Nebraska Football: Husker Fans Need To Make a Leap of Faith After Michigan Loss

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

When Scott Frost returned as Nebraska’s head coach, games like this weren’t supposed to happen. Nebraska wasn’t supposed to be embarrassed on a national stage. Nebraska’s wasn’t supposed to be the butt of the joke from a fast food franchise.

And, yet, here we are. Before the Michigan game, Frost said that things might get worse before they get better. After the game, he said that Nebraska had hit rock bottom.

How did this happen? How did a Michigan team that struggled at times against SMU the week before so thoroughly dominate Nebraska?

There’s plenty of potential reasons, of course. Michigan has better talent than Nebraska (although, according to the five-year recruiting averages, only three spots nationally better). Nebraska is in year one of a rebuild, with freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez still limited with a knee injury. And apparently Michigan players still had a burr under their collective saddle for Frost saying that UCF outhit Michigan when the two teams played in 2016.

But I thought what might have been the most insightful was a quote from linebacker Mohammed Barry (from Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal-Star):

“The only [players] we would lose are the ones we never really had,” he said. “That’s probably better in the long run. … The guys we are going to actually win with and win championships with would never do that.”

“Let’s just be truthful: There are some people that want it and some people that don’t. That’s why we’re playing the brand of football we’re playing right now. We’re going to get there and it’s all positive, but I hope that if people have any doubt in us and our team that they make their exit now and we get better from here on out.”

Frost had a similar message to the team after last week’s loss to Troy (from Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald):

“I just got done telling the team that, when things get tough like this, you have two choices: You fight back and you work even harder or you give up,” Frost said. “I also told them if anybody doesn’t want to stay on board with this ride with us, let me know now and get off. Because I know where this is going. We just haven’t had the results early.”

After Tuesday’s practice before Purdue, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander added to the consideration the quote that the team needs “105 guys who love to play football, period” (according to HuskerMax). Read between the lines and it’s hard not to conclude that there’s a problem in the locker room with players who aren’t fully invested in Frost and his system. If that’s true, it would explain a lot of what we’ve seen at the start of this season.

Football isn’t a game you can play halfway, certainly not at the level of a major college football program. Football is hard. It’s a game of fine margins. At this level, players on both sides of the field are amazingly talented and athletically gifted. Except in the most extreme of physical mismatches, the difference between winning and losing is about which team is best able to work together and commit to its process, and which team is confident enough in its ability to be successful.

Given the quotes from Frost and Barry, it’s certainly plausible to conclude that there are parts of this Nebraska squad that aren’t all-in on Frost’s process. Don’t forget, the elder statesmen of this team are on their third head coach, including one who all but told the team they were justified in bailing on the program on his way out the door.

And as for confidence, well, it’s hard to see how this Nebraska team wouldn’t be reeling. Nebraska hasn’t won a game since October 28, 2017, when it went on the road to beat – Purdue. Since then, Nebraska has lost seven straight, and surrendered 50 or more points five times (including, weirdly, three straight 56’s being hung on the Blackshirts). Nebraska has come close twice this year but couldn’t get over the finish line, then got curb-stomped in Ann Arbor.

So when things started to go badly at Michigan, it’s only human that all those previous losses would come crashing down around the confidence of Nebraska’s players. Just ask Michigan safety John Metellus after Nebraska’s first offensive series ended in an interception (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

“After that first series, when we went back out there, we just knew they wanted to give up,” Metellus said. “You could just see it in their eyes.”

Now, let’s be clear. Nebraska didn’t quit. Nebraska fought and tried its best against Michigan, start to finish. But trying your best also means summoning whatever confidence you can that you can be successful at something, especially something as hard and physically demanding as top-flight college football. Without that confidence, “your best” is still some percentage less than your potential.

And that’s what Nebraska is facing now. A crisis of confidence in a group of young men that wants desperately to be successful, but hasn’t seen that hard work pay off in almost an entire year.

