LINCOLN, Neb. — More than an hour after Nebraska lost yet another game in heartbreaking fashion, the callers kept phoning in to Big Red Reaction on the Huskers Radio Network in the early part of Sunday morning.
They asked about the playcalling down the stretch in the 32-29 loss to Michigan, and what Adrian Martinez should have done as he was pushing for more yardage with the game on the line.
They vented about the officiating. A lot.
But more than anything, nearly every caller bypassed despondency and expressed some measure of hope.
One after another, the refrain sounded similar: They all swore they saw a better team in front of them. But, they all wondered out loud, what is it going to take to get Nebraska over the hump — away from devastating losses and toward defining victories?
This is a vastly different question than the one posed six weeks ago, when Nebraska opened the season with an embarrassing loss to Illinois that featured many of the same mistakes that have plagued the Huskers over the last four years under Frost. “It looked like the same movie,” Frost said at the time, not exactly the words a loyal, passionate fan base desperate to see their Huskers return to prominence wanted to hear.
Back then, many wondered whether Frost would make it through the season. Disenchantment was so high, their NCAA-record home sellout streak was kept alive only because of the generosity of two donors.
Since then, undeniable progress has been made. But that has not necessarily been reflected on the scoreboard. Nebraska played Oklahoma closer than expected in a 23-16 loss. Then it led undefeated Michigan State late in the fourth quarter before losing in overtime. Now, the Michigan loss piled on top, another game the Huskers had an opportunity to win late, only to lose.
What unfolded Saturday night in front of an energized, raucous crowd has become typical for Nebraska: excruciatingly close, only to have your heart ripped out at the end. Nebraska sits at 3-4 headed into its game Saturday at Minnesota (ESPN2, noon ET), a must-win for its bowl hopes considering the road ahead still features top-10 Ohio State and Iowa and a road trip to Wisconsin, a team the Huskers have beaten only once since joining the Big Ten 10 years ago.
All four losses this season have been one-score games. That is tough to swallow for a still-proud program and its coach, a native son who won a national championship at Nebraska in 1997, and returned to coach his alma mater in 2018 because someone had to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work required to get the Huskers rolling again.
Four years in, they are not rolling just yet. But in a sit-down interview with ESPN last week before the Michigan game, Frost said he finally senses a shift around the entire program. His message — that they are only a few plays away now — has clearly resonated with a fan base that, for the most part, seems to be buying in. Frost, after all, is one of them.
“We’ve been close for a while,” Frost said. “We’re really close now. We’ve got a team that can compete with just about anybody. Then, once you’ve built that team, it’s learning how to win, then it’s learning how to handle winning. We’re right in the middle of all that.”
New athletic director Trev Alberts, who like Frost, played for Tom Osborne at Nebraska, said he is not worried about what happened before his arrival in July. Alberts cited a lack of unity among the university, athletics administration and football program, which may have hurt Frost at least at the outset.
“The programs that are successful, it’s not just XYZ coach is so successful,” Alberts said. “It is an athletic department, university-wide culture commitment, unity of purpose. I’m not sure that Scott was the beneficiary of that necessarily.”
In the past 10 years, Nebraska has seen a revolving door of athletic directors; Alberts is the fourth in the position in that span. Because of all those changes, there has been a lack of consistency not only in priorities and messaging, but internal communication. That is, in part, why Frost publicly aired his frustration with the way the Big Ten handled the return to college football last fall — creating tension for the school within the league.
Alberts continued, saying, “Cultural things don’t get flipped overnight, that’s the hard thing. There’s got to be a consistency in approach not just from the head football coach. It’s got to start right here. I’m accountable to it, too. A place like this, if you’re not careful, you can get comfortable and lethargic and entitled. That’s not what this place was built on.”
Does Alberts believe that is what happened at Nebraska over the last 20 years?
“Yes,” he says. “We’re not entitled to success here just because we’ve done something in the ’90s. This is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business.”
To that end, Alberts says what he wants to see is a team that plays with the characteristics that can help Nebraska win the way everyone is used to seeing: by being tough, physical, relentless and selfless.
“At the end of the day, college football is better when the Hurricanes are good and Notre Dame is good and Nebraska is good,” Alberts said. “We need to be focused on relevancy. It’s a broad term. Let’s stop worrying about when are we going to win the West, or when are we going to win the Big Ten. When are we going to be a football team that other people watch on film and go, ‘uhh, those guys play hard.’ I’m going to tell you I’m really proud of how hard our kids are playing.
