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Huskers revert to 2017 form, but NU, Frost resolve to ‘fight back’

September 16, 2018

LINCOLN — Lamar Jackson walked back to the locker room by himself, but not exactly alone. Most of the Nebraska football fans still lingering inside Memorial Stadium Saturday surely felt just like him.

“Aaarrgh!” Jackson yelled. He had a few more words of frustration for himself as he walked into the tunnel.

Nebraska lost 24-19 to Troy, a Sun Belt Conference team, to lose its sixth straight game dating back to last season. NU also started 0-2 for the first time since 1957 and lost its second game to a mid-major football program in a calendar year.

So, yes, anger seems appropriate. For all the rhetoric about change and unity in the Scott Frost era — offered again by players and Frost on Saturday — the results aren’t changing yet.

“It’s killin’ me,” defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “It should be killin’ everyone.”

That line covers a multitude of football sins committed by the Huskers over the last two seasons — mistakes repeated, once again, on Saturday.

Three turnovers, 10 penalties — including back-to-back personal fouls — and special teams gaffes that could inspire memes on social media. Nebraska gave up a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown on Saturday, and its last line of defense on the play, because NU was so out of sorts, was a 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive lineman. He did not make the tackle.

NU quieted its own sleepy 11 a.m. crowd by starting in a 17-0 hole. Then, with a backup walk-on quarterback, Nebraska chipped away, drawing within 17-13 by the fourth quarter. But, despite running 20 more plays in the game and outgaining the Trojans by 111 yards, the Huskers’ couldn’t complete the comeback. The defense stubbed its toe in the fourth quarter by allowing three straight third-and-9 conversions on Troy’s clinching touchdown drive.

An awful start, a steady comeback, a late collapse and a five-point loss for the second straight week. It all left coach Scott Frost offering a postgame stump speech that mixed terse and tender.

“I just got done telling the team that, when things get tough like this, you have two choices: You fight back and you work even harder or you give up,” Frost said. “I also told them if anybody doesn’t want to stay on board with this ride with us, let me know now and get off. Because I know where this is going. We just haven’t had the results early.”

Left guard and captain Jerald Foster said the team accepted Frost’s challenge.

“We’re going to fight back,” Foster said. “I don’t see any other option. There’s no quit in this group.”

But there are enough flaws that, even if Frost said he didn’t see the team revert to its 2017 identity — when NU finished 4-8 — the mediocrity lingers like a bad scent.

“Giving up special teams plays, turning the ball over, dumb penalties,” Frost said. “I can’t tell you how much we talked about that all week and it happens again.”

To whit:

» Because of true freshman Adrian Martinez’s right knee injury — he suited up and warmed up but wasn’t ready to play, Frost said — sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch took the reins. Frost said Bunch “did a good job” of running the offense, but Bunch, who had success on short swing passes and a few deeper shots, also threw two interceptions, including one on NU’s final drive, when he threw high to receiver JD Spielman.

“Two critical errors, one in a critical point of the game,” Bunch said. “That is really frustrating.”

A potential third interception turned into a leaping catch by tight end Jack Stoll, who promptly fumbled it away to Troy. NU stands at six giveaways through two games.

» Officials called back a Spielman touchdown because of a Mike Williams holding penalty. An Aaron Williams pass interference penalty brought Frost to his knees and set up Troy’s final touchdown. On the Trojans’ other touchdown march, back-to-back personal fouls on Mohamed Barry and Tyrin Ferguson moved the drive inside the NU 10. Barry was ejected for targeting on a late hit.

» Ah, the special teams. The Huskers’ third phase was bad in their first game with four penalties. It was worse in their second game. Troy held a net punting advantage of 21.2 yards. Nebraska kicker Barret Pickering missed a field goal; worse, the field goal attempt was pushed back 5 yards because the field goal unit didn’t set up fast enough and Frost didn’t want to burn a timeout.

“That one is on me,” Frost said.

On Troy’s punt return for a score, Trojan defensive back Cedarius Rookard broke multiple tackles, but took advantage, too, of Huskers overrunning their lanes. Punter Caleb Lightbourn ran from inside his own goal line to the NU 45, taking a bad angle from which Rookard easily zoomed away.

“We ran our base return,” said Troy coach Neal Brown, whose team upset LSU last season and nearly beat national champion Clemson in 2016. “It wasn’t anything special or anything we created.”

Frost said special teams “gotta matter to everybody more” going forward. Nebraska did recover a Rookard fumble — turning that into a Pickering field goal — but Troy “decidedly” won the special teams battle otherwise.

Those Nebraska errors, coupled with three big plays for Troy’s offense — a 57-yard run, a 26-yard run and a 39-yard pass — essentially delivered the upset. The Trojans had a festive-but-composed celebration afterward. Sports Illustrated had a writer embedded with Troy last week as the Trojans prepped for the Huskers, so expect a long, loving account of Nebraska’s latest misstep.

Brown, himself a hot coaching commodity, said he has a good football team. He indicated that Nebraska wasn’t beaten by some pushover. He said he sees Husker football headed in the right direction and seemed to caution against overreaction.

“I want to say this to Nebraska fans: You’re going to be fine,” Brown said. “… Scott Frost and those guys they have on defense and that staff in particular, they’re going to get it done here. They’re going to win and they’re going to win big. They’re doing it the right way, so I don’t want the narrative to necessarily be about that.”

Brown can wish that for the traditional power he just toppled. But this is Nebraska. And next week is a trip to Michigan. Narratives will carry on until the Huskers change them.

“We’ve got a tough game next week,” Frost said. “This could get worse before it gets better. But it’s always darkest before the dawn, and I know where this is going, so I want every guy in that locker room to be on board with it.”

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