Is Nebraska finally flipping the script in close games under Mickey Joseph?
Remember last year, Nebraska fans? Of course you do.
The continuous close losses and narrow misses. They were weekly occurrences.
Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning. Nebraska won back-to-back league games for the 1st time since 2018 with a 14-13 come-from-behind win at Rutgers. For the 2nd straight week, the Huskers defense pitched a 2nd half shutout.
Forget the ugliness of it all, Nebraska fans. Yes, Friday’s game was hard on the eyes. Mistakes and breakdowns were more common than a campus Fat Sandwich.
However, a win’s a win. Nebraska scratched, clawed and somehow found a way, rallying from a 13-0 halftime deficit. Trey Palmer caught the game-winning TD from Casey Thompson with 8:54 left.
The Cornhuskers (3-3, 2-1 B1G) will take it. Last year they won only 1 Big Ten game. They’re now 2-1 in the league and briefly atop the standings in the B1G West.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph deserves a ton of credit. He inherited a mentally fragile team. One that had serious doubts whether it could win. He even addressed the topic earlier in the week with the local media.
Nebraska HC Mickey Joseph on Mark Whipple’s self belief comments from yesterday: “I think he’s right on. They hadn’t won a lot of games. If you were on this team and you lost nine straight, would you think you can win every game? No, it’s human nature to doubt yourself.” pic.twitter.com/hrOiFDUtXd
— Jimmy Watkins (@JimmyWatkins95) October 5, 2022
In 3 short weeks, you can see the culture changing. Players starting to believe again. The pure joy following true freshman Malcolm Hartzog’s game-clinching interception was unmistakable. You can’t fake it. Guys are having fun again.
Overcoming all the close losses
Nebraska lost 8 of 9 league games in 2021. Seven of those losses were by 1-score. The other was a 26-17 home loss to Ohio State. The Huskers could never get over the hump. The running joke was Scott Frost’s 2021 team was the “best 3-9 team” ever.
2022 started with a 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Dublin. The whispers of “here we go again” began immediately. Players and coaches were walking on egg shells with the weekly speculation about Frost’s job status.
Once athletic director Trev Alberts decided to pull the plug on Frost the day after an embarrassing 45-42 home loss to Georgia Southern, things turned. Sure, the lopsided loss to Oklahoma stung, but ever since, Joseph and his staff have righted the ship. They started with changes in the practice routine. It’s translated to confidence on the field.
For 2 straight weeks, the Huskers have been tied or trailed at the half. They’ve made adjustments and come out on top in both instances. That’s a testament to the coaches and their approach.
A defensive turnaround under Bill Busch
Joseph fired defensive coordinator Erik Chinander following the loss to Oklahoma. It’s a decision he said he made prior to the game. Bill Busch is now in charge, and wow … what a difference.
The Blackshirts are playing faster. More physical. More confidence. They’ve yet to allow a 2nd half point in Nebraska’s 2 conference wins. With the Nebraska offense stuck in neutral for much of the night Friday, Busch’s group carried the load.
Garrett Nelson, the undisputed vocal leader of the unit, tallied a career-high 11 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. Myles Farmer and Brandon Moore each had a pick to go along with Hartzog’s. They forced 7 Rutgers punts.
The players are playing for one another. Rutgers’ 6 offensive possessions in the 2nd half ended in 3 punts and 3 INTs. Kudos to Nelson and his teammates for locking it down over the final 30 minutes.
Garrett Nelson on the emotions on the sideline: "I just have to give credit to my guys. There was six minutes left in the fourth quarter when I went to the defensive guys on the bench and said I don’t know where I’d be without them and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
— Luke Mullin (@LjsLuke) October 8, 2022
Thompson’s winning plays
The Huskers’ training staff will put in overtime this week. Thompson was hit multiple times and took several hard shots. He even had to come out of the game for a bit prior to halftime.
Casey Thompson has just taken a beating. Walking off slowly on his own power with 1:15 to go. Chubba Purdy coming in. O-line pass pro this half needs a word worse than abysmal to describe it.
— Brian Christopherson (@Husker247BC) October 8, 2022
But Thompson’s a warrior. A relentless competitor. He threw a pair of 2nd half TDs — the 1st to Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek. He hung tough in the pocket and made just enough winning plays.
Sure, he has his flaws. He’s not much of a threat to run. At times he makes ill-advised throws.
However, Thompson’s proving, week by week, that he’s a winner. He has guts. And with the offensive line a mess (more on that in Sunday’s column), having guts goes a long ways.
Nebraska was down and out. Thompson didn’t quit. And the offense — led by him — did just enough to find a way. Say what you will about former QB Adrian Martinez, but Martinez had several chances to lead NU to a 4th quarter win. It didn’t happen in 2021. Perhaps the narrative is changing with Thompson at the helm.
Taking on their coach’s persona
You can see the transformation taking place. Nebraska’s becoming a tougher, hard-nosed team by the week. It’s a reflection of their coach. They’re starting to believe.
Joseph played quarterback at Nebraska in the early 1990s. He was undersized, small but mighty. He wasn’t flashy. Just gritty and got the job done. His team is following suit. They’re playing with passion and purpose.
You can’t forget Busch’s role as well. He’s taken a defense that was dead-last in the conference (in several categories) and completely changed its outlook. Without the Blackshirts role reversal, the wins over Indiana and Rutgers don’t happen. Busch has administered a complete overhaul in a short amount of time. You can’t help but tip your cap.
It hasn’t been pretty these past 2 weeks. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is the new Nebraska. Ugly it up and find a way.
For Huskers fans, as long as the wins continue, the complaints should be few and far between.