CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After the latest flop on his Nebraska resume, Scott Frost seemed to have a little humility knocked into him. He dispensed with the terse-and-tough act he’d tried with the local media in the past week, when he spoke twice for a total of seven minutes and 55 glaring seconds. This time, he answered questions about the Cornhuskers’ debacle of a season opener Saturday with greater expansiveness, and something approaching candor.
“It looked like the same movie,” Frost said after Illinois beat Nebraska 30–22. “I just got done telling our guys we can’t have this season be the same movie, because this game looked like the same movie today.”
You certainly don’t want to keep making sequels of duds, but the start to Frost’s fourth season at his alma mater was more of the rotten tomato same. More critical errors. More special teams gaffes. More collapses in the face of adversity. More reasons to wonder whether Frost is the guy.
Scenes from the same lousy movie: fielding a punt on the 1-yard line and having that result in a safety; two missed extra points by a senior kicker who was first-team all-Big Ten last year; an Adrian Martinez fumble that became a scoop-and-score Illinois touchdown; a Martinez overthrow in the end zone that led to a field goal instead of a touchdown; a handful of penalties that nullified huge plays for the Huskers; and Frost and his staff failing to realize they had a first down at the Illinois 5-yard line in the fourth quarter, instead calling a quarterback sneak because they thought it was fourth down, wasting valuable time.
After an offseason of talk about the Huskers finally being ready to turn the corner and compete in the Big Ten West, they were beaten by an Illinois team that had to resort to backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski just three series into the game following an injury to Brandon Peters. They were beaten by rebooted Bret Bielema in his first game on the job, taking over a program that is riding a nine-year streak of losing records. They were beaten by Illinois for the second year in a row—and Illinois hadn’t beaten a Big Ten West opponent in consecutive seasons since the league went to its current divisional format in 2014.
Yeah, this was bad.
“These kids, I feel bad for them,” Frost said. “Because they put in so much hard work. We put a lot on this game. I know how much better our team has been than that. It didn’t look like it today.
“This league, man, a lot of games are going to ride on a play here, a play there. We didn’t make enough of them today. I need to do a better job making sure we avoid the mistakes and keep putting them in positions where they can rise up and make those plays. … I believe in my heart this team can still have a special season. I expected today to go a lot different.”
Instead, it went the way the previous three seasons have gone. Frost’s record at Nebraska now is 12–21; his Big Ten mark is 9–18; his record in the first game of the year against a Power 5 opponent is 0–4; his ongoing NCAA investigation count is one. Forget rekindling the 1990s glory days from when Frost played for Tom Osborne; at this point he’s just trying to avoid being the next Bill Jennings (15-34-1 from 1957–61). The Golden Boy who was hired for $5 million a year and given a nonsensical two-year extension in 2019 is sub-Solich, Riley redux, Callahan Ultra Lite and barely half a Pelini.
Despite bringing a surplus of cockiness with him from Central Florida, where his program legitimately worked wonders, Frost now sounds and acts like a guy who is searching for a break instead of making his own breaks. He wanted out of the contract to play former rival and current power Oklahoma this season. Saturday he alluded to his team being unlucky.
“One thing we’ve never gotten around here is the spark,” he said. “We need to win a couple close games, string some wins together, get some momentum. The guys really believe they’re better, they know they’re better, they are better. They’re better than they’ve ever been. We have more talent, more depth, I’ve been saying that. But they need some good things to happen to really believe. Sometimes I feel like we’re snakebit with the timing of when these things happen, but we’ve got to fight through it.”
It’s true that some teams can be luckier than others, but eventually the breaks tend to even out—and in Year 4, it’s getting pretty late to dig into the “snakebit” bag. Good teams make their own good fortune, or refuse to buckle in the face of bad fortune. After the deflating Martinez fumble put Illinois a head going into halftime, Nebraska came out to start the third quarter like a defeated team—the Huskers were pummeled on a 75-yard touchdown drive, went three-and-out, then gave up another TD to trail 30–9.
(Take a moment, here, to salute Bielema for his debut. He had his team far more ready than Lovie Smith ever did for a Big Ten opener, playing with Bielema-esque toughness in the trenches. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters dialed up a very good game plan and his unit tackled tenaciously while surviving a few coverage busts. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen adapted the game plan for the emergency use of Sitkowski, the Rutgers transfer who never experienced much Big Ten success. This was big; next we’ll see whether it’s sustainable.)
Down 30–9 against a perennial league doormat, you couldn’t blame new Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts if he’d started texting boosters for buyout money. It would cost a fortune to replace Frost after this season—about $20 million—but we saw Auburn and Texas swallow the poison buyout pill last year amid a pandemic that ravaged athletic department finances. Maybe Nebraska has more fiscal restraint than those two programs, but maybe not.
Nebraska has a fan base that cares as much as anyone’s. If this season doesn’t get better, you have to wonder whether they’re willing to hang in a collapsing pocket with Frost. Also, whether Alberts is willing—like Frost, he’s a 1990s Osborne guy, but he’s also got a chance to make his own mark right away and become the hero Husker who turned around the program.
If that is indeed possible. We all know the reasons why Nebraska’s dominance from the 1960s through ‘90s is hard to replicate—meager natural recruiting ground, tougher sledding getting out-of-state recruits from the old hotbeds, the diminution of the program’s walk-on and weight room advantages, and so forth. Instead of looking for a guy who can go 12–0 and win the Big Ten, Nebraska might realize how long it’s been since it even went 9–4 and lower expectations.
Alberts was silent riding the elevator down from the Memorial Stadium press box postgame, alone with his thoughts. His first game as athletic director bore no resemblance to his time as a player. Those days are gone, and the doubts are greater than ever that Scott Frost is the guy to bring them back.
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