Bail out or buy in - players, Frost are taking the latter
LINCOLN — Out of the frying pan of an 0-2 start and into the fire with a game at No. 19 Michigan, Nebraska players and their coach doubled down Monday on their process and Scott Frost’s principal message after the 24-19 loss to Troy.
Buy in or bail out.
Senior, sophomore, lineman, skill player. Every Husker riffed on the same theme.
“You’d be surprised how big of a difference a few guys not buying in can make on a team,” senior right guard Tanner Farmer said.
Said junior linebacker Will Honas: “There’s some guys who aren’t all the way bought in. It’s not that they don’t care — they still want us to be a good team — but we’ve got guys missing meals, missing class.”
“There’s nobody on this team that’s just outright against what we’re doing right now and where we’re trying to go, but there’s definitely areas we’re trying to get better in,” sophomore cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said.
Nebraska is among the nation’s top 20 in rushing yards per game and fewest rushing yards allowed. So are five other teams. Their combined record is 12-2. Then there’s NU, losing two five-point games, a little bit “snakebit,” Frost said.
In the loss to Troy, the Huskers were without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez — his right knee remains iffy for Michigan, though he practiced Monday morning — and Frost was cautious to call run plays for walk-on backup Andrew Bunch. NU chose to rely on its offensive line, defense and special teams to pull out a win, Frost said, but mistakes by all three groups — especially special teams, which allowed a punt return for a touchdown — sank NU’s chances.
Those mistakes, Frost and players agreed, tie back to habits formed in training camp and in life. When Frost told the media immediately after Saturday’s loss that he wanted anyone not on board to get off, he was trying to “get ahead” of any sour moods or doubts that could creep in — usually among older players — after a team struggles early in a season.
“Coming into Nebraska and hearing about how things went down last year, I wanted to make sure that nobody decides to go off on their own,” Frost said, noting the 4-8 season in 2017.
So far, OK. Frost said player spirits were fine Monday — “probably better than mine,” he quipped — and outside linebacker and captain Luke Gifford said “guys’ hearts — and what they want to do — is in the right place.”
“Guys are starting to understand, ‘Yeah, I’m a grown man, I get to make my own decisions,’ but a grown man does what he’s told to do,” Gifford said. “A grown man — if your boss tells you to do something, do it. It’s not always fun, it’s not always easy, but that’s the way it is and that’s the way this program is going to be run.”
The level of structured accountability Frost and his coaches ask of players is a shift from former coach Mike Riley, who tended to let players work through mistakes through trial and error. Riley’s approach was a drastic shift from his predecessor, Bo Pelini, who was a vocal, up-front disciplinarian.
Frost speaks in ways that blend the two opposites. The best teams, Frost has often said, have player leaders who handle minor disputes, but there’s an overall culture he wants that’s still not quite instilled.
“It’s not just on the field,” Frost said. “It’s deciding whether or not to make it to class and it’s deciding whether or not to be dressed the right way at meetings and deciding whether or not to go home and go to sleep or do something else.
“Champions make good decisions and in every single decision they have. Average people, average teams don’t make those decisions. Little things lead to big things. We’re going to get it right. I don’t care how long it takes and what we have to do. We’re going to make those little decisions matter because little decisions and little mistakes are what have cost us a couple games.”
Little mistakes like 21 penalties and six turnovers add up. Small weaknesses — like the lack of backup offensive linemen and wide receivers practicing consistently enough during the week — cost the Huskers on Saturday, when the starters got tired in the fourth quarter.
Falling short against Troy prompted senior wideout Stanley Morgan to address his teammates after the loss. Monday, Morgan said he was trying to give his team “energy.”
“We’re practicing good,” Morgan said. “We’ve just got to do a little bit more to win these games in the fourth quarters and finish out the games.”
Farmer said teammates have to make good choices with time management.
“I don’t have free time,” Farmer said. “I’m up from dusk till dawn dedicating myself to football and schoolwork — making sure I’m passing my classes and I’m doing everything I can (with football). Doing extra stuff — if you want to go to yoga or watch extra film — that’s what it takes.
“You don’t really get a social life during football. You either leave it or take it.”
Players and Frost agreed that Nebraska was spry and aggressive in Monday’s practice — one of the best Monday workouts Frost said he has seen. A start to Big Ten play gives NU the chance to wipe the slate clean and re-embrace its goals for a conference title.
Trouble is, the Wolverines, Frost said, are the best team Nebraska’s played to date.
“Considerably better,” Frost said, than the two teams — Troy and Colorado — that Nebraska didn’t beat.
“This is a huge task,” Frost said. “We’re going to have to play a perfect game and get a lot better in a week to come out on top in this one. But that’s how the kids are practicing.”