SEARCHING FOR THE MEDIA ENTRANCE TO AVIVA STADIUM IN DUBLIN – You could walk everywhere in Dublin, not feel like you were getting anywhere, and run into Husker fans most steps of the way.
Before Nebraska’s loss to Northwestern, I chatted up some VIPs outside the stadium. Donors. Decision makers. One of them jokingly asked me to say a prayer at 5:30 p.m. Dublin time. At kickoff.
If most of Nebraska’s week in Ireland seemed to be a fun tribute to the fan base, the worry flowing just underneath the previous month of preparation – the whole offseason, actually – reemerged like water in the basement. Trev Alberts had given Scott Frost one more chance, but even Alberts admitted it was a risk without much evidence of working. He’d have little patience with Frost in 2022.
And I’ll long believe Frost’s decision to try an onside kick was a byproduct of that tension. There’s still no good explanation for it. If he, as he said, he thought he had the better team – why not trust it with an 11-point lead? Insecurity? Not having enough to do on the sidelines? A sudden rebellious idea to put his stamp on the game?
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And so the Huskers collapsed, quickly, that night in Ireland and two weeks later in Lincoln, against Georgia Southern, when Frost’s rationale for not attempting a fourth-and-short was equally odd.
“At that point in the game, we weren’t going to win until we got a stop anyway,” Frost said in his final press conference.
Well, sure. But Nebraska’s defense could have gotten that stop after NU’s offense picked up the fourth down – which, it would have. It was literally inches.
But that was Frost in a nutshell. He could string together several good press conferences, rally the team for a week, create a decent preseason plan for Ireland – and then make an impulse decision to shoot the moon on a hand of hearts.
Alberts, a shrewd observer with his own healthy ego, probably figured that out quickly about Frost. So Nebraska’s gamble to give Frost a final year – with a reduced buyout - was much more about the many folks who wanted the Frost era to work than it was about Frost himself. The last nine months was Charles Foster Kane insisting Susan Alexander was an opera star – “My reasons satisfy me!”
Ultimately, Frost’s firing was anticlimactic. It will not be the protracted war that became the end of Bo Pelini’s tenure. Nor should it. Bo won nine per year. Frost coached the equivalent of four full seasons – 47 games - and won four per.
Alberts, over 20 minutes Sunday, delivered a lot of choice cut quotes, but here was the filet mignon: “This place will always be bigger than one person. And that is the way it has to be.”
No, Nebraska wasn’t going to let Fox’s Big Noon crew roll into town and talk for two hours about Frost’s failures. What kind of program advertisement is that? This way, the Huskers get to sell turning the page to a national audience and fans who might be curious to see what a Husker team looks like without Frost.
Here’s what we know about Nebraska headed into the final ¾ of the season:
>>The transfer-laden offense can win games. Crafty Casey Thompson throws accurate passes and runs it better than expected. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s concepts get guys open. And Nebraska has a legit No. 1 running back in Anthony Grant. All-Big Ten good. His backup, Ajay Allen, runs tough, too. The line hasn’t been awful, and will continue to gel. The staff Frost assembled likes each other. They get along. Frost was the odd man out in that group. And now he’s gone.
>>The Big Ten West is middling-to-poor. That doesn’t mean Nebraska’s going to do a darn thing in the division, but a good Husker team – the 2014 bunch, for example – could probably win it. Iowa can’t move the ball. Wisconsin has hit a plateau and scored fewer points against Washington State than Idaho did. Minnesota can’t be judged yet on playing New Mexico State or Western Illinois. Illinois has a terrific defense – coordinator Ryan Walters is a rising star – and an iffy offense. Purdue? I still think Purdue’s pretty tough – my favorite to win the division – but not a juggernaut.
>>Nebraska’s defense can’t solve its talent deficiencies through free agency or the waiver wire. The Huskers will just have to get better. Recruiting misfires along the defensive line, at inside linebacker and safety leave NU without adequate, experienced depth. Two of Nebraska’s starters on Saturday joined the team as preferred walk-ons – another, Isaac Gifford, was put on scholarship during his first fall – while Nash Hutmacher, Marques Buford, Ernest Hausmann and Tommi Hill are in the first starts of their college careers.
Too many of the experienced guys – Ty Robinson, Caleb Tannor, Myles Farmer, Luke Reimer – haven’t been disruptive enough. Farmer is a sharp guy who’s clearly adjusting to leading a defense; it’s a bumpy ride. Reimer is an undersized ‘backer; he’s got to get off blocks more often or benefit from a better defensive line.
So what now? Embrace the suck, dial up pressure packages, and let Hill, Quentin Newsome and Gifford hold up on the back end. Teams will go after Gifford – in the all-important nickel spot. Pound-for-pound, there may be no tougher, meaner Husker on that D than Gifford. But he’s not JoJo Domann yet.
