Nebraska’s shown glimpses of hope this season. Small samples of progress that brought visions of bowls and satisfying victories of old. The problem is those have been isolated incidents. They didn’t follow in succession, stacking success on top of success as present inched closer to potential.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph addressed the need to change that on Tuesday. The Huskers have led in eight of their nine games. The outlier was Purdue, which was tied 10-10 in the second quarter. Despite that, the Huskers are 3-6. So the coaches challenged the players to start strong, stay strong and finish strong.
“We have to play at a top level. We have to play 60 minutes,” Joseph said of Saturday’s game against Michigan. “But we are not going to back down. We are not going throw the towel in. These kids will not do that. These coaches will not do that. We are not going to do that.”
All three phases of the game need to play better and do it for four full quarters. That’s Nebraska’s challenge. If successful the results will follow. But it’ll also require constant motivation and reinforcement after positive plays. For a program that’s seemingly haunted by close losses, Joseph wants to address points of improvement and accentuate the positives.
“You continue to motivate them and talk to them about their good plays. Talk to them about playing 60 minutes,” Joseph said. “Talk to them that the offensive and defense and special teams we have to work together and that we are going to do a better job as a coaching staff of working together this week trying to get them to be successful.”
Nebraska already twice missed its chance to end the losing streak against ranked opponents this season. First there was No. 6 Oklahoma, then No. 17 Illinois. The first was Joseph’s arrival as interim head coach, the second was the last time quarterback Casey Thompson played. The next ranked team is No. 3 in the country and stout in most positions. Safety Marques Buford Jr. isn’t worried about Michigan’s size. The Huskers typically play big, physical teams. He also played in last year’s narrow loss to Michigan and knows how close Nebraska got to stunning the Wolverines. So he also knows turning a loss into a win starts internal, in practice, preparation and execution.
“I think when everybody players together and sticks together it’s up to us to beat us,” Buford said. “It’s not really going to be in anybody else’s hands but ours if everybody is hitting on the same chord at the same time.”
That’s been a largely unattainable feat. Almost a curse until Nebraska returned from its first bye week to beat Indiana in Lincoln, then stage a second-half comeback to beat Rutgers. Those were close games the Huskers seized for victories — but didn’t include complete four-quarter performances. Even the team’s win over FCS North Dakota involved a first-half performance so incomplete fans booed. Obviously, the losses involved promising plays or drives only for disappointment to permeate. Northwestern, Georgia Southern, Oklahoma, Purdue, Illinois and now Minnesota. All ended in sunken shoulders.
The Huskers left the loss to Minnesota truly discouraged. A dominant start but incomplete second half allowed the Gophers to come back and win. Now, the Huskers are just another 3-win team just like any other. Just like they were at the end of last season. That national perception won’t change until the Huskers give reason for reconsideration. They’ll be the underdog the rest of the season, but an underdog that believes it can be more.
“We are definitely embracing the underdog role,” offensive lineman Ethan Piper said Tuesday. “I think after last week, coming in I think a lot of people are doubting us. We just have to come out like we do every game and it give it our best shot. Just have that mentality that we have nothing to lose at this point.”