Through two frustrating, disappointing games to start the Scott Frost era, we’ve learned Nebraska’s football team must first figure out how to not beat itself before it can begin thinking about beating anybody else.
Yes, that includes team from the Sun Belt Conference.
Nobody said the culture-change project Frost and his staff inherited would be swift, or easy. Saturday’s 24-19 loss to Troy before 89,360 fans at Memorial Stadium served as a painful reminder.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Frost said. ”I think we’re a better team than the results say they are, but that doesn’t matter.”
Sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch made his first career start at quarterback and played the entire game. True freshman Adrian Martinez looked good in warm-ups, Frost said, but had been ruled out and wasn’t an option to play.
This defeat, though, had only a tiny part to do with who played under center.
It had everything to do with 10 penalties for 77 yards, a negative turnover margin and missed assignments and mistakes that Frost and players know they must correct and clean before they taste victory.
“We’ve got good players, we’ve got great players, but if we hurt ourselves then we’re going to have the same outcome,” Nebraska senior guard and captain Jerald Foster said. “Coach is just challenging us to detail our work, and I know we’re going to do it this week.”
As things stand now, Nebraska is 0-2 for the first time since 1957 and leaves Memorial Stadium, where the Huskers have lost six straight, for its Big Ten Conference opener at Michigan.
“We’ve got a tough game next week. It might get worse before it gets better,” Frost said. “It’s always darkest before the dawn, and I know where this is going, and I want every guy in the locker room on board.”
Frost told his players after the game they could either fight back and work even harder, or they could just give up.
“I also told them if anybody doesn’t want to stay on board and ride with us, let me know now and get off, because I know where this is going,” Frost said. “We just aren’t getting the results we need.”
That’s not to say Nebraska didn’t do some good things on a hot, sun-splashed day; it just didn’t do enough to outweigh the bad, or a Troy team that recorded a road victory against a Power 5 Conference team for a second consecutive season. The Trojans (2-1) won at LSU last season.
“We’ve got good football players and a good team, if you look at what we’ve done over the last three years,” Troy coach Neal Brown said. “Our guys fully expected to come in here and compete and have the opportunity to win in the fourth quarter, and that’s what we did.”
Brown also delivered a measured message of hope to the Husker faithful.
“I want to say this to the Nebraska fans: You’re going to be fine,” Brown said. “Those guys over there, Scott Frost and those guys they have on defense and that staff in particular, they’re going to get it done here.
“They’re going to win and they’re going to win big. They’re doing it the right way.”
For the second week in a row, the Blackshirts showed their ability to swarm to the ball and create pressure. They collected three more sacks, and their season total of 10 sacks is the most through two games since 2005.
The defense held Troy to a modest 253 yards, and cornerback Lamar Jackson wrestled the football away from his receiver for his first career interception and Nebraska’s first turnover of the season.
But the Blackshirts also surrendered a 37-yard pass and a 59-yard run, and not only couldn’t force a Troy punt late in the game, when the Huskers trailed 17-13, but allowed a 26-yard touchdown run with 6:45 remaining that put the offense in a big hole.
“There were obviously some positives, but at the end of the day, we had plenty of chances to take that game over defensively,” Nebraska defensive tackle and captain Mick Stoltenberg said. “We let in some explosive plays, and that killed us. … Those are what we have to eliminate as a defense.”
Likewise, the offense showed flashes, yet struggled with consistency. Bunch performed admirably, given his first career start as a walk-on came in only his second career Nebraska game. He finished 19-of-27 passing for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including a 9-yard pass to Stanley Morgan Jr. – a much, much-needed score late in the first half after the Huskers had fallen behind 17-0.
“I thought he did a good job getting thrown into that situation,” Frost said of Bunch. “We kind of wanted to ugly the game up and not lean on him early.”
What thwarted that plan was a 59-yard punt return for a Troy touchdown and two early turnovers – a fumble and interception – that put the Huskers in an early deficit for a second straight game.
“We had to lean on (Bunch), and when we asked him to make throws, I thought he made some really good throws and did some good things,” Frost said. “We got off of our rhythm and off of our game plan early and what we went into the game wanting to do because of how the first quarter went.”
A third-quarter holding penalty wiped out a Bunch screen pass to JD Spielman that would’ve been a touchdown. Instead, the Huskers settled for one of two Barret Pickering field goals in the third quarter that narrowed the margin to 17-13.
Troy led 24-13 when Bunch directed an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 3:50, and pulled Nebraska within 24-19 after a failed two-point conversion with 2:55 remaining. That series included a crucial 26-yard completion to tight end Kurt Rafdal on a third-and-15 play, and ended with a swing pass that Spielman turned into a 7-yard touchdown.
The defense, using two of three timeouts, did its part in forcing a three-and-out, and the offense regained possession with 2:26 remaining. But on the second play of the series, Bunch threw his second interception of the game – a high ball, he said – and Troy ran out the clock.
“We’re going to fight back,” Foster said. “I don’t see any other option. There’s no quit in this group. We’re going to fight back.”
Frost is certain that will happen, yet, he’d also like his players to taste victory, and soon – if for nothing else, than a reward for the work they’ve put in to help Frost and his staff with the aforementioned culture change.
“It’s just got to happen. They’ve been working hard enough and they deserve to win,” Frost said. “Sometimes it’s got to happen, and once it does, things get a lot better, but I’ve got a bunch of guys in the locker room that are broken hearted, and it doesn’t hurt anybody worse than the coaches and those guys in the locker room.
“Nobody is happy with what’s happening. So, we all have a lot of work to do.”
Senior linebacker and captain Luke Gifford said it’s important players remember how to win, and to take advantage of opportunities to win a game, when presented.
“And that’s what’s so frustrating – you can see how good this team can be,” Gifford said. “There’s so many good things that we’ve done. And things that you see throughout the week and the way we go about our work, but it needs to all fall into place. And I think once we do that, we can get this thing rolling.”