Progress for the Nebraska football team is being measured in baby steps. And it’s excruciating. Early on in the season, the Huskers couldn’t get Game 1 in. Then the Huskers had trouble scoring. Then they couldn’t get a lead. Then they weren’t able to hold a lead. And, on Saturday, they still couldn’t win. And what’s worse, they had it. Nebraska won that game. But they didn’t. Instead, the Huskers continued to find every which way to lose. Confused? Irritated? Sad for the players and program? Sick to your stomach? Yeah, me, too.
I’ve pretty much thrown out all of the cliches this year, so one more won’t hurt. Against Northwestern, Nebraska took a big step forward, only to tumble two huge steps back. In a game that Nebraska controlled, it completely flopped in the fourth quarter. And overtime? No chance. There’s not a winning mentality in sight.
Northwestern wasn’t any better than Nebraska, and that’s what makes me sick about losing a game like that. Pat Fitzgerald made just as many dumb coaching decisions as Scott Frost. Nebraska gave it away, continuing to shoot itself in both feet. The little things matter: penalties at the worst time, bad snaps, horrible short-yardage plays on offense and the inability to stop the opponent on long third and fourth downs.
You might ask yourself, is this the true reset? Think about what has happened — Solich to Callahan to Pelini to Riley to Frost. There have been some dark moments in Husker history in some of those years. Different leadership, no leadership, drastic styles of coaching and schemes, but there was always some success (and I use that term loosely in most cases). However, with all of those changes, at some point, the dam breaks and the foundation is washed away. An 0-6 season, and the way it’s happened so far, sure as heck is telling me that this just might be THE reset. And, you know what, that’s OK. If the foundation for the once-proud Husker program needs to be built once again from scratch, then let a former Nebraska national championship quarterback give all he has for this program and the chance to build something prideful. Frost knows what it takes, and he’ll do everything in his power to make that happen.
No one expected the season to go this way. It’s a failure in the win/loss column, there’s no doubt, but this staff will have the attitude, perseverance and the time to create a winning environment and culture in the near future.
Just hurry up, please.
The mental edge
Nebraska was up by 14 points in the fourth quarter, but that was way too much time left for a team that doesn’t know how to finish. And, sure enough, without that winning mentality, even a 10-point lead with five minutes left wasn’t enough. It was painful to watch a win slip through the fingers. At one point, Nebraska had a 98.7 percent win probability, according to an ESPN game tracker. It’s really hard to blow a 14-point lead late in the fourth, but NU did. Finish, finish, finish. Can’t look decent for the majority of the game, then crawl into a shell and still expect to win.
Sixty-four passing attempts. Clayton Thorson dropped back to pass a ridiculous number of times last Saturday. Two things make me angry here. One, there was no way that the offensive line didn’t get called for holding during any of those 64 passing attempts. I don’t care if Northwestern is the lowest-penalized team in the nation, but that’s just not possible.
The second is how Nebraska had the Wildcats completely one-dimensional. As a defense, this is the best thing that could happen. But, as it played out, the Husker defense could not stop the passing attack, especially in the fourth quarter, even when it knew the pass was coming. That is so frustrating.
One reason for Thorson’s success was the lack of pass rushers on Nebraska’s defense. There’s no Grant Wistrom, no Randy Gregory. Right now there isn’t anyone with half that ability. So there’s the Catch-22. When Nebraska blitzed, it couldn’t get to the quarterback fast enough and got burned for big plays and touchdowns. And when it played coverage, rushing only three or four defenders, Thorson had all day to throw because of the lack of someone getting any push. So what do you do? Creativity didn’t work late in the game, and base coverage didn’t, either. Someone has to make plays. Just one play could’ve won the game.
I mean, come on. You’re really going to let a team go 99 yards with just over a minute left and no timeouts and then score a touchdown to tie? It can’t get worse than that. Totally inexcusable.
Nebraska ended up with eight penalties. Until the fourth quarter, it was a real improvement. But when it became crunch time, the yellow was making a comeback.
You can blame it on mental mistakes, as well as physical. Some ticky-tack flags were thrown, too. Nebraska just isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt, ever.
However, a team captain simply can’t be called for a false start before the first snap of the game. That’s awful and lack of focus.
Let’s not forget, Frost is early on in his head coaching tenure. He’s going to make mistakes, and obviously hindsight is 20/20. He’s still learning about the players he can really trust. I think that trust — or lack thereof — has come up glaringly in the third- and fourth-down conversion attempts on offense. Nebraska is 1-10 for season on fourth downs. That is embarrassing, especially with the high totals gained on the ground this season. Again, that’s a mentality in getting that short yardage needed and trust in the play call.
The trust factor also came up in the late-game decision to kick a field goal or go for it on fourth down. The kicker had a rough day, but points are at a premium, too.
Field goal kicker
We’ve talked about it before. Nebraska fans have been spoiled by clutch kicking for more than 10 years now. Probably even more, to be honest. This year, as everything else, it’s taken a big dive. Knocking that field goal in and making an extra point should be automatic. You have one job.
As much-maligned Lamar Jackson had arguably his best game by allowing only one completion on seven targets, senior safety Aaron Williams was burned for 10 completions on 10 targets. He’s continually battling injuries, but that was brutal. Also, top cornerback Dicaprio Bootle struggled. If he could ever turn his head a second earlier, he might have multiple interceptions this season.
Making matters worse, it was the Northwestern receiving corps that put up huge numbers. Northwestern. Ugh.
I still don’t know how teams are able to convert such long third- and fourth-down situations? OK, well, pass rush and lack of elite playmakers have something to do with it, but I digress. Opponents should never punt. I’m being serious. Nebraska hasn’t shown the ability to get a team off the field at a consistent rate. And to use fourth down as a regular down instead of punting? Go for it. Two crucial fourth-and-10 plays for Northwestern were a piece of cake. I’ve never seen anything like it.