So this is how the 2021 season ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper ... and a one-score loss.
Another sequel in the same movie franchise we've seen all year. A tough defense that is strongest when it counts. An offense that is weakest when it counts. Special teams that are the equivalent of a toddler with a loaded handgun.
A butterfly flaps its wings and a single snowflake becomes an avalanche. Fans, coaches, and players wear a look that is part deer in headlights and part "Groundhog Day".
Defeat is once against grasped from the jaws of victory. Husker fans retreat back to their camps to debate what it will take for Sisyphus to finally push the boulder to the top of the mountain. Lather, rinse, and we'll see you in Dublin next August.
No amount of polish can turn this turd of a season into something shiny and good. In 132 years of Nebraska football, only Bill Jennings lost nine games in a season - until 2021. Nebraska has only five seasons with eight or more losses. Scott Frost owns two of those seasons. Losing nine games - no matter the margin - is not progress.
This team - especially the super seniors who came back - deserved more. The fans deserved more.
We're told that help and improvement is around the corner (and in the transfer portal). For all of our sake, I hope that is true.
Things I believe
Maybe Adrian Martinez wasn't the issue after all. Remember those criticisms of Adrian Martinez? His stats were empty calories put up early in games. He always screwed up in the biggest situations. Can't finish a comeback drive because he's not "clutch". And on and on and on.
Let's take a look at the first start of the (presumed) post-Martinez era: Had some good drives early in the game. Fumbled twice, and lost one. Took an inexcusable safety. Started a comeback drive, but threw a horrible interception to end the game.
I don't say this to denigrate Logan Smothers, who overall did good in his first career start. It is probably unrealistic to expect the backup quarterback who has not played very much to perform at the level of a four-year starter.
But maybe Nebraska's offensive issues - including quarterback play that falls apart in big moments - are bigger than the guy who has been a scapegoat for four years.
The Northwestern game is a statistical anomaly. Have you seen the posts/tweets about how Nebraska scored the same number of points as they allowed, yet ended up with a 3-9 record? Or the one that shows how highly Nebraska finished in the Big Ten offensive stats (4th in scoring, 3rd in total offense), even though they were 3-9?
On the surface, they defy explanation. How could a nine-loss team score as many points as it gave up? Surely a team that won so few games would be at the bottom of the league offensively, right?
I can explain it in one word:
Remember the Northwestern game back in October? It was a beautiful, old-school blowout. It was also an extreme outlier. In the Olympics, that score would be dropped from judging, so let's do that here as well.
Take the Northwestern stats out of Nebraska's averages against Big Ten teams. Now, compare the results from the Northwestern game to those adjusted averages. In the Northwestern game, Nebraska:
- Scored 33 more points than their average against the rest of the conference.
- Had 8 more first downs than average.
- Ran for a whopping 290 yards above their adjusted conference average.
- Had zero turnovers (they averaged 1.8 turnovers per game in the other B1G contests)
- Gave up zero sacks (2.9 sacks per game in the other eight Big ten games)
Without the Wildcat whooping, Nebraska's overall points per game average drops from 27.9 (fourth place) to 25.4 (tenth place). The total offense drops from 447.6 yards a game (third place) to 428.5 (fifth place).
In 2022, "close" won't cut it. Close. No other word can possibly define the 2021 season more than "close". Nebraska was realistically close to beating multiple ranked teams. They also had some close losses (Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois) that were not as competitive as the final one-score margin would indicate.
Regardless, that sense of being close to a momentum-flipping breakthrough has been a central theme in what Scott Frost has been saying throughout his tenure at Nebraska. It is arguably why Trev Alberts chose to bring Frost back for a fifth year despite losing seasons in his first four tries.
But the "we're so close" excuse ends today.
In 2022, Nebraska Football - and its head coach - should be judged on wins and losses. Period. I don't care if the Huskers win 3-2, 66-65, or anywhere in between. I don't care if the Big Ten referees openly root for Nebraska's opponents during games. Just win. Win more games than you lose.
At the top, I mentioned Sisyphus, a character in Greek mythology who is forced to roll a boulder uphill, never able to reach the summit. 2022 needs to be the year Frost gets the boulder over the hill - or he’s going to get crushed by it.
Successful teams - and successful coaches - find a way to win. It is time for Nebraska and Scott Frost to do the same. I suspect he would agree.
Things I don't know
How many players will not return? The HuskerMax Decision Tracker page lists all of the Huskers who exhausted their eligibility, juniors with a decision to make, and/or walked on Senior Day. So far, we know of four juniors who have said they are not returning (Austin Allen, Matt Sichterman, Cam Taylor-Britt, and Deontre Thomas), leaving 14 unknowns. The page also tracks portal additions and subtractions.
Which potential super seniors will opt out? Who else ends up in the portal? Between freshmen who never got a chance, guys buried on the depth chart, offensive players whose position coach was fired, or players looking for a change of scenery (or a bowl trip) there could be several.
