sports recap

Only a few weeks before fall sports began, The Daily Nebraskan’s back-to-school magazine previewed the upcoming seasons for a number of Husker teams. It didn’t age well.

Four sports were covered in the magazine article, and of those four, three have since concluded: football, soccer and cross country. Now, to be fair, the customs of sports have been flipped. Volleyball and women’s soccer typically start in the fall but were pushed to 2021 and won’t conclude until mid-April. Cross country usually starts in the fall as well, but started in February this year and ended on March 15. 

Still, plenty of seasons have been able to edge past the finish line, despite the toll of COVID-19 on schedules and staff. 

Football

At the time The Daily Nebraskan’s fall sports preview was written, the Big Ten had canceled football and other fall sports with the hope of playing in the spring of 2021. When the decision was announced on Aug. 11, it was met with controversy, not only from fans but from coaches, players and administrative staff. The hashtag “#WeWantToPlay” quickly became viral and was used primarily by athletes to express discontent with the decision-making process.

Even before the decision became public, Nebraska was on the forefront of critique of its own conference. The day before the announcement, Husker football head coach Scott Frost talked openly to the media about exploring alternate options for play in the fall if necessary.

This, too, led to rumblings — unofficial but prominent nevertheless — that the marriage of the Huskers and the Big Ten was at risk of being annulled altogether.

Then, amid growing criticism aimed at the Big Ten and a number of prominent conferences returning to play, the conference reversed its decision. Despite an 11-3 vote to cancel the season, come Sept. 16, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted unanimously to restart with “stringent” medical protocols and a late October start date.

The uncertainty of the season off-the-field was compounded by the uncertainty on it. Frost made remarks and gameday decisions over the great Nebraska quarterback battle between junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey throughout the season. By the end, McCaffrey had started two games due to Martinez’s poor performances, though Martinez usurped the starting job unanimously by season’s end.

Unfortunately for Nebraska, the season wouldn’t start kindly, as the Big Ten announced the Huskers’ first opponent would be conference leader Ohio State.

The game started well for the Huskers. The concerns over the new offense seemed to be answered sharply, as Martinez started at quarterback and McCaffrey was subbed in on multiple occasions at running back. The system looked dynamic to start, as McCaffrey had a 47-yard run on the Huskers’ opening scoring drive. Yet, this early euphoria tapered off for Nebraska almost immediately, and the team collapsed 52-17 against the Buckeyes.

This game was not seen as cataclysmic for the Huskers. After all, Nebraska wasn’t close to being favored against the fifth-ranked Buckeyes, and the early offense was promising for Nebraska.

Nebraska only picked up three wins in total for the rest of the season. One of the low points of the season was a late November 41-23 loss to Illinois, a game quickly dubbed one of the worst of the Frost stewardship.

COVID-19 also had its impact on the team beyond the early cancellation of the season as a whole. The Huskers’ second game of the season against Wisconsin was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Badgers’ program. Nebraska passed on a possible bowl game opportunity to end the season, citing the team’s fatigue. 

Sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, one of the team’s top playmakers, transferred after the season, citing his mother’s battle with COVID-19 as part of the reason for his departure. 

Men’s basketball

The first two seasons under men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg started similarly: massive roster overhaul. The lone carryover from former head coach Tim Miles’ last season to Hoiberg’s first was senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson. From Hoiberg’s first team to his second, the only players of more than 10 minutes per game to return were Thorbjarnarson and sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo.

As opposed to Big Ten football, which went on a two-month-long hiatus and resumed with only limited conference play, men’s basketball was only delayed for about a month past its usual starting date and played an out-of-conference slate.

Nebraska’s nonconference rotation was dominated by the Golden Window Classic, a multi-team event that was supposed to feature the likes of Louisiana State University, before the big name dropped out days before the tournament.

Still able to drag a number of teams to Lincoln, the Huskers won two games out of three. For the Huskers, this brief success was followed by Big Ten play and a tremendous slow period.

Just as COVID-19 impacted Nebraska football, basketball was also affected, but to far more effect. In an outbreak that started in early January, 50% of tier one personnel were infected with COVID-19.

This outbreak stretched on for a month before the Huskers resumed play, and when they did, they suffered a gauntlet, playing 11 games in 22 days. Surprisingly, the long layoff eventually resulted in some of the best plays of the Hoiberg era.

First, there was the win against Penn State on Feb. 14, the first in Big Ten play for the Huskers in 404 days. This 62-61 victory came as the result of a valiant Nebraska defensive stand where, for more than seven minutes of play toward the end of the second half, the Huskers only scored once.

Then, less than two weeks after Hoiberg’s Nittany Lion triumph, the Huskers grabbed yet another win against Minnesota, a team led by redshirt junior guard Marcus Carr. Carr managed 41 points on 40% shooting from the floor, yet a Nebraska team effort with five players scoring over 10 points resulted in the team’s second Big Ten win of the season.

The Huskers later completed a feat which appeared impossible early in the season. Fresh off the win over Minnesota, Nebraska dominated Rutgers, a team which later appeared in the NCAA Tournament. The Scarlet Knights, a team predicated on its defense, was blasted by a Nebraska team that shot 66.7% from inside the arc. By comparison, Rutgers’ average opponent two-point field goal percentage was 46.7%.

Even as the season ended at the hands of Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, Nebraska finished the final stretch of the season on a relatively positive note.

COVID-19 resulted in torment for the team. If the month-long convalescence wasn’t enough, the onslaught of losing contests the team was put through afterward was enough to wring the endurance of the team, and of Hoiberg himself.

Cross country

In a standard season for cross country athletes, a full slate of meets is followed by a Big Ten Championship, an NCAA regional and a final NCAA Championship. This season spans from the end of August to mid-November.

Because the cross country postponement in the fall caused the season to overlap with track and field, there were only two meets in total for Nebraska: the Big Ten Championship and the NCAA Championship. The former happened on Jan. 30, and the second took place on March 15. While the Nebraska cross country roster also doubles as runners in track and field, the ongoing track season has been abbreviated.

Junior George Kusche was the Huskers’ first ever Big Ten cross country champion in the first of the two events, adding onto an already star-studded career for Nebraska. He ran a time of 24:01.2 in the 8k, leading a fifth-place finish for his team.

Junior Ryan Martins was earmarked for success early in the season and finished 22nd in the championship.

Senior Erika Freyhof finished sixth in the Big Ten Championship. The team’s talisman set a personal best time of 20:41.2 in the 6k run and earned first team all-Big Ten honors.

These performances qualified Kusche and Freyhof for the NCAA Championship on March 15. 

Unfortunately for the Husker duo, they couldn’t find glory at the final stage of the season. Kusche, the first male Husker to appear in three NCAA Championship meets since 1992, finished in 229th. Freyhof did significantly better, finishing in 86th.

Despite the much-shortened and months-late season for cross country, Nebraska’s top runners still found success.

Other sports

These three sports are not the only to be affected by the pandemic.

Nebraska rifle was forced to hold a virtual season for a number of events, including the Great American Rifle Competition Championship. In a virtual contest, each team was allowed to compete at its home range.

Husker volleyball, which also had its season moved from fall to spring, will face the prospect of a championship bracket with 16 less teams than usual. While the Huskers are almost certainly in the tournament, other prominent Big Ten teams will be left on the outside looking in, just as many other teams across various sports will be as a result of the strangest season in modern history.

sports@dailynebraskan.com