LINCOLN, Neb. -- The stage was set for a spectacular show. Nebraska instead received a three-hour parade of lightning, capped by fierce winds and a sideways downpour that canceled the scheduled opening game of the Scott Frost coaching era last week, an event anticipated perhaps like no other in this program's storied history.
Four hours after kickoff -- the only play Saturday night ahead of the stoppage mandated by a nearby lightning bolt -- Akron players and coaches trudged up a staircase out of their locker room into a dark parking lot. Buses to the Lincoln airport awaited.
The Cornhuskers, headed home in the rain, clearly had lost their moment.
The question this week as Frost's team regrouped to prepare for a visit from old nemesis Colorado at Memorial Stadium (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and the ESPN app): Did the Huskers lose their momentum, too?
"We got all dressed up for nothing," Frost said.
The first cancellation of a Nebraska football game in Lincoln since 1943, and the first because of weather, robbed Nebraska of its release of the energy building steadily here for nine months after a 4-8 finish last fall, the worst for the program in 56 years.
A massive crowd showed up 2½ hours before kickoff Saturday to catch a glimpse of Frost as he entered the stadium in the sultry air responsible for the evening storms. Barely an unoccupied seat remained with 35 minutes on the pregame clock.
"Home openers are always big," said Brett Franksmann, owner of the Omaha-based Red Zone Tickets. "But this was much, much bigger than any of them. The demand was huge."
Franksmann said he resold Nebraska-Akron tickets at an average price of $149, a 72 percent hike over Nebraska's 2017 season opener against Arkansas State.
Mixed into the familiar sea of red was the family of Adrian Martinez, set to make history as the first true freshman quarterback at Nebraska to start a season opener.
"They said everything was shaking when the Tunnel Walk started," Martinez said.
The buildup was immense. The pregame environment was formidable. So it stands to reason that the letdown was almost equally as disappointing.
"A bizarre weekend for us," Nebraska defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said.
Bizarre, indeed. The cancellation of a football game with some 90,000 people in attendance created a logistical mess. It also carried ramifications that extend beyond the game. Few contingencies existed on Saturday night. Administrators accustomed to the smooth operation of such major events were left flat-footed at times.
The result? An uncomfortable night for all. And an uncertain picture ahead.
A fan's dream
Jamey Dougall simply wanted to see Nebraska play football.
He attended quite a few games at Memorial Stadium as a kid, but Dougall never saw more than streaks of color and a big patch of green. He's legally blind, seeing nothing with his right eye. A tissue disorder damaged his retinas as a child. Dougall, 36, endured more than 30 operations on his eyes.
When the great Nebraska teams of the 1990s played, Dougall said, he "would sit on a stool and face-plant the TV" to see a few details with his left eye.
"One hundred percent worth it," said Dougall, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and works in information technology.
Five months ago, after raising $11,000, Dougall purchased a pair of eSight electronic glasses that restored his vision. Upon regaining sight, Dougall took a long look at his wife, Kandice, then turned to view a screen that displayed a video of the Huskers' moving tribute in the 2016 opener to fallen punter Sam Foltz.
Last week, Jamey, Kandice and daughters Maddy and Lacie packed up their car for the 19-hour drive to Lincoln so Jamey could finally see Nebraska play football in person.
Dealing with delays
The command center sits somewhere inside the six-story structure on the west side of Memorial Stadium.
"I don't know if I'm at liberty to say exactly where it is," said Bob Burton, Nebraska's deputy athletic director and chief of staff for AD Bill Moos.
He's not kidding. Akron athletic director Larry Williams, in discussing plans during the delay with Moos, was not allowed admittance. Key decisions about game logistics and security emanate from the command center.
Early in the Saturday night delay, University of Nebraska president Hank Bounds, walking through the press box, offered a pessimistic outlook on the likelihood of a resumption. But expect to wait a while for a decision, Bounds said.
Officials in the command center monitored the radar while thousands of fans stayed in their seats. Lighting flashed in the sky as students danced to music piped over the sound system. All the while, a line of storms much larger than the cell that caused the initial delay headed for Lincoln.
When the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning shortly after 9 p.m., Nebraska ordered an evacuation of the stadium.
In the Huskers' locker room under the seats of the north end zone, Frost addressed his team several times.
"The first time was, 'Stay ready, relax,'" Frost said Monday. "The second time was, 'Take your pads and shoes off. This could be a while. Make sure you're comfortable.' The third time was, 'I don't know where this is going.' The fourth time was, 'There's a chance we might not play tonight.' Fifth time was, 'We might be able to play tomorrow. What do you guys think? Are you going to go home and get in bed?'
"And the last time was, 'I think we have a game scheduled for tomorrow, so get home and get in bed.'"
A Sunday game? Logistically, Burton said, it would be "difficult but doable."
Both teams had given up their Friday night hotels. So Nebraska moved to secure empty dorm rooms on campus for its players. When Akron failed to find a hotel -- no surprise on any game weekend in Lincoln -- Nebraska offered the dorms to Akron and arranged catering. The Nebraska players would sleep in their own beds.
Williams said the proposal was "unacceptable by any measure."
"We're open to playing Sunday," Williams said. "We did it last year [at Western Michigan]. It worked out well for us."
But the fourth-year AD refused to put the Akron players in a spot to play on short rest. Additionally, more rain and lightning was in the Sunday forecast. He referenced recent NCAA legislation that addressed the importance of avoiding sleep deprivation for student-athletes and protection of the weekly off day.
