It really shouldn’t have taken one more critical, forehead-slapping, oh-no-he-didn’t moment to convince Nebraska that Scott Frost cannot do the job of coaching the Cornhuskers. They should have realized that after last season, a 3–9 flop filled with creative ways to lose games that ran his career record at the school to 15–29. But just to make his deficiencies crystal clear, Frost produced his most spectacular act of self-sabotage yet Saturday.
His Cornhuskers, having just taken a 28–17 lead on Northwestern with nine minutes and nine seconds left in the third quarter, Frost signed off on the preposterous decision to attempt an onside kick. It didn’t come close to succeeding, and it irrevocably turned the game in the Wildcats’ favor. They scored the final 14 points for a 31–28 victory in Ireland, in a classic Week Zero festival of the strange and silly.
Barring dramatic improvement that can be sustained for the rest of the season, that play could be remembered as the breaking point for Frost. The time that his last supporters bailed on him, as the pile of incompetent evidence grew a little taller. This was the cherry atop the manure sundae, as it were.
The latest come-from-ahead loss produced a postgame press conference so cheery that the last question was whether Frost has any plans to step down. "No, absolutely not,” he said. “I love Nebraska. I'm gonna fight with the guys as long as I can fight.”
His corner should have thrown in the towel on this fight nine months ago. Instead, they hung on long enough to witness the onside onslaught Frost unleashed upon his own team.
Nebraska’s possessions after the gamble that will live in infamy: punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, interception. Total plays: 23. Total yards: 85. Points: zero.
Northwestern possessions after being gifted a comeback opportunity: touchdown, punt, missed field goal, touchdown, punt, punt, ran out the clock. Total plays: 40. Total yards: 214. Points: 14.
Even Irish fans, many of whom likely had only the loosest grasp on American football and were more interested in drinking Aviva Stadium’s free beer dry, had to know an onside kick up 11 with all the momentum was a terrible decision. There is published research that put the onside kick conversion rate at 23.8% in college football from 2014 to ’20. Generally speaking, it’s a play to be used in times of desperation or when an opponent clearly tips off a vulnerability in the front line of its return team.
Nebraska was the opposite of desperate at that point, having taken control of the game. Perhaps the Cornhuskers saw something in the Northwestern return unit in the first half that suggested this unorthodox call would work—but Pat Fitzgerald is a buttoned-up coach who would seem to be one of the last to leave something like that uncovered. It was a foolhardy gamble that backfired so disastrously that there’s really no overstating it.
"If I had it over,” Frost told the media in Ireland after the game, “I wouldn’t make the call."
Perhaps if athletic director Trev Alberts had it over, he wouldn’t have brought Frost back for this fifth season. This was a Hail Mary attempt to save a local hero, a former national championship quarterback from the Tom Osborne glory days. It seemed to be a sign of defeat and didn’t figure to work—and now the reboot is off to a brutal start.
They tried everything to make this a radical makeover: replacing four offensive staffers; hiring a special teams coordinator; Frost giving up the play-calling job (and taking a pay cut); hitting the transfer portal for six new starters, including quarterback Casey Thompson. Yet the more things changed, the more the bottom line stayed the same.
Frost is now 5–21 in one-score games at Nebraska, which is hard to do. His Huskers aren’t just unlucky, which the apologists tried to say last year; they blow games. They blew this game. Twice, Nebraska led by 11 points, and twice they surrendered those leads.
Give credit to Northwestern, which might have its even-year mojo back yet again. The Wildcats went 9–5 in 2018 and won the Big Ten West, and went 7–2 and won the West again in ’20. In 2019 and ’21, they were 3–9. They have yo-yo’d between first and last in the division in those four seasons.
The team that won in Ireland has a long way to go to capture the West again, but it did what Fitzgerald teams so often do—hang around, battle, capitalize on opponent mistakes, win a close one. Fitz has built a career out of being the anti-Frost, maximizing his opportunities instead of minimizing them.
Perhaps most damning of all, the preseason hot air out of Lincoln about improvement instead revealed a team that gasped its way to the end of both halves. Northwestern delivered an 82-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes of the first half, and ran the ball down Nebraska’s throat to end the game when everyone knew what was coming. At one point, facing a third-and-two from its own 14, Northwestern sent running back Evan Hull into a nine-man Nebraska box—and he gained 21.
Beyond the strategic gaffes, the Huskers also were out-toughed by the Wildcats. Remember Frost weirdly bragging about his linemen throwing up all over practice due to the rigor of new line coach Donovan Raiola? Well, Northwestern’s offensive line was far better.
There simply is no evidence that Frost can get Nebraska ready to start a season. He’s now 0–5 in his first game of the year against a Power 5 opponent, and it’s hardly been a murderer’s row: two losses to Colorado, a blowout to Ohio State, a loss to Illinois and now this loss to Northwestern. The Huskers were favored in four of those five, including a nearly two-touchdown spread Saturday.
Frost did manage to toss his new offensive staff under the bus, presumably targeting coordinator Mark Whipple with this comment: "I think our offensive staff has to learn you've got to be a little more creative in this league.” Whether it was a lack of creativity or a lack of execution, Thompson’s last 10 dropbacks of the game produced a sack, two interceptions and just three completions for 25 yards.
The path to firing Frost now appears fairly clear. His buyout drops from $15 million to $7.5 on Oct. 1, and the only thing that might save him now is upsetting Oklahoma in Lincoln Sept. 17. Between now and then are what should be two walkovers, against FCS North Dakota and Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt. There is an open date Sept. 24, then a home game against Indiana on Buyout Cutdown Day. If Nebraska is 2–2 or worse heading into October, Alberts can follow the trend of early firings or—again—let Frost try to prove something other than what his 45-game body of work shows.
He can’t do it.