Yes, let's not put the cart before the horse and say that Nebraska is being back to the Nebraska of old. They have managed to beat an Oklahoma State team that though potentially potent on the offense side, was all but anemic in defensive output. They tromped a Utah State team that utilized a rather gimmicky offense until Demorrio Williams put and end to that, thus ending the already slim hopes of the Aggies having a hope of staying in the game. And Penn State, a team that isn't the team from last year, youth and talent without the benefit of more talent around them, ineffective more often than not.
You might say that Nebraska beat teams they were expected to beat. I pose to you then, isn't that the sign of a great team?
I mean, look around you. I've seen more choking in the first three weeks of this college season than I have in a lifetime of watching the Kansas City Chiefs in the post-season. The true sign of a great football team isn't just rising to beat the solid teams, but having the consistency to beat the teams you are supposed to.
Therein lies the problem.
While Nebraska has done just what it has had to do, in two out of three games, it's been by the skin of it's teeth. The defense has been great, that's for sure, but the offense has yet to find itself and find a way out of it's Red Zone woes.
Penalties, mis-communication with the sidelines and turnovers have all plagued the Nebraska offense thus far. Heck, if you were to count their success between the 20s, NU would indeed be looking like the Huskers of old as the O-line has been a considerably different line than the one that preceded it and with many of the same players.
That's kind of a theme in and of itself though in that Nebraska has managed to make almost a complete turnaround in most of their problem areas, but doing it with relatively the same team.
T.J. Hollowell is the one exception in the linebacking core and NU actually lost arguably the team's most valuable player in DeJuan Groce. Special teams, defense, Groce was a one-man force, NU though rebounding and even exceeding without him this year.
I was asked once about the defense in this unit returning so many starters as to whether or not that was a good thing. I responded simply, ‘yes', because I like so many others believed that players took the blame appropriately for some of the mishaps from last season, but were scapegoats for the rest, at least while the season was going on.
Not anymore, fresh faces galore and the defense now leads all teams in Division 1-A in being the stingiest out there.
I guess if you want to answer the question about NU being back, you have to first figure out where "back" is. If you are talking about the "glory days", forget it. I doubt NU will ever get back to there. Most teams will never get there throughout their entire existence and this year has illustrated oh-so-well that anyone can beat anyone on any given day.
Nope, no more ‘95 Husker teams for NU fans, but every year between that except for last year wouldn't be a bad start. After coming off a 7-7 season, I doubt that winning ‘only' 9 games would upset a ton of Husker fans. Oh yeah, there would be some that for whatever reason are thinking way above their heads, but reality says that if NU can get back to being a 9-win-team, that's a great start to truly being ‘back'.
I think how most NU fans define "back" as though isn't necessarily winning all their games, but the games going how Nebraska games are supposed to go. Last year, the losses were hard, but the most difficult part about them wasn't the fact that NU lost, it was how they lost. Whether it was conditioning, poor preparation or the team just quitting in the end, Nebraska resembled Pac-10 teams in the fourth quarter, once down, that was all she wrote.
And no, NU has never been a great comeback team, but when you are talking NU tradition, no matter what the year, Nebraska doesn't get weaker as the game goes along, they get stronger up to the point the whistle blows. That doesn't mean they win, but it means that up until the clock strikes zero, everyone is flying around, whatever the side of the ball they are on.
Nebraska tradition is also about slamming the ball down people's throats and I think Penn State will attest to NU being "back" in that respect as Nebraska ran the ball over 20 consecutive times, part of that an 18-play drive that took up around a day and a half of the clock. There were a lot of reasons for NU running it totally, but the fact that they could, even against a young Penn State D-line, that says a lot about NU being "back".
One other definition of the word is about playmakers and even NU's good-not-great teams had at least a couple here and there. Guys that could single-handedly change the face of the game, that was another aspect of what made Nebraska (or anyone else for that matter) competitive even when the chips were down.
This year, they've got a few.