Let's be clear: not every roster defection should be taken as a referendum on Frost or the Nebraska program. Every program will have guys in the portal, and every situation is different.
But it wouldn't shock me if Nebraska's number is higher than their Big Ten peers - especially those in the West.
Who is the starting quarterback next August in Ireland? With no disrespect toward Matt Masker or incoming freshman Richard Torres, I see four possible options (listed alphabetically):
- Heinrich Haarberg. The true freshman from Kearney Catholic did not appear in a game. Three other Huskers will remaining eligibility played ahead of him.
- Adrian Martinez. His status is currently unknown, but he does have remaining eligibility, extensive experience, and the longtime support of the head coach.
- Logan Smothers. Had three strong quarters in his first start, and a forgettable fourth quarter.
- Unknown Transfer Portal QB. Frost and his new offensive coordinator are likely to do some shopping on the portal, especially if Martinez does not return or the new OC's scheme does not match the talent on the roster.
Who gets the first snap? Making the assumption that Martinez decides to leave NU, I would pick Smothers based solely on being the #2 QB all year long. But if the new OC decides to tweak (or dramatically alter) the identity of the offense, all bets are off.
What drama awaits Nebraska in the offseason? If there has been one constant in the last 20 years of Nebraska football, it has been drama.
This past offseason featured Nebraska getting caught bailing on the Oklahoma game, the face of program transferring, Bill Moos "retiring", and word of NCAA investigations for improper use of analysts and holding extra practices. There are probably a few other things I'm forgetting.
What will it be? I don't put a lot of stock in things I hear on the Husker rumor mill, so I won't speculate on any of the juicy gossip your brother-in-law's neighbor who works at UNL heard at the water cooler.
For the sake of making a wild prediction, let's say one of the newly hired assistant coaches never coaches a game here because he takes a job on a different staff. Whatever happens between now and August will probably make this look boring.
5 things I loved
- Nebraska fans. Memorial Stadium was rather full on Friday - and it didn't seem like there were as many Iowa fans as there have been in years past. Let's be honest: It takes a special kind of dedication to come back week after week and root out on a team that isn't very good. To the fans - in the stadium and elsewhere - who never quit on this team, I salute you. We deserve better than what we got in 2021. Someday, our loyalty will be rewarded.
- Caleb Tannor. Tannor finished his breakout junior season on a high note with two pass breakups (including a near interception) and three tackles. I'm excited to see if he can take it to the next level for his senior season.
- Luke Reimer and Nick Henrich. The inside linebackers were standouts on a defense that kept the team in every close game. Henrich led the team in tackles on Friday (8 total), while Reimer forced two fumbles and made seven tackles of his own.
- Austin Allen. Allen set single season records for receptions and yards. Despite that, I guarantee we're going to look back on his career and wonder why he was not utilized more.
- Logan Smothers. Completed 73% of his passes, had over 250 yards of total offense, and accounted for two touchdowns. That's not too shabby for a first start - especially against a good defense.
Honorable mention: Phelan Sanford's open-field tackle, Jaquez Yant's majestic touchdown dive, Brendan Franke's leg, 52 degree temps on Black Friday.
5 areas for improvement
- Special Teams. I encourage you to pour a stiff drink and read this detailed breakdown of what went wrong on the blocked punt. Zero return yards. Fair catching a punt at the 7 yard line led to the safety. Status quo on special teams will not work in 2022.
- Playing to win. With 27 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, Iowa kicked a field goal to cut the score to 21-9. From that point until Iowa took the lead, Nebraska ran 12 plays, gaining a net of 28 yards. That's bad enough until you realize that Nebraska had a 28-yard pass to Austin Allen in that stretch, meaning Nebraska ran 11 plays that produced a net of ZERO yards. The Huskers punted twice (one blocked for a touchdown), fumbled twice (losing one), gave up a safety, and allowed 19 straight points in under 13 minutes. As Twitter user @roljamas paraphrased the infamous Scott Frost quote: "No fear of failure? No, fear of failure!"
- Running Backs. 17 carries for 65 yards (3.8 yards per carry) will not get it done against a ranked team. Here's hoping a healthy room (and possibly some better coaching) will lead to running back production Husker fans are accustomed to seeing.
- Run defense. I wonder how the game would have played out if Iowa had chosen to keep running it at Nebraska instead of trying to be balanced. It sure felt like the Hawkeyes could get 8 yards a carry anytime they wanted it. The absences of Damion Daniels and JoJo Domann were evident.
- The previous play is under further review. The Iowa game had lengthy delays for reviews of a) a touchdown pass that clearly hit the ground, b) a targeting call where the defender never hit the opponent's helmet, c) a clear catch that was overturned, and d) a clearly incomplete pass that was overturned. It will never happen, but I'd love it if they would show the ref's video feed on the big screens so we can attempt to see what he sees.