EVANSTON, Illinois — As Nebraska senior safety Antonio Reed trotted toward the tunnel following the final gun, he looked toward the sky seemingly in a state of disbelief.
Husker junior cornerback Lamar Jackson's shoulders slumped. A Northwestern player tried to console him. It wasn't working.
All the while, the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago" blared from the Ryan Field loudspeakers Saturday afternoon.
Yeah, this loss was cruel and unusual.
"I was just thinking about it," Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo said. "We've progressed so much over the weeks. We're just missing that one thing. We've marked off every box. We just haven't gotten a win. It's the craziest thing. It's hard to understand."
In a few regards, it's not hard to understand. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson threw 64 passes in his team's 34-31 overtime victory and was sacked only twice. Nebraska desperately needs talented pass-rushers, a la Randy Gregory.
Nebraska dropped to 0-6 overall, including 0-4 in the Big Ten. It marked the first time the Huskers have ever lost six straight games to open a season. They've lost 10 straight dating to last season.
First-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost absolutely believes winning is a habit.
"Unfortunately, so is losing," he said.
Bottom line, high-level programs close out this type of game with a win. Nebraska has fallen far below a high-level outfit, in case you hadn't noticed. It really has no one to blame but itself for this defeat. I mean, c'mon. The Huskers led 31-21 with 5:41 left in regulation. Half the crowd was dressed in red. "Go Big Red" echoed into a clear blue sky. It was an utterly beautiful collegiate scene. NU fans were loud and proud and primed to celebrate the first triumph of the Frost era.
Then came the collapse.
"There are 100 ways we could've won that game," Frost said. "The guys deserved it."
I agree with him on the first part. Nebraska should've won. But I don't think the Huskers deserved to win. Maybe that sounds cruel. But think about it: They did allow Thorson to gun completions on two fourth-and-10s and twice committed pass interference on the Northwestern drive that pulled the Wildcats to 31-24.
After Nebraska's offense stalled out on three running plays, Isaac Armstrong's punt pinned Northwestern at its 1-yard line. Only 2:02 remained. The Wildcats had no timeouts. And the Huskers couldn't close the deal? That's not bad luck. That's a meltdown. That's just Carlos Davis being flagged for roughing the passer to help Pat Fitzgerald's crew get some breathing room. That's Thorson completing pass after pass to Flynn Nagel when everybody in Chicago knew Nagel would be the target.
That might just be Northwestern (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) wanting the win that much more.
It's also a matter of Nebraska once again burying itself under the weight of penalties. This time it was nine for 89 yards compared with Northwestern's one penalty. I get it. It's a transition year. Frost had to focus all offseason on installing new systems on both sides of the ball. Basic fundamentals perhaps took a backseat. But one would expect some improvement in this area.
Instead, a sophomore offensive lineman gets flagged for a false start on third-and-1 in overtime. On fourth-and-1, the center snap squirts through quarterback Adrian Martinez's legs. He recovers, but guns an interception. That's just sloppy football. That's why I hesitate to say Nebraska deserved this win. It once again made too many mistakes.
But as Frost and company replay the game in their minds, they'll remember the Huskers had control when Luke Gifford — who once again played his heart out — recovered an onside kick at the Northwestern 47-yard line with 2:26 remaining in regulation. Nebraska led 31-24.
"We just need the one first down," Frost said. "We need to pop a run somewhere. We knew they were going to be up there crowded (near the line of scrimmage). Maybe we could've thrown the ball, given Stanley Morgan a chance to win the game. But again, you do that and then you question yourself, 'Why did you stop the clock with an incompletion?'"
You can second-guess Frost's play calls all week long, but those calls weren't responsible for Northwestern somehow pulling off two monster scoring drives in the final 5:41 of regulation.
After Nebraska went three-and-out on its second-to-last possession, "I looked up at the clock and it said 2:11," said Ozigbo, who ran the ball throughout the afternoon like someone who's tired of losing. "We didn't really take much time off the clock."
Even so, Armstrong pinned Northwestern at its 1. That's right, at its 1!!!
"You're going to win that game most of the time," said Frost, who was terse at times in his news conference.
"It's not (being) tired, it's not execution errors," he said. "You guys (media) can look for reasons. They made more plays than we did at the end."
There were bright spots. Reed and Tre Neal recorded timely second-half interceptions. JD Spielman continues to play at an all-conference level. Frost is seeing more weapons get involved in his offense, including Mike Williams and Jack Stoll. Martinez played well enough for his team to win.
"I try to learn from every experience," the QB said. "But I'd rather learn through winning."
Anything but this. This was cruel and unusual. But make no mistake, it didn't happen by accident.