Tuesday, October 09, 2007

NU Re-View:Missouri 41, Nebraska 6

OK, first of all, my apologies for breaking format. This game, though, was a bellweather event, and requires something different than just the good and the bad.

First of all, Saturday's game in Columbia was easily the lowest point in Bill Callahan's tenure as Nebraska's coach. It's hard to find a good place to start in dissecting all the horrors that happened to Nebraska that evening. Looking at the defense, though, makes the most sense given the performances of the last few weeks.

In three weeks, NU surrendered more than 40 points and more than 600 yards twice. Nebraska is on pace to break almost every record for worst defensive performance in a season. There are a number of things wrong with this football team, but everything starts with those horrific defensive performances. While the points, yards surrendered, and other statistics are frightening, to me the most damning statistic is Nebraska's abyssimal third-down defensive conversion percentage. Other than turnovers, being able to convert third downs and stop teams on third down is the most important statistic in football. NU didn't get a third-down stop against Missouri until into the second quarter, after Mizzou had put 14 points on the board and put Nebraska into a hole. That kind of performance sucks the life out of both a defense and an offense.

Nebraska's offensive woes, I believe, are in some ways a by-product of the defensive debacle. Ever since the Nevada game, Nebraska's offense has been called on to bail out the team after the defense has collapsed. I don't think it is unreasonable to think that the offense, after beating their brains out, has so lost faith in the defense's ability to perform that their will to play has broken. How else can you explain scoring only six points and gaining less than 300 yards against the nation's 93rd rated defense?

Some of the offense's issues are their own doing, primarily the inability to establish a run. The offensive line's ability to run block, combined with Marlon Lucky's inability to run effectively between the tackles, sets Nebraska up for failure offensively by making them one-dimensional. By far the most creative Nebraska has been offensively was against USC, having a reasonable amount of success moving the ball. But without that power rushing threat, Nebraska's formidable offensive talent is much easier to neutralize.

Ever since the coaching change occurred, my mantra has been to keep the faith. In Callahan's first year, you could see glimpses of it even with the wrong personnel. In years two and three, while there were certainly growing pains (see Kansas in '04 and Oklahoma State in '05), there were visible signs of performance on both sides of the ball.

This year, Nebraska's performance has gotten worse with every game. A debacle like Missouri this year should NEVER happen in the fourth year of a program. And it leads to inevitable comparisons to the end of the Solich era. In 2002 and 2003, Nebraska struggled to beat teams they were clearly athletically superior to, and were non-competitive with teams that they were equivalent to athletically.

I have no doubt that Callahan and Co. are good recruiters, and the talent level on this team is better than it was four years ago. But the performance isn't. It's the same, if not worse, than the Nebraska teams we saw in 2002 and 2003.

And I don't see any reason to think it's going to get better. The issue is not talent, and it's not learning a new program. It's coaching, and it's the culture that's been created. This team and, frighteningly enough, the coaching staff, look lost and befuddled as to what's happening. That's why it sounds to me like everything coming out of the program sounds like people in denial. I wrote earlier about Ball State being the canary in the coalmine. If that's the case, Missouri is the canary's death. We'll see if the program changes direction or keeps digging further into the mine.

Callahan's not going anywhere as a result of his extension signed earlier this year, and I don't really think he should. Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, however, is a dead man walking. As far as I'm concerned, he should have been fired at halftime in Columbia and given a bus ticket back to Lincoln.

But, that's probably unlikely too. So the question that is being asked around 'Husker Nation is how to respond. I was literally and figuratively sick after the Missouri game, and watching the descent of this team. I'm sure many fans around the nation are furious, and they have a right to be. So how do we react?

It's been written many places that you answer with your wallet. I would agree, but it's more subtle than that. Being a sports fan is, by its' nature, emotional gambling. You invest your passion in your team, risking the pain of losing for the thrill of winning. But at a certain level, as a fan you have a right to expect that the team you have invested in will reciprocate and give you a return on investment.

It's not just about winning and losing. Sure, losing stinks, but I don't think that's the issue for Nebraska fans. 'Husker Fan wants a team he or she can be proud of, win or lose, and that's hard to find these days. From Wake Forest on, we've seen a team that is unprepared and disinterested in the games they have played.

That is not acceptable, and dangerous for the program. The opposite of rabid fandom is not hatred. It's apathy. That is the emotion Steve Pederson and the 'Husker brass should be most afraid of. 'Husker fans wear their emotions on their sleeves with their red polyester jackets. But any sane human being is not going to continually put their hearts out, week after week, to be crushed by either incompetence or disinterest.

One thing I do not want to hear, however, is the sunshine-pumpers telling me that I have to "get behind" this program and believe they are going to win every game, regardless of the evidence we can all plainly see.

Bullhockey. Of course I want NU to win, but if I, as a fan, don't call it like I see it, then I'm not doing my job. NU basketball has been a disaster forever because 'Husker Fan doesn't care enough about Nebraska basketball to demand that it be good. We do about football so, eventually, it will be.

It's going to be a tough next couple years, I think. We're going to have to be disappointed, and angry, and put the pressure on the Powers That Be to demand excellence. But we will. To paraphrase the Tunnel Walk slogan, WE CHEER FOR NEBRASKA. And we're going to continue to stick together, in all kinds of weather, to DEMAND the excellence from our football program that we deserve. Whether or not that excellence comes under the Callahan/Pederson regime is up to them. But we're going to get it, one way or the other.

I am a Nebraska fan, and I will always be a Nebraska fan, that's not at issue. But I can tell you, my level of investment in this squad has gone down significantly after Missouri. I'm not going to expose myself to that kind of anguish again unless I'm given a damn good reason to. Sure, I will watch, and I will root, and I will hope for the best.

But the faith is broken. I'm not buying that this program has a chance to be relevant in the Big XII, much less nationally, until I see it for myself. Ironicially enough, it's the Missouri game that has created this "show me" attitude in me.

As important as 'Husker football is, we don't need you to make us successful. Nebraska has a tremendous amount to be proud of outside of football. I will be proud to be a Nebraskan even if this squad goes 4-8 this year.

The ball is in your court, Coach. I desperately want you to be successful. But until you give me a reason to believe in you, I'll just stand by the road, and cheer as the winners go by. Nebraska football WILL rise again, because the Greatest Fans In College Football demand it to. Whether that's under your leadership or not is up to you.

GBR, baby.

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