EVANSTON, Ill. — To explain how, on God’s green football turf, Nebraska managed to blow a late lead in its 34-31 overtime loss to Northwestern, Scott Frost had to walk roughly 70 steps from the door of NU’s locker room underneath Ryan Field to a podium surrounded by reporters perhaps as stunned as he was.
Frost had to pass by a few of the clapping Husker fans who packed the bleachers and pass through a small, makeshift kitchen with a toaster oven, a microwave and nine giant jugs of water on the floor. This is a common scene in the bowels of unfamiliar stadiums, and sometimes — like when Frost walked among Central Florida fans after a Peach Bowl win last January — these are weird-but-wonderful journeys made in a haze of joy.
Saturday was so close to that. So close to Frost’s first win at Nebraska, which led 31-21 with 5:41 left in the game. So close to the proof Nebraska players needed to reward the growth they’ve made in practice. Nebraska ran for 231 yards, forced two turnovers and even punted the ball like a college outfit should. So close.
“We had ‘em right there,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We lost the game at the end. It’s just crazy.”
That Northwestern prevailed — or, perhaps more to the point, that the Huskers managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — left Frost quiet, close to disbelief.
“Some of the things that are happening to us this year I haven’t really ever seen before,” Frost said about the fourth-down play in overtime when center Tanner Farmer snapped the ball through quarterback Adrian Martinez’s legs.
“One, I don’t call the defense and two, make a play,” Frost said of the defensive scheme when Nebraska allowed Northwestern’s 99-yard, game-tying touchdown drive in the final two minutes of regulation. “One more play.”
“There’s 100 ways we could have won that game,” Frost said about all the chances NU, now 0-6 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten, had to put away the Wildcats and send away roughly half of 47,330 fans at Ryan Field happy as heck.
Not to be.
Northwestern scored 17 fourth-quarter points that included the 99-yard touchdown drive and, even more frustrating to Frost, a 15-play, 62-yard drive for a field goal that had two fourth-down conversions.
The Wildcats (3-3 and 3-1) lost 10 yards rushing in the fourth quarter, but still gained 244 yards on the right arm of fifth-year senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who threw 455 yards and repeatedly squirted away from Nebraska’s sluggish pass rush to find receivers like Flynn Nagel (12 catches, 220 yards) and Barrett Skowronek (six catches, 73 yards) for big plays and clutch conversions. Nagel alone caught five passes for 129 yards in the fourth quarter, repeatedly burning NU safety Aaron Williams, often matched up against Nagel in man-to-man coverage. Nagel drew multiple penalties against Williams, too.
“It isn’t like we forgot to cover him,” Frost said. “He made plays. He made more plays than the guys covering him made.”
In all, Nebraska’s defense was on the field for 31 plays in the fourth quarter, all of them passes, almost all of them run at a quick pace. That’s a half of football packed into 15 minutes, and Thorson, who has beaten the Huskers three times, dissected an overmatched defense.
“It’s not tired,” Frost said. “It’s not execution errors. You guys can look for reasons. They made more plays than we did at the end.”
And Nebraska made its usual mistakes. Nine penalties for 89 yards — including a roughing-the-passer penalty on Northwestern’s game-tying drive — against Northwestern’s single penalty for five yards. Three turnovers from quarterback Adrian Martinez. His second-quarter fumble turned into a Northwestern scoop-and-score touchdown. His third-quarter interception, on a first down at the Wildcats’ 29, killed a promising drive. Martinez threw into double coverage because he didn’t expect a Northwestern safety coming into the play.
The Huskers led 21-14 at the time.
“That’s my mistake,” Martinez said.
Martinez only threw a few passes for the rest of the game as Nebraska turned to running back Devine Ozigbo — 22 carries, 159 yards, two touchdowns — and Maurice Washington to deliver the win. They nearly did, as Nebraska plowed out a five-play, 76-yard touchdown drive with all running plays. That gave the Huskers a 28-14 lead, their largest of the season.
But NU’s final 15 plays of regulation netted just 31 yards. Two of the three drives were three-and-outs, and one of those came when a single first down would have sealed the win. On that series, Nebraska got three yards on three running plays.
Nebraska punter Isaac Armstrong trotted on the field and buried Northwestern at its 1. Just 2:02 remained.
“They’re on the 1-yard line and I’m thinking we’ve got this game sealed,” said Barry, who had eight tackles but stood on the sideline for the final drive because NU was in a pass defense. “I thought it was the end. I thought we’d come off this field celebrating with my team.”
Carlos Davis got flagged for roughing Thorson, who then hit six of his next seven passes, including a five-yard touchdown to JJ Jefferson. Overtime. Northwestern’s players danced and gathered together on the field. Nebraska’s sideline wasn’t celebrating one bit.
The Huskers’ possession in overtime was a fitful disaster. A pass from Martinez to Ozigbo set up a third-and-1 — until Boe Wilson was flagged for a false start. On third-and-6, Martinez passed to JD Spielman, who gained five yards. It was fourth-and-1, and Frost decided to go for it instead of relying on freshman kicker Barret Pickering, who missed a field goal and an extra point in the game.
Farmer’s snap to Martinez was bad. Martinez was forced to scramble and throw a desperate Hail Mary into the end zone. Northwestern intercepted it and later kicked the game-winning field goal.
“I try to learn through each experience,” Martinez said. “I’d rather learn through winning.”
Ozigbo said Nebraska has “checked off all the boxes” to win without actually winning. Outside linebacker Luke Gifford said the experience was still “a blur” to him afterward. It didn’t seem quite real.
“The rah-rah stuff, that’s got to go,” said Gifford, who had a sack and four tackles for loss. “We’ve passed that point. Like Coach Frost said, we have made a turning point. I think we’re on the way up, but these are the types of games we have to finish.”
Frost said Nebraska needs to learn how to win. It has now been 10 games and nearly a calendar year since the Huskers have won. It is a streak of misery unparalleled in Nebraska history.
“(Vince) Lombardi said winning is a habit,” Frost said. “Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Not long after, he walked away from the podium, through the kitchen and past the security man at the door. He had one more interview to give, to Nebraska’s own radio network, just outside the brick building underneath Ryan Field. During a pause in the interview, Frost leaned against the building, looked down and shoved both hands in his pants pockets, like a man searching for a dime. The trip home awaited.
Frost said during his press conference he was running out of things to tell his team, other than to stick together.
“We’ll keep scraping,” he said.