Nebraska fans hope this really is the bottom

Peoples-Jones with a 60-yard punt return TD (0:51)

Donovan Peoples-Jones breaks multiple tackles en route to a 60-yard punt return touchdown for Michigan. (0:51)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The fans wedged into the top corner of Michigan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the ones who traveled double-digit hours to sit with their backs pressed against the Big House's outer wall at the end of the red-colored stripe that rimmed the southern side of the place, didn't react at all when the Wolverines' Donovan Peoples-Jones reached the end zone.

Not many of them flinched or winced even once while Peoples-Jones slipped, spun and flipped his way through their Cornhuskers for a 60-yard score that was really only surprising in that Michigan had creatively found yet another way to tie together the shoelaces of a haphazard Nebraska team. They had reached acceptance.

By then it was clear that this group and first-year head coach Scott Frost were en route to the program's first 0-3 start since 1945, and the Cornhuskers did lose 56-10. Combined with last year's losses, they are in the midst of their longest losing streak since 1957. The first 39 points before the punt return all came in the first half, which is the worst halftime deficit for Nebraska since ... well, listen, no one needs another chronological landmark to point out how bad things currently are for the Cornhuskers -- especially not the fan base who is having its reputation for kindness and loyalty put to a stiff test in the first month of the Frost era.

"We thought we were digging our way out," said Kent Hoxmeier, one of the stony-faced onlookers who made the journey to Michigan this weekend. "We thought [a 42-point loss to end the 2017 season against] Iowa was the bottom. But this is bad, because now we don't want know where the bottom is."

About an hour later, Frost gathered his whipped team in the visiting locker room with the same subject in mind. He promised them that this was, in fact, the bottom. He believed things were going to get better, mostly because they couldn't really get any worse.

In a sense that's true. Is it really any lower if the defense allows 100 rushing yards in the first three minutes against Wisconsin in a couple of weeks rather than the first six minutes like they did against the Wolverines? Is it any lower if Ohio State beats them by 64 a month later as opposed to the 46-point loss to Michigan? The eyes of history will glaze over all of the gaudy, embarrassing stats at some point.

It's not so much a question of if the Cornhuskers have hit bottom at this point, but one of how long they will stay there and what type of damage will be done as they scrape along the rocks. Nebraska is a decided underdog in six of its eight remaining Big Ten games and could well head into the recently scheduled nonconference makeup game with Bethune-Cookman on Oct. 27 looking for its first win.

Frost said Monday afternoon he's still confident that the plan he and his staff laid out at the start of the season will eventually produce the right results. On Saturday, he said he felt his team kept its will to compete despite the quickly lopsided score against Michigan. Wolverines safety Josh Metellus tells a different story from what he saw after intercepting a pass on the fourth play of the game.

"After the first series, when we went back out there we just knew they wanted to give up," Metellus said. "You could just see it in their eyes."

Frost and Nebraska's veteran leaders did not shy away from the notion that not everyone in their locker room was invested enough to stick around through this nadir. The head coach said he didn't think anyone had jumped ship yet, but called it "inevitable" that some players would be lost. Eventually, he said, that would make the team stronger. Junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said he hoped that the committed and non-committed separated themselves sooner rather than later.

"Let's just be truthful," Barry said. "There are some people that want it, and some people that don't. That's why we're playing the brand of football we're playing right now. We're going to get there, and it's all positive, but I hope that if people have any doubt in us and our team that they make their exit now."

It might be time for Frost and his staff to force the issue. He hinted this weekend that changes might be coming. If there are players on the field that weren't interested in being out there, Frost ought to help them out with that - even if that means replacing some players with younger, weaker, less talented counterparts for the time being. After all, it can't really get any worse, so he might as well burn it all the way down to the ground.

Frost -- because of Nebraska's now-lengthy stretch away from the top of the sport, his track record as a head coach and his homegrown status -- has more crash-and-burn insurance than other ballyhooed first-year hires. He has a fan base, and at least a portion of the locker room, that is more likely to stick with him while the program lingers at the bottom before making its bid to rise from the ashes.

Nebraska fans tucked into the corner of Michigan Stadium this past Saturday pointed to promising recruiting rankings and Frost's brief past as a rebuilder -- along with the fact that the Cornhuskers were the only show in town -- as reasons for why they weren't looking for the exits.

"Summer's not here yet," Frost said Monday. "But it's coming. Sooner or later, it's coming."

Not every fan in Husker red is likely as patient, but Frost has a luxury that other new coaches around the country will never have. Minutes after Peoples-Jones knifed through Nebraska's punt return team in the third quarter, Nebraska fan Chance Kvistad pumped both of his firsts in the air as the Cornhuskers got their first points of the day on a field goal. There was maybe a little belief coated in the sarcastic cheer.

Nebraska is farm country, he explained, and farmers are naturally optimistic. Kvistad said even if Nebraska keeps digging and finds a new bottom, they'll believe that "it'll come back around."

"Can you smell that?" Kvistad hollered at another smiling Nebraska fan after the field goal cut Michigan's lead to a meager 43 points. "I can smell the comeback."

Something sure smells in Nebraska, but if this is what the bottom looks like, Frost should have the time he needs to fix it.

Staff writer Mitch Sherman contributed to this story.