Stoltenberg, Husker Seniors, Setting Stage
Scott Frost left the field at Memorial Stadium and headed to the Nebraska locker room, prepared to address his team as he does after every football game.
Only this time, Frost waited until senior captain Mick Stoltenberg had finished talking to the Huskers following their 54-35 victory over Illinois on a bitter cold Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Frost, in his first season as Nebraska’s head football coach, listened as Stoltenberg, who’d intercepted a pass on Illinois’ final possession, talked to the team about finishing the final two games of the season in the right manner, and where the younger players can take this program after Stoltenberg and a crew of other seniors leave.
Senior receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. let out a cheer upon hearing those words, Frost said.
“The young guys want to see the old guys succeed on the way out, and the old guys are excited about where the young guys are going to take this,” Frost said. “That shows you what type of team it’s becoming.”
What’s even more, hearing Stoltenberg address the team before the head coach did reminded Frost of the days of Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter taking ownership of the team. That, more than any rushing yard, any turnover, any big passing play in Saturday’s game -- and there were plenty of those -- showed Frost how far this team has come in recent months.
Yeah, sure, Frost still talked to his team.
“But,” he said, “I felt like I didn’t need to, because Mick said everything that needed to be said.”
And that says everything.
“The team is starting to care about each other, they’re starting to care about the little things and see how the little things lead to the big things,” Frost said. “As a coaching staff, we’ve been preaching all year. It just wasn’t going to happen overnight. Until we got some of those things right, we weren’t going to put ourselves in positions to win games, and even when we did, it was going to be tough to win the close ones.”
Stoltenberg, a Nebraska native, told his teammates how proud he was in the way they’d been practicing in recent weeks.
“They really have practiced harder,” Stoltenberg said. “I know you guys hear that all the time. It might sound like clichés and coach-speak and what not, but the sense of urgency really has been heightened.”
Nebraska began the season with six straight losses. Now, the Huskers (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten) have won three of four, the lone loss by five points at No. 8 Ohio State. They’ve won three straight home games.
Next Saturday is Senior Day, against Michigan State, before Nebraska closes the season at border rival Iowa.
“I think we can continue to keep this rolling, and then carry some momentum into the offseason,” Stoltenberg said. “I don’t think anyone is going to take their foot off the gas. I think they’ll continue to push the gas down and practice hard.”
After all, that’s been the not-so-secret formula to Nebraska’s recent success. Yeah, Frost realizes most of you roll your eyes nowadays when he repeatedly says Monday’s practice was the best yet, or how the team had its best week of the season, overall.
But, doggone it, it’s been true, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
“Our focus is better, our attention to detail is better,” Frost said. “That’s going to lead to good things.”
Like seven straight games with at least 450 yards of total offense, which the Huskers had never before accomplished in program history. They produced 606 yards on Saturday, after being stuck on 599, until Stoltenberg’s interception in the final minute allowed Nebraska to run one more play.
“I saw the ball was kind of a duck, I guess,” Stoltenberg said of his first career interception, and the second by an interior defensive lineman in the past three games. “It was a pretty slow ball. I tried to high-point the ball as high as I could jump, which isn’t very high, and I think I came down with it, so that’s awesome.”
Or like forcing five turnovers, giving Nebraska three straight games with at least three forced turnovers. Two of them came on punt returns, after Illinois thought it had stopped a Nebraska possession, only to send its defense back on the field. On those two turnovers alone, the Huskers produced 10 points.
“We got some good breaks today,” Frost said. “We were probably due some good breaks, but they made a couple mistakes and got us in good situations. You can’t take advantage of those if you’re not doing the right thing and are aware of where the ball is, and it was our turn to get some plays.”
Or like freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez being unsatisfied with a 24-of-34 passing performance for 290 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 55 yards.
“There’s not going to be anybody better than him once he gets as good as he can be,” Frost said. “He’s so fun to be on a team with, because he was disappointed today that he didn’t play better.
“I don’t think he’s ever going to be happy until he plays a perfect game, which is never going to happen, so he’s going to be hungry.”
Senior running back Devine Ozigbo also produced his two longest runs from scrimmage in his career, en route to 162 rushing yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
“I think it is tough for teams to get used to what we are doing,” Ozigbo said. “I think we have so many weapons and so many ball fakes and just a bunch of ball movement that is hard to target.
“It is hard to understand everything that is going on at once. That confusion, and add in our tempo, I think it is just hard. Teams just have to give us a drive so that they can settle in. I think that is definitely helping us out.”
Ozigbo is another senior who’s preparing for his final home game next week, against Michigan State.
No, this class didn’t win a Big Ten title, or a major bowl game. But part of Stoltenberg’s message postgame was how the class can be the one that set an example, that changed the culture, and turned momentum in a positive direction.
“We’ve said it multiple times,” Stoltenberg said of the seniors, “we haven’t accomplished what we wanted to accomplish when we got here. We were never able to win a big one, or do anything like that, but what we do hang our hats on is on the fact that we can leave an impact on these younger guys.”
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