LINCOLN, Nebraska – The inescapable truth about Nebraska football over the past 70 games is this: The program has gone thin.
It’s an ugly word — soft — and it doesn’t represent every moment since the middle of the 2016 season. The Huskers’ 24-17 win at Iowa State last November was gritty and combative, characteristics that define a tough team.
More often than not, however, Nebraska faltered under pressure. He turned to excuses instead of committing to searching for answers.
In the end, players get a raw deal. They take a lot of the blame. Systemic problems start at the top. The mummies have been let down by the coaches and administrators.
The months since new coach Matt Rowley arrived in Nebraska, three days after that victory in Iowa City, have given healing. Rhule worked quickly to restore connections close to home and take advantage of fertile recruiting grounds.
The 48-year-old coach has generated a lot of interest with his plan to recruit his talent from Lincoln. He has attracted skeptics with his consistent and strategic communication style. The Huskers’ training clinic on campus in March outlined efforts in action to support talk with action. Former coach Frank Solich’s return this week to Memorial Stadium, organized by athletic director Trev Alberts – but also thanks to Rowley – will help mend fences that were cut down two decades ago.
But all this is a kind of window dressing. The root problems that have led to 28 defeats by one score over the past six seasons run deep beneath the surface. Nebraska is not soft because it has struggled with outreach or missed the mark in reaching out to skeptics.
So how did the program veer into trouble?
The answer begins with the program losing its ability to identify potential problems and address them directly without feeling vulnerable amidst the many distractions, a strength that coaches Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne, and Solich have developed over 40 years.
Saturday at 1 p.m., Nebraska fans get a chance to take stock of Rhule’s early progress as the Huskers stress competitiveness in the annual Red-White game to finish off spring training.
What the outline looks like and skill level will matter. As always, there will be must-see stories involving the people and the essentials.
All of that means more in August, though, when the slate is set. Most important to Rhule in his first 20 weeks in charge, and especially the last five on the practice field, is his diagnosis of what needs to change to get the Huskers back to playing tough, unforgiving football.
This past Saturday, cold looking for coffee in his shorts and black Adidas zip after the Huskers’ second major scrimmage of the spring, Roll gave an insight into his attempt to rebuild Nebraska football at the foundational level. While it wasn’t exhaustive, it was the best outline publicly presented by a coach to date—and perhaps the most well-arranged explanation given since the school joined the Big Ten nearly 12 years ago—as to how to restore Nebraska and keep on her. Solid edge.
From those 15 minutes, three key messages emerged that mummies are sure to hear when repeated:
1. Don’t relax. Rhule’s focus in his senior year is to get Nebraska players and staff to work relentlessly.
Right away, Roll said he noticed an atmosphere around the Huskers that makes Lincoln “a very happy place” to play football. Wherever Rolly and his players go here, they are treated well.
“We have a huge fan base,” Roll said. “We’ve got everything great. And I just want to make sure they understand we’re 4-8. It’s not a negative thing. (But) we have to earn the right to say we’re a good team. We have to fight to be a good team.”
When the Huskers move into their new $165 million complex in late summer, their locker room, which was already full, will triple; The training table will reflect a gourmet restaurant; The weight room and recovery areas will stand out among the rich programs nationwide.
“I don’t want our men to rest,” said Roll. And I don’t want our people to relax, whether it’s for hiring or football. Sometimes, we tend to be like, ‘Oh, well, you know, things are going to get better now.'”
“No. You have to make them better. You have to fight.”
2. Play as you practice. Roll said two types of players fall short of expectations when the lights come on in the fall.
All of a sudden, it shows up on game day, and (some of) the guys are dressed completely differently. It’s all about the show. You’re kind of the front runner.”
Others “hold up a bit and don’t play as confidently, because there’s just too much riding on it.”
Rhule wants mummies to fit neither of those categories. How many times in recent years have Nebraska coaches praised players’ work in practice only to have it translate poorly into a game?
“Be the same players on our game day,” Roll said.
Act like every Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We’re flying around,” Roll said. “This is what we do.”
3. Understand the situation. Rule is proud to say that he stole at least one principle from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who partnered the Carolina Panthers on the field during training camp last summer.
Rhule recreated the scene from last Saturday at the end of practice: putting the ball 9 yards from the goal line with the Mummies meager with four points, nine seconds to play, two touchdowns available and no timeouts. The defense stopped, but one of its players punched an offensive player.
So Rhule made the defense run gassed and told the offense they were going to get one without getting caught. If the offense was converted, he ordered his players to run to the locker room, walk-out style. Which they did after quarterback Jeff Sims hit Marcus Washington in the end zone. It left the defenders with a sour aftertaste that Rhule hopes they won’t forget next fall.
“We’re going to play games where it’s all over,” Reul said. “And I don’t want our heart rates to go over the limit. I want us to be there 100 times.”
The deflationary scenario for the defense is similar to that moment that has so often sunk Nebraska over the past six years.
“It wasn’t anything physical.” Rhule said it’s an error of practice. “It was just mental, being aware of the situation and doing the right thing. I think good teams do good things and bad teams do bad things.”
Rhule ignored requests to move indoors last Saturday, when winds gusted to 35 mph and the temperature dropped to 40s.
He said, “We’re out.” “This is where we play.”
He told the offensive players to imagine uncomfortable conditions at Michigan State late in the season. The defense was ordered to imagine facing Iowa at home the day after Thanksgiving. Both games are on the schedule in 2023.
“I always try to deliver in vision,” said Roll.
If it’s a cold Saturday, as the weather forecast shows, so be it.
On Thursday, he moved 14 of Nebraska’s 15 spring training sessions from their regular morning time slot to evening at Memorial Stadium. Rhule planned to use the entire rehearsal to dig up the scripts, after which he hoped to dissect the Huskers’ performance in a film session with orchestrators Marcus Satterfield and Tony White.
He said situational awareness and self-awareness are essential to success.
These measures of progress, mixed with consistent messaging—don’t relax, play like you train, understand the situation—will last, according to Rhule. When the mummies turn, another challenge awaits them.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” he said early this month. “In life, we start looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. This is only the beginning. Springtime will never be so easy again.”
Soft, if his style works, is a thing of the past.
(Photo by Matt Rowley: Stephen Branscombe/USA Today)
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