Which brings us to Purdue on Saturday. The Boilermakers are 1-3, but coming off an upset of nationally-ranked Boston College. Purdue is going to arrive in Lincoln thinking it can beat Nebraska. The bookies agree, making the Boilermakers a three-point favorite.

All of a sudden, the Purdue game has become one of the most consequential games in recent Nebraska history. A win puts Nebraska at 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the B1G. But more importantly, it lets the team remember what winning tastes like, and gives them tangible proof that all the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve been expending has a payoff. A win gives Nebraska a legitimate, if narrow, path to six wins and a bowl game.

A loss, on the other hand, would make that albatross hanging around the neck of the Nebraska football program that much heavier. A loss to Purdue could put a catastrophically-bad season – 2-10, maybe 1-11 – on the table.

We will see on Saturday how much confidence Frost and his coaches can inject into Nebraska as a football team. But we will also see how the Nebraska fanbase responds to what feels like the other side of the college football looking glass.

This dope worried that a blowout loss to Michigan could start to turn Nebraska fans against Frost and the program and, if that happened, could start a cascade of events that could sink Frost’s chances of being successful. To their great credit, Nebraska fans have not done so (with very few exceptions) and have held fast to the faith that Frost will eventually right the Big Red ship.

There are a number of objective reasons for holding fast to that faith. Frost’s pedigree – learning from coaches as varied as Tom Osborne and Chip Kelly – suggests he has the experience to know what he’s doing, particularly on offense. His success at UCF is undeniable. His time both as a top-level college player and an NFL veteran gives him his bona fides. And his charisma and connection to both players and recruits keeps people listening to what he has to say.

But, let’s face it, Husker Fan. Part of the reason you’re continuing to believe is because you kinda have to. Giving up that faith condemns you to despair for the foreseeable future. Despair that the Nebraska team in which you’ve invested your passion (as well as your time and money) will never be more than the butt of a snarky social media manager.

You have the experience of recent Nebraska football history, from Frank Solich’s fumbling of Osborne’s mantle, to the experience of Bill Callahan and Steve Pedersen, to the plateau and drama of Bo Pelini, to the jovial mismanagement of Mike Riley, to 0-3 in 2018. Balanced against that, you have all of the legitimate reasons to believe in Frost’s ability to resurrect Nebraska as a national football power.

None of us know the future. So Husker Fan, you’re faced with a choice given those competing arguments, as to how you respond. And many of you are making the kind of choice we saw the android chief operations officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise face in Star Trek:The Next Generation.

Lt. Commander Data: Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android – nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form. However, I realized that if I was simply a machine, I could never be anything else; I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept. So I chose to believe… that I was a person; that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors. It is a belief which I still hold.

Lieutenant Worf: How did you come to your decision?

Lt. Commander Data: I made… a leap of faith.

Star Trek:The Next Generation, “Rightful Heir” (S6:E23), quote courtesy of IMDB (emphasis added).

That’s what you’re doing now, Husker Fan. Certainly if you’ve made it this far, you’re choosing to make that leap of faith, choosing hope over despair even in the face of current evidence.

You may be doing it in part for your own history, honoring your forebearers who introduced you to Nebraska football. For me, that’s my dad, with his comically-trinket-ladened Nebraska hat, taking me down to a frozen Astroturf field after Nebraska’s Halloween evisceration of Colorado in 1992 to throw around a stocking hat like it was a football. It’s my mom, who still comes to the home games with me to share the experience (and to sneak in a little time to spend with each other). I suspect many of you who have read this far have a similar story as to why Nebraska football is important enough to expend this energy.

And even if there’s not a sentimental attachment, don’t lose track of one very important thing – this is supposed to be fun. At the end of the day, it’s just a football game. No one is going to lose their life or their freedom as a result of a college football game.

That blessed silliness is what makes an emotional investment in a sporting event so powerful and so liberating. As fans, we can wrap ourselves in the minutiae of the game and the roster, and surrender our emotions to the highs and lows of the contest. We get to feel those intense, authentic, irreplaceable feelings of joy and sadness that only come from following a game over which we have no control of the outcome.

