Oct. 9, 2021 was supposed to be the night for Nebraska football.
It was supposed to be the night head coach Scott Frost and the Huskers finally got over the hump and defeated a ranked opponent after oh-so-close losses to Michigan State and Oklahoma. It was supposed to be the night that turned Nebraska’s season from one mired in inconsistency to one that culminated in a postseason appearance.
A night game under the lights at Memorial Stadium nationally televised on ABC was supposed to be the perfect setting for Nebraska to finally deliver when the situation called for it.
Nebraska’s journey towards its Golden Calf was never going to be an easy one. In fact, Frost’s bunch had to overcome some of the issues that have haunted the Huskers in past seasons — poor offensive execution, penalties and devastating turnovers — just to get into a position to win.
The Huskers’ offense, outside of an impressive opening drive that ultimately led to a turnover on downs at Michigan’s 4-yard line, looked like a unit devoid of inspiration in the game’s opening half. In the opening 30 minutes, Nebraska mustered 133 total yards, gained just 39 rushing yards on 17 attempts and went 1-for-6 on third down conversions.
“I wanted to establish the run [in the first half], so we tried,” Frost said postgame.
Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, did enough to keep the Wolverines out of the endzone in the first half, forcing 35 and 21-yard field goals from senior kicker Jake Moody.
Moody appeared to be called upon once again in the waning seconds of the first half, with a second-down pass from Michigan junior quarterback Cade McNamara to sophomore wide receiver A.J. Henning sailing wayward. However, Nebraska senior linebacker JoJo Domann was ruled to have interfered with Henning, setting the Wolverines up on the Nebraska 3-yard line.
From there, Michigan senior running back Hassan Haskins punched in the first of his three rushing touchdowns on the evening, giving Michigan a 13-0 lead thanks in large part to the questionable call.
Disconcerting signals, joint possession and the pass interference call on Domann highlighted a poor showing from Saturday night’s officiating crew on both sides, but it would be tough to argue that any officiating moment had a larger impact on the contest’s outcome than that one.
Nebraska overcame a first-half interception by junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, a ball intercepted in spectacular fashion by Michigan junior defensive back Daxton Hill. The Wolverine’s ensuing drive resulted in Moody’s 35-yard boot that opened the scoring.
The Huskers did it all in a blitzkrieg, in an impressive third quarter that saw Nebraska score 22 points, and become the first squad to intercept McNamara this season and team to hold a lead on the Wolverines all season.
“I think when we got that first touchdown it was like ‘the floodgates are open, let’s keep hammering them home,’” Martinez said postgame.
When Michigan would respond to second-half Husker scores Nebraska punched right back, a tendency missing at times for Nebraska this season. Martinez’s brilliance, with both his legs and right arm, looked to provide just the spark the Huskers needed to finally do it, especially after a fourth-quarter scamper from Nebraska’s quarterback gave the team a 29-26 lead with seven minutes to play.
“That was as much fun as I have ever had coaching a football game,” Frost said. “With the fans, the way that they were in the stadium and the way we responded.”
It was all coming together, especially after the Husker defense held in the red zone, forcing a 31-yard field goal from Moody.
The significance of the moment couldn’t have been understated. Here Nebraska stood, tied with three minutes remaining against the ninth-ranked team in college football, with an opportunity to quell old narratives and deliver a signature victory.
Then, it all fell apart.
Martinez fumbled on the third play of the drive, and after Nebraska’s defense forced yet another Moody field goal, the Huskers’ last stand stalled at midfield.
“I’m not going to stand up here and make excuses for myself. I cannot be careless with the football,” Martinez said. “I thought the play was over.”
Michigan 32, Nebraska 29. Final. Somehow, some way, in a different way than the other ways, the Huskers failed to find a way to come out on top. All four of Nebraska’s losses this season have been by one score, and Nebraska is now 5-16 in one-score games under Frost.
Maybe sometime soon the roles will be reversed and Nebraska’s fate will change. Maybe the roles will reverse themselves completely, and the Huskers will be the team victorious in a game they should not have been.
Make no mistake, Nebraska played well enough to win on Saturday night. It made the necessary defensive stops and forced turnovers, easily scored the most points on Michigan’s defense of any Wolverine opponent this season and dominated stretches of the contest, the third quarter in particular.
But whether it’s a backbreaking turnover, a special teams miscue, consistently poor play from a unit or something in between, Nebraska cannot figure itself out. On Saturday night, a night that held so much potential, all Nebraska overcame wasn’t enough.
The worst part about the loss to Michigan isn’t the result itself, or even the painful manner in which it came — it’s the nature of the defeat. After losses no-doubt demoralizing to Oklahoma and Michigan State on the road, Nebraska appeared to have turned a corner after last weekend’s 56-7 beatdown of Northwestern.
Now, it’s incredibly difficult to gauge where the Huskers are mentally following yet another crushing blow.
“I thought tonight was the night,” Frost said. “In games past, when we have gotten ahead I got the sense that everybody was thinking what is going to go wrong, and I didn’t feel that at all tonight. It felt different.”
As Nebraska players and coaches began to trickle off of Tom Osborne Field and into the Memorial Stadium tunnel, it was hard not to fixate on Frost, who more than anyone desperately wants to bring Nebraska back to peaks not seen since he quarterbacked the Huskers.
While Frost and his team solemnly slugged into the confines of Memorial Stadium, cries of “keep your head up,” rang out from the crowd in an effort to show solidarity and attempt to boost team morale.
And yes, each time following a brutal loss this season Nebraska’s done exactly that, switching its focus to the upcoming opponent and responding with a sound performance.
Without the results to go along with it, though, one has to wonder how many times Nebraska can break the cycle and pick itself up.