If Friday afternoon marked the changing of the guard, a beginning of an utter and complete overhaul, the burial of a previous era of Nebraska football, it occurred rather ingloriously.
For all the wrong reasons, of course.
Nebraska saved its greatest and most horrifying collapse for last against No. 16 Iowa, a collapse only magnified due to the nature of the game. On Senior Day, against a heated rival, up two scores entering the fourth quarter — it didn’t matter. True to form, the Huskers succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The nature of the collapse was all too predictable in the 28-21 defeat. Nebraska’s defense was excellent and ultimately couldn’t hold after recording stop after stop, the offense stalled out in the worst possible moments and the Huskers’ truly incompetent special teams had a big impact in the process.
Head coach Scott Frost’s team lost by one score for the eighth time this season and closed the 2021 campaign losing six consecutive games. Nebraska reached the point of stunning ineptitude, after winning just one conference game for the first time since 1958.
Football isn’t fair, sometimes. Life isn’t either. Friday’s game against Iowa wasn’t a fair result for Nebraska, just like so many this season.
Friday wasn’t fair for Logan Smothers, the first-time freshman starting quarterback who did nearly everything asked of him against Iowa. He commanded the offense near-perfectly for three quarters, in a performance that summated with 16-of-22 passes for 199 yards and an interception along with 64 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
With Nebraska down one score driving late in the game, Smothers and senior wide receiver Levi Falck didn’t connect, resulting in an interception that cemented the Husker loss. It was a commendable effort from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama native, and Smothers should remain blameless in the ultimate defeat.
Friday wasn’t fair for Nebraska’s defensive line, a unit that put constant pressure on Iowa’s quarterbacks all afternoon. Freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson recorded a nice sack in the second half, and senior defensive lineman Ben Stille combined with sophomore defensive lineman Casey Rodgers combined for a first-half sack as well.
Friday wasn’t fair for senior wide receiver Samori Toure or junior tight end Austin Allen, both playing their final games as a Husker. Toure totaled six receptions for 68 yards and was Smothers’ most consistent target on the afternoon, and Allen had two massive receptions for 55 yards.
Most Husker losses, Friday included, haven’t been fair in the sense that Nebraska played well enough to win for long stretches of time. It’s an unceremonious way to go out for a senior class that experienced little success, and it’s another perplexing defeat in a season full of them.
“It’s unfortunate that a team so great can do so many things good, and it just turns out bad,” junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said postgame. “I have no answer for this game, honestly. It just feels like it’s an ongoing dream and it happens week in and week out.”
As unfair as the 2021 season may have been, the most devastating blow is that every aspect of it was both self-inflicted and deserved.
If Nebraska’s special teams were properly addressed during the season, Iowa’s momentum-shifting blocked punt touchdown that cut Nebraska’s lead to 21-16 might not have happened.
“That blocked punt was the game,” Frost said.
If Nebraska would’ve been able to handle certain critical coaching situations better, a long-developing play-action pass wouldn’t have been called with Nebraska at its own 7-yard line.
That play resulted in a safety, further tilting the game in Iowa’s favor. Nebraska’s five drives that occurred in the fourth quarter combined to total 75 yards, 47 coming on the Huskers’ final drive of the game. In the second half, Nebraska’s offense failed to get anything going.
So, there it stands. Nebraska played to a zero point differential in Big Ten play, aided by a 49-point win over Northwestern, and lost to teams with a combined 75-25 record.
The result? 3-9.
Harping further on Friday’s events is essentially a futile exercise. Nothing will magically change. It’s up to Frost to decide how things do change in the future, though.
Nebraska was extremely close to accomplishing a season far better than what its final record indicated. When it was clear that the Huskers weren’t going to reach that peak, they decided to clear house earlier than expected in an effort to reset for next season.
While the on-field personnel Frost will have at his disposal is still a bit unclear, fourth-year juniors like Allen and Taylor-Britt both publicly declared that Friday’s game would be their last at Nebraska.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez, a fellow fourth-year junior, was honored in pregame Senior Day festivities and received a rousing roar of applause in the process. In addition to the graduating senior class, there are plenty of Huskers — players, coaches and athletic directors alike — with decisions to make in the coming weeks.
Filling the coaching staff, and how it’s filled, is a critical priority. The Huskers do have four critical holes, at least, to fill. Frost has remained non-committal on the hiring of a full-time special teams coach and even praised the group’s progress, but weekly errors from the unit almost certainly would make the hire a logical one.
There are, of course, plenty of questions surrounding the long-term view of the Husker offense. Frost has harped on the all-important hire of an offensive coordinator at length, noting it needs to be someone who he has complete trust in. For the first time in his Husker tenure, Frost won’t have as much of a playcalling share. Having someone solely responsible for it could assist the Huskers’ head coach in some of those critical, late decisions.
As for next season’s quarterback, Smothers looked the part for stretches on Friday, but obviously needs more seasoning at the collegiate level. Martinez, should he return, will be sidelined for a while recovering from shoulder surgery. Nebraska very realistically could look elsewhere for a stopgap at the position.
Frost noted postgame that he felt his team made progress from a “football standpoint” this season. While that might be true, the ultimate measure of progress is wins and losses. When the 2021 season is looked back upon, the only numbers that will be remembered are 3 and 9.
The Huskers have one offseason to fix it.