This is what we call “progress” as we approach the end of the Bill Callahan era at the University of Nebraska.
The Nebraska football program is in such a hole that one good half of football seems like a hopeful sign. Losing by only 22 points at home seems like a step forward.
The Huskers showed some flickering signs of life in the first half of their 36-14 loss to Texas A&M at Memorial Stadium, but this is still a very sick football team. And this is not a good coaching staff.
Cornhusker fans were so encouraged to have Tom Osborne return to the program this week that they almost ignored the fact there was a game coming up. Well, on Saturday against Texas A&M, it became clear to the entire state that Osborne had taken over as interim athletic director, not as head coach. The Huskers are 4-4 and spiraling downward. It looks like Callahan is going to ride this airplane right into the ground, because his $3 million golden parachute won’t unfurl until after the season ends.
Let’s look at the positive signs, since Husker fans have been desperately seeking them for weeks now. There was a change on offense. Callahan allowed Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson to join him on the sidelines, apparently to take a more active role in playcalling, although at halftime, Callahan told the Nebraska Sports Network that Watson was actually continuing to work together with him on playcalling, just as he had done in the past.
Whatever. It seemed to work at times in the first half. The Huskers ran some sequences of plays that seemed to have A&M confused, but in the second half, Callahan and Watson returned to panic mode.
That brings us to another positive sign. Nebraska is slowly developing a decent running game. The problem is that Callahan seems scared to death to use it. Freshman Quentin Castille is the future of the Husker offense, and his fellow freshman Roy Helu has shown flashes of excellence at times, but whenever the Husker get behind, Callahan abandons the run, turning to what has degenerated into a dink-and-dunk passing game. With the Huskers trailing 30-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter, NU faced a third-and-3 from the Aggie 7-yard line. Callahan tried two passes, when ended in a sack and an incompletion. Game over.
It could have been so much better. The Huskers spotted the Aggies a 6-0 lead, then came back to lead 7-6 when freshman Quentin Castille scored on a 3-yard run with 6:32 left in the first quarter. The fans were roaring. Intensity had returned to Memorial Stadium. Sam Keller hit Maurice Purify on a 10-yard scoring pass late in the second quarter, and although Nebraska committed two turnovers, it trailed only 16-14 at halftime.
The Huskers had outgained A&M 284-210 at halftime, and had 106 yards rushing. There was hope. There was also a danger sign. The Aggies had 152 yards rushing at halftime. So the Huskers put eight or nine players in the box in the second half and force them to use their anemic passing game, right?
Wrong. Kevin Cosgrove, seemingly operating on autopilot, kept the Huskers in their base 4-3 pretty much throughout the second half and watched while quarterback Stephen McGee and 260-pound running back Jevorskie Lane used the read option to pound his defense into mincemeat, taking control of the game with two long ball-control drives to start the second half.
Note to State Attorney General and Senate hopeful Jon Bruning: is it a felony in Nebraska to impersonate a defensive coordinator?
Somebody needs to remind Callahan that Keller is not going to make all-conference this year, so he might as well give Joe Ganz a try. Keller has competed hard this year, but frankly has not been a difference-maker. Early in the fourth quarter, he appeared to have been knocked woozy. Callahan kept him in the entire game. Why the utter unwillingness to play Ganz in three consecutive blowout losses?
This was termed the “Buyout Bowl” in some quarters because Dennis Franchione and Callahan both are reportedly on the way out. Franchione may have bought himself some more time now that A&M is tied for first with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 South. The same cannot be said for Callahan.
A lot of programs are getting well this year against Callahan, who is 26-19 overall and 14-14 in the Big 12 since replacing Frank Solich. Callahan is a real threat to coach the Huskers to their second losing record in four years. Nobody else has done that since Bill Jennings, another good recruiter who had trouble utilizing his players once they got on campus.
Is there another Devaney waiting in the wings to take a bunch of talented players and restart the Husker football program? Osborne said he will be evaluating the NU program during the final month of the season. Is he scanning the horizon right now for a new direction?