With backs against the wall, where do Huskers find fuel to fight back?

October 8, 2018

LINCOLN — It’s country-road rough, this start to Nebraska’s season. And perhaps worse because it has been unexpected, disjointed and full of narratives about culture, buy-in and want-to.

Not a single Husker coach or player had 0-4 picked on his bingo card. Especially not the man in charge, former NU player Scott Frost, whose consistent “stay down or keep fighting” message is preached nearly each time he talks to the press.

Frost practices what he preaches, his assistants say. He’s even-keeled, placid, not one to erupt in the Husker football offices. Every so often, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said, Frost is the guy picking up every other assistant in the room.

“And sometimes we need to say ‘Hey, boss, we’re going to be fine,’” Ruud said.

Cue quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.

“My goofy butt will go in his office and act like a goofball now and then to get him fired up,” Verduzco said with spice.

Frosty, Verduzco will say, what are ya worried about? We’re gonna get this done! This is gonna happen!

“And then he’ll kind of look at me,” Verduzco said. “I think he appreciates that — the goofiness with which I do it. It brightens his day a little bit.”

A little humor can be big fuel for the fight ahead.

And oh, Nebraska’s in for a Saturday night fight at Wisconsin, a heavy favorite to send the Huskers to 0-5 and their ninth straight loss in a 6:30 p.m. game televised by BTN.

The Badgers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) have won five straight in the NU-UW series. They’ve won three of the last four Big Ten West titles, too. Frost thinks enough of Wisconsin’s program — built by coach-turned-Athletic Director Barry Alvarez — to openly profess his admiration.

“They look a lot like Nebraska used to look and we want to look in some ways,” said Frost, who praised his team’s week of preparation for the trip to Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin and Nebraska run different offenses and will recruit several different regions of the country now that Frost is in Lincoln. But despite cycling through three coaches since 2012 — like Nebraska — the Badgers have an identity, a clarity about how they win games. NU has lacked that big-picture vision and small-bore success. A school-record eight straight losses attest to that. Frost’s words — about attention to detail and commitment — underline the search for purpose.

Where, in tough times, do Husker coaches and players find their fuel to fight back?

“My wife has to give me pep talks,” said Ruud, a former Husker and NFL player. “I have to give the players pep talks. Because I’ve been there.”

“It’s God, it’s all God in adverse times,” said cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, who leads the Big Ten with 10 pass breakups. “Even in the good times and the bad times, you can never be too high and you never, ever want to get too low. God is always there for you.”

Quarterback Adrian Martinez, who lost his mother, Deanna, when he was 10, said his father “has always kept me grounded.”

“I have so many people in my life, and since coming here even more people that I can really rely on to support me. I think it is just who I am as a person, how I was raised to be resilient, not to accept defeat and to just keep moving forward. The sun always shows up the next day.”

Mohamed Barry, Nebraska’s leading tackler, leans on Ruud, his position coach. But Barry, while not a captain, also has become one of the team’s chief leaders, a voice cutting through the noise because teammates respect his play. Barry said players have to rely on the power of their focus to dial in and not “fantasize” about all that could go wrong.

“You’ve just got to look at the task at hand,” Barry said. “You’ve got to simplify.”

Nothing has been simple about Frost’s first season. A smooth opening eight months — which in many ways couldn’t have gone better — gave way to tumult in August and September.

Multiple players, including backup quarterback Tristan Gebbia, left the program. NU’s opening game against Akron was canceled by thunderstorms. Martinez, who sparkled against Colorado, was hurt late in the game and sidelined by injury for Troy, which became an upset loss one week later. A 56-10 loss at Michigan was nothing short of a disaster. The 42-28 loss to Purdue wasn’t quite that — Martinez and the Husker offense rallied for three second-half touchdowns — but the 11 penalties for 136 yards left Frost as emotional as NU fans have seen him.

“He’s a competitor,” Verduzco said. “This is as hard on him as anybody.”

But Verduzco draws confidence from Frost’s unwavering adherence to the plan that turned UCF from 0-12 to 13-0 in two years. The blueprint is the blueprint, and Frost, who brought his entire coaching staff from Orlando, knows the men in the meeting room feel the same way he does.

“Our staff’s like family,” Frost said. “And we have been through a hard year before. We lean on each other, and that’s great. Usually you go outside the building and you’ll get some real positive things and some negative. None of that matters. It’s all about what’s in this building.”

Nebraska has made depth chart changes, enough that one receiver — Tyjon Lindsey — decided to leave this week, and it appears a running back — Greg Bell — is also exiting. But otherwise, Frost hasn’t panicked. Blackshirts weren’t snatched away from defenders who have them. Frost hasn’t banned his coaches or players from talking, and assistants aren’t shy about the strengths and weaknesses of their players.

The vibe they exude — this is tough but temporary — suggests players and coaches are rooted in Frost’s plan and its success at a prior stop. Wisconsin is arguably the best team NU will have faced so far this season, and the team most responsible for exposing the Huskers’ ugliest flaws under two previous coaching staffs.

Frost and his crew don’t wear it.

“Nobody’s happy when you’re 0-4,” Ruud said. “It’s as bad a start as we could have had. But we do believe, firmly, in how to build this thing. We know it works.”

Update hourly