IOWA CITY, Iowa — Competitors, real competitors, tire of pats on the back after losses.
They tire of hearing praise about their close-call defeats. Let's be real: That stuff is mostly for people who don't compete in anything of consequence.
Losses suck. Sorry about the language. But we must make that clear as we begin to ponder Nebraska's 4-8 finish to this football season.
I got the feeling Nebraska linebacker Mohamed Barry was in no mood for praise Friday following his team's 31-28 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. His face showed anger. Appropriate anger. The Huskers were in position to win this game and add a boatload of momentum to the stock they already had accumulated during the second half of this season of intrigue. Alas, they failed to close the deal.
But we better be clear on this, too: This loss was not a momentum zapper for first-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost's program. If you saw the way Iowa rag-dolled NU in the last two seasons, you understand the Huskers are making progress under Frost. If you saw Frost's crew keep charging after trailing 28-13 in this contest, you understand why the Huskers retained momentum in the program even in defeat — not that Barry wanted to hear it.
"We're supposed to win that game," he said. "You've got to make those big-time plays in the critical moments. Some plays weren't made and should've been made. Those kind of plays have to be made next year."
If you're a Nebraska fan, you feel good about the possibility of those plays being made in the near future. The Huskers went 4-2 after their dreadful 0-6 start. Frost and his staff cleaned out the culture-killers. The team cleaned up its play overall, making fewer mistakes on special teams and drawing fewer flags overall. The offense became downright formidable, even against an Iowa defense that ranked sixth nationally in average yards allowed at 279.5.
The Huskers dented them for 400, thanks largely to another strong outing by true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez.
But the Husker defense, well, that was another story — an all-too-predictable story. NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said as far back as early October that "we have a long ways to go footballwise and a long ways to go strength and conditioning-wise if we're going to catch up and be able to beat teams like Wisconsin and Michigan."
Yes, add Iowa to that list of pro-style, two-back offenses that bullied Nebraska this season. Michigan rattled the Blackshirts to the tune of 491 total yards, including 285 on the ground. Wisconsin steamrolled its way to 370 rushing yards, including Jonathan Taylor's 88-yard touchdown run in which the Badgers blew the Huskers about 7 yards off the line of scrimmage and trampled a few defenders along the way. Don't show that play to the kids, please and thank you.
Which brings us to Friday. Iowa, often lining up in a power-I, rushed 45 times for 266 yards, or 5.9 per carry. This from an Iowa offense that entered the day averaging 4.0 per carry. The Hawkeyes ranked only 88th nationally in rushing, but on this gray day, they too often looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Their whole game plan was to try to keep the ball away from our offense," Frost said.
It was a sound game plan, as Iowa (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) won for the fourth straight time in the series. Bottom line, Frost and his staff have to find some more horses on defense. Some difference-makers. Some first-team all-conference players who can handle power-oriented offenses as well as the more prevalent spread systems. Even a second-team guy or two would've helped matters Friday.
You can howl all you want about Chinander. But this is a talent issue, friends. Nebraska won't have a first-team all-league defender and probably not a second-teamer. The third team is no guarantee.
Frost raised another issue that shouldn't be underestimated and will be taken care of in short order, I'm betting.
"What disturbs me is right now Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team," he said. "That's right now. I never thought I'd see or hear that — or say that — about a Nebraska football team. That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger. Give their guys credit. They've had three or four years in Iowa's strength and conditioning program. We've had one year of Zach (Duval).
"They leaned on us quite a bit, especially in the first half, but I thought the defense did a great job responding. I'm looking forward to the day we don't get pushed around by anybody."
You have a strong sense that day is coming. Yes, you had that sense even after this loss. After all, Iowa was essentially a play away from a 35-13 lead. Then Kirk Ferentz got too cute with a fake field goal that Nebraska snuffed. Unlike previous years, this Husker bunch keeps coming. Maybe competitors like Barry and Dicaprio Bootle — prime candidates for leaders next season — don't want too many pats on the back, but they earned them.
Frost told the team as much in the locker room. His message, according to Bootle: Granted, the team didn't go out the way it wanted, but it came a long way this season.
"We're never satisfied with any losing, but we're never laying down," Bootle said. "The message was: Soon — sooner than you may think — we're going to get this thing rolling again."
Even in defeat, even through the tears of some players, the message was eminently believable.