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Steven M. Sipple: Nebraska plays at level of Top 25 team only to again experience heartache

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Scott Frost was proud of his team after a comeback falls short against Michigan.

There's a certain cruelty that sport sometimes brings.  

Nebraska football fans know what I'm talking about here.

Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez was in the midst of a scrum late in Saturday night's game. He was fighting for a first down. His team was fighting for easily the biggest win in NU coach Scott Frost's three-plus years in charge. 

A sellout crowd of 87,380 at Memorial Stadium was ready to party late into the night. An entire fan base was ready. They could feel it. 

Martinez pushed forward for 3 yards. He had the first down. The referees had to be getting close to blowing the play dead. But the pile was still moving. 

And, then, it happened. 

Michigan defensive back Brad Hawkins, a 6-foot-2, 221-pound senior from Camden, New Jersey, made the play a grown man makes in such a situation. He simply stripped the ball from Martinez's grasp and recovered it on his own. 

Hawkins' monster play ultimately led to Jake Moody's 39-yard field goal to give ninth-ranked Michigan a 32-29 lead with 1:24 left in the game. The score held up. 

Hawkins was the better man, Michigan the better team.

So, for Nebraska, more heartache. 

Nebraska was "this close" to changing the conversation surrounding the program. You know the one. It's the conversation that says Frost's crew is "this close" to breaking through and taking off toward being a consistent factor, or even a force, in the Big Ten and even on the national scene. 

For most of the second half, Nebraska, which must be the best 3-4 team in the nation, played at the level one would expect from a Top 25 team. After trailing 13-0 at halftime, the Huskers exploded for 22 points in the third quarter to lead 22-19 entering the fourth quarter. 

Michigan seemed in control during the first 30 minutes. The Wolverines, in fact, outgained the Huskers 164-32 in the second quarter. 

Nebraska's offense, though, came alive in the second half. Frost called a few gorgeous plays that were executed brilliantly. Even the Huskers' special teams were on-point. Game on.

Martinez, who was 18-for-28 passing for 291 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception), dropped an absolute dime to running back Rahmir Johnson to pull Nebraska to 19-14 behind late in the third quarter.  

The home crowd was roaring. After Nebraska senior safety Deontai Williams intercepted Cade McNamara's third-and-10 pass, the stadium was up for grabs. This is a fan base that longs for a proud program to announce its return to national relevancy on a big stage — a stage like this one, with Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge in the house for ABC.  

Martinez then lofted a perfect little lob that Levi Falck turned into a 13-yard touchdown, giving Nebraska a 22-19 lead with 52 seconds left in the third. Michigan (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) hadn't trailed all season until this moment.  

Michigan, though, would prove to be a bear to wrestle down. There's something about this Wolverines squad. Its head coach, Jim Harbaugh, entered the season on a hot seat. But he likes this team. Likes its attentiveness and willingness to learn. I'm guessing he also likes its moxie. Because, man, UM repeatedly came up with scoring drives against a tough Nebraska defense. 

Michigan finished with 459 yards, including 204 on the ground (4.9 per rush).

Nebraska finished with 431 yards, including 140 on the ground (4.4). 

That Michigan managed 204 rushing yards against the Blackshirts ranks as one of the game's biggest surprises in my mind. Nebraska had held its last two opponents, Michigan State and Northwestern, to a combined 1.92 yards per carry. That's winning football.

On this night, though, Nebraska once again fell just short. Just as it did against third-ranked Oklahoma (23-16), and just as it did against 20th-ranked Michigan State (23-20, overtime).

"I thought tonight was the night," Frost said.  

In the end, though, Nebraska under Frost suffered its 11th straight loss to a ranked team, including four straight close calls if you go back to last season's 26-20 loss to No. 24 Iowa. He's now 15-24 at NU, including 10-20 in the Big Ten.  

His naysayers will continue to howl that his team can't close the deal against good teams. Martinez's naysayers will say the same about him. Nebraska could've changed the conversation with a win on this night. But the conversation will in many ways stay the same. 

I wonder, though, if Frost is winning over some of his detractors. I wonder if he's winning over those who feel the program is failing to progress at an acceptable rate. It's a tricky conversation.  

There's a certain reality to it. A minimum expectation for this Nebraska team has to be bowl eligibility. Time is running out in that conversation. The Huskers need wins. Bottom line, this team is too good not to play in some sort of bowl game. 

If it were to fall short, well, that's on Frost and his staff. Maximizing potential is what coaching is all about. 

Frost sounds confident. He should sound confident. In the past, he said, he got the sense that when his team went up on the scoreboard against a good team, players would sort of wonder what would happen to ruin the picture. 

He wasn't feeling that vibe Saturday night. 

"We're a good football team," Frost said. "I'm proud of these guys. We're going to keep fighting."  

Of that, I have little doubt. 

 

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