Heartbreak Aside, Huskers Show Encouraging Signs
Let’s make this much perfectly clear: Nebraska has destroyed the mold responsible for last season’s eight losses.
So there’s no sense in rolling your eyes and thinking “same old” after the Huskers’ 33-28 season-opening loss to Colorado on Saturday, the first game of the Scott Frost era.
Despite the disappointing result, this isn’t the same team we last saw when Iowa trampled Nebraska here last November.
Far from it.
Also far is Nebraska from returning to where Frost want its – to championship-level status. Yet the encouraging signs far outweighed the negatives before consecutive sellout No. 362 at Memorial Stadium.
Well, just ask former Blackshirt Josh Mitchell, who took to Twitter to express his confidence in Nebraska despite this defeat.
Man that’s the first time I’ve felt alive for Husker football since I played there..The Frost Era is real...Idk how y’all do this fan stuff, man I was sweating bullets— Josh Mitchell (@J_Mitch05) September 8, 2018
Yeah, many folks were sweating, including the coach and former player whose job since December has been to change the culture and instill a positive, winning attitude.
“I told the team I’m proud of them,” Frost said in his postgame news conference. “I’m broken hearted for them, but I’m proud of them.”
Frost, at times, beamed at the defense, which reminded him of the Blackshirts he knew, what with seven sacks among 14 tackles for loss. (Nebraska by the way, had 14 sacks all of last season.)
Oh, and speaking of last season’s defense, remember the gaping holes that allowed opposing running backs to gain yards in chunks? Colorado gained a modest 99 rushing yards, and thanks to sacks, finished with 44.
The offense? Adrian Martinez, the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback in school history, impressed in his debut. He ran 15 times for 117 yards, including a 41-yard burst for a touchdown in the first quarter. He was 15-of-20 passing for 187 yards, including a perfect 57-yard spiral dropped into the hands of JD Spielman for a touchdown.
Martinez showed playmaking ability and composure – he led Nebraska from a 14-0 deficit to a 21-14 lead – two traits that allowed him to win the starting quarterback job. But he also left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury, one Frost would only say was “semi-encouraging” pending more looks from doctors.
Nebraska’s back-up quarterback, walk-on Andrew Bunch, also performed admirably, leading the Huskers from their 36-yard line to the CU 20 in the final 1:03. But his short Hail Mary pass as time expired fell incomplete, putting a damper on a long-awaited season opener.
Nebraska’s game last week against Akron was canceled because of weather, meaning this game, against a former conference rival, a Power 5 Conference opponent, marked the Huskers’ “work-out-the-kinks” game.
And kinks, there were.
Nebraska lost fumbles on its first two possessions – one after the Huskers had driven deep into CU territory, the other deep in Nebraska territory – and the Buffaloes turned both into touchdowns.
“When you’re trying to go from an average team to a great team,” Frost said, “you don’t beat yourself, and spotting them 14 points is a good way to get beat; not getting any fourth-and-shorts is a good way to get beat. Giving up third-and-19s and third-and-15s is a good way to get beat.”
Yeah, there’s more.
“Getting holding calls while you’re trying to run out the clock is a good way to get beat. Getting penalties on third-and-25 when they’re trying to score the last, winning score is a good way to get beat.
“We can’t beat ourselves. We’ve got to learn those lessons. We’ve tried preaching them to them a lot. If this team didn’t beat itself today, we would have won that game.”
Colorado took advantage of a 15-yard penalty after a failed third-and-long play that kept its game-winning drive alive. Quarterback Steven Montez threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to a well-covered Lavis Shenault for the go-ahead points.
Nebraska couldn’t overcome that score the same way it did the two early turnovers and CU touchdowns.
A 14-0 hole last year, linebacker Luke Gifford, admitted, would have spelled doom.
So why didn’t game this snowball like recent past games when Nebraska faced adversity and a deficit?
“For it to snowball you have to be a bad team, you have to have bad leadership and you have to not be believing in yourself,” senior captain and offensive lineman Jerald Foster said. “I believe that we all believe that we’re a good football team.
“Again, I keep saying it, I’ll reiterate myself all day if I have to, but you can look at the stats and see that we are a good football team. I’ll stand behind all these guys, every last one of them. They played their game.”
Indeed, Nebraska ran two fewer plays than Colorado but outgained the Buffs by 160 yards. The manner and regularity in which the defense harassed and sacked Montez evoked images of the Blackshirts of old. Running backs Greg Bell, Devine Ozigbo and Maurice Washington provided a huge spark to a rushing game that, by comparison last year, was abysmal.
Nebraska rushed for 329 yards, its highest total in four years. The Huskers had two runs longer than 40 yards – which marked last season’s longest running play. The 54 rushing attempts were seven more than last year’s high, against Rutgers.
But the mistakes – whether any of the 11 penalties, or three lost fumbles, or dropped passes in critical moments – cost Nebraska dearly. Some are the types of first-game mistakes the Huskers wished they could have worked through last week.
“I’d never make an excuse, but having a game last week certainly, probably would’ve helped the way we came out and played,” Frost said. “It is what it is; those were the cards dealt to us.”
For three quarters, Frost said he was having as much fun coaching as he’s ever had, although that was all wiped out in a loss, encouraging signs and all.
“This is no moral victory, by any means,” said Gifford, who had 11 tackles, including three for loss. “We expect to win every game we play, and especially in our house. It’s unacceptable; we can’t have it, we cannot lose here.”
Foster is convinced there’s something special about this team.
“This team, if you know football, you can see that this team has a lot that we can do better,” Forster said. “We have a whole lot of hope that’s going to show up in the next game. It’s going to show up throughout this season, so if you’re a team that doesn’t want to count us in it, if you’re thinking that off of this one game is going to be the way this season is going, then you’re going to be wrong.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.