OK, Bill, this one’s on you. Now how are you and your coaching staff going to respond?
This is the crossroads of Bill Callahan’s coaching career at Nebraska.
The Nebraska football team went to Columbia, Mo., Saturday night and got thoroughly embarrassed in front of a national television audience. Hopefully, most of the viewers got bored with the 41-6 smackdown and turned to watch the Major League Baseball playoffs.
Maybe this is exactly what the Nebraska football program needed – to get completely whipped by a team that is much better prepared and motivated than the Huskers were. Perhaps this is just what was needed to expose the serious problems in the Husker camp.
Sure, there were signs. There were Jammal Lord-knows-how-many Husker fans complaining loudly on radio call-in shows and Husker internet sites about what they were seeing, even though Nebraska started its season winning four of five games. Some were bracing for a beating at Missouri, but did anyone in his wildest dreams thought the Huskers would lose by five touchdowns?
So this is how we celebrate the 10th anniversary of “The Catch” and the 1997 national championship.
Matt Davison was dead-on in 1997, grabbing the fluttering football inches off the turf in the Missouri end zone on the final play of regulation, allowing the Huskers to stay alive on their drive to the national championship. He’s dead-on now as a commentator on the Husker Sports Network. He said what Callahan should have said after the game. Davison called the loss “an embarrassment,” and “unacceptable.”
“There’s no leadership,” he said on the air after the game. “What’s going on in the locker room right now? What’s going to go on at practice tomorrow? There is no attitude. What is this team about?”
That’s on Callahan, too.
Sam Keller, the new kid on the block, has tried. He accepted a spot on the scout team last year and won the starting quarterback spot. He has tried to give a lift to the rest of the team on numerous occasions this year. He has become the spokesman for the Huskers.
It’s time for the rest of Nebraska’s seniors to give Keller a little help. It’s time for Callahan to make that very clear. But I really wonder whether he will.
Callahan’s postgame radio show with NU play-by-play man Jim Rose was flat, with a total lack of emotion. It reminded me a lot of the way Callahan’s team had just performed on the field.
Last December, after NU lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, Callahan apologized to the Nebraska fans. He owed them much more of an apology after this one, but none was forthcoming. He had nothing to say about emotion. He had very little to say about motivation. He talked about problems with third-down conversions and said that his staff would have to do a better job of preparing next week. There was nothing in his demeanor that showed he was disappointed by the loss.
Conversely, you could tell that his loss tore Davison’s guts out. Bless his heart.
I wonder if anyone on Callahan’s staff feels that way. I would like to believe that they do. I do know that defensive backs Coach Phil Elmassian told a Big Red Breakfast crowd last Friday that “sacks are overrated.” Now I’m just hoping that Shawn Watson or Randy Jordan have not told the Husker offense that “touchdowns are overrated.”
Earlier in the evening, Davison was interviewed by the ESPN coverage team, and he took the opportunity to talk about Nebraska’s lack of chemistry and camaraderie. “There’s something missing,” he said. “The athleticism is there.” He told the ESPN audience that the Huskers are not playing well together. “I don’t think they believe in each other.”
Missouri smacked Nebraska in the face with two quick touchdowns, and even though the NU offense did not answer, the Huskers were still in position to make a game of it in the second half. But this Nebraska team had nothing in the tank.
The extent of the Huskers’ second-half surrender was embarrassing. A team with Nebraska’s history fights back, but this 2007 edition did not, at least not on this night. The Huskers were flat-out whipped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Early in the third quarter, the NU radio team tried to will Nebraska not to quit, but to no avail. The Huskers quickly sank beneath the waves on the first two drives in the third quarter. Then Rose started wishing out loud that NU would at least get some first downs to shorten the game.
There was no real surprise in the way Missouri moved the ball for 606 yards against a suspect Nebraska defense. The shocker was scoring no touchdowns against a suspect Missouri defense. The stunner was a proud football program’s inability to respond, to compete.
There is enough blame to spread to everyone, but a big part of the problem is rooted in the offensive line, which frankly showed ominous signs of weakness earlier in the season. Nebraska absolutely could not run the ball, could not convert on third-and-short situations. This should not be happening, not in the fourth year of the Callahan era, not with the amount of experience that NU has in center Brett Byford, tackles Carl Nicks and Lydon Murtha and guard Matt Slauson.
Nebraska offensive line appears to have caught the same backpedaling mindset that the Blackshirts have exhibited for much of the season. Callahan watched it unfold with a blank expression on his face and made his only statement by allowing his veteran first-string line play it out to the ugly end. The payoff? A paltry 74 rushing yards and only 297 total yards against a Missouri defense that went into the game rated No. 93 in total defense and No. 104 against the pass.
Callahan, an old offensive line coach, has a lot of problems to solve. One of the biggest: his o-line coach, Dennis Wagner, is not getting the job done.
When Steve Pederson fired Frank Solich after a 9-3 season in 2003, he could point to three embarrassing losses (at Missouri, at Texas and at home against Kansas State) which showed that the Huskers may well have been gravitating toward mediocrity. But this loss was worse than any of those.
Those losses showed that Solich was falling behind in recruiting top athletes. But this loss – which was worse than any of the three in 2003 – is more evidence that Callahan, who has recruited a lot of top-notch athletes, is having a world of trouble getting them to play well together.
Callahan appeared to be making progress last season, but something has gone seriously wrong. Few fair-minded Husker fans would hold a hard-fought loss to a good Missouri team against the Nebraska coach – at least, not after they cooled off a little. But this meltdown is a far different thing.
Now Callahan is at the crossroads. Will he or will he not be able to develop some leadership and teamwork on this edition of the Huskers? It’s hard to tell how seriously Pederson is taking this problem, but something tells me that the Husker Nation will keep reminding him of it.