The writers in charge of scripting Nebraska football’s season need a new one. It’s getting too predictable and repetitive at this point.
Pick a Husker opponent, any Husker opponent. Whether it be Oklahoma, Minnesota, Purdue or Saturday afternoon’s opponent, No. 5 Ohio State, the narratives run similar and the results are the same — losses.
The only difference on Saturday is that Nebraska finally didn’t lose by one score.
If it wasn’t already apparent that Nebraska is in a weird, quasi-limbo state, Saturday’s 26-17 loss to the Buckeyes made it extremely apparent.
On the one hand, there’s the clear-cut elements of progress. Nebraska is playing top-level competition much better than it has under previous regimes, and is one or two plays away from turning losses into victories. Had certain units not faltered in late-game situations, Nebraska’s season could most certainly have a different tune with two regular-season games remaining.
On the other hand lies the mistakes. Mistakes that are devastating, repetitive and weekly in occurrence, mistakes that seem to always burn Nebraska when it can least afford it.
Saturday afternoon was no different. Nebraska missed two field goals, the second of which came in a critical late-game scenario, failed to execute repeatedly on offense and was burned repeatedly on questionable coaching decisions. Kicking a 31-yard field goal on fourth-and-four in the fourth quarter down 23-17, following an overthrow from junior quarterback Adrian Martinez the down prior, highlights two of three said points.
“I kinda made that decision before the third-down call, we’d kinda been in four-down mode that whole drive and calling plays on third down to make sure we were in manageable fourths,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said postgame “You kinda make that decision on third down, and at that point in the game early in the fourth quarter, the way our defense was playing I thought a field goal would give us a chance.”
Per usual the Blackshirts, who have punched above their weight all season and given the Huskers a chance to win every game they’ve played in this season, made enough stops to continually engage a sellout Memorial Stadium crowd.
Even as Ohio State freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 405 yards and two touchdowns and as sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba had an all-time performance, Nebraska’s defense forced two critical interceptions of the talented freshman signacaller. Yet, as was a central theme on Saturday and one symbolic of Nebraska’s season, the Huskers failed to capitalize on either opportunity.
The final statistics won’t reflect this, but Nebraska’s offense and special teams spoiled another masterful performance from defensive coordinator Erik Cihinander’s unit. Ohio State entered Saturday’s contest as the No. 1 scoring offense in college football, averaging 47.3 points per game.
Nebraska’s defense, thanks to timely stops, limited Ohio State to just 26 points, almost half of that gaudy figure. A Buckeye offense led by head coach Ryan Day hadn’t been held under 27 points since the 2021 National Championship against Alabama and only three such times had happened under Day’s tenure before Saturday.
“For the caliber of players [Ohio State] has on offense, I was really impressed with the D,” Frost said. “Secondary in particular, we gave up the long one and [Smith-Njigba] had a lot of plays, but man those are some elite receivers.”
Senior linebacker JoJo Domann, in particular, was brilliant. He recorded nine total tackles on the afternoon, and also snagged the first interception off Stroud. The Colorado Springs, Colorado native delivered an inspiring performance and was the engine behind Nebraska’s impressive defensive outing.
Furthermore, sophomore linebacker Garrett Nelson, when asked about Domann’s performance and importance to Nebraska football, teared up and delivered a heartfelt response. Seeing Nelson’s raw emotion in support of his teammate postgame is what makes this whole ordeal all the more heartbreaking.
Players like Domann and Nelson obviously care. They battled, and largely succeeded against, the best offense that college football has to offer. Players like Martinez, who Frost revealed postgame is playing through a broken jaw and high ankle sprain, care, even if their performances don’t match to that emotion.
And then there’s Frost, who deserves immense prima facie credit for putting together a winning gameplan despite a week that featured a good deal of scrutiny and speculation about his long-term coaching future at his alma mater. The result and execution is a different matter, but Nebraska’s success in multiple areas of play aren’t something that can be simply ignored.
Thus lies the great tragedy that is Nebraska football: a loyal, hard-working and endearing crew of players and coaches unable — try as they might — to overcome itself and win a big game. It’s an infinite loop of torment for a program and fanbase so desperately starved to turn moral victories into tangible ones.
When the 2021 season is remembered, though, the nature of Nebraska’s losses won't really matter, as similar as they may be. What will ultimately matter is the Huskers’ record, a record hurtling towards historic lows following yet another close-but-not-quite defeat.
How many ways can 3-7 be explained, a record that features just one win over a Big Ten opponent? How about 3-9, a record certainly feasible as Nebraska has yet to beat its final two regular-season opponents under Frost?
The answers to that, and potentially several others regarding the Nebraska football program, will unfold as November progresses. Something has to give, though.
At a certain point, there’s only so much a moral victory can accomplish.