LINCOLN — He’s been on both sides of this deal, Scott Frost.
Nebraska’s coach played for a Husker national title team that had a target on its back every week. He has coached at a recent college football juggernaut, Oregon, which had a similar bull’s-eye. And he’s coached at the upstart, UCF, full of pluck and vinegar, the program with plenty to prove.
So Frost, back in a blue blood’s saddle, understands the danger of NU’s Saturday game against Troy. And even if he’d like to hope he’d never have to talk to his team about playing hard, he still talked to players this week about the threat of an upset. Troy nearly knocked off the national champs in 2016 and tamed a top SEC program in its own den last year.
“I’ve coached at a place like this, and when you go play a game like this, it’s like the Super Bowl for them,” Frost said. “It’s a great opportunity for a team to come into an environment like this and try to win, and they did it last year. They went in to LSU, which is one of the best environments in the country, and beat ’em pretty handily.”
For 3½ quarters, anyway. Troy led 24-7 before holding on for a 24-21 win when the Trojans intercepted the Tigers on a last-gasp drive. That’s sometimes how Group of Five upsets play out. They seem like blowouts in memory perhaps because they happened at all.
Nebraska, 0-1, knows that story, having trudged through the ashes of a 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois last season.
NU gained 171 more yards and ran 29 more plays. Northern Illinois converted 3 of 13 third downs. But the Huskies won because of two Tanner Lee interceptions returned for touchdowns.
The fallout from the loss led to the firing of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst and the end of Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska. The Huskers weren’t the same. Some teams, like the 2016 Iowa squad that lost to North Dakota State, rebound well from shocking upsets. Some, like NU’s 2017 and 2015 teams, never quite do.
Troy, 11-2 last season, is 1-1 this year with a 56-20 loss to Boise State on its résumé. The Trojans have little to lose. Their last four recruiting classes, according to 247Sports Composite, ranked 117th, 98th, 96th and 98th, respectively. Teams with that talent profile are expected to compete for their Group of Five conference title and little more.
“We know they’re going to come in with a chip on their shoulder — guys who may have been overlooked in recruiting,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “They’re athletic, they’re physical, they fly around.”
It’d be a lot for a true freshman quarterback to deal with if Adrian Martinez were fully healthy. Because of a right leg injury suffered near the end of NU’s 33-28 loss to Colorado, his status is unknown for the game. Frost said he may not make a final decision until “two minutes before kickoff.”
With Martinez’s injury, sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch got all of the week’s meaningful practice snaps. A long shot to ever take a live snap at Nebraska when he signed in 2017, Bunch now has two drives under his belt. Multiple quarterback departures have thrust the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Tennessean into the spotlight.
Making the big jump to starter at Nebraska is not something that would seem to faze this quarterback from small-town Tennessee.
“I’ve prepared all week and I’m confident,” said Bunch, who completed 4 of 9 passes at the end of the Colorado game.
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzo said he doesn’t look at Bunch as a walk-on. “Andrew doesn’t look at himself as a walk-on,” he added.
Said Walters: “He knows what to do. He knows the offense. He knows what’s expected of him. He’s a sharp guy.”
Frost said Monday that Nebraska players have to rally around whoever is quarterback. After that, they have to be wary of the Trojans’ defense — undersized, fast and aggressive, with linebackers and safeties all over the place — and gird for the same kind of fast offensive tempo Nebraska likes to use.
“We know the challenge we have coming in here,” Frost said, “and I’ve got a lot of respect for their staff and their team and what they’ve accomplished.”
If Nebraska somehow forgets — or plays sloppily — it could easily be a repeat of last September, when Northern Illinois turned Husker football on its corncob hat. NU’s sleepy start in that game, also an 11 a.m. kickoff, squeezed the vise on the Huskers.
The best way to avoid the mounting pressure? Start fast and play hard.
“We’ve got to match their intensity,” Walters said. “They play with passion and intensity and we’ve got to come out and match their intensity. And if we do that, we have a good chance to win.”
Nebraska vs. Troy
When: 11 a.m. Saturday (Pregame: 6 a.m.)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM