I’m late to leave the press box after the game ends on Saturdays. Part of publishing something so close to the final horn, while the rest of the media contingent heads to the field before the game ends, a few of us stay back to finish up stories. As such, the stragglers at the end are taking an elevator ride from the sixth floor of West Stadium down with fans.
One fan Saturday saw my credential and asked, “What are you going to write after that?” Before I could get my answer out, he cut me off to ask, somewhat rhetorically, “Time to fire some coaches?”
It sparked a discussion between the other fans in the elevator. The original man believed Nebraska never should have fired Frank Solich, and that everything now—four coaches since 2004, zero conference titles since the 21st century began, back-to-back 4-8 records and now an unexpectedly-difficult season punctuated by a 38-31 loss at home to Indiana—stems from that initial mistake.
I said nothing, just listened. What I heard, in a roundabout way, was that Nebraska is facing problems now because it pulled the plug on a coach, but to fix the problems now it should pull the plug on a coach.
Not Frost, to be clear. The seat isn’t even kinda hot, the contract still has a lot of years, and the buyout has a lot of zeros. But Frost’s assistants aren’t safe from the crosshairs right now. Notably under fire is defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
Nebraska’s defense gave up 38 points and 6.4 yards per play to Indiana. Indiana!
There’s sticker shock here for a lot of people. The Hoosiers rank 35th in scoring and 34th in yards per play this season. A lack of historical relevance doesn’t detract from the immediate quality of Tom Allen’s 6-2 Hoosier team.
But Nebraska’s defense has slipped back down into “liability” territory after a showing in which it gave up seven conversions on 13 true third-down tries from Indiana and conceded both fourth-down attempts to the Hoosiers. The third-down defense, for the season, now ranks 81st nationally.
The numbers now:
|Rushing TDs allowed||3||15|
|Tackles for loss||26||27|
|Expl. run plays allowed||9||40|
“It's pretty easy when you watch the film, and when you show them what happens, they know it,” Chinander said Tuesday of the mishaps of late. “As soon as they come off the field, they know what they did wrong, why it's not being executed right now. We didn't practice very good on Wednesday last week. That's when we do third down, and it showed up in the game.
“There's no such thing as a quick fix. I know everybody wants it. I want it. The players want it. That's not realistic. We have to build this program to where Coach Frost wants it. If that happens for the next four games, great. If that's next year, that's probably not good enough for everybody, but we're going to keep pushing until we do it. But there's not one person in this building that doesn't love Nebraska.”
There also aren’t many inside Nebraska’s walls who don’t love Chinander.
“He blames himself first,” said inside linebacker Mohamed Barry. “It’s easy to blame everyone else as a coordinator, but to us, he always blames himself first. Then he tells the real, not the outside noise. … I’m not going to put it all on Coach Chinander. No matter what coordinator you bring here, if the players aren’t executing, it’s on us.”
“When you have [players’] best interest at heart and you want to make guys better, I think guys respond to that,” inside linebacker coach Barrett Ruud told me.
On Monday, Frost was asked indirectly about Chinander, and then later directly about the defensive coordinator he met in Oregon and brought with him from Florida. He was effusive in his praise each time.
“Chins is one of the smartest coaches I’ve been around,” Frost said. “Every kid in our program adores Coach Chinander, they all play hard for him. I don’t think there’s any doubt our players are playing harder than they did last year or however far you want to look back. I see more hats to ball, I see us tackling well, I see more effort. Guys are playing for him.
“What’s missing is attention to detail to do their job and get it done. Nobody had to tell Jason Peter that, nobody had to tell Grant Wistrom that, or Joel Makovicka that if they had a job they were going to get it done. Again, it falls on us as coaches to make sure that happens and some of the responsibility on the players when they have an opportunity to make a play, they have to get it done. Chins is the right guy to make sure that happens.”
I asked Noah Vedral, the Huskers’ third-year sophomore quarterback, what he sees when he looks at a Chinander defense and the guys playing in one. He’s got a unique vantage point, having gone against Chinander in practice now three years in a row at two different places. He called the scheme one of the hardest he’s gone against “because it’s a little confusing.”
“I think the guys like that because if you’ve got an offense second-guessing itself, it’s easier to play defense. I think that’s something they’d tell you, too,” Vedral said. “I love Chins. He’s a great dude. Our defensive staff’s awesome. They’re all great. I hope and I expect [the defense] all love[s] playing for him.”
When Ben Stille talks about pass-rushing, he says he and his teammates have to be better with their hand movement, not missing on their moves. “That’s about 90% of what pass-rushing is, you either hit your move or you don’t, if they punch you first, you’re not going to get home,” he said.
When Barry talks about getting off the field on third down, he says the defense needs to be more dialed in during the week when they rep third-down situations.
Frost was quick to say the coaching staff has to be better, and Chinander said the same Tuesday, but issues right now aren’t strictly about coaching. And the message coming from Memorial Stadium is in keeping with that.
“I believe in my guys,” Frost said. “Anytime you lose a game or two like we have, people start to question everything. I don’t question my coaches. They know what they’re doing. If there are issues, we are going to address them. I’m going to talk to them about. We are going to get it fixed. These are the right guys to do it. I need to be better. They need to be better, and the team needs to be better. We’re all in this together.”
Nebraska has had 14 different defensive coaches since the 2015 season began. Three defensive coordinators and three systems. Two different linebacker coaching configurations (Trent Bray handled both inside and outside, they’re split now.) Three defensive backs coaches. Four defensive line coaches.
“I’m tired of putting pressure on coordinators,” Barry said. “That’s not going to work. We need consistency. That’s what’s going to have this program get where it needs to be, is consistency. Having the same coordinator, the same head coach, the same stuff like that is what’s going to get a culture built. You can’t keep on rebuilding, rebuilding, it’s not going to work. It’s just not. People have to have patience and leaders gotta play better.”
Maybe I’ll have that bit of audio ready to go for the next elevator ride.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.