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Husker Talk: Resiliency test for NU

September 20, 2018

First things first — that was one of the worst Tunnel Walks in a long time. Yeah, the song “Let Me Clear My Throat” has been used in Memorial Stadium many times before, but never as an entrance song. To me, and to the crowd, it just wasn’t a good fit. The energy wasn’t created nearly as much as it has in the past. Obviously, the theme this year is a different song each week, completely breaking the “Sirius” routine. And to be honest, some fans just don’t know how to react. Regardless, the weekly change was voted on by the players and, ultimately, it’s for them.

But we can’t blame the loss on the Tunnel Walk.

No one expected 0-2 — which hasn’t happened since 1957. But take a step back and think about all of the weird, unfortunate things that have happened. New coach Scott Frost has items stolen from his home, a quarterback battling for the starting spot transfers at an unfortunate time, Frost’s “homecoming” game gets called off after the kickoff, the first game ends up being against a hated rival in Colorado, a dirty play injures Frost’s hand-picked true freshman quarterback, a junior college transfer starts in Game 2, etc., etc. It’s hard enough to build a team without all of that to deal with, too.

Frost may be right in saying things just might get worse before they get better. Many thought NU would be at 3-0 at this point. Now, staring down a winless record, where are those other three projected wins going to come from? After last Saturday, it’s pretty clear that the Big Ten really isn’t that good this year. Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin all lost to equal or lesser opponents. So in that respect, maybe the Huskers can still be competitive in the West Division. Things have to improve pretty quickly for that to happen, though.

Starting from scratch

Let’s not forget just how far this team had fallen under the previous regime. Strength and conditioning was a joke at times, and there wasn’t any competitive spirit built into the program — lackadaisical training led to lackadaisical winning and losing. As hyped as this new staff was coming in, with its “winning” plan, it takes time to rebuild that Husker culture. With all due respect to the players, they still have remnants of a losing mentality. They’ve been in position to win games but just don’t know how to do take the final step. Yeah, there are visible improvements within the team, but one offseason with the new staff is not going to root out and fix all of the bad habits that the majority of the team is used to. Players need to be stronger physically and mentally. Things are on the right path, and everyone believes in the plan set forth by Frost and the coaches. That, in itself, is a positive.

When consistency is not good

Too many old habits are still killing Nebraska. Ridiculous penalties seem to come in the most crucial times. The Huskers were flagged 11 times against Colorado and hit with 10 against Troy. That’s 21 penalties for 172 yards in two games — a complete disaster and the best recipe for losing games when mixed with six turnovers as well. A team that has zero margin for error is handing out first downs that directly lead to points, while also losing the turnover margin.

It’s hard to say exactly why Nebraska is so good at playing bad. Old habits? Trying to hard to make the “perfect” play? Not entirely focused? Just dumb decisions? Not being the better athlete? Bad officiating? You could make a case for all of it. But until Nebraska gets this part of its game cleaned up, the season won’t have many bright spots. I haven’t seen an opponent beat Nebraska yet. But I’ve seen Nebraska beat itself.

Offense

Having your starting quarterback out with an injury no doubt changes the game plan. And I was shocked as the game unfolded that Nebraska was unwilling to attack down the field through the air. Frost wanted to “ugly it up” with the running game and lean on that to win the game. But with Troy loading the box every play and knifing through the gaps in the offensive line, you’d think that Frost would’ve let Andrew Bunch air it out some more. Maybe it’s not Bunch’s strength, but without a downfield threat, that made it too easy for Troy to patrol the line of scrimmage. There were only a handful of “deep” passes, which were mostly successful. So why we didn’t see it more? But field position wasn’t in Nebraska’s favor for the majority of the game thanks to Troy’s punter, who probably deserved Player of the Game honors.

Another concerning issue was the regression from the offensive line. With starting center Cole Conrad playing with an injured knee, why not slide Tanner Farmer over from guard and play Boe Wilson in Farmer’s spot from the beginning? That lineup has had its share of success so far, and Wilson showed last year that he was hungry for playing time when he lined up at fullback during goal-line situations and just blasted defenders.

Regardless of Conrad’s injury, too many breakdowns and tackles for loss were attributed to the O-line. It’s time to start stacking good performances week after week. Again, a team with zero margin for error has to be able to rely on the beef up front.

Speaking of that, short-yardage situations have become embarrassing. Nebraska has had numerous chances to continue drives — or ice a game — if key third or fourth downs were simply converted. What’s been so frustrating is that the Huskers keep trying to pound right up the center-guard area and getting stuffed every time. With a tremendous amount of speed at running back and wide receiver, why not attack the edges? Use your athletes in open space.

We also have to remember that Frost is early in his head coaching career, too, so he’s going to make some mistakes in play-calling.

Defense playing hard

Nebraska’s defense is still a work in progress, but you can see a huge change in mentality. The Huskers’ cornerbacks didn’t intercept any passes last year. That’s so hard to even fathom. Against Troy, Lamar Jackson finally ended that horrible stat. With the pick, he probably made his toughest play in a Huskers uniform.

The defense really gave up only 17 points, and that should win you nearly every game. You can’t fault that effort too much. But with the inability to stop the offense on critical third downs (again) and a phantom pass interference call (second critical flag on the defense at the end of the game this season), you can just harken back to the margin of error that this team can survive on. Which is, yep, zero.

One quick shoutout to linebacker Will Honas. The junior college transfer may be a hair slower in game speed than the ejected Mo Barry, but he filled in well. If he gets to the ball carrier, he’s a physical, sure tackler. With more experience, he’s definitely going to be a playmaker for the defense.

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