A wildly exciting Saturday night in Memorial Stadium tested everyone’s perspective on where Nebraska is as a program.
Is it the same old Nebraska, losing its 15th consecutive game to a rated opponent while falling to 5-16 in one-score games under Scott Frost? Or is it a retooling Husker program that’s on the verge of something big?
Are you thrilled beyond measure that Nebraska took a clear step forward and played an undefeated Top 10 team dead even through 58 minutes of action? Or are at your wits’ end that the Huskers let another victory slip through their fingers with more of the same — a turnover at the worst possible time?
One of the regulars in my inbox informed me that he turned off the game at halftime because “the football and refereeing were awful.” Buddy, you missed a heck of a second half. But then again, maybe he spared himself a lot of frustration. Depends on how you look at it. I guess he missed the pain, but he also missed the dance.
A 32-29 loss to Michigan was a huge missed opportunity for the Huskers, who could have shut up a lot of national commentators who have not-so-subtly suggested over the past 12 months that they don’t even deserve to be in the Big Ten, that Frost is on the hot seat, that he doesn’t have what it takes. There are more opportunities ahead; eventually you have to seize them and make them count.
I think that Nebraska has finally finished The Slide, the 20-year slow spiral downward that started with a 7-7 season in 2002. Although I prematurely forecast this last year, I think the Huskers have begun an upward movement, a climb that will become more evident by the end of this season. There’s no doubt the Huskers have missed a couple of opportunities to hit kill shots against undefeated Michigan State and Michigan to announce their arrival.
This was one of those opportunities. The Huskers are on the brink. That can be exhilarating, or it can be emotionally exhausting.
Is Nebraska cursed? When was the last time you saw a referee rule “simultaneous possession” on a fumble? I don’t recall that ever happening. If Nebraska recovers Michigan’s fumbled punt at the 9-yard line, the Huskers likely win the game. Then again, did you think you’d see Nebraska once-woeful special teams in position to recover a fumbled punt this season?
Is Martinez cursed? When’s the last time you saw a quarterback sneak for a first down, then fail to go down before the other team stripped the ball out of his hands? Martinez said after the game that he thought he was down and the play was over, but “regardless of that fact, I feel a lot of responsibility, and cannot make plays like that to hurt our team.” Is he the reason Frost is cursed in one-score games? You get a lot of excitement and frustration with Martinez, who continues to make a lot happen without many wins to show for it.
I don’t believe in football curses. Eventually, you just have to make plays that win games and sometimes you have to make them in the final minutes of the game. That’s something Martinez has not been able to do in his three-plus years as the starting quarterback, and it’s a stain on his record. He’s overdue to erase that stain.
Frost made it clear he’s 100 percent behind Martinez, and that won’t change. He also made it clear he’s gaining confidence in his team.
“Adrian’s a warrior. He played unbelievable,” Frost said. “I hurt for him. I told the boys, ‘Don’t hang your heads.’ We’ve got a really good team. I’m so proud of them. We’ve come so far. We’ll get there. I’m having a lot of fun coaching these guys this year. I give Michigan a lot of credit. They’re a good football team. So are we.”
Martinez led the Huskers back from a 13-point defecit after the first half went exactly the way Jim Harbaugh wanted it to go. He made it a magic second half.
However, the Huskers’ first drive of the game turned out to be critical. Michigan stopped NU on downs inside the 5-yard line as Frost’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 3-yard line backfired when the Wolverines stopped Martinez on an option play.
“Looking back, I was trying to win the game,” Frost said. “I wanted to keep the kids aggressive. I wanted to be aggressive.“
Frost has spent most of his time in Lincoln losing to teams that follow the Big Ten party line — play conservatively, avoid mistakes and capitalize on your opponent’s miscues. Will that style of football keep beating Frost? Or will Frost be able to unleash his offense on the Big Ten and outscore it with regularity? Sometimes I can see Frost and the Huskers taking slow, painful steps toward the day when “the Big Ten will have to adjust to us.” Last week’s rout of Northwestern was a real glimpse, and this painful loss to Michigan was another small step toward that day.
Credit Michigan for making more plays in the clutch than Nebraska. Credit the Wolverines for being better. They have better running backs, a better offensive line, a better defensive line and a better kicking game than the Big Red. But not as much better as most of the nation thought, even in the kicking game, where NU’s William Przystup is gaining momentum as a punter and the Husker kickoff coverage team has shown clear improvement.
I think Frost left his most talented running back, Jaquez Yant, on the sidelines for most of the game. Trailing 13-7 early in the third quarter, Frost clearly was frustrated when Yant botched a Husker drive by running the wrong way and colliding with Martinez on a second-and-2 that he should have converted. Instead, he gained only a yard and Rahmir Johnson was stopped on third-and-1. The Huskers were forced to punt Michigan drove the field to take a 19-7 lead. Right now, Johnson has Frost’s confidence. If and when Yant gains it, Nebraska will vault ahead as a program.