LINCOLN — Confidence and momentum are fragile things.
Just consider the former Roman Empire — growing and powerful one minute, gone the next.
Nebraska has lacked both throughout the 2019 season, and on Saturday in Lincoln, Wisconsin put on a clinic on how to have confidence and seize momentum.
In the first half Nebraska’s offense was controlling the game. NU’s running game was clicking along. Dedrick Mills looked like the second coming of Jonathan Taylor, breaking tackles, staying on his feet and finding the end zone.
Nebraska was leading Wisconsin 14-10 when the wheels came off. The Badgers went on a 27-7 run to close the game — Wisconsin 37, Nebraska 21.
This is what good teams do.
The Nebraska defense gave up an 86-yard, five-play scoring drive. Wisconsin led 17-14 near the end of the first half. On the very next play for the Nebraska offense an Adrian Martinez pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, intercepted and returned to the Nebraska 21.
Three plays later Taylor scored on a 1-yard run to make it 24-14 Badgers. Wisconsin hit a field goal before the half.
Just like that the already-slim chances of a Nebraska upset faded away into the horizon of Memorial Stadium.
Another game, another celebration by the opposition in Lincoln.
It has become a familiar sight, the reflection of a program struggling to win.
I’ve been a Nebraska football fan since I first learned to walk, so I’m spoiled. I grew up watching this program in its heydays. Used to expect Nebraska to win at least nine games every season and a bowl game was just automatic.
In this upside down Nebraska football world it will take two wins to close this season just to become bowl eligible — at Maryland and at home against Iowa.
Neither seems likely at this point, but not impossible.
Though the pre-season predictions of 10 wins and a Big Ten west title seemed a bit bullish, a reasonable expectation for Nebraska was to win six or seven games and make a bowl.
Patience they say. In time Scott Frost will find a way to win again. The Husker head man received a two-year extension on his seven-year contract this weekend, just ahead of what was another disappointing game for Nebraska.
The contract extension is a good thing, as this program has experienced enough instability in the past 22 years to last a Husker lifetime.
“We’ve got to keep bringing more talent into this program,” Frost said in the postgame. “I’m proud of our guys for how they fought. We need more guys that are willing to do that.
“This is where I want to be. People in Nebraska know me pretty well. I’m a fighter and I’m not going to quit until I get this right. We’re going to get this done. I think everybody including me hoped it would flip this year. We’re miles away and we’re this close at the same time. It’s not going to happen until we have a team that’s ready to make it happen.”
Returning to a high level will take time, piece by piece, play by play.
Mills and the play of the offensive line on Saturday may be one of those building blocks. Mills finished with 188 yards rushing. In all, the much-maligned offensive line gouged gaping holes in the Wisconsin run defense for 314 rushing yards. The Badgers came into the game as the fifth-ranked run defense in the country, yielding just 84.4 per contest.
I suppose that’s how the Roman Empire was built back in the day, but history is absent of Rome rebuilding to its former greatness.
Is it at all possible to build a long-dominant football power not once, but twice?
If it can be done Scott Frost is the guy to pull it off. Right now it seems he’ll need every, single year of his current contract to make it happen.
Clearly Nebraska doesn’t have all the necessary parts to put together a winner.
We all knew Nebraska was severely outmanned coming into this game against Wisconsin. For the better part of that first half NU was executing on both sides of the ball and feeling pretty good about things.
Nebraska had virtually bottled up Taylor in the first quarter, as the nation’s best running back had just 39 yards on the ground. Near the end of the first half Taylor and the Wisconsin offense found its rhythm, and just like that, the dreams of an upset went up in smoke. Taylor finished with 204 yards on the ground.
Great teams have the ability to stay the course, execute the game plan, make plays, play fundamentally sound and avoid mistakes.
That was Wisconsin in the second quarter, outscoring Nebraska 20-7 heading into the half. That stretch was the difference in the game.
Wisconsin essentially flipped on the switch in the second quarter and was in cruise control by half with a 27-14 lead.
Nebraska fans should stand behind Frost. I’m convinced he’s the right guy for the job, but will Husker nation give him the time he needs?
There is a small fraction of the fan base already starting to have doubts. Think about it though, very few people alive today remember what Nebraska football was before its rise to prominence. So it may be only natural if fans are feeling a bit of angst.
As tough as it has been for Nebraska football lately, that first half showed how close this team is at times to getting things turned around. Take away a tipped ball, a long Wisconsin kickoff return and a couple of missed tackles and it would have been a much different game.
It is the story of this Nebraska football program. At some point the tide will turn. At some point Nebraska will be able to silence opposing fans visiting Memorial Stadium.
At some point the confidence and momentum will return to Husker football.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, again.