Being in the Big Ten West Division is often like being a boa constrictor or being in the grips of one. You chose which you want to be. In game form, it’s not all that exciting to watch, but you just have to squeeze the life out of games or get squeezed. Predator or prey, your life depends upon it.
This seems to be a lesson Nebraska, after 12 years in the conference and eight in the current division setup, has yet to learn.
And it’s probably not fair to expect the Huskers to learn that under interim head coach Mickey Joseph, coaching his fifth game in his new role, but it remains the issue and the question for Nebraska football going forward.
Who best understands that? Who is best able to not just play by but accept the somewhat ugly strictures of the game?
Illinois entered Saturday having already shown that it was and with a head coach, when he took the job before the 2021 season, who was pre-approved for a loan that would cover the costs of what it takes to win here. Bret Bielema already had.
He didn’t just already know it didn’t have to be pretty, he’d already made peace with constructing something that might be deliberately ugly.
This was a tough matchup for Nebraska when you considered what both teams did well and didn’t, and, minus a brief Husker lead, it unfolded much to the Illini’s liking. A touchdown right before the half gave Illinois a two-score lead and it sat on things from there for the 26-9 win. Nebraska, playing without starting quarterback Casey Thompson in the second half, never forced the Illini to get up. The Huskers ran 20 plays in the second half. There were only 46 plays run total, a dream scenario for this Illini team.
“We got off the tracks second half,” Joseph said. “We need to go back and look at the film, but I can tell you that they dominated us in the second half.”
The Huskers have been sat on a lot since entering the conference in 2011, less so in the early years under Bo Pelini, more so lately. Why? I don’t know. Will this propensity to be sat upon still matter as much in a conference that’s bound to change in unknown ways in a couple of years with the addition of USC and UCLA? I don’t know that either.
But I think it will still matter.
As ugly and unfashionable as winning in the Big Ten West may be, it is sort of fundamental. It is the idea of football––more than whatever the modern trends looks like broadly, more than tallying talent can tell you––boiled down to its essence. Make fewer mistakes, realize that style points don’t end up on the scoreboard, just get it done.
None of which is to say that this Nebraska team, after years of not displaying those traits, should’ve suddenly shown them against this Illinois team, which is now 7-1 because it does. But, in this season that turned towards the future after three games, it certainly underscored the point.
It is to say that whatever comes for Husker football in the future, getting back to somewhere close to the past requires things to start at a very basic, perhaps humbling, level. I think Athletic Director Trev Alberts knows this as he continues his search, and he’ll try to get someone he believes addresses this—might still be Joseph—but it’s the sort of thing you can’t believe until you see it.
No one game proves anything, despite how these games are digested each week, but Illinois looked like a team poised to put that exact test to Nebraska entering Saturday and it did. The Illini held Nebraska to 29 yards on just 12 plays in the second half. Twelve! Down 20-9 at the half, the Huskers would’ve had to average a point per play to win, and no team does that, not even with a sample size of 12 plays.
This is the first box to be checked for winning in the Big Ten—control the game. Maybe it’s the first box to be checked for winning in general. Teams do it different ways, some while scoring 40-plus points, some while allowing fewer than 10.
Nebraska, over the years, has run into a lot more of the former in the Big Ten, but it hasn’t really been able to beat either with much consistency of late.
That’s all well-covered ground at this point. We already knew this about Nebraska football before this game, this game just happened to provide easily summarized, additional evidence.
But what the latest evidence is saying is more valuable the more you see it. It’s the end of October now. The Huskers will have a chance to choose their future in the month ahead. This isn’t an easy decision to make, but it is easy to focus on the big picture—Nebraska needs to get back to what it once was.
Sure, but the Big Ten might be the best Petri dish for proving what it ultimately takes to get there. You have to focus on the smallest details before the big goals are even possible.
Despite the mundanity of learning the same lesson over and over again, it could be––should be, needs to be––valuable for Nebraska going forward. It’s manageable in a way that restoring Husker football, the broad idea, the history, is not. Anyone could do it, it’s just hard to know who can do it for sure, and that’s true anywhere.
At least the objective is clear, easy as it is to lose.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.