In the realm of Nebraska football, life was intense this time last year.
In the days leading to Scott Frost's hire as the Husker head coach last Dec. 2, I had several conversations with Matt Davison, a close friend of Frost's and a critical part of the hiring process. There was a theme to the conversations: No matter who was going to be the head coach, Davison hoped NU fans would be patient as the new guy undertook an onerous task.
"This is the biggest rebuild we've had here in our lives," Davison said back then.
Fast forward to this week. As Frost and his Nebraska staff delved hard into recruiting following a 4-8 season (3-6 Big Ten), Davison reflected on a fall that was at once frustrating and immensely satisfying.
“I mean, I didn’t think we were going to go 4-8," said NU's first-year associate athletic director for football. "The record is what it is and you can’t change it, and it is frustrating. Nobody wanted to go 4-8, and you will not find a more competitive human being than Scott Frost. He is all sorts of sideways about the record.”
Davison, though, said Frost's frustration is mitigated by the fact Nebraska improved as the season progressed, as shown by its 4-2 record in the final six games.
The season is a reminder that we shouldn't judge records in a vacuum. To wit: Nebraska’s 4-8 record this season is nothing like its 4-8 finish in 2017, Mike Riley’s last season as head coach. The 2017 team went in the tank in November, going 0-4 and twice getting blown out. On the other hand, the 2018 team’s fire burned hot right to the finish line. In fact, that forever will be one of my main takeaways from Frost’s first season in charge — a strong finish in November.
Even in the best of times, November can be a brutal month. Players often get worn down physically, mentally and emotionally. On losing teams, players sometimes go through the motions (see Nebraska's 54-21 loss to Minnesota last November).
If you’re judging the culture in a program, November can be a telltale month. The 2018 Huskers entered the month with a 2-6 record, yet still played their best football of the season down the stretch — a 36-31 loss at then-No. 8 Ohio State, a 54-35 win against Illinois, a 9-6 triumph against Michigan State and a 31-28 road loss to an Iowa program that beat NU by 42 one year ago.
“It’s kind of crazy to think, but despite our record, players and coaches couldn’t wait to go back to practice," Davison said. "The fact the season ended was sad because we got better every week the last seven or eight weeks of the year.”
I’ll long remember Nebraska's mid-November win against Michigan State because of the unrelenting fight Frost's crew showed against a notoriously tough program on a cold and windy day. Snow began to fall in the second half. It was the type of weather that favored the Spartans and their rugged defense.
But get this: Nebraska simply outslugged Michigan State. That never would have happened in 2017. The program’s progress under Frost was on full display. I mean, safety Tre Neal, an Atlanta native, was celebrating after virtually every hit in the final minutes.
“Would that have happened a year ago?” Davison asked rhetorically.
Having played the sport at a high level, Davison understands my contention that November can be a telltale month in programs.
“Pretty much every season you have an injury that’s nagging at you,” said the former Nebraska receiver (1997-2000). “If you’re playing 50, 60, 80 snaps a game, you’re going to have things that are bothering you. But I had a half-dozen players tell me this week that they feel so much better than they’ve felt in any other season.”
That's a credit to the strength and conditioning staff, to the team nutritionists, to a lot of folks.
“It's also because of Scott’s ability to know when to push the gas pedal and when to pull off a bit," Davison said.
“Guys always wanted to go back to practice because it was fun," he added. "They were having a good time."
Think about that statement in the context of what happened Sept. 22 at Michigan (56-10 loss). Or what happened, for crying out loud, Oct. 13 at Northwestern, when Nebraska surrendered a 10-point lead in the final 5:41 of regulation and lost in overtime.
The Huskers kept charging forward.
“I think it came down to Scott’s consistency," Davison said. "I think it’s his consistency in his messaging, his consistency in his belief in what he was saying and the way he was coaching them."
Frost's mentor, Tom Osborne, mentioned another crucial element.
"I think people trust Scott — and that's really a big deal," Osborne said. "A lot of it is just his steady demeanor. It's been impressive to watch."
If you’re a longtime Nebraska football fan, you know Osborne puts ample stock in the credo, “Never let your highs get too high or your lows get too low.” The Huskers’ 2018 season tells you why it makes sense.
"Scott's just a guy who knows how to lead players," Davison said. "The players believed in what he was pitching to them. And once they started to see the results — like, ‘Oh, this is how hard we have to work,’ or, ‘Oh, that's how you have to prepare’ — all the things Scott talked about from the time he got here last December, unfortunately, they had to learn some of those things the hard way.”
Bottom line, they learned. Just look at November.