Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple feels that at times, his expectations for the team are at a higher mark than the expectations players have.
The Huskers’ 2-3 start to the year, along with the number of coaching changes, isn’t something that will inspire great deals of confidence, but they still find themselves in contention for the division title. There’s a six-way tie in the Big Ten West for the division lead, with Wisconsin being the odd team out at the moment. If Nebraska builds on its momentum from the win over Indiana in the next few weeks, the door is wide open.
Whipple believes this roster can get it done, and that the goals for the season shouldn’t end at a bowl berth. He just wants to see the same out of the players.
“You’re in first place, act like it and play like it,” he said in Tuesday’s press conference. “It takes time. But I’m realistic. We don’t get there, I’m not gonna be here anyways. So I told them that and, hey, we win the West, I’ll ride Mickey’s coattails. But it comes down to those guys playing and I think they’ve taken that to heart and we’ve practiced well these two days. I told them I won’t ever BS them, and I like these guys.”
Through five games, the offense has been a relative strength for the team. It put up four touchdowns against Big Ten opponents so far, although Northwestern and Indiana are both with Nebraska among the bottom three teams in the conference in terms of points allowed. The Huskers have scored on four of their five opening drives, while the other game featured a season-high 42 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
Still, Whipple has his frustrations, one being how the team has followed up strong opening drives. The Huskers are yet to put together two consecutive scoring drives to open a game. Against Northwestern, the second Husker drive was a three-and-out, although it started at their 1-yard line. After taking the ball near midfield against North Dakota for a second drive, they drew a defensive pass interference before Casey Thompson was sacked and lost a fumble on the second snap of the possession. The second drive against Oklahoma lasted four plays. Nebraska moved inside Indiana’s 30-yard line on its second possession against the Hoosiers, but a holding and intentional grounding call helped stall the drive for a punt.
Mistakes like those are what Whipple wants to see improved on Friday night against Rutgers.
“Nothing against our defense, but we don’t have the ’86 Bears defense,” he said. “Your job is to score touchdowns and you go three plays or whatever, we go 70 yards and then you just start making mistakes.”
The offensive coordinator said he took his frustration out a little bit on his quarterback. On a third-and-short on the third Nebraska drive, Thompson took a sack for a 13-yard loss. After the play, Whipple appeared to be upset with him as he came to the sideline, then Thompson was benched for the next drive. Whipple said that wide receiver Trey Palmer was open for a potential touchdown on the play, although he’s taking responsibility for the miscue.
“I got to coach better, I’m pointing the finger at myself,” Whipple said. “The season, you know, we’re almost halfway there and I said we got a chance. When we’ve wasted so many opportunities, as am older person it’s like, this thing goes by fast and you got to make sure you’re on your P’s and Q’s and that was the frustrating part.”
The number of penalties was also a point of frustration for Whipple. He said he didn’t understand how the Huskers could go without any offensive penalties in a Week 0 game, then have six by halftime against Indiana, including Turner Corcoran’s back-to-back 15-yarders that resulted in his ejection.
To fix some of those issues, Whipple has taken note of his own attitude.
“In my history, when I walk around being a nice guy, it just doesn’t work as well as when I’m a dick,” he said. “When I have something across my rear end, we just play better and that’s really what it was like at that halftime.”
The offensive coordinator said that he feels that players are “somewhat privileged” and there are times where he needs to force them to work harder. That’s all for the purpose of helping them grow, according to the coach.
“I just don’t ever want to have anybody that played for me say like, ‘Coach Whipple cheated me, you know, he didn’t give me his all,'” he said. “That’s the most important thing. They may not like me, everything else, but they know when they come in there that they’re gonna have a good classroom, they’re gonna learn and they’re gonna get better and that way and they’re gonna be a better person, and that’s the most important factor.”
Whipple said over the bye week, he focused on what he could do to help get the team over the top, and that players responded well in the game and so far this week. Friday’s matchup will provide the team the opportunity to grow in its first true road game of the year in a hostile environment, according to Whipple.
He feels like the team is in a good position to contend for the division. He knows that Nebraska’s current standing has come partly as a result of other team’s struggles, but is only focused on what Nebraska can control.
“I don’t know if it’s quality, but it’s competitive,” Whipple said of the Big Ten West. “Doesn’t matter, right? Numbers are numbers. You can play them any way you want. It’s like, the schedule ahead of us, we’re in great shape… It’s not a pat on the back, you know, but if they keep growing and getting better and work hard, which they did the last two days on a short week, we’ll see what it is.”