Nebraska struggled with turnovers last week against Colorado and dug an early 14-0 deficit before coming back to take the lead.
Husker fans may have experienced deja vu on Saturday against Troy, as Nebraska trailed 17-0 late in the second quarter. The comeback attempt once again fell just short, as the Huskers lost 24-19 to the Trojans, falling to 0-2 for the first time since 1957.
Troy struck first in the game, as junior quarterback Kaleb Barker completed a 39-yard pass to senior wide receiver Damion Willis to get the team into scoring range. Nebraska’s defense forced a 37-yard field goal attempt, which Troy converted to take an early 3-0 lead.
The back-and-forth turnover battle began almost immediately for Nebraska. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Bunch, starting in place of the injured Adrian Martinez, completed a nine-yard pass to sophomore tight end Jack Stoll, who lost the ball while fighting for extra yardage.
Immediately following the turnover, junior cornerback Lamar Jackson fought off a wide receiver to intercept a pass and give Nebraska the ball once again. Once Nebraska reached midfield on its drive, though, Bunch threw an interception for the team’s second turnover of the day.
Special teams proved to be an issue once again against Troy. On a punt deep in their own territory, the Huskers allowed senior safety Cedarius Rookard to return the punt 58 yards for a touchdown. Contributions from sophomore wide receiver JD Spielman and junior running back Greg Bell helped Nebraska drive 62 yards down the field on the next drive, but another special teams miscue cost the team any chance at points after freshman kicker Barret Pickering missed a 33-yard field goal attempt wide right.
“We’ve got to be able to make some plays on special teams, and those kind of things in a tight game, those are the key things in a tight game,” head coach Scott Frost said after the game.
The same penalty mistakes that cost Nebraska a win against Colorado returned this week as well. Backup quarterback Sawyer Smith ran a quarterback keeper 57 yards down the field, but it was a pair of Husker penalties that kept that drive going. Junior linebacker Mohamed Barry was ejected for targeting and a personal foul by fellow junior linebacker Tyrin Ferguson gave the Trojans first-and-goal. Junior running back B.J. Smith ran in the score from eight yards out, giving Nebraska a 17-0 deficit to stare at in the first half.
Nebraska closed out the first half with its first score of the game. Bunch connected with senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. for a 33-yard pass and later found him once again for a nine-yard touchdown pass. Nebraska entered halftime down 17-7 to Troy.
For the first time all season, a turnover finally went Nebraska’s way afterTroy muffed a punt, setting up the Huskers at the the Trojans eight-yard line. The Huskers could not conjure up a touchdown, but still came away with points, thanks to a 23-yard field goal from Pickering, his first of the season.
The Husker defense continued to stand strong against Troy and stopped any scoring chances throughout the entire third quarter. Nebraska took over at its own 38-yard line and drove down the field with the help of freshman running back Maurice Washington. He had six touches for 39 yards as the Huskers managed to drive into the red zone but they once again had to settle for a field goal and ended the third quarter down 17-13.
Troy’s first drive of the fourth quarter was a game-winner. The Trojans drove 62 yards on 10 plays and drained the clock, leaving only seven minutes left in the game after their touchdown. Barker led the team down the field with a string of completed passes and Smith burst through the defense untouched for a 26-yard rushing touchdown to make it a two-score game.
Bunch orchestrated a touchdown drive of his own, helped by a 26-yard pass to freshman tight end Kurt Rafdal that Bunch paid the price for in the form of a big hit. Following a seven-yard touchdown pass to Spielman, the two-point conversion failed, but Nebraska was still in the game with just under three minutes to go.
As was the case a week ago, the Nebraska defense forced a crucial stop to give the offense a chance to win the game. On the second play of a potentially game-winning drive, Bunch threw his second interception of the day, which ultimately ended the game. The sophomore quarterback completed 19-27 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions.
“For what we asked Bunch to do, I thought he did a good job,” Frost said.
Nebraska’s secondary showed significant improvement from a week ago after allowing 351 passing yards against Colorado. The Huskers held Troy to only 110 yards in the air, which senior safety Tre Neal appreciated.
“There’s a lot of positives to build from and I know that we came up short, but there are little things that we have to clean up,” he said. “If we clean that up, the sky’s the limit for us.”
For a group of players who have now lost eight of their last nine games, it has been a frustrating few months of football. Frost said he told the team after the game that if any players did not want to stay on board with the rebuilding effort, they need to speak up now.
As Nebraska now turns its attention toward Michigan next week, Frost is still hopeful about the team’s chances.
“We have a tough game next week, and this will get worse before it gets better but it’s always the darkest before the dawn,” he said.