Scott Frost knew for months that, if his first Nebraska team found itself trying to win a game in the waning moments, that it would do so with a young, inexperienced quarterback leading the charge.
Nobody would have thought until only recent days, though, that the young player in the center of the storm on Saturday afternoon, who put the final pass of the game high into the air and into the end zone, who nearly led his storied program to a heart-stopping win against an old familiar foe, who instead stood in front of reporters after a heartbreaking loss, would be Andrew Bunch.
That the sophomore walk-on from Thompsons Station, Tennessee, found himself in that position during and after a 33-28 loss to Colorado at Memorial Stadium speaks to the wild 3-hour, 41-minute game that unfolded in front of 89,853 here to witness the week-delayed dawn of a new football era and also to the questions that now stare directly at the 0-1 Huskers.
Bunch entered the game with 3:29 left in place of freshman Adrian Martinez, who showed glimpses throughout the afternoon of the dazzling athleticism that made him the first hand-picked quarterback prospect of Frost’s tenure here. The 18-year-old Martinez, though, had his debut cut short by an apparent right leg injury on a run play near midfield as the Huskers clung to a 28-27 lead. The severity of the injury remains unknown, though Frost said afterward that the initial news was “semi-encouraging.”
Even two weeks ago, that would have made it Tristan Gebbia’s turn, but he transferred to Oregon State late last month after learning the staff intended to start Martinez.
Now it was Bunch tasked with leading a game-winning drive after Colorado quarterback Steven Montez completed his 33rd pass on his 50th attempt to sophomore receiver Laviska Shenault (10 catches for 177 yards) for a go-ahead 40-yard touchdown with 1:06 remaining for a 33-28 lead.
Bunch completed 4-of-8 on the final drive but overthrew senior Stanley Morgan in the back corner of the end zone on second down, missed Mike Williams high along the right sideline on third down and saw his final attempt go begging in the end zone after he was flushed to his left on the game’s final play.
“I’m a competitor like all of these guys in the locker room, and for three quarters I was having about as much fun coaching as I had in my life, doing it back home,” Frost said. “When you’re trying to become a good team, you don’t find ways to lose games, especially close ones. You find ways to win.”
That was the main thrust of Frost’s first comments following a loss since Dec. 17, 2016. A win stood right there for the taking as the former league foes, who squared off 69 previous times but had not played since 2010, played the final 48:47 of game time within one score of each other.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” Frost said flatly. “We’ve got to learn those lessons. We’ve tried preaching them to them a lot. If this team didn’t beat itself today, we would have won that game.”
Indeed, NU spotted the Buffs 14 points in the first 8:13 of the game when junior running back Greg Bell and Martinez lost fumbles on the hosts’ first two drives.
Senior safety Antonio Reed was called for a personal foul on a third-and-24 incompletion immediately preceding Montez’s winning touchdown pass.
Nebraska failed to convert a pair of fourth-and-shorts in the second half. It backed itself up with a holding penalty — one of 11 infractions on the afternoon — while trying to bleed the clock on the same play Martinez was injured on.
“It’d be hard to try and think of too many more ways to beat yourself today,” Frost said.
Shooting yourself in the foot is all the worse when you’re in the midst of running a good race.
Nebraska’s offense rolled up 565 total yards of offense (6.8 yards per snap) and had its best day rushing in nearly four years, racking up 329 and three touchdowns on 54 attempts.
It’s defense sacked Montez, who finished with 351 passing yards and three scores, seven times, good for half the 12-game production from 2017. Colorado rushed 35 times for just 44 net yards, a paltry 1.3 average.
“I felt like we were dominating, and we were in a lot of aspects,” senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford (11 tackles, three for loss, 1.5 sacks) said.
It took some time for that feeling to build.
Trailing 14-0 midway through the first quarter, Martinez ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run down the left sideline in which he left a free defender flailing in the backfield, outran two players who thought they had an angle on him and then dove over the pylon for his first collegiate touchdown.
Early in the second quarter, he again eluded pressure, rolled to his left and found a diving Morgan for a first-down that set up an 8-yard Devine Ozigbo touchdown run to tie the game.
A 45-yard Bell burst up the gut spurred NU’s third straight score, a 3-yard walk-in from the dynamic freshman signal-caller.
Martinez did ride the freshman roller coaster. He nearly had an interception returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, saved only by the fact that his knee touched the ground before he fired an ill-advised pass. Five plays later, he lofted a perfectly placed ball up the left side to JD Spielman for a 57-yard score.
“I thought Adrian played a great game,” Frost said. “Especially for his first game. He’s going to be a really good player around here.”
Said senior left guard and captain Jerald Foster of Martinez, "Smooth with it. I’m happy that Adrian came in and operated as well as he did. He kept us nice and relaxed, allowed us to have fun, celebrate our big plays."
Martinez finished his first college game with 304 total yards (187 passing, 117 rushing) and accounted for three touchdowns. As thoroughly mesmerizing as he was through three-plus quarters, though, his night ended bitterly.
NU took over with 6:05 remaining and a one-point lead after the second fourth-quarter field goal miss by CU’s James Stefanau, but Martinez was intercepted on the first play by sophomore linebacker Nate Landman, who also blew up one of the Huskers’ three failed fourth-down attempts and finished with a game-best 13 tackles.
The NU defense held once more, but then came the injury. Then came Montez’s final counterpunch. Then came a final push from the hosts. Then came the sour taste as the clock ran out on the Huskers.
For all the good, Nebraska turned the ball over three times and Colorado did not give it away. Nebraska had 95 penalty yards, more than double CU’s total. Its two best receivers dropped passes at critical junctures — Morgan on a potential touchdown from Martinez on a second-half drive that ended in a missed field goal and Spielman on a third-down throw from Bunch late that would have likely given NU a first down. It allowed Montez to make one too many plays. It made one too many mistakes.
“This is no moral victory,” Gifford said after several minutes of questions about how much different — in a good way — the defense looked than years’ past. “We expect to win every game we play in, especially in our house. It’s unacceptable. We cannot lose here.”