The breakthrough victory was sitting there. All Nebraska had to do was take it.
Up 31-21 on Northwestern with 5:41 left in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers were poised to give Scott Frost his first win as Nebraska’s coach.
If they could stop Northwestern one more time. If they could gain one more first down after the Wildcats kicked a field goal. And if they could not surrender passes for 32- and 27-yard gains by Northwestern on the tying touchdown drive.
“If ‘if’ was a fifth,” former Husker Jay Foreman reasoned, “we’d all be walking around stumbling.”
No, instead of toasting a long-sought victory, Foreman and the Huskers faithful endured Northwestern completing that 10-point rally in Evanston, Ill., last Saturday and then kicking a field goal in overtime to beat Nebraska 34-31. The loss left the Huskers 0-6 in Frost’s first year as coach and stretched their losing streak to 10 games.
“There’s nobody pushing the panic button, but we’re at a place that nobody would have envisioned we would be even in Year One,” said Foreman, an Eden Prairie native and former national-title winning linebacker for the Huskers who now works as a radio pregame and postgame analyst in Lincoln.
Not even Frost, the quarterback on Nebraska’s last national championship team in 1997, would expect the Huskers to be where they are in this rebuilding year. He’s seen incremental improvement, but, “it breaks my heart for these guys that it hasn’t led to a slash in the win column yet,” Frost said.
Nebraska’s next chance to get that elusive win comes Saturday at Memorial Stadium with a visit from the Gophers (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten), who are trying to end their own skid. The winner will avoid a spot as sole resident of the Big Ten West Division’s basement.
“Ready to give them what they long for,” Huskers linebacker Mohamed Barry said of his team’s fans. “And that’s the first win of the season.”
Frost, a 43-year-old Wood River, Neb., native, returned to Nebraska after rebuilding a Central Florida program from an 0-12 disaster to a 13-0 juggernaut and Peach Bowl champion in only two years. He was hailed as a conquering hero in Nebraska, a native son returning home to take the job that never seemed to fit predecessors Mike Riley, Bo Pelini and Bill Callahan quite right.
“With Scott, when he talks about what he wants to do, there’s a clear plan,” Foreman said of his former teammate. “He wants to build something here, and he wants to be here long-term. None of the coaches we had prior, after Frank Solich, you knew they didn’t want to be here long-term.”
Hiring a coach, no matter how popular, doesn’t guarantee overnight success. The season started on a sour note, when the opener against Akron at Memorial Stadium was canceled because of a thunderstorm. The Huskers lost 33-28 to Colorado the following week, then were upset 24-19 at home by Troy. After enduring a 56-10 rout at Michigan, Nebraska fell 42-28 at Purdue and 41-24 at Wisconsin.
Defense and turnovers have been the main culprits for the Huskers. They’re allowing 38.3 points per game (last in the Big Ten) and 445.8 yards (13th). Their turnover margin of minus-7 ranks 13th, and they’ve given up the ball 13 times. In addition, they’re averaging 10.2 penalties, worst in the conference.
“We shot ourselves in the foot more times than we have toes,” Foreman said.
Added Frost: “We make one more play [against Northwestern] and this story is how Nebraska looks different and did we turn the corner. Instead the story is epic collapse and worst record ever.”
Much to build on
For all the mistakes the Huskers have made, they’ve adapted quickly to Frost’s up-tempo offense. Behind true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, Nebraska is averaging 440.5 yards per game (fifth in the Big Ten). The Huskers’ scoring average of 23.3 points per game reflects those turnovers and penalties, but the Huskers have improved. Having weapons like receivers JD Spielman (40 receptions, 537 yards, six TDs) and Stanley Morgan Jr. (27-393-1) helps, too.
“He has proven what he can do with a football team, and you can see his stamp all over that team,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of Frost. “There are a lot more wins on those films. If you don’t look at the score at the end of the game, you think they are 4-2.”
Frost sees things turning, even if the record doesn’t show it.
“For the last three weeks, I wish people could see inside the walls and see how good the culture is right now,” he said. “… They haven’t won in a while. We need to get over that hurdle as a group.’’