Not long ago, Nebraska looked like the best 0-6 team ever.
The Huskers might have been the best 2-6 team ever heading into Columbus, Ohio, to face No. 8 Ohio State Saturday.
They might be the best 2-6 team the Buckeyes have played. In any event, they were probably the most confident 2-6 team ever.
You could feel it from the players and the coaches this week, not to mention the fans. Many of them thought the Huskers could go into Ohio Stadium and come out with a win.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, the Huskers battled a top 10 team to the final whistle before coming up just short 36-31.
There was obviously so much to be encouraged about from the Nebraska point of view. At the same time, there are no moral victories in the world of head coach Scott Frost or his players.
“The great thing coming out of the locker room is our guys are upset,” Frost said in his postgame press conference. “Our guys are mad they didn’t win the football game. The coaches are mad because they came here expecting to win. That is a big step.”
That’s a huge step when you consider where the Huskers were for their Big Ten opener at Michigan on Sept. 22. They traveled to the Big House that day and got belted 56-10 by the Wolverines.
That result was totally opposite compared to what happened on Saturday. The Huskers went on the road against a really good opponent and battled until the final whistle.
“Six weeks ago we went to Ann Arbor and played a team like that,” Frost said. “We had no chance, and we walked out of there with our tail between our legs. Now seeing how the guys are banding together and fighting and going blow for blow against a team like that, I’m excited.”
As in most close games, there are so many moments you can point to that might have changed the outcome.
There was a botched onside kick attempt after the Huskers jumped to a 7-0 lead. Frost said he wanted to be aggressive and it was set up to work, but kicker Caleb Lightbourn just about whiffed.
Then there was a blocked punt for a safety. Those two points made a difference for the Buckeyes.
In the second quarter the Huskers moved inside the Ohio State 10, but quarterback Adrian Martinez attempted a lateral that was fumbled and recovered by the Buckeyes. It’s tough when you blow scoring opportunities against a team like Ohio State.
In the third quarter, Martinez had J.D. Spielman open for what could have been a touchdown, but his pass was either just a bit too long or Spielman short-armed it a little bit. In any event, that was another scoring opportunity that eluded the Huskers.
There was a third-down play in the third quarter that came up inches short of a first down. That’s the way it’s been going for the Huskers this season.
“In the past we’ve come up six inches short of first downs instead of getting them by six inches,” Frost said. “It just feels that way right now. But we still had every chance to win the game.”
But it was a loss, and Frost doesn’t like losing. On the other hand, he did like the fight of his team.
“Right after a game if we don’t win there’s not much that pleases me,” Frost said. “I probably won’t evaluate that until we get back and watch the tape. But what pleases me is the heart of this team. This was a long time coming. A lot of things had to happen to get a team that’s going to go fight a top 10 team like that.”
Husker fans can remember games against ranked teams in the past couple of years where their team didn’t show much heart.
There was a 56-44 loss at No. 14 Penn State last year in a game that wasn’t as close as the final would indicate. There was also a 38-17 loss to No. 9 Wisconsin and a 56-14 loss to No. 9 Ohio State in back-to-back games at Memorial Stadium.
In 2016, there was a 62-3 loss at No. 6 Ohio State.
This wasn’t like those games. Nebraska had a good chance to win this time.
Now there are just three games left for the Huskers. They get Illinois and Michigan State at home before closing out the season Nov. 23 at Iowa.
Frost feels the worst for his seniors, players the fans have gotten to know by their first name or their last.
“The one thing I feel bad about is this thing keeps getting better, and it’s going to keep getting better and it’s going to be really good and really fun,” Frost said. “And some of the guys who are helping us build it — the Giffords and Stolbenbergs and Stanley, Tanner and Jerald — a bunch of these guys who are helping us get everything right aren’t going to get to see where it goes because this is their last year.”
There will be no bowl game this season for the Huskers. Those early-season losses in games they could have won came back to bite them.
So all the Huskers can go now is try to win out for the seniors.
“I told the guys we have to send them out the right way,” Frost said. “I think the guys have the mindset that they’re going to go back to work and try to win the next game and the next game and the next game.
“So it’s building. I’d love to see those guys have some success on the way out.”
Now the Huskers are 2-7 heading into the final three games. They just might be the best 2-7 team you’ve ever seen.
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.