Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

A Hard Decision, and Hard Road Ahead, for the Huskers

November 05, 2022

It was halfway there. For a half on Saturday, it looked like Nebraska was going to win a Big Ten game in the never-easy way befitting a Big Ten team—get a lead, go slow, hold your field-position edge with solid punting and who cares what it looks like.

That unfolded for the Huskers in the first half against Minnesota. The offense’s opening drive with the backup QB starting ended in a touchdown, defense got a three-and-out, offense turned good field position into a field goal for a two-score lead. The only way to script that better for Nebraska is to make them both touchdowns, but even a 10-0 lead was enough for the game to flip on its head.

The Gophers are the team that makes its living with such a classic approach. Minnesota entered Saturday second nationally in average time of possession. Grinding games down into wins is a point of pride there, but that seemed to be off the table down 10-0 with just 31 yards over the first 30 minutes.

Minnesota, for a change, was going to have play uphill.

And the Gophers said, “fine.” They didn’t need anything fluky, big sudden changes of possession, to tie it up in the third quarter, just a series of strong, normal drives. Control had swung to Minnesota at that point, but the game’s lone turnover—a Chubba Purdy interception—buried the needle. The Gophers turned it into a touchdown, and Nebraska was uphill the rest of the way.

If you had to summarize the Nebraska era since 2018, you could certainly do worse than, “They played uphill a lot.”

That’s how I’ll basically remember it, which is why a half of having higher ground stood out. Nebraska doesn’t often win by letting things be grimy and controlled by game gravity. I can think of maybe three I’ve covered—17-13 over Michigan in 2013, 9-6 over Michigan State in the snow in 2018 and 2019’s 13-10 win over Northwestern, which was extremely Big Ten. This one could’ve been added to the list if the game were 30 minutes long.

It’s not. The Huskers got out-grimed in the second half, but I was more surprised to see it for a half than I was to see it only last a half.

Traditional signs of progress might be hard to come by the rest of this season. With Saturday’s 20-13 loss, the Huskers would have to win out to make a bowl game, beating undefeated Michigan then Wisconsin and Iowa, both of which moved to 5-4 today with solid wins over Maryland and Purdue respectively.

If you’re someone who thought interim head coach Mickey Joseph needed to reach a certain number of wins to enter the conversation for the full-time gig…well…has he already reached it?

I think I’ve learned two things about Nebraska over the past two games.

Lesson One: The defense has shown some life. For the second straight week, the Huskers’ defense faced one of the best running backs in the country with an offense that lets you know it’s aware that running back is back there. Illinois’ Chase Brown ended up getting his yards, and so did Minnesota star Mohamed Ibrahim, eventually, on Saturday, but overall I think Nebraska’s defense did enough to win both times out. That’s despite being on the field for 72 of the total 120 minutes of game time.

Lesson Two: This version of the offense is just lost without starting quarterback Casey Thompson. The Huskers only managed 248 total yards last week, 34 of that after Thompson went down, and 267 this week. In basically six quarters without Thompson, the Huskers have averaged 3.5 yards on 85 plays and scored 13 points.

Have some of the decisions Nebraska has made helped address this? That will be the hot topic this week—the play calls, the personnel—though those complaints don’t have the urgency in an interim situation. Everyone knows a lot is about a change.

But there’s probably not much this team can change on the field over the remaining three games. It’s trying. It’s showing flashes of the just-get-it-done Big Ten mentality that has eluded this program for most of its time in the conference.

The Huskers were there for a bit against Illinois, a little bit longer against Minnesota. With a little more season, you might see those portions stretch to full games. But there are only three left and Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa are all on better footing at the moment.

Makes things interesting for AD Trev Alberts as he decides the Huskers’ future at head coach. If he needed to see more from his current head coach, Joesph’s team continues to show some things that feel new, even if the record of late has been mostly that of old.

Harder to see that way, of course, but coaching decisions are never easy.

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