BOULDER, Colo. — Mario Verduzco exited the locker room and walked up the paved path toward the team bus.
The quarterbacks coach stopped and dropped his bags about 15 feet from the fence to leave the stadium. He found a place on the curb and sat. He sighed, opened his laptop case, and tore through a packet of green and yellow papers filled with lists of plays. He scanned and scanned. He ran his hands through his hair, and adjusted his sunglasses.
What had gone wrong? And why, again, had it gone so wrong?
In front of him at the end of the ramp, the dismantling of a football team away from home began. The red heavy- duty crates full of jerseys and dirty clothes rumbled by. Pads stacked on a dolly were run up the hill to the bus by a graduate assistant. The band tick-a-tacked and chanted in formation by Husker players sauntering out of the locker room with ear buds in, eyes forward, blank gaze.
This is a familiar scene at Nebraska road games recently. A scene that, for the past two seasons, has been particularly painful.
Oct. 13, 2018: At Northwestern, 34-31 loss.
Nov. 3, 2018: At Ohio State, 36-31 loss.
Nov. 23, 2018: At Iowa, 31-28 loss.
Each game, Nebraska was either tied or down three in the second half. Each could’ve been chalked up as program-changing or season-defining.
But Nebraska continues to fall short.
Add Saturday to the list. Add this one — maybe the most painful — on the road in front of a 50-50 split of Husker and Colorado fans.
Sept. 7, 2019: At Colorado on a warm Boulder day, 34-31 loss.
“It’s definitely not chance. It’s not up to fate. It’s nothing like that,” NU defensive end Ben Stille said. “It’s up to us. We have to stop (the cycle).”
Nebraska’s first loss of this year was reminiscent to the three previous road trips. And what hurt most was the idea that this year — this team — was supposed to be different.
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Instead, it was the same scene. The same feeling.
“We let our fans down, and we let Coach Frost down and we wanted to win this game,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “We wanted this game.
“Like I told the guys in the locker room, remember this feeling. And let’s not feel this again.”
The problem is, this feeling is almost a normal postgame routine. As normal as media doing postgame stand-ups at the 50-yard line in a deserted stadium, the sound of empty water bottles bouncing down the concrete steps and the meals for players stacked on a table outside the locker room.
The meals this time were in plastic bags. Purple, blue, yellow and pink Gatorades awaited atop a red cooler. Some took the food. Others, like Isaac Armstrong, were too mad to care.
Armstrong, the punter -turned-kicker due to Barret Pickering’s injury, walked out of the locker room with his hood up, past the food and up to the bus.
He missed the 48-yard field goal to send the game into double overtime. He was sullen. But he might as well have been Pickering last October in Chicago, after he missed key field goals that would have avoided the fourth-quarter comeback win by Northwestern.
Same position. Same feeling.
Darrion Daniels went 6-6 last year at Oklahoma State. He’s used to losing. But he’s not used to being so close, then having the game ripped from your hands.
“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, I feel like we were the better team,” Daniels said as the band played its way out of Folsom Field. “It was just poor execution.”
Daniels might as well have been Mohamed Barry at Ohio State last season. After that loss, Barry stood next to a dumpster and said he thought Nebraska should’ve been in it with the top-10 team. That Nebraska was a better team that day.
But both times, both defensive leaders walked away shaking their heads.
This 2019 team was supposed to be different because of its playmakers. Because of the return of Martinez and the influx of talent. And for the increased role of players like Maurice Washington, who had 15 carries for 77 yards and four catches for 118 yards and a score.
He walked off the field, helmet in hand, tears running down his face while the goal posts came down and a 30-yard mosh pit formed in celebration.
Washington might as well have been Stanley Morgan in the November cold in Iowa City last year. He broke the school record for receptions that day. But a field goal on the final play of the game sealed Nebraska’s fate. Morgan cried as he left the field, too.
These losses help motivate, safety Eric Lee said. But Martinez and NU are done leaning on losses to get things figured out. This is Year 2. These things shouldn’t happen anymore.
“This stuff will happen, but good teams will bounce back,” Martinez said.
He left the locker room Saturday and apologized to a Nebraska official for cursing during his postgame interview.
At the top of the ramp, Verduzco folded the play sheet, stood up and jammed it in his pocket. Martinez was stopped by a young fan for a photo. The sophomore forced a smile and thanked the boy in a red hat and Scott Frost jersey.
He and Verduzco got on the bus, and it rolled to the airport, carrying a team watching the sun set over the mountains, feeling that familiar, frustrating feeling of wonder, passion and anger.