Huskers improved across the board, now ready to see victories
LINCOLN — For all the statistical breakdowns and culture signs that illustrate how far Nebraska has come this season, there’s only one measurement players and coaches are using for the rest of November.
Victories. Get them, and all this progress talk becomes reality and a slingshot into 2019. Don’t, and the improvement made since an 0-6 start rings hollow.
“Hungry dogs run faster,” senior center Tanner Farmer said. “We’re hungry. We want to win. We’ve been starving all year and we’ve only got two wins right now.”
The Huskers (2-7) turn to Illinois to begin a season-ending stretch that also includes Michigan State and Iowa. And unlike last week’s game at Ohio State — when Nebraska nearly pulled the top-10 upset against a program that had dominated it the previous two years — players said Monday there are no meaningful silver linings that would accompany any defeat the rest of the way.
A variety of numbers validate the eye test that Nebraska is playing better of late, particularly the past three games against Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman and OSU. Nebraska has halved its penalty total, increased scoring and produced more takeaways (seven) than in its first six contests combined (six). Third-down conversions are up in that stretch by 15 percent and opponent third-down conversions are down by more than 3 percent.
In short, the defense is playing sounder and tackling better. The offense is scoring more consistently. Special teams, well, they haven’t gotten worse. But what’s it all worth if the Huskers can’t go out and beat Illinois, an 18-point underdog that they bested 28-6 amid the ashes of last season?
“You can only get so much better without getting the result you want,” senior running back Devine Ozigbo said. “We’re just gonna keep working, keep getting better. But definitely, wins is the next step for this team.”
Said senior offensive guard Jerald Foster: “I feel great about where we’re at. The next step, definitely, is to finish this season out the right way. We have three games that we feel like we can win, so we’re going to keep pushing forward.”
The Huskers kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium against an Illinois team coming off a 55-31 win over Minnesota that prompted the Gophers to fire their defensive coordinator the next day. Illinois includes senior quarterback AJ Bush, a former Nebraska reserve who found his niche after stops at Iowa Western and Virginia Tech and still talks with some NU upperclassmen.
But junior linebacker Mohamed Barry — who said Bush, a fellow Georgia native, is one reason he came to Nebraska in the first place — said his No. 1 motivator the rest of the month is to send out the 19 seniors in winning fashion. Farmer wants to honor the coaches, who he likens to “father figures,” with results for their hard work. Senior safety Tre Neal hopes to “have the train going a little bit” for what Scott Frost and his staff can do in the future.
Just, please, freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez said, no more almosts or what-ifs. Nebraska needs to be better than that.
“We’ve had some great moral victories this year,” Frost said. “And those don’t count for anything.”
The focus through Black Friday will be on the small things it takes to win games, players said. Key mistakes on special teams and offensive third downs sunk Nebraska against Ohio State. Blown defensive assignments and penalties plagued the team through its 0-6 start.
Now there’s no talk about bowl scenarios or paths to a Big Ten West Division title. The Huskers may not even be able to play spoiler in their final league games. But if they can keep getting better — and earn some wins in the process while trusting the process — it might just be the start of something bigger.
Said Barry: “These three games is gonna tell the story for next season.”