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The Dark Path Back to the Light- New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon


  • The Long, Dark Path Back to the Light - New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon

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    The Long, Dark Path Back to the Light - New BHF Editorial by Mark Solomon

    "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base."

    - Excerpt from General George S. Patton''s address to the 6th Armored Division, May 31, 1944

    It wouldn't take much more than substituting "Nebraskans for Americans" and "Football for Battle" to create a pretty damned accurate description of Husker football, 1962 through 1997, perhaps even through about 2001, to wit:

    "Nebraskans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Nebraskans play to win all the time. The very thought of losing is hateful to Nebraskans. Football is the most significant competition in which a young man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base."
    Overstated? Overheated

    Maybe, if you've never looked at the world from the concave side of a face mask, but if you have, it's not at all outlandish. Applied to a program with Nebraska's history, during that long period of excellence, and it may well be a gross understatement.

    Why do I bring this up?

    Well, the day after Thanksgiving, I saw the most gutless performance I've ever seen out of a Nebraska football team since 2007, and with the exception of that accursed, hellish year, it was the most gutless EVER.

    They made a very ordinary Iowa football team a team with no better, and very arguably less overall talent than Nebraska - look like National Title contenders.

    It wasn't that nightmarish game that provoked me to try to dig out some nugget of Truth to explain or diagnose what the hell is wrong with the Nebraska football program.

    Oh, I watched the damned thing through again, and it was even more nauseating the second time around. I jotted down about 3/4 of a page of notes on a yellow legal pad before the first quarter was over, and the notes were already getting redundant.

    This isn't an Xs and Os problem; not entirely, anyway. There are problems, but they're fixable. It isn't even a "Jimmys and Joes" problem, in terms of athletic ability or talent.

    No, it wasn't watching the game that provided me with any particular revelations.

    It was the post-game press conferences, both immediately after the game, and in the weeks before they traveled to Nashville for the Music City Bowl to face Tennessee.

    And it was weird, because I was watching the streaming feed online immediately after the game, when a friend of mine called to commiserate a bit over the loss, and when I went to pause the stream, I missed, and muted it instead. As I talked with my buddy, I was watching the pressers with no sound, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

    No one was angry.

    There was no set jaw, no flinty stare, no furrowed brows.

    There was no outrage, no SHAME at having played such an embarrassingly half-assed game on a day when there was still a possibility of winning the West Division of the Big Ten Conference.

    Try it. The vids are still available on the Omaha World Herald and Lincoln Journal Star websites. Shut down the sound, and watch their faces, their body language. They're OK with losing, only 20 minutes after the game. Not three days or a week afterward, but a shower and a change of clothes afterward.

    Would you EVER have seen Grant Wistrom so blase about a loss -' ANY loss - let alone a de-pantsed, bare-butt whipping like that? How about Mike Brown? Tommie Frazier? Mike Knox? Either of the Peter brothers? Zach Weigert? John Parella? (I wish they'd have brought him to the press pool for a word, even now, as a Coach). Pick your favorite heart-and-soul player from the 70s, 80s, or 90s.

    The press would have had to have approached them like the wounded animals they were at that moment, and would have been lucky to milk two paragraphs out of any of them. Any one of those players from all those decades would have wanted to go right from the Lincoln Airport to the practice field THAT NIGHT.

    They would have been ashamed. They would have been embarrassed.

    They would have been angry beyond all description.

    And that attitude is why there were so very, very few instances where they lost at all, let alone in a manner that could have been called embarrassing?

    And yet, there was Josh Banderas, an annoying little smirk on his face, talking about how close they were, how it was just little things.

    I have news for Josh; a little over three quarters of the Earth is covered in water, and those oceans started with lots of little raindrops.

    No, it was a LOT of little things from too many players on virtually every play.

    Things like a Senior Middle Linebacker and a Senior Safety BOTH badly over-running a simple stretch play, leaving a gaping cutback lane for Iowa Running Back Akrum Wadley a solid, not spectacular back to dash 75 yards untouched for Iowa's first touchdown.

    Things like a near-complete lack of tackling, open field or at the point of attack.