And, win or lose at the end of the contest, life goes on around us. We can invest fully, experience those emotions fully, and walk away at the end of it with nothing lost outside of the feelings we chose to put on the line.

If that’s why we all get on this ridiculous roller-coaster in the first place, then why not choose hope? Why not make that leap of faith and believe in the possible, especially when there are still good reasons to think those dreams could come true?

A smart and particularly handsome analyst suggested that a particular song should be sung at Memorial Stadium by the whole crowd every home game. At this stage in the life of the program, it seems like we need it more than ever.

Don’t stop believin’, Husker Fan.

GBR, baby.

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Nebraska Football: A Thank-You Letter to Mike Riley

Mike Riley

Holding you I held everything

For a moment wasn’t I a king

But if I’d only known how the king would fall

Hey who’s to say you know

I might have changed it all

And know I’m glad I didn’t know

The way it all would end

The way it all would go

Our lives are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

But I’d have to miss the dance

– “The Dance,” Garth Brooks

Dear Coach Riley:

I know this wasn’t the letter that you wanted to read, and it sure wasn’t the letter I wanted to write. But before you leave Lincoln, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate the three years you’ve been here.

Yeah, what happened on the field wasn’t what anyone wanted to see, and not at all what you thought your team would be producing. And as honorable and decent of a man and a leader you’ve been, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a ruthless business. That in big-time college athletics, all the grace and honor in the world, all the graduation rates and great citizens you have on your team doesn’t outweigh the wins and losses on the field.

We both know that the cold lights of the scoreboard have no sympathy and provide no place to hide.

But that’s not why I’m writing you. What you’ve done here in three short years is something truly honorable and truly remarkable, and I want to make sure you know just how much it was appreciated.

As a fan base, we’ve kind of been a mess for a while now. You know all about the run we had in the late nineties, winning three national championships in four years under head coach Tom Osborne. You know that when Osborne retired, he handed the reins over to long-time assistant Frank Solich. And that’s where the trauma of our fanbase began.

Solich was a good man, and held with him a straight line to the history that we as fans hold so dear. He took us to a national championship game (although that one didn’t work out so well).

But after that, his team went 7-7 in 2002. Sadly, we’ve gotten a little used to records like that since 2002, but at that point we hadn’t seen anything like that in a generation – and we kinda lost our minds. Solich’s recruiting fell apart, and in November of 2003 then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich. In explaining Solich’s dismissal, Pederson said that he would not let the Nebraska program “gravitate into mediocrity.”

That was really the ultimate fracture of our fanbase. None of us had ever seen a coach fired growing up. We thought that was for “other programs” who didn’t have the advantages of Nebraska.

(As I know you’ve seen, we tend to think awfully highly of ourselves as a fanbase. There’s probably some good in that, but it also causes a lot of problems – and you in many ways fell victim to us and our perceptions of where the program “deserves” to be.)

About half of us thought the firing was necessary, and that Solich – good man and connection to the past – was not up for the job. The other half, though, viewed Solich’s dismissal – especially coming off a nine-win season, a topic we will see come up again – as a betrayal of Nebraska’s history.

That schism just simmered throughout the tenure of Bill Callahan, Solich’s replacement, a technocrat from the NFL who struggled to connect with the fans. Callahan’s lack of winning, combined with him changing Nebraska’s offense from the iconic option to a West Coast attack, furthered the schism caused by Solich’s firing. Fans in the “keep Solich” camp even took to wearing Ohio Bobcat gear – the school that hired Solich – to Memorial Stadium for home games as a means of protest.

Pederson became, put mildly, unpopular both inside and outside of the athletic department. In the middle of the 2007 season, Pederson was fired and Osborne took over as interim athletic director. As a result, the rest of the 2007 was a drama-filled endeavor wondering if Callahan would be fired.

I know, I know, sounds a lot like what you went through this year.

