Of all the moments a coach could point to in order to help explain Nebraska’s inexplicable overtime loss to Northwestern last fall, a defeat snatched so swiftly from the jaws of victory that players afterward struggled to comprehend what happened and one that dropped the Cornhuskers to 0-6 for the first time in program history, Scott Frost this week picked out one that could easily have gone overlooked.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez was sacked and fumbled late in the second quarter, allowing Earnest Brown to scoop up the loose ball and score from 10 yards out, briefly giving the Wildcats a 14-7 lead with 3 minutes, 1 second remaining in the first half.
The Huskers mounted a scoring drive before intermission and build a two-score lead in the second half before it fell apart, but Frost hadn’t forgot the early turnover on Thursday morning when discussing keys to Saturday’s 3 p.m. game against Northwestern at Memorial Stadium.
“I really think the key to the whole game is going to be turnovers,” Frost said. “Back at last year’s game, with everything that happened, if we just hadn’t given them a strip sack fumble on defense, we most likely would have won the game. That was the difference in the game.”
Parker Gabriel gives the latest from head coach Scott Frost on Oct. 3, 2019.
Perhaps the turnover sticks out in Nebraska’s second-year head coach’s mind, at least in part because turnovers have been a consistent thorn for the Huskers since his hire. Really, they’ve been problematic for Nebraska teams dating back many years.
And that had Frost a little miffed last week after his team’s 48-7 loss against Ohio State, one in which Martinez threw three first-half interceptions, extending the Huskers’ turnover spree to seven in less than six quarters this fall.
“I’ve never really been a part of a team that has had the issue,” Frost said then. “So we’re going to continue to address it and make sure it happens as little as we can help it to happen.”
The numbers support Frost’s recollection.
In nine seasons (2009-17) as an FBS conference assistant, coordinator or head coach before coming to Nebraska — four as the receivers coach at Oregon, three as the offensive coordinator for the program and two years as Central Florida’s head coach — the Ducks and Knights had a positive turnover margin every season. Over 120 games in those nine seasons, the teams combined for 161 giveaways (1.3 per game). When Oregon made the national championship game with Frost as the offensive coordinator under head coach Mark Helfrich, they turned it over just 11 times in 15 games and had a plus-23 turnover margin. Two years before: Plus-21. During 2017’s undefeated run at UCF: Plus-17.
In the same nine-year span, Nebraska had a positive turnover margin just twice (2016 and 2009) and turned it over 215 times in 119 games (1.8 per game).
Head football coach Scott Frost talks about turnovers and Khalil Davis's suspension on Oct. 3, 2019
The turnover tide hasn’t been stemmed since Frost arrived in Lincoln, either. NU turned it over 22 times in 2018 — a workable number, given Nebraska installed a new system and played the season with a freshman quarterback. So far this season, the Huskers are tied for 128th in the nation with 14 giveaways (five interceptions and a nation-high nine lost fumbles) and are on pace for easily the most turnovers by a Frost-led team.
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The trend has been accelerated the past two games after NU lost four fumbles against Illinois and had the three interceptions against the Buckeyes.
“If you take care of the ball in practice, you’ll take care of the ball in a game,” Frost said. “Last week, they had some special players and a couple of the turnovers were just created by really good plays from a couple of guys. I didn’t think we were careless with the ball. One sailed throw maybe was careless. Other than that we weren’t careless with the ball, they just made a play and had one land on them.
“But it’s happened too often that it (would be) just coincidence, so we need to be as dialed into protecting the football as we possibly can on Saturday.”
Martinez and quarterbacks coach Mario Verudzco dissect interceptions — and near misses, as Verduzco often says — individually. Fumbles can come in many shades, too, though the sophomore quarterback lumped them together on Monday.
“As far as interceptions are concerned, that is just isolating that play depending on my read, whatever may have happened during the play, the throw,” Martinez said. “When it comes to fumbles, that is something that we work on every day in practice. It is a conscious effort to be better at ball security, and that goes for me and that goes for all the rest of the offensive guys.”
Frost on Thursday called turnovers “a two-way street.” Erik Chinander’s defensive unit has forced just one the past two weeks and half of the group’s 10 this fall came Week 1 against South Alabama.
Turnover margin has been a good bellwether for Frost’s Huskers so far. In 17 career games at NU (7-10), Frost’s teams are 4-1 with a plus turnover number, 2-1 in even games and 1-8 when losing the battle.
That’s why there’s such a focus this week against Northwestern, a team that’s been stingy in the department typically under Pat Fitzgerald but which has given the ball away 11 times in four games so far this fall and is minus-3 for the season.
Frost called Wisconsin’s two defensive touchdowns against the Wildcats “uncharacteristic,” and said the Huskers can’t rely on a repeat performance.
“These guys don’t beat themselves very often, we have to make sure we do the same,” he said. “They have a really good defense and we just have to make sure that even if we’re not scoring, we’re trying to win the field position battle.
“And a big part of that is not turning it over.”