Remember when Scott Frost told the nation that he hoped the Big Ten Conference would have to adjust to Nebraska?
Nebraska and Northwestern punted a combined 19 times on Saturday afternoon. Nebraska’s offense stalled for most of the game. Once again, a lot went wrong for the Huskers.
On a picturesque fall afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, it was another muddy battle on the field at Memorial Stadium.
And the Huskers looked right at home.
By the end of the fourth quarter, the game had spiraled into Nebraska’s backup quarterback against Northwestern’s third-string option. Northwestern’s running game was inconsistent at best, while Nebraska’s top option was held to one yard in very limited action. A walk-on transfer from the Air Force Academy that began the year as a safety was suddenly tasked with saving Nebraska’s season.
Little made sense about Saturday’s game, and Nebraska seemed to thrive in the chaos once again.
There was questionable play calling by Nebraska throughout the entire game. Runs on long third down situations, punts on fourth-and-short spots. It looked nothing like Frost’s traditional ‘no fear of failure’ mantra or aggressive, big-play dependent offense. Instead, it looked like a coach determined to avoid a costly turnover in a close game while playing short-handed.
Earlier in the week, Frost said he felt a clean, turnover-free game by his offense would lead to a win. It was something the Huskers couldn’t do in Evanston one year ago. As it turns out, he was correct. It just also meant dialing back the aggression a couple notches.
As injuries pile up on offense, defense and special teams this season, the Huskers are reaping the fruits of their labor put into improving their culture. The backups thrived in larger roles, none more so than backup quarterback Noah Vedral. The sophomore was calm, decisive and played within his abilities when called upon in the fourth quarter.
The same thing can be said about third-string kicker Lane McCallum, who wasn’t phased by a long wait before his game-winning field goal caused by three consecutive time-outs called by Northwestern.
Everywhere Frost has coached, he has taken with him a reputation as a creative offensive mind. Because of that, expectations were set that Nebraska would soon eclipse the athleticism of programs similar to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Scoring a combined 83 points against the three last year backed that narrative up.
On Saturday, Northwestern looked just as athletic as Nebraska. The only clear difference between the two in that department was Nebraska’s game-changing weapon Wan’Dale Robinson.
The similarity in builds didn’t seem to bother the Huskers, just as it didn’t when they faced Michigan State last November. Those two games, with a total of 38 points, 24 of which came from field goals, have turned out to be the two finest wins of the Frost era so far.
Nebraska is still very much a work in progress, and one that likely won’t be completed any time soon. It seems that the players and coaches have embraced that, focusing on the games individually and not the big picture.
Following spring practice, I wrote about the stench of failure leaving Nebraska’s program. Even in the aftermath of last week’s blowout loss against Ohio State, I think this is still true. Nebraska is learning how to win games, and it starts with discipline and composure. While all three phases had their struggles, they each showed those traits down the stretch in the win.
The Huskers are hitting the road now, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Sitting at 4-2, a prime time matchup at 5-0 Minnesota is an enticing test for this stage of the rebuilding project. Nebraska is slowly getting better, and facing a successful team on the road will put their progress to a much more fair test than the one it faced last week.
The Huskers picked up the first win of the season against the Gophers last season by a score of 53-28. I’m sure that if it means a similar outcome this year, they will gladly settle for another rock fight like this one.