Just the memory of Keith Jackson’s voice describing All-Americans Johnny Rodgers and Mike Rozier brings us back to a time when Nebraska was as relevant in college football as Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama.
Their fans love the Cornhuskers. Coming into the 2018 season, they had sold out 361 straight home games, an NCAA record. That dates to a 16-7 win over Missouri on Nov. 3, 1962, coincidentally Bob Devaney’s first season as their coach.
But the enthusiasm appeared in danger of teetering last season, the final of Mike Riley’s time as Cornhuskers coach.
The Cornhuskers were 4-8, the final straw Iowa’s 42-point second half that closed out a 56-14 loss. It was Nebraska’s fourth straight loss after losing its first five home games for the first time since 1957.
It also was Nebraska’s worst record since 1961 after allowing 50 points in the last three games (four overall) for the first time in its 128-year history.
So there was anticipation of a renaissance when the program was turned over to Scott Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback. In his two seasons at Central Florida, Frost had turned a moribund program into a national powerhouse that finished 13-0 last season.
Frost replaced George O’Leary after the 2015 season during which the Knights were 0-12. That quickly changed. UCF won six games in 2016 and in 2017 won not only the American Conference championship game but the 2018 Peach Bowl over Auburn, a game he insisted on coaching even leaving in December to take the Nebraska job.
Frost’s offense led the nation in scoring 627 points (48.2 per game). His quarterback, McKenzie Milton, threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns.
When Frost was hired, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who coached Frost in 1997, said it “lifted the mood of the entire state. …it heightened my engagement and level of interest.”
And that likely was an understatement.
But like at Central Florida, things will likely take time. In an effort to insure continuity, Frost brought most of his assistants to Nebraska. However, there is already a major hurdle for Frost to clear and that has to do with his quarterbacks.
In last week’s opener against Colorado, quarterback Adrian Martinez, the first true freshman ever to start a season-opener at Nebraska and the only scholarship signal caller on the roster, had to leave the game on Nebraska’s second-to-last possession after his leg appeared to be twisted at the end of a 1-yard gain by linebacker Jacob Collier. Nebraska went on to lose 35-28.
Martinez had completed 15-of-20 for 187 yards and one touchdown and ran for another 117 yards, including a 41-yard gain in the first quarter that surpassed any by a Cornhusker last season.
Immediately, the Cornhuskers staff thought something sinister had happened.
“You never want to think anybody on a football field would intentionally try to hurt someone else,” Frost said at his press conference on Monday. “And nobody except someone who does that knows what the intentions were. I will tell you, we have an angle that doesn’t look very good. So we turned the play into the Big Ten and the Pac-12, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Later in the week, it was announced Martinez had suffered no structural damage and Frost said he hadn’t been ruled out of Saturday’s game in Lincoln against Troy State.
“We got about as good of news as we could have gotten,” Frost said.
Still, Martinez’ injury exposed a big issue with Nebraska’s depth chart, one Frost hoped would not come back to haunt him. Martinez was replaced by a sophomore walk-on, Andrew Bunch, who played only one year in junior college before Riley recruited him. And if Martinez cannot play on Saturday, Bunch will be backed up by freshman walk-on Matt Masker.
Shortly after Frost took over, Nebraska’s incumbent quarterback, Tanner Lee, declared for the NFL Draft. That seemed to leave the battle to replace him between Martinez, sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia.
Gebbia was considered the front-runner. But Frost decided to go with Martinez and Gebbia’s reaction was swift. He was granted a release from Nebraska.
“We want guys who want to be here,” Frost said at the time. “Hopefully everything lands in a good position. I think that’s to be determined. … There have been several players who have chosen not to be a part of the program, and some of the decisions I agreed with, some of them I didn’t.”
Next season, Nebraska’s quarterback situation may be solidified with the return of Noah Vedral, McKenzie’s backup, who transferred after Frost signed. Vedral is sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
If Frost does what he managed to do at UCF, if he can build an offense around Martinez and Vedral, it won’t be long before Nebraska football reverberates nationally once again.