The offense scrambled to the 9-yard line down 4 with 9 seconds left and no timeouts. Artificial crowd noise muddled hollered calls from the sidelines. Offense and defense processed the situation, the calls, the opponent, all while rushing to their spots. This was the point.
Head coach Matt Rhule wanted to “accelerate” the team’s situational awareness. Coaches threw a lot of situations at them last Thursday in practice and did so again in Saturday’s scrimmage. He hopes this team plays each Saturday with the same physicality, confidence and workman-like mentality it approaches practice. And he wants that regardless of game scenario.
“We’re going to get in games this year where it comes down to the very end, I don’t want our heart rates going through the roof like we’re so nervous,” Rhule said on Saturday. “I want us to have been there 100 times.”
The offense didn’t score. Then someone on the defense threw a punch. Rhule acknowledged the defense played better in the scrimmage—even won the scrimmage. That flag, however, allowed for an untimed down. But first, Rhule made the defense and defensive coaches run a gasser. At the tail end of a 2-hour practice and with one untimed down remaining, defensive players ran the width of Tom Osborne Field. They lined up for the final untimed down. Quarterback Jeff Sims scrambled and found Marcus Washington in the end zone. Rhule told the offense to run into the locker room if they scored—they did. The defense stood in the 40-degree chill having allowed a touchdown that shouldn’t have been.
“Defense won the whole scrimmage,” Rhule said. “But at the end of the day, they didn’t make the play at the end to win it. And it wasn’t anything physical, it was just mental, our awareness of the situation, our awareness of doing the right thing.”
Rhule admitted on Saturday that he stole the idea for implementing situational drills from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He called himself a nerd because of how much he enjoys it. He likes discussing situational calls with offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and defensive coordinator Tony White. During Saturday’s scrimmage, quarterback Casey Thompson stood next to Rhule and talked about the responses to each situation. Rhule said that kind of team culture could lead to winning.
Nebraska’s head coach plans to throw more situations at the Huskers in the final two practices before the annual Red-White game on Saturday. If class schedules work out, the Huskers will get under the lights on Thursday. They’ll practice 2-minute and 1-minute drills. On Saturday, after the team’s second scrimmage, Rhule said the Huskers are ahead of schedule. Typically his teams aren’t able to run the situational games until preseason camp of the first year and don’t “get it” until the second preseason.
“These guys get it,” Rhule said. “So credit to their previous coaches, high school, staff that was here before or where they were. These guys understand football.”
Rhule also complimented the current crop of Huskers for their willingness to buy in. While there’s no tangible evidence what he’s telling them will work, they dive into it. If he tells some to run stadium steps during a scrimmage they say “OK” and do it. Hopefully, Rhule smiled, he’s at Nebraska for a while and is able to look back at this group fondly because they are one of two sets of players.
“I love the players who buy into what we’re asking them to do without any evidence of it working. And I love the recruits who commit to us before we’re successful,” Rhule said. “Those two guys always have a special place in my heart.”
The head coach said the players are “trying so hard” to be great. Everyone involved wants Nebraska football to be great again. And he enjoys coaching them for that. Rhule side-eyed other programs who talked about the transfer portal, saying he can’t wait to coach the players already in the program. They want to get better and eventually be great. They’re investing effort to get there.
“They’re trying really hard to do all that, there’s just a lot of work to be done, which, is way ahead of where we thought we’d be,” Rhule said. “I’m so fired up about where we are. We’re in a great place, it’s just, I want to win a bunch of games, they want to win a bunch of games, we just have to keep accelerating that.”