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Husker Talk: Sturdy foundation seems to be in place

November 15, 2018

So often we’ve talked about the culture of the program and how far in the dumps it had really gotten over the past decade. It’s definitely been a job that required the best possible plan — and the patience and credibility to put said plan into motion. From Day 1, Nebraska has been lucky to have the right coach at the helm who is doing just that.

There’s so much to fix and so many things that need to come together, but even with just three wins, a lot has been improved in a relatively short time. Early on, the talk of “buying in” and “trusting the process” were hot phrases. But we also discussed how a “me first” attitude and a “toxic culture” was never going to change unless players could start cheering with — and for — each other to have success. Even if certain players are in a heated competition for the same starting position, it doesn’t matter.

The key to a winning culture is doing the right things on and off the field, practicing and competing at a high level and also cheering your “brothers” on in the process. It’s the team that matters.

Slowly but surely, those “culture killers” have been leaving the program, and there is a clear indication of togetherness in the Cornhusker locker room. It’s awesome to see a sideline that has offensive players celebrating with defensive guys, and vice versa. It’s great to see guys helping each other up off the turf more than before. The camaraderie is back, players and coaches alike. Guys are really starting to hate losing more than they love winning again. And soon, that mentality will lead to many more wins.

An example on how a positive culture change is taking effect is how the team and coaches reacted to Mick Stoltenberg’s interception, injury, then celebratory “throwing the bones” as he limped to the sideline. Look at how many guys came out to high five, hug and check on his health. Stoltenberg has been a tremendous leader and is held in high regard by his peers.

Through injuries and limited playing time, Stoltenberg is helping to lead the younger players and be an example for them moving forward. His off-the-field contributions are building the Huskers’ foundation as much as anything. The other guys know he’s invested in the process, and they don’t want to let him down.

That is a culture change.

And to add to all of that, Big Mick addressed the team after the win on Saturday about how Nebraska needs to keep learning how to finish the right way, and doing the small things to help the young guys in the program continue to develop for the future. Fellow senior captain Stanley Morgan Jr. was apparently the first to stand up and applaud. Coach Scott Frost said he really didn’t even need to give a speech to the team after all that.

Accountability and leadership are on full display. This team is really starting to “get it.”

Tackling

We knew that former Cornhusker and current Illinois quarterback AJ Bush would be a handful because of his athletic ability. But who knew Nebraska’s defense would look that silly because of it? It was really brutal to watch. The Huskers tallied 15 missed tackles against the Illini, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were actually more. It was one of the worst displays of open-field tackling and bad run fits of the season. I really don’t know why, except for the cold weather and facing the most mobile quarterback of the season. But still ...

I’ve been praising JoJo Domann all season, but he really looked silly on Saturday. He had multiple whiffs in the hole and took poor angles toward defenders near the sidelines. And to make it worse, when he missed those particular tackles, they resulted in huge chunk plays and points.

I hate to pick on just one guy, because there were a lot of whiffs. Hard to accept watching that kind of regression.

And defending the zone read, and the quarterback keeper ... what was that all about? How is it possible that literally one guy at quarterback can rack up almost 200 rushing yards when the Illini’s best play is basically a scramble for life on third down or a simple zone read? Please tell me how Nebraska’s defenders couldn’t figure out how to contain that. Where is the leverage? Who is responsible? That was totally unacceptable.

Movement up front

If you haven’t, you’ll have to watch the offensive line movement and misdirection on certain play calls. It’s nice to see the athleticism on display as linemen are asked to pull and move a lot more than in recent years.

Defensive linemen

As much as I like what the Huskers have in the trenches, recruiting some monster defensive linemen is going to be vital. Watching Bush run in circles really showed that Nebraska is lacking a lot of elite talent across the board. Just starting on the front line of defense, it’d be nice to get dudes who can really get off of blocks and corral the ball carrier better than NU can now.

And that really is the case for the entire defense. I love guys like Mo Barry at linebacker, but if he’s the guy closest to “elite status” on the defense, then there are holes to fill (and that’s no disrespect to him). A huge upgrade needs to happen at cornerback especially.

Husker offense

Over the past five games, Nebraska’s offense has averaged 42 points with 7.2 yards per play. It’s been fun watching it develop. But with two truly elite defenses coming up against Michigan State and Iowa, it’s going to be a grind.

Special teams

Nebraska’s special teams was finally able to contribute to the game in a positive way, although most of that came via Illinois mistakes. The hustle on the blocked punt, and scramble for the loose balls on the muffed punts, is what you want to see.

Also, after last week’s brutal showing, Caleb Lightbourn lost his kickoff duties to Barret Pickering.

‘Ziggy Stardust’

Devine Ozigbo looked faster than ever on Saturday. We’ve noted many times about all of his hard work getting in peak physical shape, and sticking with it when he wasn’t the No. 1 running back. Well, with each performance, I really think he’s giving himself a legitimate chance to get some NFL eyes on him.

Strength and conditioning

Nebraska has its share of injuries, but it’s been nothing like the past decade when Husker players would be dropping like flies after big hits, nicks and injuries after a play. Do you remember how often one of our guys would be the last one off the turf? Or had to come out of the game? Amazingly, that has been almost completely wiped away. With a top-notch strength staff, Nebraska is bigger, stronger, faster and simply tougher than it has been a long time.

And that’s only after one offseason/season.

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