Callahan’s departure was filled with pique and disdain, and he became the target of the fanbase’s venom for a decade of frustration. Osborne replaced him with Bo Pelini, the guy who was Solich’s defensive coordinator in 2003.

I know you heard a lot about Pelini while you were in Lincoln. In some ways, his ghost haunted the offices at 10th and Vine. I know you heard all about how he never won fewer than nine games. I know you heard how his teams were routinely embarrassed when in the spotlight (ooh, look, Melvin Gordon just scored again).

And I know you heard about, well, what were generously described as his “antics” on the sideline. Combine that with him getting caught with a profane rant about Nebraska fans – and seven years of not winning the conference – and it added up to Pelini’s dismissal by then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

But it was what happened after Pelini’s dismissal that was the worst (at least, while he was at Nebraska). He said a whole bunch of stuff, but this is the quote that pretty much sums up what he left you to work with — with apologies for the language, that I suspect you would not approve of (as reprinted from the Omaha World-Herald).

It wasn’t a surprise to me. It really wasn’t. I didn’t really have any relationship with the AD. The guy — you guys saw him (Sunday) — the guy’s a total pussy. I mean, he is. He’s a total cunt.

And since I’ve been here — he’s been here for about two years — I’ve probably had a conversation with the guy a couple times. You saw him. He’s never been in the locker room.

At the end of the day, he was never going to support us. And he didn’t support us. You saw it. He was never going to come out in the paper and support (us).

So that was the cauldron you were walking into, with the kids in your locker room hearing that before you took over. You were an outsider, and you know how we feel about outsiders. You didn’t have a bunch of championship trophies on your mantle, although your record at a place as difficult as Oregon State has always been impressive.

You bore all of that with grace and dignity, never complaining once about the challenges you were handed when you arrived. You kept a level head and a calm demeanor even as you had so many close, gut-wrenching losses in your final season. You showed your team – and your fanbase – how to face adversity and struggle with class, dignity, and professionalism.

And then, Sam died.

I don’t know how you take a group of young men and help them through such a traumatic experience. But you did. You found a way to give those young men space to grieve, and find focus and purpose in the game they love as a way to honor the memory of their fallen friend. That quiet, loving, compassionate leadership you showed in the 2016 season is a model that all of us can aspire to if we are ever faced with such a horrendous challenge.

We call came out of that season, and into this one, with such optimism. You had your quarterback. You had fired your long-time friend Mark Banker as a defensive coordinator to show how serious you were to win and win big at Nebraska. You took risks, putting your career in Lincoln on the line to deliver wins on the field.

It didn’t work. And now you’re left to ponder what’s next for you after what you called your last great adventure. You have to, I imagine, be left regretting what could have been, as well as a feeling of disappointment that you couldn’t give us as a fanbase the success we wanted.

We’re disappointed too, of course. And speaking just for me, I feel a profound sense of sadness that your time with us has ended as it did.

But even as you left, you taught us. As opposed to Pelini, we saw a man stand up (in Nebraska colors, no less) and acknowledge his failing. We saw a man be thankful for the opportunity he was given, rather than feel the need to burn the house down to satisfy a petty need for revenge and self-aggrandizement.

This isn’t a eulogy for you, of course. You’re a young man, with a tremendous amount left to contribute to the game of football and to the broader world. Whether it’s being a grandfather or being a football coach, I have no doubt you will not only be successful at it, but that you will make all the people around you better for having the privilege of being with you.

Thank you, coach. As a fan who has just watched you from afar, I’ve never met you. But I have no doubt I’m a better person for having watched you closely these last three years. And I hope that the next time I am faced with disappointment in my life, I can respond to it they way you taught me as you left your final press conference here (as reported by Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

It’s like that old song, I could’ve missed the pain but I would’ve missed the dance.

GBR, baby.

Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.

