Stryker: Frost leaves UCF with glory, brings promise of transformation to Nebraska
I had almost forgotten how it feels to watch a Nebraska football coach cover himself and his team with honor during a big New Year’s Day bowl game. How about you?
I sure could get used to this again.
Wait, you mean that wasn’t a Nebraska game?
Looking at UCF’s tremendously exciting 34-27 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl win over Southeastern Confrerence power Auburn from a purely partisan Nebraska point of view, it was a superb dress rehearsal for Big Ten play for a coaching staff that’s now working full time for the Big Red. They appear ready for the big stage.
Looking at it from a national perspective, it was much more extraordinary. I saw a glorious ending to a promise Scott Frost kept to the UCF players and fans. It was a resounding rejection of business-as-usual college football coaching politics, where coaches take a big paycheck and leave their former players high and dry. Frost showed up ready for war, but he’s a true believer, not a mercenary. Frost and his staff showed class, courage and commitment, as did the UCF Knights, who finished the 2017 season as the only undefeated major college football team. They are a lock for a Top 5 finish. Frankly, they have a legitimate argument that they’re the best team in the nation. There’s no reason the Knights should not leap past Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. They also deserve to be rated higher than the national semifinal losers. I predict they’ll end up No. 3 in the final poll.
This wasn’t a three-hour commercial for Nebraska football, as Bill Moos predicted. It was even better. No marketing was needed on this day. It was honest-to-God drama, proof that honesty, loyalty and selflessness can still coexist with high-level blocking, tackling, running and passing, and the package is on its way to Lincoln.
Frost capably guided his team through some rough and uncharted waters, thanks to a big assist from his defense on a day when his top-rated offense misfired early and often. Quarterback McKenzie Milton got a bad case of stage fright during the first half. He showed good game management instincts. I liked his timeout call after a sack just before an Auburn field made ith 10-6 with 45 seconds remaining in first half. That pumped some much-needed confidence into Milton, who responded by hitting a pass and making two big runs to get team into field goal position.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense stood tall, even while the UCF offense sputtered. Led by defensive end Shaquem Griffin, the Knights looked better prepared and mentally tougher than either the Oklahoma or Georgia defense during their semifinal game. They rained disruption on the Tigers all day long. The Knights forced three takeaways, including a pick-six.They had six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. They held Auburn to under 100 yards rushing and brought an aggressive mindset to every play. Sounds like the Blackshirts will get some intensive training in how to resume their old identity. Hopefully, their read-and-react days will fade into the past.
No, division championships may not return to Lincoln right away. But I get the feeling that Nebraska football is back in capable hands. It’s a feeling I haven’t had for quite awhile.
This staff has more than just Scott Frost going for it. In fact, Frost was outmaneuvered much of the game by Kevin Steele, the former NU linebacker coach and Baylor head coach who has built a successful career as a defensive coordinator for various teams in the Deep South. Maybe the jet lag and all those 18-hour workdays were catching up with him. Chinander more than matched him, though, and Frost showed patience and ably kept his team focused. UCF won on a day they mustered only 6.9 yards per pass attempt, on a day their vaunted offense was missing a lot of its usual zip. Frost’s young staff built a great deal of maturity into their team.
Who would you have bet on if you knew the game would quickly settle into a Big Ten-style slog, a 13-6 slugfest at halftime? I would’ve favored the SEC squad to assert its depth and gradually wear down the Group of Five school in the second half. If you buy the College Playoff Selection Committee’s logic — inadequate strength of schedule to be chosen for the four-team bracket — there was reason to believe they might get overpowered. But UCF didn’t weaken. The Knights had too much pride and frankly, too much talent on defense to let that happen.
Chinander’s defense hung tough against the Auburn running game. That’s the single most important component of winning
in the Big Ten.
The game provided clear, compelling evidence that a dual-threat quarterback makes all the difference, at least at the college level. Milton may have had his worst half ever throwing the football, but the Knights led at halftime because he he could run the football well. Milton finished with 116 of the Knights’ 169 rushing yards. The running game doesn’t get stage fright as easily as the passing game. That will be a welcome sight in Memorial Stadium once again. Will Frost be creative enough to add a power rushing element to his diverse offense? Time will tell. It would be extremely useful on cold, wet, windy days.
But once Milton got his confidence back, his passing added a new dimension that Auburn had trouble dealing with. Milton was just three-for-17 at halftime, and overthrew a wide-open receiver on a play that would certainly have gone for a touchdown. He shook it off by completing 13 of 18 for 212 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Frost brings a level of excitement to Husker Nation, which has already started anticipating how his passion, heart and mental toughness will begin to infect the Cornhuskers. He knows how to build a successful program. He did it the right way in Orlando. He deserves the patience of Nebraska fans to rebuild things the right way in Lincoln.
A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org