You can't win ‘em all, and it's no disgrace for a loss to come at the hands of a team like Penn State - on the road - in what everyone agreed is a "re-loading" year for NU. The problem is the way it happened, and what it means for the future of Nebraska football.
This season was – and still is – about two things: Finding out if Jammal Lord can be a championship caliber quarterback for 2003 (or if he is another Kordell Stewart) and finding out if Craig Bohl and the defensive staff can return the Blackshirts to prominence from the ashes of 2001.
Point number one: The jury is still out on Jammal. He did not cost the Huskers the game at Happy Valley. If anything, he kept them in it for as long as he could with his running. His passing game was shot as soon as he threw a TD pass for the other guys, but it was his scrambling and option runs that provided the lone bright spot on offense. This offensive line has not jelled yet – as demonstrated by the fact that none of Nebraska's talented I-back's has gained over 100 yards in a single game yet this season. We have to live with the fact that we aren't going to see this group win the rushing title this season, and that if we are patient, they could be great again in the trenches next year.
Lord reminds a lot of us of Stewart, the often spectacular and sometimes awful signal caller from Colorado who is now driving his coach nuts in Pittsburgh. Nebraska fans remember the way the Blackshirts dominated Kordell when it counted most. Lord will have to produce in future big games to overcome that comparison. He has wonderful physical ability, and the rest of this season will go along way in telling us if he can harness it and become another Tommie Frazier or Frost instead.
As for the second question…it highlights the much more disturbing aspect of the Penn State rout, and we may already have the answer.
Forget all the post-game talk from the locker room about "stupid penalties" and "turnovers." That's a smoke screen.
The truth is, those mistakes may have factored into the final margin, but they did not factor into the outcome. It
may be hard to believe, but it's true. The dye was cast before the teams took the field. This game was lost in the
film rooms and practice fields. Put aside your disbelief for a moment, and say it with me: Nebraska was outcoached.
Amazing, but true. More than great offensive lines, powerful I-backs and stone wall defenses, great coaching is a Nebraska tradition. This is a program that's not at the top of everyone's recruiting rankings every year. This is a program that takes good – not great - talent and makes it great. This is a program that has always had teams that were better than the sum of their parts.
Want an example? How about 1994, when Colorado brought a team into Lincoln that had all 11 offensive starters go into the NFL. They had the Heisman winner and a couple future all-pros. Nebraska had a bunch of guys with grit and heart who were in their last season of organized football. Final: NU 24 CU 7 in a game not that close.
Nebraska has beaten many teams over the years that possessed more raw talent. They beat them with superior coaching and superior preparation. That's been missing lately, and that's what's so disturbing. In most cases, the talent level is still there. But Nebraska's been outcoached numerous times in the past three seasons.
This is not an indictment of Frank Solich. He was, and is, the right man to be the Head Coach. (We will put aside the argument about an offensive coordinator for another time…). But Solich must realize, after the debacles at the end of last season, and this pitiful performance against Penn State, that it's time to put aside feelings of loyalty (another Nebraska tradition) and replace his defensive coaches before next season.
Craig Bohl is a fine man, but he is not the man for this defensive coordinator job. That's not to say he doesn't know the game or anything, but that "deer in the headlights" look that he had on the sideline during a crucial moment in the Penn State game spoke volumes. Players saw it. You know it reminded them of just how ill prepared they were for the Colorado game last year, and they even said to each other that ‘it's happening again.' Bohl and his coaches were completely and thoroughly outwitted by their Penn State counterparts – hardly known as geniuses themselves.
The Blackshirts – and it might behoove Solich to remove those "awards" from each and every defensive player and request that they re-earn them against Iowa State – lack any identity short of the moniker. Great units take on the personality of their leader. The Husker ‘D' did that before with Charlie McBride. As the leader of this defense, Bohl does not have ‘it'…that certain something that makes players be willing to sacrifice key bodily organs for you. Bohl's units play with little passion, they don't play smart, and they are painfully inconsistent, even against lesser teams.
What are they known for? Hard hits? Stifling run defense? Takeaways? None of the Above?
Just as no one ever asked Solich to be Tom Osborne, and no one is asking Bohl to be Charlie McBride. A person has to be who they are. Players would see right through a phony. We only asked that Bohl (or whomever replaces him) possess some of the necessary leadership intangibles that McBride possessed…or have something like them that's unique to his personality. Something, anything to put a stamp on his defense. To give it an identity. To give is some fire. To make the Blackshirts into Bohl's Boys.
Hasn't happened so far. You wonder if it ever can or will. We all know how his players would run through a wall for McBride. We can't be certain if they'd run all the way to the wall for Bohl.
While you never wish anything bad on someone you like, wouldn't it be convenient if Baylor kept on losing this season, and the administration decided that Head Coach Kevin Steele needed to be replaced? A former Husker and NFL defensive assistant, he'd be the perfect guy to rejuvenate the Blackshirts.
To be fair, what happened at Penn State was not entirely Bohl's fault (although he does get the Nittany Lion's share of the blame…). As we noted at the top, it was sort of inevitable that the Huskers lose that one. They'll likely lose a couple more this year (at least) while they try to find out about Lord and develop some consistency on offense. Again, if you're honest with yourself, and saw what transpired against Troy State and Utah State, you had to realize that Penn State was going to be a tough deal. Nebraska did not go in there with a great deal of momentum. After playing pretty well against Arizona State, but stumbled through the next two games. Great Nebraska teams destroy both those teams in the vicinity of 60-Love.
So we must be patient, and yet honest about this year. A 10-3 season would be fantastic. A Big 12 Northern Division title would be outstanding. A new defensive coaching staff in place before next Letter-of-Intent day would be best of all.