>>The Huskers, especially on defense, aren’t much stronger than their foes, and the team’s most athletic skill players arrived in the last eight months. Nothing to be done right now, but Nebraska spends an armored truck’s worth of money on selecting, training, feeding and building athletes. Outside of Grant – built by JUCOs, probably on fast food diets – and a few others, NU isn’t unusually fast, fluid or brutish. Why? Is it recruiting? Development? Complacency? Along with Grant, the twitchiest athlete on campus might be an outside hitter for Nebraska’s volleyball team. How’d Whitney Lauenstein do that? Maybe someone should ask her.
You could say some stuff – and people did - about Dave Kennedy and James Dobson strength-and-conditioning eras, but Nebraska had its share of cut dudes – and fluid athletes- from 2004 through 2014. OK, Randy Gregory showed up, straight from his parents’ basement right before school started, looking like a NFL first-rounder. Still – that’s recruiting. Ditto for Dijon Gomes, Prince Amukamara, Daimion Stafford, Ameer Abdullah, Maliek Collins, Joshua Kalu, and, now Grant and Allen.
Nebraska has height and length. This is true. It needs more explosive strength, speed, agility and fluidity. Joseph may not share his thoughts about the roster, but he probably has them.
>>The troubles run deeper than this season. Ochaun Mathis didn’t exactly play for great teams at TCU, but he’s an honest dealer in relation to Nebraska’s locker room.
“There’s a losing culture going on,” he said on Sunday. “A lot of guys don't know what it looks like to win at this point.”
Joseph, who coached at LSU, does know what it looks like, and, what’s more, he can be a practitioner of tough love. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if the players got a shift in perspective after their previous head coach couldn’t hide his emotions about any number of things, including the loss of playcalling duties. Good leadership involves maximizing the potential of others and, in football, that takes a balance of encouragement and frank exhortation.
Can Joseph blend the two in a way that loosens up the team for Big Ten play?
Beating Oklahoma, on what effectively becomes yet another odd week in the program, seems a tall order. But, after that, eight league games await. Nebraska has the offense to win its share. Win six of them and Joseph just might get a real crack at being the permanent head coach.
You bet he’ll be motivated. This is his chance.
“I think we have the opportunity to hire an outstanding coach who can lead our program,” Alberts said. “I’d love to see Mickey grow into that. We’ll just see where it goes. But we’ll do a national search and if, at that point, Mickey is an obvious candidate, he’ll be part of that conversation as well.”
Time for a new chapter in the book. Let’s see if it has a surprise ending.
On with the Rewind
5.65: Yards per carry allowed, which is hide-your-eyes bad and second-worst among all Power Five teams (Colorado is last at 7.10). NU is on a pace to be worse than the 2017 unit that allowed 5.57 yards per carry, although that defense bottomed out late, effectively ceasing to buy into defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme. The ’17 bunch had more talent than this one.
18: Times, under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, that Nebraska has allowed 200 or more rushing yards to an opponent. By year, it breaks down like thus: five times in 2018 and 2019; four times in 2020; and twice each in 2021 and 2022. Iowa has allowed more than 200 rushing yards three times in that span. It explains a lot, doesn’t it?
91.67%: Nebraska’s spectacular touchdown percentage in the red zone. Twelve trips, 11 TDs. The season is still young, and that touchdown rate won’t last, since 80% represents the upper range for an entire season of work, but, still – that’s really good. NU has been able to run well in the red zone, averaging 3.78 yards per carry inside an opponent’s 20.
2,185: Days since Nebraska beat a Power Five team in non-conference play. That dates back to Sept. 17, 2016, and NU’s 35-32 win over Oregon – one of the better Saturdays of the last ten years. Since then the Huskers have lost to Oregon (2017), to Colorado (2018 and 2019) and Oklahoma (2021). Those losses were by 7, 5, 3 and 7 points.
2: Big Ten losses to Sun Belt teams in the last decade. Nebraska is responsible for both – to Troy and, now, GSU. But there are a ton of “almost” defeats in there, too. Georgia State nearly beat Big Ten West champ Wisconsin in 2016. Georgia Southern lost by three to a 11-win Minnesota team in 2019. NU’s 2017 team beat Arkansas State by seven, facing a pass into the end zone at game’s end. The Big Ten has a 34-4 overall record against Sun Belt teams – which doesn’t include when Appalachian State was in the FCS, for example – while NU is 4-2.
>>No. 7 Oklahoma messed around with a bad Kent State team for a half – OU led just 7-3 at the break – before coasting to a 33-3 win. Nebraska represents a step up in competition, but the Sooners have plenty of talent across the board, and UCF transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel (21-for-28, 296 yards, three scores) can really spin it. OU’s defense is good, too. Fast. Coached by Brent Venables, who might be the nation’s best defensive mind. Venables is all gas, no brakes. His team won’t play it cool.
>>Indiana overcame a 10-0 deficit to Idaho in a 35-22 win. The Hoosiers, who ran for 239 yards, have to be feeling good; two second-half surges have started the season off on the right foot.
Sunny. The weight has been lifted.