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LINCOLN — It was a rerun of a Black Friday horror movie. This time, Nebraska fans had better seats.
The weather was the same. The air heavy, the bleachers and jerseys damp. The coaches the same, the setup the same. Of course, the script played out the same way the second time around.
A year ago, in Nebraska’s 31-28 loss at Iowa, on fourth-and-8 with 42 seconds left, Nate Stanley hit T.J. Hockenson for 10 yards to the Nebraska 27. That set up the game-winner, halting any sweet final taste of Year 1 of Scott Frost.
It’s a rerun, so you know how Friday ended. Twenty-two yards from Stanley to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Twenty-two yards to Sam LaPorta. The Hawkeyes even moved the ball in the final 30 seconds from south to north, just like the original version.
By now, you’ve seen the blown kisses, the photos of Nebraska players in tears. Maybe you were close enough to the field to hear Lamar Jackson scream at himself as he walked through the tunnel, or watch as Jeramiah Stovall sat at the 2-yard-line and wept as distraught teammates trudged by.
For the second straight year, Iowa danced on Nebraska’s grave.
And this time, the Hawkeyes raise an uncomfortable question. Was Year 2 under Frost progress from Year 1? Or was it just one long rerun of Year 1?
“We won one more game, right?” junior JoJo Domann said. “So we’ll take that.”
Five is greater than four, but though Nebraska may have finished 5-7 instead of 4-8, statistically, the Huskers regressed in all three phases.
From 2018 to 2019, NU gained fewer first downs, ran for fewer yards, threw for fewer yards, gained fewer yards per rush, gained fewer total yards, scored fewer touchdowns, scored fewer total points, made fewer field goals, gave up touchdowns more often in the red zone, scored less in the red zone, gave up more kickoff return yards and touchdowns and broke up fewer passes.
Some of that change was drastic, like the 17.8-percentage point decrease in field goal percentage or the 14-percentage point decrease in red zone scores or the 11 fewer pass breakups.
Some were so similar, you’d swear it was the same season.
Nebraska ran one fewer play than 2018 with 867. They scored 24 fewer points, at 336. They recorded two more sacks, for one more yard of loss. They took the ball away 21 times, rather than 20. Scored 0.376 points per play, a hair fewer than the .380 last year.
In two years, Frost’s offense has scored 88 touchdowns. The defense has given up 88 touchdowns.
So, progress? Frost insists yes.
“It doesn’t seem like it right now, coming off this game, but I know how much ground we’ve covered already. There’s a lot of things that needed to get fixed, and I think a lot of those have been addressed,” Frost said postgame. “I think when you plant a seed, you don’t necessarily see sprouts right away. There’s a lot going on underneath the ground before you see things shooting out of it. I know a lot of things have gotten better.”
Frost talks in generalities when speaking of progress. Outgoing seniors were more forthright on Friday afternoon, with their final war paint fading with the season in their final media session.
Progress to Carlos Davis came this year during Nebraska’s four-game losing streak near the end of the season. He didn’t see quit, like he did in 2017 and 2018.
“Just the way this team is able to handle adversity,” Davis said. “Last year the season didn’t go — we were 4-8, this year we’re 5-7 — and I just think the resilience to keep battling, keep fighting is really big for a team to do when you’re in that position.”
The Huskers started 0-6 last year, then finished 4-2. They fought through adversity, too. But what Davis means, senior Wyatt Mazour said, is the mood was better throughout the final few weeks of 2019.
“From two years ago when we were kind of going through that skid, there was no confidence, no want-to on the field at all. And last year we kinda got a bit better at it and finished off strong, and then this year it was just a whole different attitude,” Mazour said.
He believes the losing streak brought the team together.
“It just seems like really, when our backs are against the wall, we continue to fight and we have a locker room full of fighters, and we did everything we could to get this thing turned around, and even though the games didn’t end the way we wanted, I think we really set the foundation.”
Much has been made this year about the divide between underclassmen and upperclassmen. Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson proclaimed publicly that he had to “get on” seniors to go through the culture change Frost wants. And maybe there wasn’t a full-blown reconciliation, but there was some change in the final three games, a shared unity, senior Mohammed Barry said, that wasn’t there before. That made them play harder, he said.
“We have to play harder than any team. That’s always going to be the winning formula at Nebraska,” Barry said. “We have great recruits here, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time where we just go to the hot bed of recruiting like we are Alabama or Georgia, but the formula will be outworking teams, playing harder than teams, playing with fire and desire. And that feeling will win us games in the future.”
Nebraska now enters its third straight offseason with no bowl trip, with 15 fewer practices. That’s 45 practices vanquished in the past three years. The program has more questions exiting the season than it had entering. But the Huskers return 11 of the 13 players who recorded a rush this season, all five players who threw a pass, the entire offensive line, and 13 of the 18 players who recorded a catch.
They also return a team that, players believe, took steps in the final few weeks that they consider progress. It didn’t translate to wins. But it was there, they say.
“Every year you need to pass the knowledge, you need to pass the failures, tell the younger guys under you to learn from your mistakes and keep them all feeling better,” Barry said. “And if that happens, then I would say this year is a success.”
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