If you were a kid following Nebraska football during the early 1970s, chances are one of your favorite players was running back Tony Davis.
He played the game like it was meant to be played — at full-tilt. He was brash, passionate, intelligent. “Tough Tony” had a bit of a mean streak.
So, his reaction this week was predictable when asked if he ever embraced the notion of moral victories.
“Oh, hell no,” he said. “A defeat is a defeat.”
A native of Tecumseh, Davis cares deeply about the Nebraska program. He studies game film and appears Monday mornings during the season on “Early Break” (93.7 FM). Although Davis to this day stiff-arms the moral victory discussion that was prevalent in our neck of the woods following NU’s 36-31 loss last week at eighth-ranked Ohio State, he nonetheless said the setback was “huge” for the Huskers from a confidence standpoint.
He’ll get no argument here. The prevailing sentiment among Nebraska fans is that the Huskers took a significant step forward last week in terms of growth in first-year head coach Scott Frost’s program.
So, is it possible for Nebraska (2-7, 1-5 Big Ten) to take another sizable step Saturday against Illinois (4-5, 2-4)?
Oh, hell yes.
“This game is huge,” Davis said. “This may be the biggest game of the year.”
I’m not going quite that far. But I understand Tony’s desire to see continued growth in Frost’s program. That’s what Big Red fans want. They yearn for it. After all, Nebraska’s gradually shown improvement since getting thumped 56-10 Sept. 22 at Michigan. Frost has spoken repeatedly about improved culture in the program, about players coming together and buying in. You see a Husker offense now ranked 19th nationally and wonder just how good it can get. You see the defense, largely devoid of big-time playmakers, forcing turnovers and hitting harder.
Now, fans want to see more evidence that the program is on the right track. It’s about credibility.
Which brings us to Saturday’s game. It is indeed an intriguing one for Nebraska. The game’s importance sneaks up on you because it pits sub.-500 teams with zero championship hopes. But if the Huskers were to fall to the Illini, it would severely undercut the assertion of progress in the program. A loss would halt, at least temporarily, momentum gained from wins against Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman followed by the strong outing at Ohio State.
A loss would be a headache for Frost as he continues the process of instilling confidence and belief in his players. A loss would be a gut-punch to a fan base beaten down hard by the Mike Riley years. Remember, Nebraska less than a month ago ended a 10-game losing skid.
But this is Illinois, a team that surrendered 63 points and 712 yards — 712! — to a four-loss Maryland team. In other words, Nebraska’s offense should have a heyday, and the Huskers should carve out their third triumph — unless they fall victim to the “letdown” trap after expending a lot of energy in Ohio Stadium.
“This game is all about how the kids respond,” Davis said. “I want to see high energy. We’ve done a good job of eliminating mistakes. Now don’t take a step back. We’ve done the things everyone talked about after we were 0-and-4 and people were saying they’ve got to go ‘this direction’ in order to salvage something out of the season. Well, they’re starting to do that.
“If you close this season out with three (more) wins — which is not going to be easy at all — that would be nice. That sits in your brain the whole offseason and pushes the program forward.”
Said junior linebacker Mohamed Barry: “These three games are going to tell the story for next season.”
Davis, who seldom went backward as a runner, becomes excited as he talks about the Illinois game. It’s a chance for his alma mater to move forward into what sets up as an important month for Nebraska with winnable games ahead against Michigan State and Iowa.
“They know now they can play with anybody,” Davis said.
Further proof would be welcome for a program in the early stages of building. I think we’ll see it. Let’s say: Nebraska 57, Illinois 31.
Enjoy the weekend.