IOWA CITY, Iowa — The ongoing discussion about the state of the Nebraska football program largely comes down to trust.
It comes down to whether or not Husker fans trust coach Scott Frost to pull the program out of its tailspin. You'll get a variety of opinions in that regard, although there are surely plenty of doubters at this point.
After all, Nebraska fell to 1-4 this season with Saturday's 26-20 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. It makes Frost's record 10-19 in his third season in charge of a program that means an incredible amount to him.
Some fans are losing faith. Others are digging in hard in support of Frost, a Wood River High School graduate and former Husker great. More important than all of that — much more important, in fact — is whether his players and assistants trust in his leadership.
The intensity and resolve with which Nebraska played on this day is strong evidence that Frost's players and assistants haven't come anywhere close to packing it in. That's a good sign. In fact, the way the Huskers battled here reflected the confidence and fire in Frost's voice during his postgame Zoom session with reporters.
He said he loved his team's approach to preparation this week.
He said he loved its fight.
"That's the way they have to play every week," he said.
Ah, but there's danger in that statement. You have to understand that Frost was talking mostly about Nebraska's level of effort and intensity, which was better than it was in last week's 41-23 home loss to a moribund Illinois program. So, yeah, the Huskers' effort and intensity were better than it was during one of the lowest moments in program history. I guess there's something to be said for that. Not much, but something.
As a leader, Frost probably is doing the right thing by emphasizing the positive. He knows there's plenty of negative energy in the fan base at the moment. In fact, he noted that he's been doubted in his home state before — a 19-0 loss as Nebraska's quarterback in 1996 at Arizona State comes to mind — and knows there are people questioning him now.
"I know what happened last time (there were doubters), and it'll happen again," said the 45-year-old who led Nebraska to the 1997 national championship.
As he said it, I sort of cringed. A lot of Nebraska fans don't want to hear all that much about the past anymore. They want to know how Frost is going to get his program headed in the right direction. It's a complicated conversation in that Frost keeps telling us it's already headed that way. Meanwhile, his team keeps making the same type of mistakes, time and again.
Every time Cameron Jurgens fires an errant snap, every time an offensive lineman draws a penalty flag at precisely the wrong moment, every time Nebraska falters on special teams, every time the Huskers commit a debilitating turnover, well, you know where I'm going here if you watched NU's sixth straight loss to Iowa. It was all there, and I didn't hit all the low points.
During the post-mortem, Frost spoke of Iowa's rugged discipline and how it tends to avoid beating itself. He said he sees the same sort of traits at Wisconsin and Northwestern. Part of football's appeal comes in the understanding that a ton of stuff can go wrong on virtually every play. Successful teams put an incredible amount of energy into the details so as to avoid the sort of errors that once again doomed Nebraska.
Let's be clear, Iowa (4-2) isn't a great team. The Hawkeyes' four-game winning streak is against teams with a combined record of 4-15. That said, a Nebraska win — the sort that can catapult a struggling program — was there for the taking. Maybe next time. Frost says his program is getting close to getting over the hump. He keeps saying that. Do fans trust him to develop a program that consistently shows the level of discipline and attention to detail needed to win games like this? He did it at Central Florida. But the Big Ten's a much different world.
Can he pull NU out of the tailspin?
"We're a heck of a lot closer," he said. "That's why I told our guys to hold their heads high."
You heard pain in his voice. There's no way he envisioned being 10-19 in this massive Big Red reclamation project. And I'm guessing that back in January of 2018 he never envisioned using prize quarterback recruit Adrian Martinez in a two-quarterback rotation. The plan this week was for Martinez, a junior who made his 24th career start, to play the first two series, then bring in redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey and then basically let it play out.
You know what? The plan worked well. It certainly wasn't the problem. Late in the game, Nebraska basically had what it wanted. That is, possession of the ball with 2:02 remaining and a chance for a victory that would at the very least supply a piece of evidence that Frost's program is indeed progressing well. With Iowa clinging to a 26-20 lead, Martinez found Austin Allen for a 5-yard gain, then the QB rushed for 6 yards.
After Martinez gunned a completion to Wan'Dale Robinson for an 18-yard gain, Nebraska had a first down at Iowa's 39-yard line.
Then, poof, it all ended in a flash. Chauncey Golston ripped through a veteran Nebraska interior lineman and caused Martinez to fumble, and Zach VanValkenburg recovered.
The line faltered. Another turnover. A coach in pain. My heavens, Nebraska fans have seen this stuff over and over.
They definitely share in Frost's pain. But do they share in his optimism? Do they trust him to get this job right?
Depends who you ask, and it's probably best to wait a few days.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or email@example.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.