'No fear of failure:' If it wants more days like Saturday, Nebraska must embrace its leader's original vision
Even after a win, Scott Frost in 2020 looks a heck of a lot different than Scott Frost in 2017.
When the Nebraska coach returned to his alma mater, he was the cocksure native son, clean shaven and full of energy in a swanky suit. But carrying the weight of an entire state can age one quickly, and the 45-year-old admitted as much after his team’s 26-20 loss a week ago.
“It’s making me old,” an exhausted-looking Frost said then during a Zoom call from a nondescript corner of Kinnick Stadium.
One of the most popular phrases from the beginning of Frost’s tenure was “desire to excel, no fear of failure.”
It started as a T-shirt-worthy slogan but has since become a weaponized statement from frustrated fans during Frost’s 10-20 start in Lincoln.
You could see it happening again Saturday at Purdue. With more than 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter and his team ahead by two touchdowns, Frost could be seen telling his punt team “slow, slow.”
As in bleed clock.
It’s not a terrible idea in a vacuum, but it shows the kind of things that are first on Frost’s mind throughout the course of a football game. As both a player and a coach, he’s never experienced what he’s experienced as Nebraska’s head coach — not just losing this much, but losing in all kinds of uncanny ways.
(See Purdue’s last-minute win last season at the very same Ross-Ade Stadium.)
Frost gets conservative. Uptight. So does his team.
And that’s when you see issues crop up. Penalties. Turnovers. Overthrows. Bad snaps. Better athletes thinking too much and just playing too little.
Nothing is ever easy for this team. It wasn’t Saturday, either, but this time, Nebraska overcame.
How? By being the aggressor. By living up to that original vision set out by Frost.
Sometimes, you have to take your own advice.
“No fear of failure” looks like Cam Taylor-Britt coming back from a costly dropped punt against the Hawkeyes to make play after play against David Bell, one of the Big Ten’s best receivers. Like Wan’Dale Robinson putting up 9 catches and 114 receiving yards after several quiet performances earlier this season. Like Adrian Martinez throwing for 242 yards on 23-of-30 passing with zero interceptions and few mistakes after being benched for a redshirt freshman earlier this season.
“None of us wanted to let up,” Martinez said. “We realized without having to say anything we were in a similar position last year and this team is definitely capable of coming back.”
It looks like jumping out to a 17-0 lead against a skilled but inferior opponent dealing with attrition issues up and down the roster. It looks like center Cam Jurgens fixing his snapping issues in a week’s time.
It looks like a defense holding a talented offense to minus-2 yards rushing, keeping superstar Rondale Moore from breaking a huge play and creating all kinds of havoc plays, including 3 sacks.
It looks like a blocked punt by Levin Falck that set the tone for an early rampage.
“I had the shortest path to the ball,” Falck said. “It was snapped, I just sprinted and no one touched me.”
It looks like a team that had been horrendous coming out of halftime in previous weeks marching 75 yards on 11 plays to start the third quarter and open up a 34-13 lead.
“We hadn’t come out like that,” Robinson said. “It was really good to see us march the ball right down the field and score. We just have to do that more often.”
And yet we’ve seen this meltdown motion picture before with Frost teams.
Purdue and Colorado 2019. Northwestern 2018. Iowa 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The ineptitude and costly mistakes span multiple coaching staffs and more than two decades since Nebraska has won a conference title.
When Bell snagged a pass as Taylor-Britt and safety Marquel Dismuke collided in midair and raced 89 yards to make it 34-27 with 12:16 remaining, you could see it unfolding again.
“I think everyone did, but we’ve been in that moment a ton of times,” defensive end Ben Stille said. “I don’t think it really fazes our team, fazes our defense, especially. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys on defense that have played a lot of football.
Even during moments of abundance, you’re waiting for something bad to happen to Frost’s team. Plenty did Saturday, from losing talented second-string defensive back Myles Farmer to a freak but apparently severe noncontact injury during warmups to 107 penalty yards from a team that always seems to find a way to shoot itself in the foot.
It actually did multiple times on its final scoring drive that accounted for the final score. Fortunately, Purdue was just as willing to bend the rules.
The possession featured a combined 6 flags for 80 yards. For the game, the Huskers and Boilermakers accounted for 233 yards in fouls — the most in a B1G game since 2003.
“That was one of the weirdest drives I’ve ever seen watching or coaching football,” Frost said. “I thought our offense was calm and relaxed and businesslike going out there, which is what you have to do. They had penalties, we have to make sure we don’t get those penalties.
“We managed to go down and get points.”
If you’re looking for a turning point, see Frost’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 with 2 1/2 minutes left. THAT’s going for the throat, even if it didn’t work.
Then Taylor-Britt made his NFL-worthy stretch in midair to quell any final comeback attempt.
That’s no fear of failure.
With several Purdue players reportedly opting out this week during a season gone south in West Lafayette, it could be tempting to degrade the meaning of a singular Nebraska victory by questioning how much the Boilers’ heart was in it.
But the guys who showed up Saturday morning didn’t quit. Neither has Moore, one of the best players in the country who could easily have thrown in the towel on 2020 and began preparing for the NFL.
His commitment to his team is admirable.
And yet a continuously-improving Huskers defense kept Moore from going off on them. Coordinator Erik Chinander is one of the first scapegoats for Nebraska’s lack of victories under Frost, but his defense is a microcosm of what can turn this around.
The more they attack, especially with the front seven like they did Saturday, the better they are.
So take Saturday for what it is — a second victory in a bizarre season for everybody. Any day with a win is a good day for this program right now.
“Nothing’s better than winning,” Falck said. “We work super hard during the week, and it finally paid off. I think this is going to give us confidence to move forward into the future. I think this is going to be a good team in the near future. It’s going to be tough to beat.”
Said Martinez: “This team, proving that we were capable of winning in a style like that is huge for us moving forward.”
But similar words were uttered after Nebraska knocked off Penn State then turned around and got blown out by Illinois.
Learning to play to win is one thing. Handling success is another.
“I’ve been saying for a while I think the team’s ready to take off and propel itself, but we’ve got to experience some good things, develop the confidence,” Frost said. “If I have to point to two things our team’s been lacking a little bit, it’s experience because we’re young, and confidence.
“I think we’re gonna grow.”
There were glimpses Saturday, but it must be sustained. With Minnesota trying to come back from a COVID-19 outbreak then a Dec. 19 weekend that’s supposed to feature a ninth game, Nebraska could finish .500 and conceivably make a bowl game.
Who knows what that’ll look like?
But big picture, the culture must be predicated on aggression. It’s the same spirit that caused the Huskers to fight for this season to happen in the first place.
It might not work for everyone. Frost and his staff admittedly need to find guys with an attitude befitting the value system they’re trying to instill.
Five members of the 2020 recruiting class have left the program. It’s a weird year, but you can’t build a successful organization without the right people for it.
A couple of ’em, including Taylor-Britt and corn-raised Nebraskan Garrett Nelson — who was an animal from his outside ‘backer spot Saturday — came by and razzed Frost during his postgame interview with Big Ten Network.
And perhaps for the first time in weeks, Frost smiled on camera.
“Any win helps,” the coach said. “I love this team, and good things are ahead.”