What’s wrong with Nebraska football and can it be fixed?

(Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports)
(Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports) /

As I walked out of Memorial Stadium on Saturday after Minnesota beat Nebraska for the fourth straight year, I asked myself (for probably the hundredth time): What’s wrong with Nebraska football?

Everyone has an opinion. Coaching acumen, scheme, talent, personnel groupings, strength and conditioning, and so on.

Some people just think Nebraska football is just plain cursed. (That may be me.)

Is there one thing we can put our finger on?

What’s Wrong With Nebraska Football?

The problem with Nebraska football right now–really since Frank Solich was fired–is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s like a struggling adolescent that goes Goth one day and Preppy the next to impress classmates they’re not even sure they like.

Nebraska has no identity.

Or worse, it doesn’t believe in the identity it has, so everyone panics under pressure. Caleb Tannor’s comments in the postgame perhaps revealed that.

What’s doubly worse: sometimes Nebraska doesn’t have an identity or belief in the same game. In the same quarter. Or even in the same drive.

Isn’t it maddening?

That may not be a problem in other leagues like the AAC, the MAC, heck, even the Pac-12. Talent and scheme can win you every game in those leagues. But the Big Ten? You’ll get found out. It’s a grown-man conference. It’s ruthless. No gimme games. No easy series. No fluff downs. It’s black and blue and blood red all over.

Every team knows who it is and they believe it with conviction.

You had better know who you are and believe it if you want to win.

Since Nebraska’s been a Big Ten member, they’ve consistently pretended like this isn’t the universe they play football in.

That was never more evident than on Saturday. Something has to change.

Minnesota Showed Nebraska What It Can (and Should) Be

Nebraska fans don’t want to be like Minnesota. I don’t want Nebraska to be like Minnesota. As a fan, if I want to fix what’s wrong with Nebraska football, I’m not looking for pithy sayings.

But I am looking for an identity.

Minnesota has one and believes in it.

In the first half, Minnesota’s game plan was stymied by a fantastic Husker defensive effort. But here’s the thing: Minnesota believes enough in who they are to commit to it when the game is still in doubt.

Minnesota played tough, mistake-free football and committed to their power run game. This is what they do. Every. Single. Game. The Gophers continued to feed their workhorse, Mo Ibrahim, who rushed for 128 yards on 32 carries.

They didn’t panic. They stayed the course. And it paid off.

It made me wonder. What if the Nebraska football team took a “black and blue and red” approach? What if they tried to out-Minnesota Minnesota? Would it have changed the game? Could it change their future?

YES. A thousand times, YES.

You know, they used that recipe once against a Big Ten opponent. Ironically, it was the last game of their first year in the conference. Against, of all teams, Iowa.

The “Rex Burkhead Game”

At the beginning of Thanksgiving week 2011, Rex Burkhead wore a walking boot on his right foot. He missed a couple of days of practice. Coaches and fans wondered if he’d even play.

By Black Friday, Rex Burkhead was superman.

If you know anything about Husker history, you know this game as “The Rex Burkhead Game.”

It was a dreary, cold day. The first Heroes Trophy game between the two border schools. And the typically electric Taylor Martinez tweaked an old ankle injury early in the game. He functionally played like a second or third-string QB. He ran the ball 4 times and threw 22 passes.

The best strategy to win became obvious.

Feed Rex.

Burkhead had a school-record 38 carries and one touchdown. He single-handedly crushed Iowa’s will. Not because of yards (he only had 160) or explosive plays (his long was 14 yards).

But because, like a heavyweight champ, he kept getting back up. Carry after carry after carry.

The great Nebraska teams, and even just the good ones, had grit. Grit comes from carrying out a trusted process so much that it becomes second nature. When there’s a snag, you don’t get derailed. You keep churning. That’s grit.

Eventually, that grittiness produces a cutthroat killer instinct that sucks the life out of an opponent.

This doesn’t accidentally happen. Great coaches create this.

Identity. Belief. Grit. Rinse and repeat.

It’s what Nebraska needs. Can Athletic Director Trev Alberts find it?

Can What’s Wrong With Nebraska Football Be Fixed?

Mickey Joseph and Mark Whipple could have done themselves–and all of Husker Nation–a favor by having their own “Rex Burkhead” game. They could have fed Anthony Grant. (Just look at Grant, by the way. My gosh. He was born to carry the football 38 times a game.)

Instead…well, you know what they did instead.

They did exactly what’s wrong with Nebraska football.

This goes beyond one game, of course. And this isn’t about saying Nebraska should go back to the triple option. Sure, maybe “Run the Ball” guy would have been justified had Nebraska won.

But beating an average Minnesota team doesn’t wipe away two decades of identity-less football.

The right kind of victory, however, where the identity was clear and belief was palpable, could have inspired hope. It could have signaled change. It could have moved the program forward, even an inch.

Instead, for Nebraska footbal yet again, it was a giant step back.