Months from now, when the dust is finally settled on the 2021 Nebraska football season, there’s a strong possibility that the Huskers view Saturday’s 23-16 loss to Oklahoma through a lens of regret.
As a matter of fact, I’m certain of it.
Outside of Nebraska’s locker room, next to nobody expected Nebraska to hang with big, bad Oklahoma on Saturday. The Oklahoma that’s appeared in four College Football Playoffs, produced two Heisman Trophy winners since 2017 and are the current No. 3 team in college football.
And it certainly couldn’t have been Nebraska with the ball down seven with less than a minute to play, faced with the difficult task of traveling 83 yards with no timeouts. After all, this is the same Nebraska team that dropped a mistake-filled season opener to Illinois, has yet to post a winning record under head coach Scott Frost and, perhaps most notably, attempted to back out of playing the mighty Sooners this season.
Yet, there Nebraska was. And it wasn’t a fluke, either.
It can be argued that in certain phases of the game, Nebraska outclassed the third-best team in college football. Saturday’s contest saw the Sooners play into Nebraska’s game plan all-but perfectly, with the Huskers successfully limiting Oklahoma from not only consistently generating big plays, but also from finishing drives.
The Sooners finished with 21 offensive points and 23 points total. The Sooners had scored at least 27 points in 65 consecutive games before Saturday, a then-FBS record. Almost every time Oklahoma attempted a knockout blow, Nebraska responded, either with a defensive stand or offensive response.
“Those guys are heavyweight fighters, when [Oklahoma] punches you they expect you to be knocked out,” senior linebacker JoJo Domann said postgame. “And we just kept getting up. We were down, but we were never out, down to the last drive.”
A quintessential example of this came early in the second quarter. Sooner junior running back Kennedy Brooks appeared to lead an Oklahoma offense that was attempting to land a haymaker up 7-3. A 23-yard scamper from Brooks got Oklahoma moving, and by the time the Sooners reached the Huskers’ 41-yard line, Brooks and junior running back Eric Gray had accounted for 42 combined yards on four carries — 36 on three carries by Brooks alone.
Needing to hold serve, Nebraska’s defense delivered. Domann made one of his career-high-tying 13 tackles on a stop of Gray for a two-yard loss, then forced an incompletion by Sooner sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler, setting up a 54-yard field goal. Normally sturdy kicker junior Gabe Brkic missed.
“We had a plan going into the game, we wanted as few possessions for both teams as possible in the first half,” Frost said postgame. “We knew the only way to do that is to control the ball and get first downs on offense, that meant getting some third downs and I thought we did that well.”
On the whole, there was a good deal that Nebraska did well on Saturday. Frost and Chinander went toe-to-toe with one of the best offensive minds in college football and emerged victorious.
On the offensive side of the ball, junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, continuing to play in the form of his life, turned in yet another virtuoso performance.
Martinez out-dueled Rattler, a Heisman Trophy finalist in his own right. Nebraska's quarterback finished the afternoon completing 19-of-25 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown. He proved equally elusive on the ground, with 34 all-important rushing yards that helped the Huskers move the chains on several occasions.
Even Martinez’s mistakes ended up benefiting the team in the long run. Late in the fourth quarter, Martinez was attempting to lead a last-gasp drive with Nebraska trailing 23-9. Faced with a fourth-and-seventeen from Oklahoma’s 24-yard line, the Husker offensive line collapsed, which forced Martinez to heave a prayer downfield.
That prayer, as it turns out, was intercepted spectacularly by Oklahoma sophomore cornerback DJ Graham. The interception was an incredible play, undoubtedly one of the best such interceptions that’ll occur this season, but the Sooners would’ve been better off batting Martinez’s effort away.
Oklahoma couldn’t move the ball out of the shadow of its own goal line and Nebraska got the ball back. Martinez found junior wide receiver Omar Manning for a touchdown with 5:38 remaining, and after the defense forced a stop, Nebraska’s signal caller led one final crusade that resulted in two sacks and a Husker defeat.
“You come to a school like Nebraska, you expect to win every game,” Martinez said postgame. “Our guys aren’t into moral victories, we want to win games, simple as that. There are definitely a lot of positives to take away… but at the end of the day we lost the game.”
Ultimately, Nebraska’s demise came at the hands of a familiar foe: itself. The Huskers’ offensive line was penalized six total times, including four on the opening drive. Frost quipped postgame that if he had a nickel for every time he and his staff harped on avoiding those errors on the line he’d “have a lot of nickels.”
Senior kicker Connor Culp’s woes continued, missing field goals from 50 and 35 yards out. Following a Martinez four-yard touchdown plunge to cut Oklahoma’s lead to 14-9, Nebraska opted to sit Culp out for the extra point in favor of freshman kicker Kelen Meyer. Meyer’s low boot was not only blocked, but returned for two points by Sooner senior safety Pat Fields.
With Nebraska standing at 2-2, and with eight games in the ever-competitive Big Ten upcoming, it is imperative that the Huskers clean up their mental mistakes on the path to potential bowl eligibility.
Saturday was about something else, though. Something a tad more important in the long run.
Nebraska proved, at least for three hours, that it was more-than capable of playing up to the prestigious status of its former long-time rival. If the Huskers maintain that level, at least according to Frost, a successful season could be well-within reach.
“I told [the players] after the game, everything they want to accomplish this year is right in front of them,” Frost said. “But if they played like that, like we played today, all year and fight that hard all year, we’re going to have a chance in a lot of games.”