teams with losing records. His accomplishments have been amazing, and against Iowa he cemented his place in Nebraska’s record books.

Last week, Morgan broke Kenny Bell’s school record for total receptions. This week, Morgan passed Bell for total receiving yards in a career and became Nebraska’s first (!) 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

With Frost’s upscale offense still being installed, it’s entirely possible that Morgan’s time on top of the leaderboard may be short-lived. But that should take nothing away from a guy whose career spanned three coaches and ended in excellence.

Rivalry accomplished. Personal foul flags away from the play were flying. Tempers were flaring and the two teams were on edge. Both coaches took risks that seemed otherwise unwarranted in an attempt to win the game.

I know, Husker Fan, that for some reason you’re not wanting to dive into the rivalry pool with Iowa. Well, Nebraska junior linebacker Mo Barry disagrees with you. So does this smart and particularly handsome analyst.

Guys, that’s what a rivalry game looks like. That’s what losing a rivalry game on a walk-off field goal feels like. Embrace it, Husker Fan.

THE BAD

Physicality. Iowa ended up running for 266 yards against Nebraska’s defense, and particularly in the first half looked like it could get six to eight yards at will. While Nebraska’s defense shored up some in the second half, throughout the game Iowa’s physical dominance was never far from the surface.

Don’t believe me? Ask Frost (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald):

“Iowa’s a bigger, stronger football team,” Frost said. “That’s right now. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger.”

Candid words from Nebraska’s head man, but that should also be read as a challenge to his own team as the offseason draws near.

Walkoff Woes. 2018 felt like a year where almost everything that could go wrong for Nebraska went wrong, particularly early in the season. Frost started the season talking about how things would get worse before they get better, and about a team hitting rock bottom and finding its way up.

And yet, Nebraska was the victim of two walk-off field goal losses. Flip those two razor-thin margins, and Nebraska – yes, this 2018 borderline-year-zero Nebraska – is 6-6 and going to a bowl game.

Sure, reaching bowl eligibility isn’t and shouldn’t be the benchmark of success for Nebraska (although this year might help an otherwise-rabid fanbase hold on to just a sliver of perspective about the game over the next few years). But it is a reflection of the work Frost and his staff have done to have this Nebraska team, with this level of changes that needed to be made, be that close to the postseason.

Missed Ya, JD. In a game of such fine margins, it’s hard not to wonder what Nebraska’s offense would have looked like with its most elusive playmaker, wide receiver JD Spielman. Walk-on receiver Kade Warner did an admirable job, with four receptions for 16 yards and the clutch two-point conversion reception to tie the game.

But Warner, many things that he is, ain’t Spielman. We’ll all be left wondering what that game would have looked like had it been Spielman on the field.

AND THE PERFECT ENDING

Nebraska’s contest against Iowa was in many ways the 2018 season in microcosm. It started dreadfully, with Iowa dominating Nebraska physically and pulling out to what seemed like an untouchable 15-point lead. Then, a combination of offensive wizardry and an improved defensive performance, Nebraska pulled itself back into the game. At the end though, Nebraska was left with no immediate payoff for its hard work, but with a strong belief that a firm foundation has been laid going forward.

Sure, a win over Nebraska’s rival to the east would have been a sweet way to cap off a sour season. But somehow this sendoff to 2018 seems to fit better. Now Nebraska will go into another long offseason knowing just how close it was – to a win over a rival, to a bowl game, to being the kind of team Frost envisioned – but that it isn’t there yet.

That feels like the kind of sour sendoff that will put a little extra fire into offseason work. Every Nebraska player coming back next year can feel like the difference between how 2018 turned out and a championship run might be an extra set of reps, an extra mile run, an extra hour of film each day.

It worked for Nebraska in 1994, when the team adopted an “Unfinished Business” motto after 1993’s disappointment. Obviously, the disappointment of 2018’s 4-8 campaign and 1993’s national title near-miss are two very different things.

But the motivational power of disappointment remains the same. So yeah, Husker Fan, that wasn’t a fun end to the season (particularly to those of us who experienced it in Hawkeye country).

However, if that disappointment ends up being the spark that lights the fire of a 2019 campaign, then it will all be worth it for you.

GBR, baby.