Nebraska’s quarterback picture isn’t any clearer after Wednesday’s practice. Casey Thompson, still dealing with the lingering nerve injury he sustained against Illinois, didn’t throw much but felt a lot better. Both Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers grew in confidence with another practice. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple on Wednesday said they’ll reassess the situation after Thursday’s practice.
Whipple’s learned to not push against doctors or urge a player to go. He did that once when he was the head coach at UMass. On the first series player seemed groggy and something was off. They talked about it and agreed, “it was a mistake,” Whipple said. The offensive coordinator was also there when former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy played against Whipple and the Pittsburgh Steelers. James Harrison’s hit just after McCoy released the ball knocked the Browns quarterback out. The NFL suspended Harrison one game for the hit and pulled pictures of dazed McCoy in the aftermath. Instances like that resonate years later with Whipple as the Huskers’ starting quarterback faces the potential of sitting a second straight game.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get a message across and they’ve been really good,” Whipple said. “We have a good room and those guys have been fun to be around. I’ve seen them grow, I’ve seen them take some steps forward so this is the biggest step of their career so far.”
In the wake of uncertainty, interim head coach Mickey Joseph said on Tuesday that he’s got to put his arms around the quarterbacks and reassure them. Whipple chuckled, likening it to a marriage. There is good, there is bad and there is a time for no hug. Reassurance and confidence are keys going into Saturday’s challenge. While Purdy and Smothers both gained more game experience against Minnesota, a game on the road at Michigan Stadium is a different prospect. Whipple remembered coaching the Steelers in the Super Bowl and Ben Roethlisberger jogged to the sidelines after the first drive. “Wow, this is fast,” Whipple remembered the Rookie of the Year quarterback saying.
“It’s probably going to be the same thing at Michigan so you want to make sure the guys are confident and give them something they feel good about,” Whipple said. “And we talk in between series a little bit anyways.”
Whipple said both Purdy and Smothers have teammates’ support and they each have their own strengths. Their play at quarterback influences in coaching decisions. Like at the end of the first half against Minnesota. The Huskers elected to be conservative with 1:30 left in the second quarter. Whipple said that might have been a different decision if Thompson was in the game.
Whipple bemoaned the dropped passes against Minnesota. He said execution is Nebraska’s only chance at success on Saturday. It’s a team effort and he hasn’t seen the team play a complete game yet, specifically the offense. He understands the calls to slow the game down if the occasion calls but, to him, it comes down to game situation and scoring more points than the opponent. That’s the outlook he’s gained from three decades of coaching experience.
He doesn’t put much stock into betting or underdogs but he does believe in playing the games. It’s been 40 years since Whipple was a receivers coach at Brown. They played defending champion Penn State a week after losing to Harvard, 17-10. The Bears played terrible in that game against Harvard. So he took the solemn bus ride from New Haven, Connecticut, to Happy Valley preparing for an onslaught.
“Why are we even playing this game, we’ve got no shot,” Whipple remembered thinking. “Then the game ended up being 38-21, we had more yards, ran for 310 yards and from that point on I’ll never say never.
“So I told our players we’ve got a great opportunity. That’s what it is. We’re Division I and we’ve got a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”