Ranking the Five Best Moments in the Nebraska-Miami Rivalry

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

For most fans of a certain age, the Nebraska-Miami rivalry holds a very special place in history. Nebraska helped put Miami on the national stage with the Hurricanes’ amazing 31-30 victory in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Nebraska’s humblings at the hands of Miami in Orange Bowls of 1989 (23-3) and 1992 (22-0) led Tom Osborne to a wholesale change in his recruiting and defensive schemes. And that, as a result, led to Osborne’s first national championship—fittingly, against Miami in the Orange Bowl—in 1994.

Overall, Miami and Nebraska have split, playing each other ten times with each team winning five. So in looking back through history, here are the five best moments (from a scarlet and cream perspective) of the Nebraska-Miami rivalry.

No. 5: A First Bowl Victory

Nebraska’s first two bowl trips ended in defeat, to Stanford in the 1941 Rose Bowl and to Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl. Nebraska would not get another bowl invite until 1962, when NU headed to Yankee Stadium to face Miami in the Gotham Bowl.

Played in sub-zero temperatures before a meager crowd, the 1962 Gotham Bowl was an amazing contest, with Nebraska taking a 36-27 lead in the fourth quarter, holding off a Miami rally, and sealing its first bowl win with a Bob Brown interception.

No. 4: The Fumblerooski

Nebraska was losing to upstart Miami 17-0 in the 1984 Orange Bowl, and needed a spark to turn the game around.  So the trick play was called where quarterback Turner Gill put the ball on the ground, making it a live ball, and ran off to the right.

It was then picked up by guard Dean Steinkuhler who, while the defense followed Gill to the right, ran left and rumbled into the end zone. The touchdown sparked Nebraska’s comeback, which was thwarted only by a deflected two-point conversion.

But the play, now outlawed, became a permanent part of Nebraska lore.

No. 3: Cory Schlesinger’s Second Touchdown

Most of the best Nebraska moments from this rivalry will come from Nebraska’s 24-17 win in 1994, so picking one moment from that game is tricky. But Nebraska fans should remember that Miami led most of this contest, going up 10-0 in the first quarter, leading 10-7 at the half, and leading 17-9 going into the fourth quarter.

Nebraska tied the game with 7:38 remaining on a Schlesinger trap play and a two-point conversion. But remember, college football didn’t embrace overtime until 1996—and we all remember what a tie in the Orange Bowl meant for Nebraska in years past.

So it was Schlesinger’s second touchdown, with 2:46 left to play (and with Schlesinger’s cleat firmly implanted in Warren Sapp’s chest as he rumbled into the end zone) that sealed the win and the shiny crystal football for Nebraska.

No. 2: Ken Calhoun’s Deflection

This may not be the happiest moment in Nebraska history, but it is likely the most iconic. In 1984, Nebraska was considered the best team in college football, and needed to knock off an upstart Miami team to get the monkey off Tom Osborne’s back and win a national title. The “Scoring Explosion” of Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar was ready to stake its claim to glory.

The game didn’t quite turn out according to script, though. Miami took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and led Nebraska 31-17 going into the fourth. Nebraska scored on a one-yard Jeff Smith run to get within seven, and Smith scored again with under a minute to play.

31-30. An extra point would give Nebraska a tie, and almost certainly a vote as national champion.

Osborne would have none of a tie though, sending his offense back on to the field for a two-point conversion and the win. Gill took the snap, rolled to his right, and threw the ball to Smith. But Miami safety Ken Calhoun got a finger on the pass, tipping it away, and establishing the Hurricanes as a force in college football for the next decade.

How that decision looks in retrospect is, without question, changed by the three national titles Osborne won in the mid-nineties. But there can be no doubt that the courage of the decision, and the result, helped to define Osborne’s legacy.

No. 1: Kareem Moss’ Interception

Be honest. If you’re talking best moments of the rivalry, Kareem Moss’ interception of a wobbly Frank Costa pass on fourth down, clinching a win in the 1994 Orange Bowl and securing Tom Osborne’s first national title is the moment.