Matt Herian who's proven his adeptness at getting open down-field wasn't a one-season aberration. Josh Bullocks who's actually amongst the nation's best in grabbing the ball from the opponent. Ross Pilkington who finds a way to get open, but also can pull down just about anything within arm's reach. And, how about that offensive line? You say they can't be playmakers? You say that a playmaker is a person that can on a single play break a game wide-open? How does 5 for 5 on 4th down conversions sound? That's 5 different times that these guys made plays that could have possibly broke the game wide-open. Sounds like playmakers to me.
I will agree that the common definition points to the individual, but I would also say that it's been more a team effort than anything. I know that sounds like a ridiculous statement, but it's not DeJuan winning games single-handedly with an interception or a couple of punt returns. It's an offensive line chewing up the clock to the point where the other guy's defense is exhausted. It's a well-rested defense being able to capitalize on that by stopping offenses cold. It's a running game that takes advantage of those huge holes and it's a kicking game that has come around to be the typically consistent-presence Nebraska is accustomed.
I'd say they are back.
Back in the way that Nebraska has at least the potential to do some great things this year. I think everyone can agree that within the team there lies at least the foundation for beating just about anyone they play and on a given day, anyone at all. What has hampered Nebraska most of the way throughout the season can be fixed without a lot of dramatic changes. As any coach well-spoken in cliches would say, "it's the little things that make great teams".
Those little things could be a change in approach, at least offensively speaking. A little thing could be a change in personnel, one player here or there. Nothing dramatic mind you and though certain positions can have great affect on a team's performance than another, in the end, each in and of itself is just a cog that makes the whole wheel turn.
There's one other definition that some would say truly indicates whether this Nebraska team is back to being any solid Nebraska team from before and it comes from intimidation. In the mid to late-90s, teams weren't intimidated by Nebraska, they were flat out scared to play them at all. Over a 5-year span, a lot of teams, even those ranked were just hoping to come out of the game healthy and would consider that a success. If they kept the game close, even better.
Nebraska isn't back to that. Not yet. Nebraska is a name and unless the bottom falls out for like five years in a row, they are still Nebraska and everyone will take them very seriously, especially in Lincoln. The fear factor though, that's probably going to take awhile.
On defense, I would imagine there's some there already as the "blackshirts" have terrorized if not demoralized the three teams they have faced thus far. For NU however, it's about a complete influence on the opponent, each side as they take the field to face NU thinking in the back of their mind, ‘God, help me get through this'.
That's a ways off.
More depth, more talent, more speed and more experience is what it takes to get back to being that kind of Nebraska. With that being said, they are off to a pretty good start.
There's problems to be worked out, offensive woes to address, but with two more very winnable games, Nebraska still has time to work the kinks out before the real fun begins.
And then, we'll find out just how "back" they are.
What Nebraska has done in it's first three games is build something that fans most definitely, players probably and possibly even some of the coaches lost through last year's trials. Confidence. It's not this concrete thing that once it's down takes forever to rebuild, but it takes either time or something dramatic to truly affect. If you wanted drama, NU had enough for five soap operas throughout the off-season and this season already, only three games into the year.
It's been almost all good though and that's exactly what the doctor ordered. That's what NU needed up and down the line. A shot in the arm, a kick in the pants and a definite breath of fresh air.
NU is back. I say it with the utmost confidence and I'll give you one simple reason why. It's not how many they win, but how they win that many and it's not the losses but how those losses came to pass. What defines a traditional Nebraska team isn't the amount of wins, it's the amount of heart on the team. That along with the level of talent, speed, strength, etc. has equaled some startling-good teams, but even in the down times prior to last season ( and yes, Colorado the season before), those teams were still typical Husker squads that ground it out until the very end.
This team is young and chances are, before the season changes, some of the faces might change as well. What's inside is what matters and results be damned, that's what tells you if an NU team is truly "back" or not.
And if you can say that the NU team you saw in the fourth quarter of any game, win or lose was the same one you saw take the field at the start of the game, what better definition of the word do you need?
Nebraska is back.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619