Leistikow: Annual optimistic talk from Scott Frost, Nebraska football. Is this finally the year?
INDIANAPOLIS — The math is almost hard to believe. Nebraska scored 239 points in Big Ten football games last fall and allowed 239. A season-long “push” on the scoreboard.
Yet the Cornhuskers’ conference record was 1-8 in 2021.
Nebraska’s 56-7 rout of Northwestern was the lone win; the eight losses were all by single digits. For good measure, the Huskers’ lone non-conference loss at then-No. 3 Oklahoma was by a mere touchdown.
That evidence shows simultaneously that Nebraska might not be far away from a really good season … while highlighting the fact that there are other issues holding the Cornhuskers back.
Nebraska fifth-year coach Scott Frost — given a reprieve and a pay cut by athletics director and fellow former Husker Trev Alberts — leaned into both topics inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Tuesday, the first of a two-day session of Big Ten Media Days.
“The only thing you point to is a killer instinct and an ability to finish the game,” Frost said. “It was kind of a different thing every week — a punt here, PATs and field goals there. An interception here and tripping over own feet there.
“It just seemed like it was a different thing every week.”
From last year:Leistikow: Nebraska football bullish about union of Scott Frost, Trev Alberts
Iowa fans don’t have to strain their memory for the most recent example of a Nebraska meltdown. In the Black Friday season finale, the Hawkeyes trailed 21-6 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter … but reeled off 22 straight points, highlighted by a blocked-punt return touchdown that swung the momentum.
Now, for the first time in Frost’s tenure, he’s got a dedicated special-teams coach in Bill Busch. That was overdue.
He’s also yielding play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who arrived from Pittsburgh and immediately became the highest-paid assistant coach in program history at $875,000 in Year 1.
“I’m not divorcing myself from (play-calling),” Frost said, but did note that he expects this will give him more time during games to interact with the defense and special teams.
From 2018:Leistikow: Scott Frost-led Huskers are coming after Iowa, rest of Big Ten
Despite last year’s 3-9 record, the betting markets indicate Nebraska is expected to have a resurgence. The Cornhuskers have the second-best odds (behind Wisconsin, above Iowa) to win the Big Ten West. Their over/under total for regular-season wins is 7.5. However, they were picked fifth in the division in the preseason media poll — a sign that skepticism and doubters remain for a program that desperately wants to return to its glory days.
But for now, the first winning season since 2016 would be a positive step forward for the Huskers.
Frost relayed that this is the closest team he’s seen in five years at Nebraska; that this team that will play with a "chip on its shoulder."
“I'm finally ready to have everybody stop trashing on my coach and my coaching staff and our team and us as players,” defensive end Garrett Nelson said. “It's been going on for too long.”
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Senior tight end Travis Vokolek provided a window into player-led culture changes he’s witnessed this offseason.
“In the past couple of years, one guy doesn’t touch a line when we’re running sprints in summer conditioning, no one’s going to say anything,” Vokolek said. “This year, we’ve got five or six guys calling them out.”
Added Frost: “On the best teams, issues on the team don’t even make it to the coaching staff.”
Frost and his three players here left Indianapolis quickly. Because the Cornhuskers play a Week 0 game in Dublin, Ireland, against Northwestern on Aug. 27, they open fall camp Wednesday. The season is here for them. And with it comes a Big Red spotlight.
Alberts came in a year ago to replace Bill Moos as AD. He spoke at last year’s Big Ten Media Days about the need to stop talking about Nebraska's glory years of the 1980s and 1990s and the need for hard work to push the program forward.
One year in, Alberts said, "I’m really, really pleased where the relationship (with Frost) is right now. Pleased with where football is. We haven’t won any games. But I’m pleased with how bold and strategic Scott and the staff have been to make the changes necessary.”
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Also at last year’s Big Ten Media Days, Frost said this about his 2021 team: "Without a doubt, this is the most excited I've been about our team and the most confident."
Those words are laughable now.
Is it time for Frost to get the last laugh, at last? Is it time for a Husker breakthrough? The schedule seems more manageable than the past.
For the first time since 2015, Ohio State isn’t included. They get Indiana at home, Rutgers and Michigan on the road for East Division crossover games. They host division rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Dublin game is technically a road game, but it’ll likely have more Husker red than Wildcat purple. Could a season-ending matchup at Iowa have Big Ten West title implications for the Huskers?
We'll find out pretty soon. If Frost fails, this might have been his last podium session at Big Ten Media Days. He is 15-29 at Nebraska to date; 21 of those losses are by single digits.
Alberts wasn’t putting a win total on what it’ll take for a successful season. Frost used one word to describe what a successful season looks like to him: “Winning.”
“Any year you’re coaching at a school like Nebraska or any of these schools in the Big Ten, there’s going to be pressure to win,” Frost said. “We were certainly been playing catch-up with a lot of teams for a long time. I think we’ve done a good job closing the gap. Had our chances to win a lot more games than we have. It’s our time to do it.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.