LINCOLN — The disappointment lingered from Saturday night into Sunday morning. Time dragged like the cleats on Husker feet as they walked toward the locker room behind another team celebrating a win they thought should’ve been theirs.
Can Nebraska stop committing the cardinal sin?
The players say they can. Adrian Martinez said Nebraska is “a good football team." Austin Allen said the Huskers won’t lose any momentum after Saturday’s 23-20 loss to Michigan State. And JoJo Domann said NU won’t give up.
“It’s not in our DNA,” Domann said. “It’s not an option.”
The fans are harder to convince. Same old Huskers, they say, same old Frost. Same fourth-quarter gaffe that soils an otherwise stellar performance. Nothing has changed.
Really? Because the numbers suggest otherwise.
Consider the following: Martinez is playing by most statistical measures the best season in his Nebraska tenure. He’s on pace for the most total yards (3,895) and touchdowns (26) of his career, the fewest turnovers (9.6) and he’s shattering his career bests in yards per attempt (9.6 compared to 7.5) and passer rating (156.2 compared to 139.5).
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“That’s a baller right there,” running back Rahmir Johnson said. “He’s a dog. That’s what we need on our team.”
The Blackshirts have some dogs, too. They made stops against the Spartans, which represents another change in Nebraska’s makeup.
The Huskers allowed 30 points in 15 of Erik Chinander’s first 24 games as defensive coordinator. Since then, they’ve allowed 30 in three of their past 13. And when they focus their energy on an opponent’s strength, they can take it away.
Oklahoma’s longest pass play against the Huskers was 23 yards, and it came on a trick play. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker, who led the country in rushing entering Saturday’s game, finished with 61 yards on 19 carries (3.2 yards per). Before his 23-yard scamper in overtime, he averaged 2.1 yards per tote.
Martinez’s fourth-quarter fumble felt like a disaster. Then the Blackshirts forced Michigan State into one of its five second-half three-and-outs, and the fumble became an afterthought.
“Absolutely outstanding,” Martinez said of the defense. “I mean, they've been lights out last week and this week.
"They’re the backbone of this team; they’re fueling us.”
Nebraska’s never had a “backbone” to lean on during the Frost era. It hasn’t benefited from a consistent QB. And based on Saturday’s results, the rest of the Big Ten has never bent closer to Nebraska’s tier.
Minnesota lost to Bowling Green. Wisconsin’s offense looked awful against Notre Dame. Rutgers pushed Michigan to the wire.
Nebraska has lost by two scores at least once against all three of those teams since Frost took over. But now?
Nebraska’s defense looks much better than Minnesota’s, and Martinez is playing better than Graham Mertz or Cade McNamara (or Tanner Morgan).
The gap doesn’t feel as large. At the very least, Nebraska can hang close with those teams.
Of course, that’s when the pain flares up. Nebraska can always play close. It rarely wins close.
Frost is now 6-14 in one-score games. His Nebraska teams have always committed a turnover or missed a field goal or punted poorly at precisely the worst moment. No one can blame fans for thinking they always will.
But believe it or not, the Huskers have made tangible improvements. Nebraska’s defense has evolved enough to be the program’s foundation. Its quarterback has matured to the point where the good traits outweigh the bad.
Saturday’s loss hurts now, but the pain will subside. The calendar will flip. Northwestern visits Memorial Stadium in six days.
Nebraska is 1-2 against the Wildcats under Frost, but Nebraska is a 6½-point favorite this time. The teams are different now. Nebraska’s defense and quarterback are different now.
And if all that can change, the Huskers reason, why can’t their penchant for losing close change, too?
“We know the type of team we are,” Martinez said. “This isn't going to discourage us just like the Illinois loss didn’t discourage us. We know what we're capable of, and we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Simple as that.”