It consumed Memorial Stadium during the closing minutes of Indiana’s well-deserved 38-31 victory at Nebraska.
Little could be heard from the stands after the Hoosiers sealed the game with a first down, other than faint cheers from the visitor’s section.
Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was visibly sweating on the sideline, but silent nonetheless as his stepson JD Spielman tried to will the Huskers back into the game late.
Adrian Martinez exchanged pleasantries with several players following the game, then put his helmet back on so no one could see his frustration as he jogged back to the locker room alone. Senior captain Mohamed Barry had an identical look as he quietly walked away alone as well.
Scott Frost walked solemnly off of the field, with no words of encouragement nor insults hurled his way.
There wasn’t much of a reaction by anyone because the outcome wasn’t much of a surprise.
Even coming out of a bye week, Nebraska’s defense was going to have trouble defending Indiana’s multiple wide receivers with over 1,000 career receiving yards.
And yes, Indiana had to start its second-string quarterback, but not all backups are equal. Indiana’s backup happens to have 27 games of experience under his belt, including 13 wins. Nebraska’s two backup quarterbacks have appeared in seven games.
Even though the Hoosiers held three of their seven opponents under 10 points, it was fairly predictable that Saturday would be a turning point for Nebraska’s offense. Even with Martinez out, Nebraska’s passing attack had its finest day. Seven players made important catches to keep drives alive, and Nebraska’s 87% completion rate was easily its best of the season.
But most importantly, it was predictable that Indiana would go into this game with a greater focus and will to win. The Hoosiers had reached five wins for the third consecutive season under head coach Tom Allen, but failed to gain a sixth win and bowl eligibility in each of the past two seasons.
Much like eight of the previous 12 times an opponent faced Nebraska with a shot at bowl eligibility, Allen and Indiana pulled out all the stops and the Huskers simply obliged.
None were more clear than when Indiana went for it on fourth-and-seven from the Nebraska 26-yard line, when a field goal still would have made it a two-possession game. The secondary made a stop right at the line to gain, but it didn’t matter due to a roughing the passer penalty on senior Carlos Davis.
Indiana would go up by 14 points on the next play.
There was plenty of criticism hurled at Frost about his honesty when he said his team had its best week of practice prior to getting stomped at Minnesota two weeks ago, but he was real and frank in his assessment after the loss.
Fighting back tears for most of his press conference, Frost used the phrase “just OK” 16 times (and threw in one “just an average team” for good measure) while describing his team and its effort. He wasn’t lying there, either. Playing “just OK” is how a team outgains an opponent 514-455, punts just twice and gives up 40 fewer penalty yards and still loses.
Nothing says “just OK” more than the fact that Nebraska sits at 4-4 on the season with three of the losses coming against Colorado, Minnesota and Indiana. Once again, Nebraska learned the hard way that young teams are going to have trouble against anyone and everyone in this era of Big Ten football.
While watching the postgame scene unfold on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to a Nebraska overtime loss against Northwestern in 2017. Also played in the middle of a near-perfect fall afternoon, the Huskers at that point were also “just OK” (they were 4-4 going into that game, believe it or not).
Nebraska played well enough to win that day, but lost on a quarterback sneak on fourth and goal. That loss also granted Northwestern bowl eligibility, sending the visitor’s section into chants of “Bowl game!” in a scene mirroring the one in the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium today.
Following that loss, the bottom fell out for the Huskers as they underwent the darkest stretch in program history.
There should be a different finish to this season’s story. There are too many players both old and young in this program that are hungry for change to not let history repeat itself, but losing takes its toll and exposes the weak.
Nebraska plays 2-6 Purdue on the road in a noon ET kickoff next Saturday. Ross-Ade Stadium will likely be half empty, and I hear that the weather in West Lafayette, Indiana isn’t pleasant this time of year. It will be the type of game that challenges the “Tradition of Toughness” sign that hangs above the entry to Nebraska’s weight room.
If the Huskers can’t figure out a way to win that game, regardless of who starts at quarterback, that silence is going to develop into some tough questions over the final month.