Sometimes in the midst of small talk, somebody says something that stops you in your tracks.
It happened to me at Cheddar's in Lincoln the other night.
Kenny Wilhite, the Nebraska football team's director of high school relations, was at the restaurant waiting for a friend. We ran into each other by chance and since we go way back to his days as a player in the early 1990s, we chatted for a minute. I told him how much I enjoy the salmon. He told me he was a first-timer at the place. All of a sudden, in the midst of me telling him the whitefish is pretty good, too, Wilhite turned serious.
"We need a win bad, bro," he said.
Boy, did they ever. You heard the hurt in first-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost's voice following Purdue's 42-28 win at Memorial Stadium. His voice cracked more than once. No way did he see all this coming, this 0-4 record (0-2 Big Ten), this absurd penalty problem afflicting his team, this eight-game losing streak that dates to last season. The Huskers had never dropped eight straight games in the program's history.
We're watching a remarkable story unfold. If you're a Nebraska fan, it's excruciating in so many ways. Yeah, NU needed a win Saturday badly because next up is a trip to Wisconsin followed by a trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats pushed 14th-ranked Michigan into the final minutes Saturday before losing 20-17, a week after the Wolverines battered the Huskers 56-10.
Nebraska desperately needed to beat Purdue (2-3, 1-1) for the sake of confidence. The Huskers needed a win because all this losing feels incredibly heavy if you're a fan or anyone associated with the program. If you're Frost or one of his staff members, it must feel almost debilitating at times. Frost's passion for his alma mater and the program he guided to a national championship as a rugged quarterback was all over his weary visage following NU's seventh straight home loss.
His words to reporters perhaps elicited a measure of hope. He made a lot of sense. He was resolute. His players sounded resolute. But Nebraska in recent years has had a way of sounding strong after looking weak on the field. I get the feeling the vast majority of Husker fans proceed with patience. But I also know losing is a disease. The more it happens, the more some players get comfortable with it.
Frost is fighting it hard, trying to strengthen a culture in the program that became incredibly weak under his predecessor.
Asked why the penalties — Nebraska has an unsightly 42 on the season — keep stacking up, Frost said, "I've got a sense of why, but I don't really want to say why because this is my team, this isn't somebody else's team. In order to have a disciplined team, you have to have guys who really care and guys who are accountable, and you have to have an environment where they're held accountable.
"It's all the little things that (players) do, on and off the field. We're doing that. I don't know if it's taken root with people. We're trying to break a lot of habits. We're trying to teach them how we want things done because I know when things are done that way, you win championships."
His coaching background speaks for itself, as does his playing career. But Frost has a whale of a task on his hands. Nobody saw 0-4 coming. I mean, nobody. I feel for Frost because I've talked to enough champions to know how frustrating it can be to be around those who lack a championship pedigree, or lack even a strong desire to win. Frost almost seems bewildered by the level of softness in the program.
"I didn't know what was going on (at one point), when we're down 13 points and we've got backups and reserves dancing on the sideline before kickoff," he said. "They look like they love losing, and they look like they're undisciplined."
Plenty of evidence supports his contention.
"In my opinion, we honestly look like one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, and it kills me because it isn't like we aren't trying to give them messages. It isn't like we aren't trying to hold them accountable," the coach said.
All that said, this game was odd in that Nebraska kept fighting and finished with 582 yards of total offense (7.2 per play). It did show resilience after playing so poorly in the first half. That alone is a step in the right direction, as hollow as it might seem. The Huskers shouldn't get in the habit of patting themselves on the pack after losses. After all, Purdue rolled up 516 yards (6.5) per play and was 7-for-16 on converting third downs.
The Boilermakers were far from perfect — they had 10 penalties of their own — and still got out of town with a win.
Meanwhile, Frost faces a conundrum. You got the distinct feeling he wants to weed certain players from the lineup, but the roster is short on depth at spots. He's trying to fix myriad issues, but it's a challenge for any coach to focus only on fixing his team when tough opponents keep coming during a ridiculously difficult Big Ten schedule.
Nebraska now will prepare for a tough-minded Wisconsin team, which will be heavily favored to hand the Huskers a ninth straight loss.
Yeah, it all felt incredibly heavy on a gray and grim Saturday.
No question, Nebraska needed this win badly.