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Archive for Saturday, October 26, 2002

Huskers feeling like creamed corn

Nebraska enduring worst season in decades

October 26, 2002

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Nebraska fans already in a panic after a 5-3 start should heed the words of former Cornhuskers assistant Jim Walden.

"It's going to get worse," he said, "before it gets better."

Walden coached at Nebraska from 1969 to 72 and faced the Huskers eight times as a head coach at Iowa State. He looked at the remainder of Nebraska's schedule and said darker days are ahead.

"The (five wins) they have right now, that might be about it," said Walden, who is retired. "I could see them beating Kansas and maybe Colorado, because of the emotions from last year, but I don't see them beating those other schools, the way they've been playing."

Up next is a game today at Texas A&M, and the road is where Nebraska has struggled most. The Huskers have lost their last five games away from Lincoln. Also ahead are games against three ranked teams: No. 7 Texas, No. 20 Kansas State and No. 21 Colorado.

Earlier this season, Nebraska saw its streak of being ranked in the AP poll for 348 weeks end. After losing to unranked Oklahoma State last week, another streak of 33 seasons with at least nine wins is in jeopardy. Even the NCAA-record streak of 40 winning seasons could be in doubt.

No longers contenders

This season is unlike any in 41 years at Nebraska. The Huskers hadn't lost three games before November since 1961, the year before Bob Devaney took over as coach and started Nebraska's run of dominance.

Just last season, the Cornhuskers played in the national championship game. How they became so average, so quickly is a question with many answers. No other program in college football has been so good for so long, but it appears that a number of issues have finally caught up to Nebraska.

"It is a little disheartening," defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "The most unsuspecting thing can jump up and slap you in the face, and I think that's what's happening."

After three national titles in the 1990s, all under former coach Tom Osborne, mediocrity is unacceptable but probably inevitable. The Huskers have five games left, three of them against ranked teams.

After losing to Oklahoma State last week, the Huskers are still talking about going to a bowl. Not the Fiesta Bowl. Any bowl.

"The goals at Nebraska are pretty lofty when you start out the year," coach Frank Solich said. "There's no question when you look at some of the goals that we have put down for ourselves, that we put ourselves in position not to meet some of those. We do have to readjust some goals."

Other adjustments remain to be seen. In five seasons since replacing the revered Osborne, Solich is 47-12, a .797 winning percentage. But the standard set by Osborne isn't just wins, but national titles.

Solich will survive

Solich will apparently survive this season, but the drumbeat has grown deafening for defensive coordinator Craig Bohl. That drumbeat began with last season's 62-36 loss to Colorado and continued through a humbling bowl loss to Miami and back-to-back losses to Penn State and Iowa State this season.

Statistically, the Huskers are still a good team. They rank sixth in the nation in rushing offense and 40th in total defense. Their special teams are among the nation's best.

Walden said the Huskers are suffering through a dip in overall talent. Nebraska has plenty of good players, he said, but not enough experienced, elite-level players to push the Huskers into contention.

Nebraska still operates an old-style option offense based on a power running game. For the last few seasons, that offense was sustained by quarterback Eric Crouch, a superior athlete who won the Heisman Trophy last season, and offensive linemen such as Dominic Raiola and Toniu Fonoti, who both left early for the NFL draft.

"People have concentrated on speed on defense," said former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt. "I think when you have concentrated on speed and get all these fast guys on defense, it's a lot harder to run the option."

Lord struggling

Crouch was succeeded this season by Jammal Lord, who isn't near the runner Crouch was and is even less of a passer. Lord scored four touchdowns against Utah State and had 369 yards of offense against McNeese State but has yet to be a difference-maker against quality opponents.

The other key position in the Nebraska backfield, the I-back, has been occupied by straight-ahead, power runners in recent years. The Huskers haven't had a true breakaway I-back since Ahman Green in 1997 and haven't had an All-American I-back since Mike Rozier in 1983.

Nebraska averaged a first-round draft pick per year in 1991-98 but has had none since. Texas has had five first-rounders and Oklahoma two in that time.

"We have talent, but much of it is young talent, so what that will translate to remains to be seen," Solich said. "It is a conference where you've got to continually bring in talent. You've got to be ready to play young players in this day and age, so everybody to some degree is going to be dealing with some inexperience, but we're probably dealing with more inexperience than we've dealt with for many, many years."

Nebraska is playing five freshmen this season, including I-back David Horne, who is sharing carries with senior Dahrran Diedrick.

Recruiting woes

The Huskers lost good recruiters in the retired Osbrone and former assistant Kevin Steele, who became the head coach at Baylor. Nebraska lists just three players each from two of the hottest recruiting states, Florida and California, and 11 from Texas.

Contrast that with Iowa State, which has 42 Texans, Floridians and Californians.

Nebraska prides itself on developing home-grown talent and turning walk-ons into starters. There are 82 players from Nebraska, many of them walk-ons.

There are 11 Nebraskans on the first team, and seven walk-ons have started.

However, Nebraska ranks 38th among the states in population with 1.7 million people. The number of legitimate, Division I recruits the state produces each year cannot sustain a top-10 program.

In the region, Colorado, Iowa and Iowa State are Top 25 programs, which should make it harder for Nebraska to cherry-pick from those states.

NU is recruiting from a smaller talent pool than under Osborne. Big 12 rules allow only one partial academic qualifier a year, and no nonqualifiers.

In the mid 1990s, when Nebraska was winning national titles, the Huskers had as many as eight starters who didn't qualify academically.

With decades of uninterrupted success and a staff with 152 years of combined experience at Nebraska, none of the recruiting issues were seen as major problems heading into the season.

"The thing that's been a little surprising is coming off of spring ball, I felt good about a lot of things," Solich said. "There was a feeling by everybody that, if approached properly and handled well, we could get done what we wanted to get done. That has not all transpired.

"We didn't know entering the season we were going to be dealing with the somewhat of an unknown in dealing with more inexperience than we've faced in a long time."

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