I was watching the Nebraska-Kansas football game with some friends, when another man (who is not a Cornhusker fan) came into the house.ďWhatís the score?Ē he asked.
ďNebraskaís behind, 35-21,Ē he was told.
ďThatís not so bad,Ē was his response.
People have dramatically lowered their expectations of the Huskers. Thatís what Bill Callahan has done to the Nebraska football program in four years.
It got worse. A lot worse. By the time the Jayhawks finished forcing turnovers and piling on the points, the final score read Kansas 76, Nebraska 39. It was the most points ever scored against a Nebraska football team, breaking the record set under Callahan and his buddy, Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, in a 70-10 loss to Texas Tech in 2004.
Cosgrove, who used the blitz extensively in a 28-25 loss at Texas the previous week, reverted to his typical read-and-react style, and the defensive unit formerly known as the Blackshirts was mercilessly sliced, diced and chopped for nearly 600 yards by the much-improved Kansas offense under sophomore quarterback Todd Reesing, who played a near-perfect game. More than 70,000 people, plus a regional television audience, stood by and watched while the NU defense bled to death.
At one point, Kansas scored touchdowns on 10 consecutive drives. The Husker defense has forced only one turnover in the last 20 quarters.
This is what Nebraska football has turned into on Callahanís watch.
The Jayhawks are 9-0 for the first time in a century, and Coach Mark Mangino has systematically built a strong contender for the conference title at a place known as a basketball school. Meanwhile, Nebraska is tied for last place in the Big 12 North. The Huskers have the lowest-rated defense (No. 119) in Division I-A football. Nebraskans canít wait for the basketball season to begin, and itís only the first week of November.
In Colorado, the radio station that carries Husker football to the Front Range cut away from the NU-KU contest to broadcast a high school game. Thatís what Bill Callahan has done to Nebraska football.
Nebraska used to be one of the most physical football teams in the nation. Now, the offensive line is best known for backpedaling and the Huskersí front seven on defense gets mauled each week. Who would you vote as the Huskersí most valuable player this year? In my mind, itís a tossup between placekickers Alex Henery (perfect on seven field goal attempts and has made all his extra point tries) and Adi Kunalic (always a threat to boot the ball out of the end zone on a kickoff). Nebraska is no longer a physical football team. What has happened to the NU strength and conditioning program?
Nebraska now has lost five consecutive games for the first time since the Bill Jennings-coached Huskers did it in 1958. With every passing day, Callahan continues to build his own gallows. The question is not whether Tom Osborne will fire Callahan at seasonís end; the question is whether a single one of his assistants will be on hand when spring practice starts next March.
Itís too bad that a courageous performance by quarterback Joe Ganz in his first start was so overshadowed by a mountain of Kansas points. But ultimately, itís Callahanís responsibility. By stubbornly refusing to fire Cosgrove, he has made his offense feel like it has to score 14 points on each drive to stay in the game. Ganz threw four interceptions, but several were caused by the utter predictability of Nebraskaís one-dimensional second-half offense. Callahan abandoned the running game, as he has done so often this season, and the Jayhawk defense was free to rush the quarterback and jump pass routes for interceptions.
Itís obvious that the Big 12 North has improved dramatically this year. There may not be enough talent on this edition of the Huskers to win a title (although they were the preseason pick to win the North), but there was enough to win at least eight games. Rarely has a coaching staff done so little with so much. Callahan, who has brought some fine players into Lincoln, has proven that he is not able to inspire them or get them to play as a team.
The biggest topic of sports conversation around the state will continue to be speculation over who Osborne will hire to replace Callahan. Thatís not fair to the current group of players, but itís the only hopeful thing for NU fans to talk about.
Bill Callahan has created an expectation of defeat as he leads this group of players on a disheartening march to the end of what has to be considered one of the worst seasons in the long, proud history of Nebraska football.