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Colorado vs. Nebraska, 9/8/18

Nebraska defensive lineman Khalil Davis (94) celebrates his sack of Colorado quarterback Steven Montez (bottom) in the second quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Most coaches prefer to avoid extremes of almost any sort.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost is as even-keel as they come. He prides himself on it.

But there he was early Saturday evening, speaking in his usual low monotone — but speaking in extremes.

Who could blame him?

Frost lived a wonderful dream for much of the day, but it turned into something of a nightmare in the form of a 33-28 loss to Colorado and a prized freshman quarterback with an apparent knee injury that put the rookie's immediate future in doubt.

"I'm a competitor like all these guys in the locker room, and for three quarters, I was having about as much fun coaching as I've ever had in my life, doing it back home," said the 43-year-old former Wood River resident, who, by the way, has coached in two national championship games.

Home sweet whatever.

"We've got to learn lessons to be able to win games like that, and not beat ourselves," he said.

But this, in many ways, was a blast for Nebraska fans. Most of it, anyway. This was the start of a new era for a Husker football program that has seen its share of suffering in the past couple of decades. The Huskers were 4-8 last season, an awful story to watch. But on this day, they played with hunger. The defense produced seven sacks. Seven! Frost's crew played fast on both sides of the ball. That may have been my biggest takeaway besides Adrian Martinez's poise and prowess.

But alas, there were mistakes. Far too many mistakes. There were 11 penalties. Eleven! There were two dropped passes, one apiece by the team's top two receivers from last year, both in critical situations. The special teams were a disappointment.

You want extremes? Nebraska rushed for 329 yards, averaging 6.1 per carry, but twice had run plays stuffed on fourth-and-short.

Amid all the craziness, some things made sense. Frost says turnover margin is the most important stat in football. Well, Colorado was plus-3. That part makes sense.

Amid the heartache, Nebraska fans have to count their blessings, lean on the positives, starting with Martinez. Yeah, the quarterback's lost fumble led to Colorado's second touchdown. But he rushed 15 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns and completed 15 of 20 passes for 187 yards and another score, with one interception. He looked almost too relaxed at times in the pocket. Put it this way: He clearly was ready for the moment.

But will he be ready for Troy? Frost said initial reports from the medical staff were "semi-encouraging." But let's face it, this is exactly what concerned Nebraska fans last month when Tristan Gebbia, the top backup QB, left town. Life got real that week in Frost's program. Then came last week's canceled game against Akron. You saw in this game exactly why Nebraska needed that one.

As for the defense, Erik Chinander, take a bow. Nebraska had 14 sacks all of last season. The Huskers swarmed to the ball and played with a hard edge against a good Colorado offense. But, ah, those extremes: CU scored 13 straight points to finish the game, helped by a debatable personal-foul call on Antonio Reed for his hit on Jay MacIntyre on a third-and-24, keeping a TD drive alive.

Yeah, third-and-24. My heavens.

"I felt like we were dominating," Nebraska senior linebacker Luke Gifford said of the second half. "We were dominating in a lot of aspects. But we didn't win. We didn't pull it off. We didn't get the stops when we were supposed to. As Blackshirts, and as a defense, that's where the changes need to be made. We're still trying to make that jump."

From Nebraska players, you heard a mixture of anger and resolve.

"I don't want to sound like this is a moral victory, by any means," Gifford said. "We expect to win every game we play, and especially in our house. This is unacceptable. It can't happen. We cannot lose here. But this is a long season. We have a lot of games left. In order for this team to keep getting better, we have to take away the positives. We can't dwell on the loss too much.

"The coaching staff's going to have us ready to roll on Monday."

Watching this game, that seems like a certainty. Nebraska didn't roll over. That's progress.

"I don't think last year if we were down 14 to nothin' like that, we end up doing what we did," Gifford said. "We answered in a different way than we ever have since I've been here. I'm proud of the guys for doing that. We took the lead back. We have to keep it, but there's a lot of good we can take away.

"We know what kind of team we can be."

Frost said he didn't know what to expect from his team. After all, he had never taken the field with it.

"Short of winning the game and staying healthy" — except for Martinez — "I don't know if I could've been much more pleased with the way we moved the ball, with the way some of our players performed, with the way our freshman quarterback performed, and the way the Blackshirts looked minus a couple series and some bad mistakes," the coach said.

He looked tired. This was a hard day at the office. But when he steps back and sizes it up, he'll see unmistakable progress.

Unfortunately, he might have to peer through a glut of extremes to see it.

 

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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