It all looked great on the surface. A defense that held the other team to 84 total yards. A QB that went 9 of 9 for 184 yards, and another 45 on the ground. A 17-0 lead to take into the locker room. Nebraska looked unstoppable after half a football game in Boulder. Then they flashed a little fear of failure. That’s why we play two halves.
Pride Before The Fall
Despite all that first half production, the issues were apparent if you looked hard enough. After the first drive by Nebraska, the inside run game evaporated. QB Adrian Martinez took advantage of breaks in coverage to great success. He hit JD Spielman for a TD right off the bat, and spread the ball to Maurice Washington, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Dedrick Mills for four more plays of 20+ yards in the first half. The Huskers had just one such play a week ago.
Despite these game-breaking plays through the air, Nebraska struggled on the ground. They found some success running to the boundary with Robinson and Washington, but averaged a pitiful 2.3 ypc between the tackles before halftime. This was the first sign of things to come.
Nebraska’s defense looked spectacular for the first 30 minutes, forcing 4 punts in 5 drives and intercepting a pass from the Buff’s senior QB, Steven Montez. They held Colorado to 0 yards on the ground and allowed just 84 through the air. Mel Tucker’s team had no response to the stifling, fast flow Nebraska defense, often being dropped near or behind the line of scrimmage. Through three of Colorado’s five possessions, they gained just 12 yards.
The Other Shoe Drops
It felt strange going into halftime with such a staggering lead. It was just 17 points, but it felt like 100 after that defensive performance. Laviska Shenault, arguably one of the best receivers in the country, had just 24 yards at halftime. Nebraska looked as good as their pre-season hype on both sides of the ball. That struggle against South Alabama was long forgotten.
Then the second half started. Nebraska took the ball to start the half. 9 yards later, they punted. Colorado fared a little better, going 30 yards before the Nebraska defense stopped them. It went that way for a few drives as Nebraska and Colorado battled for field position. Gone was the incredible offensive efficiency of the first half. Colorado was generating pressure with just 3 or 4 defenders each play. This had been their strategy in the first half as well, but blown coverages allowed the Huskers to move the ball at will. In the second half, the Buffs’ secondary stepped up and executed, and those targets disappeared. Nebraska couldn’t move the ball inside, their outside runs were often shut down near the line, and the receivers couldn’t get separation.
To make things worse, the Blackshirts were running out of steam. Those short gains Colorado was making in the first half got longer. Long enough to extend drives and move the ball downfield. On their third possession of the second half, Colorado scored. That was their first of four touchdowns in the second half, including an incredible 96-yard flea flicker pass to K.D. Nixon. Nebraska battled to stay ahead, finding ways to match Colorado blow for blow. Still, Colorado closed the gap to 7, then nothing. The Huskers had let a 17-0 lead slip away, and were staring down overtime in Boulder.
I knew it was over as soon as Colorado scored the game-tying touchdown. I’d seen this movie too many times. Nebraska’s defense held up well in the first OT period, stopping Colorado and forcing a field goal. All Nebraska had to do was score a touchdown, and it was over. All they had to avoid was forcing their punter, who had made one career field goal and was playing for an injured starting kicker, to make the game-tying field goal. After failing to run inside all game, Nebraska called two inside runs and gained 1 yard. They didn’t call a play that took advantage of the speed mismatch they had on offense. They didn’t give their star QB room to create. Instead, they called two run plays, so that if they failed, they’d be in a position to make the kick.
That’s right. They didn’t go for the kill. They played not to lose. To avoid an interception. To make things easier for their inexperienced kicker. They didn’t truly believe they could just go out there and win. And that’s why they lost.
As strange as it feels to say, this was not among the worst losses I’ve experienced. It was a hard loss. It was an emotional loss. But I’ve seen much worse. Losing to Ohio State in 2017, by 42, at home? That one was worse. Losing to Minnesota by 33 just a few weeks later? That hurt even more. This was a Pelini-era loss, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moving from expecting blowout losses to expecting close losses that make you think, “we should have had ‘em”, would be the right step for this team. If we can look past our historical expectations, a competitive team should be a breath of fresh air.
Next week, Northern Illinois comes to Lincoln. In a hard fought game last weekend against Utah, NIU entered halftime just 4 points behind the reigning Pac-12 South champs. Utah pulled away in the second half, but not before NIU racked up 302 yards of total offense. Many of the juniors and seniors on this team will remember their last trip to Lincoln, when they won in 2017. This game will be tough, and it will test the mental toughness of a young Nebraska team. They will have to prove that they can move past a heartbreaking loss, and be ready to play against a tough opponent. More importantly, everyone on the team, player and coach alike, will need to practice what they preach. “Desire to excel, and no fear of failure.”
Nebraska 31, NIU 28
Christian is a co-host of Between The Numbers, a weekly podcast recapping the best college football news from around the country and offering smokin’ hot takes.
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