“To me, fundamentals can be taught, the hardest thing about flipping a culture is getting guys to be willing to lay it on the line when you really don’t want to. We have that. Even in those games we lost, those guys are fighting and that is the most important thing. You have to start with the fight. We’re not intimidated or scared, and then we’re taking incremental steps in those key areas like special teams and penalties and turnovers. You’re always going to have mistakes. It’s part of the game, but it can’t define who you are.”
Frost echoed those comments, saying, “The sense of positivity, the confidence of the players, the physicality of the players, it just feels different. I had this conversation with the players last week — there’s been so many problems to fix, I think we’ve been focusing so much on fixing, fixing, fixing that fixated us on problems. That’s changing.”
But ultimately, the question is whether it is changing fast enough. Because the problems keep coming up — whether they are special teams miscues (Illinois, Michigan State), too many penalties (last in the Big Ten) or too many turnovers (minus-1 margin). As great as Martinez has been throughout this season — he had four touchdowns to get Nebraska in position for the upset against Michigan — he also fumbled with a chance to drive Nebraska for the game-winning field goal Saturday night.
Alberts stood on the sideline watching, as disappointment and disbelief filled the stadium.
Up until that moment, it seemed Nebraska fans believed they had a chance. Before the game even began, there was a palpable buzz around Lincoln, as fans packed outdoor bars and restaurants five hours before kickoff, launching into spontaneous “Go Big Red!” chants.
There was no need for donated tickets to fill Memorial Stadium because demand was so high. One security guard on the field during warmups said they had all been warned they should try to prevent students from rushing onto the field in celebration, should Nebraska win. “I should say, ‘When we win,'” he said with a big smile.
As the third quarter ended, Nebraska led 22-19 — the first team to have a lead on Michigan all season. Fans stood and hollered during the new laser light show introduced this season as a way to fire up both the crowd and the players. Everything felt as if this would be the game to get Nebraska over that hump.
But then Martinez fumbled with 1:45 to play and the score tied at 29. He thought his forward progress had been stopped long enough for a whistle from the referees. But that whistle never came, and Michigan defensive back Brad Hawkins punched the ball loose. Frost could hardly believe it himself. A masterful second half, felled once again by the all-too-familiar mistake.
Michigan converted the turnover to the winning field goal and left with its undefeated record intact. Nebraska left with yet another close loss.
Afterward, Frost repeatedly said how much his heart hurt for his players, and how proud he was of their effort. “I thought tonight was the night,” Frost lamented during his postgame press conference. “In games past when we’ve gotten ahead I got the sense that everybody’s thinking, ‘What’s going to go wrong?’ I didn’t feel that at all. We’ll get there.”
If you want to truly measure progress, Nebraska lost to Michigan in Year 1 under Frost 56-10. In Year 4, the Huskers lost by three. “We’re a good football team now,” Martinez said at his postgame press conference. “We need to get more wins, and we’ve lost some really close, tough games. But this is a special group of guys. I know we’re going to bounce back.”
Nebraska has shown through seven games it can bounce back despite the heartbreak and adversity. But with five games left in the season, the question becomes what should the end result look like? A first bowl trip since 2016? Or just the type of progress Frost and Alberts have seen week to week?
“I’m never going to be the person that says he’s coaching for his job,” Alberts said. “We don’t do that. I’ve never said, ‘You must win this many games or you’re fired,’ and I told Scott. We’re on the same page. We’re working together. I want to see growth. I’m seeing growth. I’m proud of it. I think Scott is a really good coach. I don’t know what happened the last 3½ years. All I’m worried about is right now, and I’m really proud of how our coaches and assistant coaches have attacked this year. But it’s hard to make a judgment on anything right now.”
Asked whether he believes Frost is the person to lead Nebraska forward, Alberts said, “I do. I’m proud of Scott. Scott’s working really hard, and I’ve seen Scott grow and mature. The reality is none of us are finished products. If we get everybody operating from their position of strength, we’re going to be pretty good. I’m not sure administratively we always were helpful in that area, and that’s my job.”
Frost is confident the turning point is coming soon, believing the program finally has nearly everything it needs to win consistently. He says he has a young team that will only get better and a veteran quarterback with another year of eligibility if he chooses to use it. The next big step is winning, so Nebraska can begin to recruit more nationally than it does right now to put the program in position for even greater success.
He intends to keep working until that big breakthrough happens.
“I don’t feel more pressure because a vocal minority is saying this or that,” Frost said. “I’m not worried about their expectations. I just want this to work so badly. I want to do everything I can to help Nebraska be Nebraska, and we’ve had a lot of work to do to get that done. We’re still in the process of that, but I’m proud of the improvements we’ve made.
“It’s going to happen.”