LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The way Nebraska frittered away what would have been a breakthrough victory for Scott Frost just might inspire a new term to replace an old one in college football parlance.
Let's call it “Nebraska-ing.”
A decade ago, the word was “Clemsoning,” defined as a team failing in spectacular fashion at the most inopportune time. Fortunately for Clemson, “Clemsoning” was mostly forgotten once the Tigers started playing for and winning national championships.
The Cornhuskers appear to be a ways from shaking their knack for “Nebraska-ing,” especially after a 23-20 overtime loss at No. 20 Michigan State that ranks as the most crushing in Frost's four seasons.
Nebraska gave up no first downs and 14 total yards in the third and fourth quarters Saturday night, so there was reason to believe the Huskers would not blow a late 20-13 lead.
But just as they did in their opener at Illinois and again at Oklahoma, they began “Nebraska-ing” when Michigan State forced a punt with under four minutes left.
Daniel Cerni was instructed to send his punt to the right, but instead booted it left. As most of the Huskers' coverage headed right, as it was supposed to, the return man on the left side, Jayden Reed, fielded the punt and raced 62 yards to the end zone nearly untouched.
On Nebraska's first play in overtime, Adrian Martinez didn't see two open receivers near the end zone for what could have been an easy touchdown pass. Two plays later, when Martinez tried to hit Samori Toure on a slant pattern, the Spartans' Chester Kimbrough stepped in for an interception that set up the winning field goal.
And like that, Nebraska's first road win against a ranked opponent since 2011 turned into another loss. How's that for Nebraska-ing?
The Huskers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have lost 15 of 20 games decided by eight points or less under Frost, and that includes all three losses this season.
“This hasn't been easy for this team, hasn't been easy for me,” said Frost, who is 14-23 in four seasons. "From where we started to where we are right now, we’re a way better team. We’ve got to get the pilot light lit and and get over the hump in a couple of these games and get on a roll, and that just hasn’t happened.
“It hasn’t happened because right when we need things to happen, people let us down. And I've got to do a better job.”
Nebraska has shown a stunning inability to get out of its own way under Frost, never more than it did against Michigan State.
The offensive line had four false starts in the first half and has 15 penalties in five games.
“I can’t go out there and stay set for them,” Frost said. “These guys have got to do it. But they've got to get sick of this stuff. I’m sick of it. They’re sick of it. We’ve got to be able to count on guys when we need them to do their job.”
The line also has been unable to consistently create lanes for the running backs and protect Martinez. The Spartans sacked him seven times.
Special teams have been worse yet. The problems started with Cam Taylor-Britt taking a safety against Illinois for unwisely catching a punt near his goal line and then inexplicably throwing the ball out of the end zone. At then-No. 3 Oklahoma, a 23-16 loss, the Huskers might have pulled the upset of the season to date had it not been for two missed field goals and a blocked extra point that OU ran back for two points.
At Michigan State, in addition to allowing the punt return for a touchdown, William Przystup shanked a 7-yard punt, the Huskers allowed returns of 41 yards on a kickoff and 28 yards on a punt that led to field goals, and Nebraska return men cost the team field position by letting punts roll out instead of fielding them.
There are encouraging signs, though.
The defense has mostly played well enough to win, allowing 17.2 points and 328 yards per game.
Martinez, the fourth-year starter, has been playing some of his best football since he was a freshman. His passer rating of 156.40 and 9.5 yards per attempt are career bests, but he has had ill-timed interceptions each of the last two games and has had a couple costly fumbles.
Next up is Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday, a crucial home game if the Huskers hope to become a factor in a wide-open Big Ten West.
“If I know anything about this team,” tight end Austin Allen said, “we’re not going to croak.”
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