"It was very obvious that [the Sunday proposal] flew in the face of all that," Williams said. "Our kids were devastated when I told them that they weren't going to be able to play. They said they would sleep on the floor. They'd sleep on the bus. But the reality is that we have an obligation as administrators to make sure that we look out for their best interest."
Moreover, Williams said, "Think about it, would Nebraska sleep in the dorms at Michigan?"
Likely not. Frost said this week that he would have probably made the same decision as Akron if he were in coach Terry Bowden's position.
Confusion in communication between Nebraska, the Big Ten and its television partner led Fox Sports to announce a Sunday morning restart. It was premature and quickly pulled.
Akron's charter flight departed for Ohio shortly before midnight. The Nebraska players learned of the decision via text message from their coaches: Start thinking about Colorado.
"Buzzkill," Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford said. "To say the least."
A step closer
Nebraska learned of Dougall's special situation and rolled out the red carpet for him. Dougall toured the indoor facility and sat in the club suites below the press box. He watched through his electronic glasses, which allow Dougall to zoom in on faraway objects, as Frost and the Huskers climbed off the team bus.
Before Nebraska left its locker room, Dougall and his family took their spot on the sideline near the door from which the players and coaches emerge out of the tunnel. Dougall met actress Gabrielle Union, an Omaha native like him, and her husband, NBA star Dwyane Wade. He saw ex-Nebraska great Ndamukong Suh and watched as the cameras followed Frost's every movement.
"Not only could I see the players as they ran onto the field," Dougall said, "but I was reaching out and touching them. And I could smell the brand-new uniforms."
As Akron's Jerry Fitschen booted a touchback through the north end zone, Dougall began to move toward his seat. He missed the first strike of lightning. But there would be many more.
What about Akron?
The game contract signed by both parties in 2014 requires Nebraska to pay Akron $1.17 million for the visit.
It stipulates that "the agreement shall be void in the event that it becomes impossible to play the game by reason of disaster, fire, hurricane, tropical storm, flood, earthquake, war, act of terrorism, invasion, hostilities, rebellion, insurrection, confiscation by order of government, military public authority or prohibitory or injunctive orders of any competent judicial or other governmental authority."
No mention, you'll notice, of a severe thunderstorm. Williams said he believed the language about a hurricane or tropical storm existed because former Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst, under whom the deal was struck, might have brought with him an old contract from Miami, where he worked before Nebraska.
Moos noted this week that Nebraska has until March to write a check. By then, he's hopeful Akron has returned to Lincoln in Week 14 to make up the game.
"We do want to play 12 games," Moos said. "We do want to be bowl-eligible."
The Nebraska AD, on the job for 10 months and revered for his hire of Frost, came under some criticism for his lack of communication last weekend. Moos released a statement on Sunday that implicated Akron in the cancellation and talked to the media on Wednesday.
"I wasn't hiding under the bed; however, I am afraid of lightning," Moos said.
Williams said he's open to bringing Akron back in Week 14. That is, as long as the Zips -- or the Huskers, for that matter -- aren't playing for a conference title.
"We have every expectation that Nebraska is going to follow through on the terms of the contract," Williams said.
Alternatively, Nebraska plans to explore options in Week 9, when it has scheduled an open date, though potential opponents are currently in short supply.
"I haven't taken anything off the table yet," Moos said.
Well, that is, likely with the exception of looking to "insert a game midweek," oddly suggested by University of Nebraska-Lincoln regent Hal Daub.
Dougall plans to return
Dougall plans to come back to Nebraska for the Minnesota game on Oct. 20. He has still not seen the Huskers play. The kickoff doesn't count. Regardless, he missed it.
"The beginning and everything before the game was all the excitement I needed," he said. "Obviously, the game itself would have been a thrill. But to see the stadium was spectacular."
Dougall is bringing his father, Herb, next month. They sat together at the top of the east stands when Dougall was much younger. Spectators nearby would tell him what was happening. Or he would listen to the radio broadcast.
Dougall said he's hopeful the technology will improve. Already, it's incredible, he said, but he must carry a case and keep the glasses plugged in while they're over his eyes. His body continues to adjust to the change, but every inconvenience is well worth the gift of restored vision.
He's hopeful, too, that others afflicted with blindness will hear his story -- as he heard about an Indianapolis Colts fan's -- and someday see whatever it is that means most to them.
Nebraska plans to reissue tickets if it ultimately schedules a 12th game. It will provide no refunds for Saturday, as the ticket policy states. For an opener with a robust secondary market, the situation figures to create some problems.
"It's taken some of the joy out of Colorado week for me," said Franksmann of Red Zone Tickets. "But most people are understanding and know that we have to wait and see."
Nebraska, incidentally, enjoyed one of its best practices of the year on Monday, according to coaches.
In particular, Adrian Martinez looked better than Frost had seen him since the freshman arrived on campus in January. Maybe the dress rehearsal helped. The QB said his family stuck around to watch practice on Labor Day but then had to return home to California. They wouldn't all be back this weekend, but Martinez said he hoped his father, Tony, could make it to see his collegiate debut.
Frost said he recognizes that many coaches believe a team improves most between its first and second games. The Huskers had to make it up in practice, he said. And Colorado, which hammered Colorado State 45-13 on Aug. 31, presents a heightened challenge on Saturday over anything that happened last weekend.
"The guys were ready to play," Frost said. "I think, more than anything, I was proud of how they reacted to it. They handled the delay like pros."
A few Nebraska players were so energized that they wanted to play Akron inside the Huskers' practice facility. Frost laughed at the idea. Not safe, said the first-year coach, but that "would've been epic."
Not as epic as a Frost debut under the lights. The coach and his team are willing to settle for a sunny Saturday afternoon.