If you’re a Nebraska fan, and you’re old enough, you remember with vivid clarity that moment. The moment when the Miami dragon had finally been slain in its own lair. The moment where all those doubts, all those questions, all those near-misses were put away. The moment where, finally, you got to witness the scarlet and cream raise the national championship trophy, reaching the pinnacle of glory in college football.

At that moment, you had no idea that the next three years would see two more shiny crystal footballs on their way to the trophy cabinet in Lincoln. And it didn’t matter. On that warm Miami night, and on the cold streets at 72nd and Dodge in Omaha where ecstatic fans gathered to celebrate, the Cornhuskers could finally—finally—stand astride the college football world in triumph.

And there’s no better moment than that.

Nebraska Football: Special Teams Are Cornhuskers’ Biggest Question in 2014

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans have been freaking out a little about injuries, and rightfully so. Over the course of last week, Nebraska lost a likely starting NICKEL (Charles Jackson), MIKE linebacker (Michael Rose), and backup I-back (Adam Taylor) to injury, in addition to likely starting safety LeRoy Alexander to a suspension.

The reaction was predictable.

Those losses are all important, and could impact Nebraska significantly in 2014. But there is one loss to injury that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention, one that could cost Nebraska wins.

Gabe Miller.

Who, you might ask? (Go to 0:41 of the video for the uber-geek reference). Well, he’s Nebraska’s long snapper, and he’s going to be out for “a while” according to Brian Towles of Corn Nation.

That’s bad news for a special teams department that at almost every level should terrify Nebraska fans. About the only area where Nebraska excelled was Mauro Bondi as a kickoff specialist, with Nebraska no. 10 nationally in touchback percentage on kickoffs at 61.54 percent. Nebraska’s was fairly average in kickoff returns (no. 41 nationally at a 22.78/return average), opponent’s kick returns (also no. 41 nationally at 20.21/return) and opponent’s punt returns (no. 68 nationally at 8.07 yards/return).

And we know how disastrous Nebraska was at punt returns, where NU was no. 123 (!) nationally at 3.04 yards/returns. Luminaries such as Tom Osborne (as reported by Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald) and Brandon Vogel (of Hail Varsity) have pointed out the critical importance of field position in a team’s ability to succeed.

(So has this guy, but who has time for that?)

The placekicking job was already a huge worry. Nebraska coaches clearly did not have confidence enough in scholarship kicker Bondi, as they brought in transfer Pat Smith in 2013 who won the job (and ultimately the game for Nebraska at Penn State).

This year, they’ve brought in another kicker, this time true freshman Drew Brown. While nothing has yet to be announced, it’s hard not to see Brown having every chance to win the starting job.

That would mean Nebraska would be rolling into the 2014 season with a true freshman as a placekicker. We saw last year how a win in overtime in a hostile environment rested on the foot of a kicker. How much harder will that be if that kicker is less than a year removed from his high school senior prom—and with questions at long snapper to get him the ball in the first place?

So, let’s assess. Awesome at getting touchbacks on kickoffs. Average (at best) in other areas. Monstrous questions at placekicker (either a true freshman or a second choice kicker and an untested long snapper), the one area where stability and confidence is desperately needed. And a punt return game that was an unmitigated disaster last year.

Forget about worries in the secondary. If Nebraska fans are going to panic about something, panic about special teams.

Extra Points 08/07/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

The importance of explosiveness for Nebraska (Hail Varsity)

Huskers practicing with GPS trackers? (Bleacher Report)

Tom Osborne adds his weight to the “field position is crucial” argument (Omaha World-Herald)

Simpler is faster, and faster is better, says Tim Beck about Nebraska’s offense (Lincoln Journal-Star)

 

Extra Points 04/29/14

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Some of the best info about Nebraska football from around the web.

Nebraska spends the most in the B1G in recruiting costs. (Iowa City Gazette)

ESPN making a “30 for 30” about Nebraska going for 2 in the ’83 Orange Bowl. (Lincoln Journal-Star)

Many athletic directors believe college football playoffs will expand. (Yahoo!)

Nebraska’s all-Spring Game team. (Bleacher Report)