Inside Scott Frost's roller-coaster first year at Nebraska

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The words from coach Scott Frost cut deep and stung into the empty weeks of December as 80 teams ventured into bowl season and Nebraska sat home for a second straight year.

"Iowa's a bigger, stronger football team," Frost said after the Hawkeyes thwarted a comeback bid on Black Friday by the Cornhuskers with a field goal to win 31-28 as time expired in Iowa City. "That's right now. I never thought I'd see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team."

Iowa, in fact, has been bigger and stronger than Nebraska for a while, winning four straight in this season-ending series -- including mismatched meetings by a combined 72 points in 2016 and '17.

Frost, seeing it up close for the first time, found new pain in the established reality. And sure as the progress that the Huskers displayed this fall, he vowed to close the gap.

"We can get bigger," Frost said. "We can get stronger. ... I'm looking forward to the day we get that fixed, when we're not going to be pushed around by anybody."

That day, according to the players and coaches who experienced a turbulent debut season for Frost as head coach back home at Nebraska, is coming sooner than the Huskers' 4-8 finish appears to indicate.

For it was largely a tale of two seasons in Lincoln.

Failing confidence and seemingly endless blunders marred the first half as Nebraska went winless and saw its school-record losing streak extend to 10 games. But the final six weeks, which featured four wins, the tight loss at Iowa and a 36-31 defeat at Ohio State in Week 10, offered much promise as Frost's principles took hold.

The Huskers enter this offseason buoyed by optimism despite their first two-year absence from the postseason since 1961. The months ahead are likely to bring proclamations that Frost's team is ready to contend in the Big Ten West and surely begin to resemble again the program that once qualified for bowl games in 35 straight seasons, then a record.

But what spurred the sudden change? A look inside the locker room on Nov. 17 after Nebraska's 9-6 win over Michigan State on senior day in the snow and cold wind at Memorial Stadium perhaps presents the best explanation.

There was Frost, surrounded by his team. On the coach's right shoulder leaned Mick Stoltenberg, a defensive lineman from Gretna, Nebraska, who battled through injury to keep playing as a senior captain. To Frost's left was another senior captain, Jerald Foster, tears flowing from the eyes of the offensive guard out of Lincoln whose position group endured more than its share of criticism over the past four years.

The emotions all over that scene defined Nebraska for decades as it collected 46 conference titles and five national championships.

And those emotions were too often missing for the past 15 years.

"I could feel the love coming off him," Foster said of his coach. "I could feel that he cared. It was just the feeling that everything's going to go well when [the seniors] are gone. I think that all came into play. It was a very emotional moment, very happy for me that in this last year, I got to do it with Coach Frost."

Frost earned his chops as a head coach at UCF by building the same kind of bond with his players. More than anything else, it explained the Knights' ascent from 0-12 in 2015 before Frost arrived from Oregon to 13-0 in 2017.

From UCF to Nebraska a year ago came every coach on Frost's staff and nearly all of the support personnel.

They implemented the same philosophies. But it took some time for the Huskers to believe. Meanwhile, Nebraska blew late leads against Colorado and Northwestern, stumbled repeatedly against Troy, Purdue and Wisconsin, and put up little resistance at Michigan.

A few players left. The special teams were a mess. The defense struggled to create turnovers. Penalties mounted. Frost's offense couldn't convert a fourth down.

"One of the hardest things in football is to keep believing when things aren't going well," said linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, a former Nebraska standout and eight-year NFL vet. "I've been on some teams that weren't very good. I've seen a lot of teams that quit. Teams can shut it down.

"Our guys not only didn't shut it down, they got better. That's what I'm going to take away from this year -- the mentality that they kept, the positive attitude, the ability to have fun. Even when we were 0-6, we continued to have fun."

After the first two wins and the near upset at Ohio State, Frost went shirtless at a morning practice in early November as the Huskers made snow angels on the turf.

Granted, it's not exactly the Saban way. But Frost was dealing with unique circumstances.

"This is not to throw stones on their previous experience, but these guys didn't know how to prepare," said offensive line coach Greg Austin, another ex-Husker who went from Oregon with Frost to the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly, then to UCF and back to Nebraska.

"They didn't know how to prepare for games. They didn't know the indicators. You don't just run plays. You make the plays work. You will the plays to be done -- based on the information you've gathered and the play that's going to be run and the situation that you're in.

"These guys are understanding now how to play the game, rather than to just go out there and hope."

With understanding came prosperity. Nebraska gained 450 yards in seven straight games, a school record. It hit 500 yards five times for the first time in a season since 2000. It hit 600 twice in Big Ten play over a four-game stretch after reaching that mark once in its first 62 games in the league.

Stanley Morgan Jr. and Devine Ozigbo gave Nebraska its first 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season -- and one of the eight FBS teams to field such a duo this year.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez became the sixth freshman since 1990 to average 200 yards passing and 50 yards rushing in a season. His completion rate of 64.6 percent ranked second in school history. His seven 300-yard games set a program record.

"It signifies the turn we've made as a program," Martinez said.

Nebraska averaged 209 yards rushing, an improvement of 101.5 yards over 2017, when it closed the season under coach Mike Riley with four straight losses.

Clearly, though, this was a different kind of 4-8. The penalty numbers fell in the second half. Nebraska improved on special teams. After the Huskers' turnover margin sat at minus-7 over the first seven games, it was plus-6 over the next four.

"We're going to look back and cherish this year," Frost said, "because a lot of the things that happened, although some of them weren't pleasant, I think were necessary for us to try to get this where we wanted it to be."

Asked how he saw the players capable of staying positive at 0-6, Ruud said it was simple.

"Leadership," Ruud said. "The head coach, No. 1. He always has a positive mentality. Guys want to play for him. They want to be around him. Scott's always himself. He didn't change who he was."

According to Frost, "Toughness is a mentality." And it's easy to be tough, he said, when you care about the people around you.

For likely the first time since it joined the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska players and coaches seem to recognize what they see in the mirror -- what they want to do and presumably how to do it.

"We know the identity of our team," receiver Kade Warner said. "Now you just go out and play football. We'll hit the winter hard. We'll hit the spring hard. And you'll see a team that knows itself next year."

Already, buzz is building. Martinez, in his second year under Frost, looks like a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.

Nebraska opens with South Alabama and a trip to Colorado, which stole Frost's first potential win in September. Then comes MAC champ Northern Illinois, which beat the Huskers in 2017, and the Big Ten opener at Illinois before Ohio State and Northwestern visit Lincoln in the ultimate measuring-stick games.

As for how he measures his first year, Frost said from the start that it wouldn't come down to the win total.

"I think everybody can feel the momentum," the coach said last month. "Everybody in the building, everybody in this program can see where it's going. And that in itself has been a success."