The 2021 offseason has far and away been one of the most dramatic in Nebraska football’s history, and easily the most controversial under head coach Scott Frost.
Between bringing in a new athletic director, having multiple high-profile players leave the program, an NCAA investigation and fallout from a scheduling fiasco regarding Nebraska’s Sept. 18 clash with Oklahoma, it was easy to see why Frost spent the week dismissing outside noise ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Illinois.
It appeared, at least from a neutral perspective, that Frost’s squad would be up for the challenge against an Illinois team that bested Nebraska one season ago in Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska entered Saturday afternoon as a favorite on the road against an Illinois team picked last in the Big Ten by the media, and had a perfect opportunity to fan the preseason-lit flames with a victory.
Expecting perfection in a college football game is impossible, especially in a game so early in the season. Even with Frost’s claims of how laser-focused the team was ahead of today’s game, it was unrealistic to expect the Huskers to be firing on all cylinders.
It wasn’t expected for the Huskers to fire on next to none of them, but they were on Saturday. As a result, the Huskers dropped a 30-22 decision to the Fighting Illini that frustrated on multiple levels.
The first and most glaring factor that ultimately contributed to Nebraska’s demise is an issue that has been one of the calling cards of Frost’s tenure — a lack of attention to detail. Frost even noted this postgame, saying that Saturday’s collapse “felt like the same movie over again.”
The onset of a mistake-filled game on Nebraska’s end was present in the first quarter. With just over four minutes left in the first half, Illinois punted from its own 40-yard line with a score yet to occur. Illinois senior punter Blake Hayes struck the ball well, with a boot that carried deep into Nebraska territory.
Instead of letting the punt fall out of the end zone for a touchback, Husker junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt opted to field the punt both well inside his own 5-yard line and over his shoulder — breaking multiple cardinal sins of punt returning in the process.
In a last-ditch effort to save face, Taylor-Britt attempted to pitch the ball away. It was too late, though, and as a result the first points of the college football season came in one of the most unique ways possible.
Taylor-Britt’s gaffe kicked off a litany of errors by the Huskers. Senior kicker Connor Culp, last season’s Big Ten Kicker of the Year, missed two extra points after not missing one for the entirety of last season. Freshman punter Daniel Cerni had multiple punts shorter than 30 yards. Sophomore center Cameron Jurgens, whose snapping issues are well-documented, had a snap that sailed well over the head of junior quarterback Adrian Martinez with the Huskers looking to erase a late deficit.
Nebraska had multiple momentum-killing penalties, five for 67 in total, including a first-half interception that was wiped off the board due to a roughing the passer penalty on junior linebacker Caleb Tannor.
Perhaps more concerning than the mistakes on the field, however, were the mistakes made on the sideline. Given how focused Frost implied that both his staff and team were leading up to Saturday’s game, it was surprising to hear Nebraska’s head man concede that he “guessed wrong” as to what Illinois would run defensively.
It showed in the Huskers’ final offensive statistics. Martinez was largely inefficient, completing 16-of-32 passes for 232 yards with one touchdown. Outside of a 75-yard touchdown scamper by Martinez to cut Illinois’ lead to 30-16 in the third quarter, Nebraska couldn’t get anything going on the ground. Nebraska’s running backs combined to total 40 yards on 19 carries, a disappointing performance given the position’s uncertainty entering this season.
Even though Nebraska struggled to run the ball, Frost questionably leaned on the ground attack late in Saturday’s game. Nebraska found itself trailing 30-16 with 9:23 left in the game, needing a quick score.
Instead of that, though, Nebraska inexplicably went on a 19-play, 76-yard drive that burned 6:42 off of the game clock. Husker running backs ran on seven occasions during that stretch, a tactic better used for trying to melt the game clock — not conserve it. What’s more, those seven carries totaled just 16 yards.
In a situation that demanded urgency Nebraska showed shockingly little of it, an indictment on both the players and coaching staff. Ending a drive with points is always ideal no matter the circumstance, but a heightened sense of urgency could have given the Huskers more time to attempt a late comeback.
Of course, that didn’t happen, and Nebraska dropped its third season-opener of Frost’s regime.
The nature of Saturday’s contest makes it easy for overreaction. It was essentially a stand-alone game on a day with little college football action nationally against a conference opponent. It was the first Big Ten football game played in front of a capacity crowd since 2019. If this circumstance-result combination happened in past seasons of Frost’s tenure, cooler heads might’ve prevailed in encouraging virtues like patience.
In what is now Frost’s fourth season, those individuals are slowly dwindling in number.
Nebraska’s season is not over after today. There are, after all, 11 more games to play and a high likelihood that the Huskers will look more well-drilled than they did in today’s contest. However, based on prior results, there’s also a high likelihood that these errors will rear its ugly head on multiple occasions.
The Huskers are now at a crossroads. Saturday’s loss can be a rallying point around which the Huskers turn around their season, or the beginning of a tailspin culminating in another offseason filled with change.
The offseason is officially complete, the noise that accompanies it gone. The name of the Huskers’ new game is to respond and rally, and they have to do so starting in what should be a get-right victory over Fordham.
If not, things could get ugly and they could do so extremely quickly. The onus is now on Frost and company to turn yet another season-opening loss into the first winning record he’s led at his alma mater.