There is a difference between tangible progress and a glass-half-full mentality, but the two can be easily conflated in Nebraska football’s current situation.
There is reason to feel good if you’re head coach Scott Frost or any of the number of players who spoke with reporters Monday.
They have been in position to win each of the past four games they’ve played. That’s progress. They’ve won two. That’s also progress after an 0-6 start to the fall.
The task at hand now, though, seems to be about differentiating between understanding what is getting better and how to take that and extract the most black-and-white result of them all: Wins instead of losses in the Huskers’ final three games.
“We’ve had some great moral victories and those don’t count for anything,” Frost said Monday.
That said, Frost said he has been happy with the way his team has dealt with a difficult first season under his leadership. He said again Monday that his team bounced back from a loss — this one to the No. 10 team in the country on the road in a game the Huskers felt they could have won — by showing up ready to work.
“I know I’ve said this before but after this season, regardless of how it finishes, the thing I’ll be most proud of from this season is that most teams, if they have the start to the season that we had, would have shut it down, would’ve started infighting, would’ve gotten worse,” he said. “This team keeps getting better, keeps having more fun playing. The culture keeps getting better, there’s relationships being developed, there’s a lot of the things being built even through some trying times and that’s not easy to do.”
It’s clear that the Huskers believe they can finish with a bang. A five-point loss in Columbus didn’t dampen that thought, perhaps it only strengthened it. After all, NU has either won or been right there in each of its past four.
“We’ve improved so much throughout the year,” senior center Tanner Farmer. “We’ve gotten guys that are going to buy in and do what it takes to get these wins. ... It’s just the little things, getting to the really small things now, just an execution here an execution there can make the difference in the game. So we’re right there. I’m excited for these last three games, and I think we’re going to do great things.”
The Huskers opened as three-score home favorites against Illinois despite Lovie Smith’s team hanging 646 yards of offense and 55 points on Minnesota on Saturday. Michigan State and Iowa will present two of the stiffest defensive challenges NU has faced this year, but both have offenses that have vacillated between dangerous and flat throughout the season.
It’s not like Nebraska is suddenly a group of world-beaters. But behind freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez — the co-Big Ten freshman of the week twice in the past three weeks — and a defense that’s forced eight turnovers in the past three games, they’re at least dangerous themselves.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after his team snuck out a victory, “I get it that that was a two-win team, but that's a two-win team that people don't want to play right now.”
As much as that sentiment can exist in college football, it probably applies best to the Huskers. Only 28 teams in the country have two or fewer losses on the season. Who else among them is talking about winning out over the rest of November?
“We’ve improved a lot throughout this last stretch of the season, and to have it go 3-0 with quality opponents, like Illinois, Michigan State and Iowa, will tell a story about next season,” junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “Even for me, as I return for next season, it’ll tell a story.”
Martinez earned co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second time in three weeks for his performance in a 36-31 loss against Ohio State.
Martinez bounced back from an early turnover to compile 338 yards and three touchdowns on the day (two rushing).
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound rookie made a statement right from the start, carrying the ball seven times for 46 yards on the Huskers' game-opening scoring drive in the Horseshoe.