I was wrong.
I foolishly thought that, as the Nebraska football team was currently constructed under head coach Scott Frost, the Huskers couldn’t possibly stoop lower than their 41-23 loss to Illinois. That loss was a stain on the Frost-led regime, a truly embarrassing performance to a team that programs like Nebraska should be able to beat, or at the very least not get blown out by, on a yearly basis.
The key word there is ‘should,’ and Nebraska football has been the furthest thing from a sure thing this season. Just when you think that the Huskers have turned a corner — say after last week’s 37-27 victory over Purdue — they come out and prove the exact opposite to be true.
Nebraska did all that and more on Saturday in an inexcusable 24-17 loss to Minnesota that cannot be described as anything but rock bottom in a season where rock bottom seems to be the new normal. Especially considering that the Golden Gophers hadn’t played since Nov. 20, had entered Saturday allowing at least 35 points to all but one opponent and were missing 33 players due to COVID-19 contact tracing.
And much like Nebraska’s past losses, blame falls squarely on Nebraska’s execution on all three levels. The Husker offense consistently failed to finish drives, Nebraska’s defense couldn’t get a stop when the Huskers needed it and the normally sure-footed senior kicker Connor Culp missed a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter that could have swung the momentum of the game.
The Huskers’ first offensive play of Saturday’s game was eerily reminiscent of their first play against Illinois, a botched swing pass that was ruled a backwards pass and a fumble, resulting in a loss of nine yards.
“You just can’t start games that way,” Frost said postgame. “You complete it 40 times in practice all week and it’s a little off, it’s a horrible way to start a game.”
It was an omen for Nebraska’s first quarter, in which it looked like the Huskers were the team coming back from a 22-day layoff. In a brief fill-in for junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey threw a ball woefully behind his intended receiver. It was tipped and intercepted by a Golden Gopher defender.
Following a Minnesota touchdown and another Nebraska three-and-out, Nebraska freshman punter Tyler Crawford shanked a ball for an eight-yard punt, which turned into a Golden Gopher field goal.
Nebraska significantly trimmed Minnesota’s lead following a dismal opening period but, as has been the case for nearly all of this year, it couldn’t get out of its own way. This team is cursed with consistent undisciplined play, play that set Nebraska backwards nearly every time it took a step in the right direction.
It appeared that Nebraska had done an excellent job at making everyone forget about how poorly it had started. Martinez looked sharp on consecutive Husker drives, throwing for and running in a touchdown to give Nebraska a 14-10 lead with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. If the Huskers, who chose to receive the ball to open the game, could force a quick stop of the Golden Gopher offense, Nebraska could potentially be in a great position to create some separation.
61 yards from Minnesota redshirt freshman running back Cam Wiley later, the Golden Gophers were in the red zone. Nebraska had its opponent all-but dead to rights facing a third-and-14 on Nebraska’s 18-yard line, but junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt was called for targeting on a play where the ball carrier was nowhere near picking up the first down.
Two plays later, Minnesota junior quarterback Tanner Morgan found sophomore tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford for a four-yard touchdown. Golden Gophers 17, Nebraska 14 just over a minute before halftime.
Just when it appeared that Nebraska had turned a corner, those same old Huskers struck again.
The second half featured comical mistake after comical mistake. Culp’s missed field goal capped the Huskers’ first drive of the second half, which saw Nebraska start at its own 14-yard line following a Blackshirt stop on Minnesota’s opening drive of the second half.
Martinez, due to either injury or an off afternoon, consistently missed receivers down the field. Nebraska managed just 120 yards of total offense in the second half, a poor showing. Golden Gopher defensive lineman Boye Mafe repeatedly bullied Nebraska’s offensive line, forcing a third-quarter Marinez fumble that allowed Minnesota to take a 24-14 lead.
It was a shocking second-half performance from an offense that looked like it had turned a corner against Purdue and had a great week of practice, according to Frost.
“I hate to even say this, but we had our best week of practice offensively, maybe since I’ve been at Nebraska so you know, I expected us to come out and play,” Frost said. “We completed everything in practice, we blocked well.”
With Nebraska needing a score halfway through the fourth quarter down 10, Frost opted to kick a field goal with the Huskers facing a fourth-and-four at Minnesota’s 19-yard line. Culp connected from 37 yards out, but Frost chose to accept an offside penalty on Minnesota in an attempt to put seven points on the board instead of three.
It almost worked, but a hold on redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ethan Piper negated a Martinez touchdown run. The penalty killed the drive and forced the same result, a Culp field goal, albeit this time with less time for Nebraska to potentially stop the Golden Gophers and tie the game.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen. Nebraska’s defense turned into swiss cheese attempting to stop junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The Big Ten’s leading rusher rushed for 59 yards on the drive to help Minnesota burn the remaining 4:42 of clock and come away with an upset victory.
Last year’s Nebraska-Minnesota game served as a sobering reality check for Frost’s Huskers, a sign that the program is still a ways off from competing with some of the conference’s best competition.
After a decent amount of reflection I’m not quite sure what today’s game proved, exactly. What is true is that this loss was an incredibly shocking indictment of the coaching staff. If the week of practice was truly Nebraska’s best, then why wasn’t able to execute in critical situations in all three phases of the game?
Another fact is that Saturday’s loss was Frost’s 20th at the helm of Nebraska. It’s more than some of his predecessors, Mike Riley (19) and Frank Solich (19), had. It’s as many as the legendary Bob Devaney had in his entire Nebraska career. While Frost more than likely isn’t going anywhere, the lack of week-to-week consistency on display for Nebraska has been nothing short of stupefying.
Saturday’s loss also not only cemented a third consecutive losing season under Frost, but also secured Nebraska’s status as the last place team in the Big Ten West. Earlier this week, the conversation surrounding this program was about a potential bowl game and a .500 season.
At a certain point, there’s only so much talk about progress, a changed culture and good weeks of practices that a fanbase can tolerate. I have no idea if Nebraska is at that point yet, but seemingly empty words while the program continues to get dunked on nationally cannot inspire much confidence three years into a coach’s tenure.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but on the bright side, things can’t get much worse than this.