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LINCOLN — These first two weekends of its 2020 football season, Nebraska has spent a lot of time at the other end of the looking glass. The underdog’s side.
Typically, the old adage about football teams making their biggest jump between Game 1 and Game 2 involves NU taking stock of the errors it made in the season opener, and attempting to apply solutions toward a better nonconference foe in Week 2.
Not in 2020. Not in the least. Nebraska lost by 35 points at Ohio State, the team favored to win the Big Ten title. The Huskers’ second game? The Big Ten West bogeyman, Wisconsin, which has beaten Nebraska in seven straight games. They’re different programs, OSU and UW. The Buckeyes are better, for one thing with more speed, talent and flash. The Badgers have a clear identity of recruiting players who fit their culture and developing them until they’re ready to play.
Still — NU got punched out of one tough-guy saloon in Week 1 only to walk into another for Week 2.
“It’s going to be hard-nosed, physical football,” senior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said Monday. “We understand that, we know that, that’s what Wisconsin brings.”
Nebraska has to pack its own lunch to compete. Juice, of course — of the energy variety — that can keep the Huskers hot in an empty Memorial Stadium. Starch, for the looming challenge of Wisconsin’s always-burly offensive and defensive lines. Something sticky, so quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey don’t fumble as they carry so much of NU’s rushing load. And a sense of what it will take to beat the No. 9 team in the country.
The Husker players who spoke Monday and their coach, Scott Frost, agreed they did some good things at No. 3 Ohio State, but it wasn’t nearly enough, especially when NU spent nearly as much time hurting itself with penalties and turnovers as it did inflicting pain on the Buckeyes.
“As painful of a lesson as it was, it was a good lesson for our kids Saturday,” Frost said. “You can’t just be pretty good. You’ve got to be really good, and you’ve got to execute really well. And if we clean up our mistakes, it’s going to give us a better chance.”
Frost referenced the penalties he actually agreed with — a delay-of-game flag he said was his fault, a costly false start on second-and-1 — along with a few other miscues on offense. NU’s offensive line whiffed on one protection, Frost said, and the linemen failed to see another play that left a tight end responsible for blocking an OSU defensive end. Martinez saw the same picture; his third-quarter fumble was scooped up by Ohio State and returned for a defensive touchdown. On NU’s following drive, he and receiver Kade Warner weren’t able to hook up on a touchdown despite Warner being wide open.
“We thought we were moving the ball well on them until we shot ourselves in the foot,” Martinez said. “We stunted a couple of those drives on our own.”
Thus, Nebraska’s 377 yards — produced at 6.73 yards per play — only accounted for 17 points, echoing similarly inefficient performances in its past two games against Wisconsin. The Huskers racked up 518 and 493 yards in the 2018 and 2019 games, only to score 24 and 21 points in those games, respectively. NU only had one turnover in each game — a Martinez fumble in 2018, a Martinez interception in 2019 — but both miscues led to touchdowns.
“Our mistakes have kept us from having better performances, and keeping the games closer or giving themselves a chance,” Frost said.
Mediocre programs embody those words. Frost, 9-16 in his first 25 games, is ready to see his young team put a Badger-colored pelt on its wall as proof of growth and lessons learned.
“I think our team is ready to turn a page and take a giant step, but we’ve got to get some momentum, we’ve got to get some wins, get some energy, have everybody start believing it and knowing we can get it done,” Frost said. “It’s a little bit of a climb when they’ve given us the schedule we have, but our kids see it as a challenge, and they’re going to play hard and do everything they can to try and compete with Wisconsin.”