Nebraska lost to No. 5 Ohio State 26-17 on Saturday, an outcome that wasn’t wholly unexpected but nonetheless marked a low point in the Cornhuskers’ 2021 season and made coach Scott Frost’s seat hotter than ever in Lincoln.
What is perhaps the most maddening part of this season — as if Nebraska’s 3-7 record wasn’t bad enough — is just how close each of the Cornhuskers’ losses have been this year. Indeed, the Buckeyes’ victory on Saturday was the first that came by more than a possession all season and was the fourth that came against a team ranked in the top 25.
Nonetheless, Frost’s overall record now stands at 15-33 since returning to his alma mater, and there is more buzz than ever that he may not return for a fifth season.
Here are each of Nebraska’s losses thus far in 2021, including the final score:
|at Illinois||Illinois 30, Nebraska 22|
|at No. 3 Oklahoma||Oklahoma 23, Nebraska 17|
|at No. 20 Michigan State||Michigan State 23, Nebraska 20 (OT)|
|vs. No. 9 Michigan||Michigan 32, Nebraska 29|
|at Minnesota||Minnesota 30, Nebraska 23|
|vs. Purdue||Purdue 28, Nebraska 23|
|vs. No. 5 Ohio State||Ohio State 27, Nebraska 16|
For those at home counting, that’s an average 6.8-point margin of defeat. In essence, the Cornhuskers have been just one score away per game from a completely different season altogether. To further that point, those losses have often been decided by just a few plays that went the wrong way. Frost seemed to acknowledge that following his team’s loss to Ohio State.
“I hate losing more than anybody in that locker room,” Frost told reporters after the game. “But I just love being the coach here, I love these kids. They battled through a lot. This is going to pop at Nebraska. It just is. We’re doing too many good things right. We have too many good young players. We’re putting ourselves in position to win too many games and just not making a play or catching a break.”
With that, Sporting News looks at the one or two plays that have defined each of the Cornhuskers’ losses this season — and how they might have helped Frost and Co. to victory:
Nebraska’s tour of misery began early on the road at Illinois, in the first year of Bret Bielema’s leadership. The Cornhuskers gave up 16 first-half points, all of which were the result of Nebraska mistakes. Two of those scores were a safety and Illinois touchdown drive that should have resulted in a Nebraska interception. A roughing the passer penalty, however, allowed the Illini to continue the drive and come away with the score.
No play had a bigger impact, however, than a fumble return touchdown in the waning moments of the second quarter. Illinois’ Keith Randolph Jr. sacked Adrian Martinez and knocked the ball loose near; Calvin Hart Jr. recovered it and ran 41 yards to go up 16-9 at the half. It proved the ultimate difference in a 30-22 loss.
Calvin Hart Jr : 6 tackles, 1.5 for loss, a sack & a 41-yard scoop and score
Keith Randolph Jr : 2 tackles, 1.5 for loss, a sack & a forced fumble pic.twitter.com/7ok47EfCAG
— Lee Harvey (@AyeThatsLee) August 29, 2021
No. 3 Oklahoma
Nebraska isn’t into moral victories, but the Cornhuskers played No. 3 Oklahoma surprisingly well in what many projected would be a blowout in favor of the Sooners. It’s easy to point to Nebraska’s blocked extra point attempt — one the Sooners returned for a 2-point defensive conversion — as the biggest swing play of this game. But even if Nebraska had successfully attempted the PAT, it would have been down 21-17 instead of 23-16 and still in need of a touchdown to get ahead of the Sooners.
That play ultimately had no effect on what Nebraska needed when it got the ball back at its 17 with 40 seconds remaining in the game. But Oklahoma twice sacked Martinez on the final drive, and the Cornhuskers couldn’t manage even a first down on what could have been a breakthrough drive. Nebraska’s comeback attempt ended with a 14-yard completion to Rahmir Johnson to the Nebraska 25.
No. 20 Michigan State
Two plays proved the ultimate difference in a 23-20 loss to the Spartans. The first was a 62-yard punt return touchdown by Jayden Reed — with poor coverage by Nebraska — to tie the game at 20-20 with just 3:47 remaining in the game.
Neither team could muster another scoring drive before the end of regulation. Nebraska got the ball first in overtime, but Martinez threw a costly interception to Chester Kimbrough, who jumped a slant route and gave his team the opportunity to win the game with a field goal. Matt Coghlin sank it from 21 yards, giving the Cornhuskers yet another narrow defeat.
No. 9 Michigan
Another hard-fought game that saw Nebraska show considerable heart in defeat. The Cornhuskers overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit to score 22 third-quarter points to take a 22-19 lead into the fourth quarter. But Michigan refused to let Nebraska complete the comeback, scoring two field goals late to tie the game, then win it.
The play in question from this loss came at the 1:59 mark of the fourth quarter. Martinez gained 3 yards on third-and-1, seemingly giving the Cornhuskers another set of downs and giving the team a chance to drive down into field goal range with time winding down. But Michigan linebacker Brad Hawkins knocked the ball loose on the play — Martinez later said he thought the play was over — and returned it to the 19 yards to the Nebraska 18.
Michigan’s Jake Moody hit the 39-yard go-ahead field goal; Nebraska’s ensuing drive ended in a turnover on downs, ensuring the Michigan victory.
Missed opportunities are what ultimately cost Nebraska a victory over Minnesota. The Cornhuskers twice got to the Golden Gophers red zone off short fields, and twice were turned away without any points. Nebraska’s offense was stopped three times at the goal line for a turnover on downs with 3:44 left in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Connor Culp missed a 27-yard field goal from the 10. That’s a 10-point swing that would have given the Cornhuskers a 26-21 lead.
Another key play came on the ensuing drive, when Martinez was called for intentional grounding in the end zone. That gave Minnesota a 23-16 lead, which the Golden Gophers lengthened with a touchdown on their ensuing drive. Nebraska made it a one-possession game off a Martinez 9-yard touchdown to Austin Allen with 1:12 left in regulation, but couldn’t get the ball back in time for a game-tying score.
No loss will come down to any one player’s performance, but Martinez picked a bad time to give his worst performance of the year with a two-touchdown, four-interception outing vs. the Boilermakers. Still, only one of those interceptions — the first — resulted in points for Purdue. The other three resulted in a punt, missed field goal attempt and another punt. But that first was returned 45 yards by Jalen Graham to tie the game at 7-7.
From there, the Boilermakers simply outplayed Frost’s team en route to the 28-23 victory.
No. 5 Ohio State
It’s hard to pinpoint any one play that resulted in the Huskers’ loss on Saturday — it is No. 5 Ohio State, after all — but it’s worth noting kicker Chase Contreraz got his first chance to kick field goals all season against the Buckeyes. He replaced Culp, who was 6 of 12 on the season. Contreraz went 1 of 3 in the loss. Had he gone 3 for 3, things undoubtedly would have played out differently.
Who knows how those scores would have affected the outcome of the game, if at all. Indeed, Nebraska’s final offensive drive ended with an interception. But a chance to drive for a game-winning touchdown is better than driving for a touchdown that makes the score look better.