It’s going to be another long Thanksgiving weekend for the Nebraska faithful.
For the second consecutive year, an Iowa kicker ended a promising Nebraska comeback with a last-second field goal, ending Nebraska’s dreams of spending Christmas in Detroit in heartbreaking fashion.
There will be more blame than side dishes passed around Husker tables this weekend, and that’s rightfully fair.
But in thinking about why Nebraska was unable to get over the hump in a must-win game against No. 17 Iowa, a response that former Nebraska basketball and current Dallas Maverick standout Isaiah Roby gave me in an interview last year comes to mind.
In the corner of the stacks in Love Library, I was interviewing Roby over the phone for a feature about the junior who went on to be drafted 45th overall the following summer. I asked him about his takeaways from having their postseason dreams dashed just short of the NCAA Tournament with a loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, but he opted to focus on other losses that hurt the team’s resume more than losing to the eventual national runner-up did.
As Nebraska football now has nine months to mull over another burnout on Black Friday, the 2019 team’s fate was sealed much prior to the moment Duncan blew kisses to Scott Frost.
When a college football team finishes 5-7, that means there were likely numerous missed opportunities throughout the season. That surely was the case for year two of the Frost era, which ended with four losses by one score.
Frost deserves a lot of blame for Friday’s loss, as he does for most of Nebraska’s seven losses this year. He lamented playing it safe by not having sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez throw the ball in the overtime period of the Colorado loss, and appeared to correct his thought process by going for a game-breaking drive nearing halftime of the following week’s game.
Yet when Nebraska faced second-and 20 from its own 34-yard line, Frost opted to play it safe and hope for overtime instead. His quarterback didn’t get the abrupt mentality change, and ran out of bounds to try and continue the drive.
Frost admitted his mistake in not letting Martinez try to win the game with his arm in Boulder, yet on the final offensive drive of the season, not one pass was thrown.
Local radio stations will likely get a nauseating amount of calls throughout the offseason complaining about the incredulous amount of laterals and swing-passes called by Frost in the first half, but there was sound logic to his madness.
To put it bluntly, what seems to have a better chance for success: running and throwing the ball repeatedly into a front seven that features multiple future NFL players, or trying your luck in matchups on the perimeter with Iowa’s younger secondary?
Trying to run the offense off of perimeter plays, especially in the first half, was the smart move. A large reason why Nebraska had so much success grounding and pounding the Hawkeyes in the second half was because the team wasn’t gassed from doing it the entire first half.
But when receivers whiff their blocking assignments and the skill players catching the passes are not quite the athletes that freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and sophomore Maurice Washington are, an eternity spent in second-and-14 is what happens.
When reviewing the season by position group, the lack of execution by most of Nebraska’s wide receivers both on and away from the ball will be one of the primary reasons Frost will spend another Christmas at home, something he said back in March that he hoped wouldn’t happen again for a long time.
Albeit there were health issues, the group routinely failed to execute the basic fundamentals of getting open or blocking and hurt Nebraska in nearly all of its close losses this year. It was fitting that a (highly questionable) blindside block penalty by a seldom thrown-to receiver stalled Nebraska’s game-winning drive on Friday.
One area that will likely get over-criticized over the offseason will be the defense. Friday’s game was the perfect encapsulation of their season. Both of Iowa’s two rushing touchdowns came on long runs with hardly any defenders in the picture. When that happens, it’s usually a result of scheme instead of skill.
But for most of the final three quarters, Erik Chinander’s unit dominated Iowa’s offense, an encouraging sign for the future. Something I paid close attention to throughout this season was the battle in the trenches. While the lack of pass rush hurt the unit all season, the defensive line was rarely getting pushed downhill the way it had been over the previous two seasons.
And of course it was the combination of no pass rush mixed with poor secondary play that led Iowa to victory on the final drive. Note how none of Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley’s pass attempts on the final drive were thrown Lamar Jackson’s way.
For all of the talk about the struggles that Nebraska’s 2019 senior class had, Friday was yet another example of the rest of the team letting them down.
The history books may be kinder to the 2019 Nebraska football team than the current fans and media will be. In year two under Frost, the Huskers managed to go from five one-score losses (and one one-score win) in a 4-8 season to four one-score losses (and two one-score wins) in a 5-7 season. From a 17-point loss to Wisconsin to a 16-point one.
It would have been nice and heartwarming, really, to see Nebraska salvage its season with a comeback win over Iowa. Especially if it ended with a game-winning field goal by a kicker who wasn’t on the team going into the season and had already made the longest kick of the season for the Huskers earlier in the game.
But instead, Nebraska got dealt one more painful dose of truth and reality in the final seconds of what has always been a lost season. Happy endings are nice, but honest humblings can be more beneficial in the long run.
Iowa’s kicker likely should have been penalized for shushing Frost and the Nebraska sideline after his game-winner. It was classless and something he will probably regret in the future, but it was a perfect segue for another long offseason in Lincoln.
One that will likely be a lot quieter than the first two of the Frost era.