LINCOLN — A penalty flag takes up so little space on a football field you can’t even see it sometimes. But its presence can occupy whole rooms in a coach’s heart and mind, and penalties can come to define a program, too.
And Nebraska coach Scott Frost, after a 42-28 loss to Purdue Saturday, was locked in on NU’s 11 penalties for 136 yards. The Huskers, now 0-4 in 2018, have never lost more games in a row — eight, dating back to last season. Their bowl chances are now as faint as the light mist that hovered over Memorial Stadium Saturday evening.
But Frost, in an emotional 12-minute press conference, dialed down that big picture to the smallest pixels.
“We look like one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, and it kills me,” Frost said.
His voice quivered with frustration as he rattled off mistakes, especially one where his cornerback, Lamar Jackson, held a Purdue receiver and then danced after he thought Nebraska had secured an interception. Jackson didn’t immediately know, it would seem, that his holding penalty had negated a key takeaway. Frost yanked Jackson off the field, had a quick, animated conversation with the junior, then benched him for the rest of the game. He didn’t name Jackson in the press conference, but everyone knew.
Yellow flags have created a red alert.
Players, who received Frost’s fiery message before reporters did, were in full agreement.
“We can’t have the penalties and mistakes that we’re having,” left guard Jerald Foster said.
“Calls aren’t going to go our way all the time and we need to react a little bit differently,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said.
“He understands it, he sees it,” cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “The little things, you know? And as a coach, he’s putting that on himself to get us better and to have us stop with those little things.”
NU lost to the Boilermakers for many reasons — allowing 516 yards, converting just four third or fourth downs in 15 tries, zero takeaways, defensive busts by the bushel — but Frost, bullish on reversing NU’s losing ways, honed in on the penalties as part of his ongoing crusade to change Nebraska’s culture.
“The people that won’t make good decisions, the people that are hitting people three yards out of bounds, if that keeps up, I’m just going to ride with the guys that do it the right way,” Frost said.
And there are plenty who do, he said. He listed several players — running back Devine Ozigbo, defensive end Ben Stille, quarterback Adrian Martinez, outside linebacker Luke Gifford, receivers JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan — who are “warriors,” guys willing to fight back from a bad start instead of giving up. Ozigbo had a career-high 170 rushing yards. Martinez amassed 414 total yards of offense. Spielman played hurt but had 10 catches for 135 yards. Stille, Frost noted, chased a receiver 30 yards downfield.
But there aren’t enough players in step with Frost’s vision. Or, more to the point, NU is making enough mistakes that, despite playing well enough to beat Colorado, Troy and Purdue, those potential wins turned to losses. On Saturday, those mistakes were penalties. Nebraska averaged 10.3 of them before the Purdue game. Worst in the Big Ten. It didn’t get any better.
Six of the 11 penalties — all at crucial points in the game — undid most of Nebraska’s good work.
» An unnecessary roughness penalty on Foster killed a first-quarter drive that had reached Purdue territory.
“I knocked a guy down, and he was getting up, so I hit him again, and (the official) threw a flag at me,” Foster said.
» Jackson’s penalty extended a Purdue drive that ultimately led to zero points but helped back up Nebraska to its own 12.
» A late-hit penalty on Marquel Dismuke, coupled with a 15-yard pass interference penalty on Dicaprio Bootle, gave Purdue 30 yards on a drive that resulted in a field goal.
» NU’s first roughing-the-passer penalty, called on Khalil Davis for hitting David Blough several seconds after the pass, started Purdue’s first touchdown drive of the second half.
» NU’s second roughing-the-passer penalty, called on Freedom Akinmoladun, turned a Purdue fourth-and-20 into a first down, which eventually led to Purdue’s final touchdown. Frost was irate over the call and fans rained boos on officials. Akinmoladun appeared to have been blocked into Blough.
“Khalil’s, his was a penalty, it was late,” said defensive tackle Carlos Davis, Khalil’s twin. “I don’t know about Freedom’s.”
Those repeated errors allowed Purdue (2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten) to keep NU (0-4 and 0-2) at arm’s length. Nebraska opened scoring with a crisp 75-yard drive — the first time this season NU has scored first — but Purdue immediately answered with D.J. Knox’s 42-yard touchdown run. The Huskers’ offense then slipped into a deep funk for its next seven possessions, punting five times, turning the ball over on downs and missing a 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
“A couple silly mistakes,” Martinez said when asked why the offense found a rut. He said he could have made better decisions, too.
The Boilermakers built a 27-7 lead before Nebraska’s offense roused itself from a slumber.
But, for three straight second-half touchdown drives, the Huskers looked like Frost envisioned they could. Martinez got hot, hitting Spielman for two 21-yard touchdowns. Ozigbo rumbled 23 yards for another touchdown.
That kept NU within shouting distance until another fourth-quarter slumber, when Martinez threw an interception and Nebraska twice turned it over on downs.
Frost marveled that his team could have 582 yards and still lose. Yet it did. It’s the mistakes, Frost said. The same mistakes, over and over. He said coaches will no longer differentiate between players who can’t and won’t do what they ask and that personnel changes may be made.
Ultimately, Frost said, the players will be the ones who decide the course of the season. They have to care as much as he does, care enough to go to class and study hall and, in an unusual note of detail from Frost, treat NU food service workers the right way. Frost said he’s seen bad habits crop up that he didn’t even know existed with players.
Why is it happening?
“I’ve got a sense of why, but I don’t really want to say why,” Frost said. “Because this is my team, this isn’t somebody else’s team. But in order to have a disciplined team, you’ve got to have guys who really care and you’ve got to have guys who are accountable and you’ve got to have an environment where they’re held accountable.”
There are few accountability measures better than a team’s record.
Nebraska is winless.
|Yards per carry||5.1||6.6|
Nebraska is 4-3 all-time against Purdue.
|Troy (formerly Troy State)||Sept. 15|
|Ohio State||Nov. 3|
|Michigan State||Nov. 17|
Nebraska has played 15 games on Sept. 29. See them all »
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