While Nebraska used its second bye week looking for ways to resuscitate a season teetering on lost in part due to a three-game losing streak, three teams who have actually made the sort of gains the Huskers were hoping for this fall each had good weekends.
P.J. Fleck’s third Minnesota team, which caught some offseason love to help offset a healthy dose of skepticism, announced its arrival on the national scene by knocking off No. 4 Penn State and improving to 9-0.
Further south in the Big Ten West, Lovie Smith’s fourth Illinois team, who was almost unanimously pegged as the division’s cellar dweller and the one team out of seven that had no chance of playing in Indianapolis, won its fourth straight game in dramatic fashion over Michigan State and became bowl eligible at 6-4.
In the Big Ten East, Tom Allen’s fourth Indiana team had a bye week after running its winning streak to four. The Hoosiers jumped into both The Associated Press (No. 24) and coaches’ (No. 25) polls, hit mid-November ahead of Michigan in its division and, likely or not, is playing for a shot at up to 10 regular-season wins.
You never know exactly when a team might turn the proverbial corner. A year ago, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana combined to go 16-21 overall and 7-20 in Big Ten play. So far this fall: 22-6 and 14-5.
Remember, even at the beginning of this season, UM squeaked out its first three games against FCS South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.
“Then you started to see this team develop,” former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said on Fox’s College Football Extra on Saturday night. “That’s a tribute to that coaching staff, Coach Fleck and that staff. They’re really good. I noticed that about three to four weeks ago, I was doing a (Big Ten Network) segment, I ran it back and I said, ‘That’s Minnesota?’”
At Illinois, most wondered if this was Smith’s last chance, and many assumed it probably was. Now the Illini have a four-game winning streak of their own, are going to a bowl game and have a chance to make more waves before the month is out.
Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt talks about the team's attitude on Nov. 11, 2019.
Those situations, each similar but unique in their own ways, help illustrate multiple conversations currently pertaining to Nebraska football. First, the Big Ten isn’t getting any easier, as the Huskers and second-year head coach Scott Frost have learned. NU dominated Minnesota and Illinois both in 2018. This year, the Huskers got blown out by the Gophers and now a 42-38 win at Illinois in September looks like easily their best of the season so far.
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Frost, of course, would love to see a similar run in Lincoln over the season’s final three games as his team comes off a bye week and prepares for a closing stretch that begins Saturday against Wisconsin, continues at Maryland on Nov. 23 and concludes Black Friday (Nov. 29) against Iowa.
He said Monday he’s seen growth from his program this season on offense even if that growth isn’t showing up necessarily in the win-loss record.
“I think there has been a lot of progress made. I don’t think you can always see it because some of it has not been made in other areas just because of circumstances with some things,” Frost said. “We are playing some young guys on the offensive line. I think they can continue to get better. I think we have had solid play from our tight ends. The running backs have played well at times. It’s been kind of a revolving door back there a little bit with injuries and other things.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez talks about his performance against Purdue on Nov. 11, 2019.
“There are definitely some areas where we’ve improved. We need the rest of the pieces to catch up with that improvement.”
That, to put it simply, is what’s happened in Minneapolis, Champaign and Bloomington this fall. Change doesn’t happen suddenly, but it’s showing through clearly in Fleck’s third season and Allen’s and Smith’s fourth.
Meyer made it clear he didn’t believe in Minnesota, for instance, as recently as September.
“That’s another way to measure a coaching staff is, 'How does it take off or go throughout the season?,'” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I kind of said, ‘Let’s move on. Who’s it really going to be in the West?’”
Part of what drove offseason expectations for Nebraska was its 4-2 finish in 2018, but that run hasn’t led to the sort of improvement in the win-loss column that many expected. Other programs have taken off while the Huskers remain stuck in some of their old habits, trying to achieve the changes they’re sure are happening to reach point where it starts showing up on the scoreboard.
“I think what it shows you is, in this league, a play here and there is going to make a difference in games, and that happened in that game,” Frost said of UM’s win over Penn State. “In this league and really anywhere in football, when things are going well for you and you’re on a roll, you can kind of catch that momentum and ride it. And when it’s going the other way, it seems like bad things happen to you over and over.
“You’ve got to try and be one of those teams that gets some momentum like they have.”
Watch: Domann on preparation for Wisconsin standout running back Taylor
Watch: Domann talks matching up against a 'big' Badgers offense
Watch: Martinez rehashes Purdue game, takes responsibility for loss
Watch: Taylor-Britt says there is "new spirit" in the locker room after second bye week
Watch: Frost looking for more consistency, decision-making from Martinez
Watch: Frost on awarding final scholarship to Mazour
Contact the writer at email@example.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.