    Things like allowing Iowa so many explosive plays that their 3-of-13 on third down conversions were enough for the afternoon coupled with NU's inability to stop any of three 4th-down attempts.

    Things like an offensive line that couldn't block sunshine, to an extent even their myriad injuries could not have justified.

    It was a gutless, effort-free, cowardly performance, start-to-finish, and a slap in the face of a handful of lions who DID give it their all, only to be utterly betrayed by their brothers.

    This, from a team that I'd called brawlers throughout most of the season, as they stood in and fought time and again, willing victories through sheer effort and desire for the first two thirds of the season.

    I watched a couple of those games since Thanksgiving, just to cleanse my palate a bit, and I stand by my assessment and admiration for these players and Coaches for those performances.

    Which is what makes the Iowa debacle all the more upsetting and disappointing.

    It was Boulder 2001 all over again, except the players in 2001 had the good grace to be visibly upset and angry with their performance afterward.

    And yes, it probably goes back a long, long way in its making, this meek acceptance of losing, perhaps with its roots in that dark Black Fridayť of 2001.

    I would hope such a devolution didn't occur overnight.

    I re-watched the interviews again, this time with the sound on.

    There were a lot of platitudes and a lot of repetition of the right things being said, but all of it was bloodless, soulless, and meaningless, because there was no passion. There was no pride.

    You can always tell when there is no pride, because there is also no shame.

    There was also the now-infamous line by NU Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker, where, commenting on Iowa's physical play in the immediate post-game interview, he remarked "I bet their practices are like a bloodbath, because both sides of the ball kind of emulate that."

    He tried to walk it back, of course, saying "I was giving Iowa credit. I was complimenting the opponent." He insisted that he wasn't drawing a comparison to Nebraska's practices, asserting that NU practices hard.

    His original remark was a moment of unguarded truth. Iowa was far more physical than Nebraska, and Banker knew damned well why. The walk-back remarks could charitably be called coach speak, or accurately called what they are: lies.

    That may seem harsh, but you need only look at what happened after that horrific game. Coach Riley, to his credit, fired the ineffective and overpaid Special Teams Coordinatorť Bruce Read within 48 hours, and then the Huskers spent 12 of 15 days practicing, with more full contact than any of the Nebraska Sports media had ever seen out of Riley's teams.

    I don't blame Banker, really. I'm sure he was just trying to save a little face for his players an impossible task, but it was BS borne of loyalty.

    You see, you don't make a remark like that if a bloodbath is what you call Tuesday practiceť for your own team, because such intensity wouldn't be at all surprising or out of the ordinary for you. You make the remark when you were caught flat-footed, and got embarrassed for it.

    If the reports of the Bowl practices were true and it was a wide and consistent consensus among all print, radio, and television media then hard lessons were learned at Iowa and taken to heart in Lincoln.

    Once again, this speaks very well of Mike Riley.

    It took integrity to fire an old friend and colleague.

    And I don't think it was running scaredť for him to have adopted a more physical regimen following the beatdown in Iowa City, as some have whispered. I think it was courageous, as the old dogť isn't averse to learning new tricks.

    Whipped dogs cower; pissed off dogs come out fighting.

    I also saw a BTN special that showed Head Coach Urban Meyer addressing his Ohio State squad at an early fall practice.

    He was loud, almost shouting, but definitely emphatic in making his point.

    "You didn't come to Ohio State to be average. I didn't recruit you to Columbus to be average. To HELL with average".

    Tom Osborne would have stated it a bit more gently or had Charlie McBride deliver the message with even a little more mustard but that was the attitude that used to permeate the Husker program, to the point where it was as natural in Lincoln as snow in January.

    I've talked about anger and shame, but also of pride and honor. You only notice the radiance of the latter by the contrast the darkness of the former provide.

    Losing is a hateful, hollow, rotting feeling, and the only end to it comes with winning. It's an old saw in athletics that winning cures all, and it's endured to the point of being a cliche because it's absolutely true.

    Before the Nebraska football team can win again, at the same sort of clip it did for so many years, it must first learn to detest its own failures and shortcomings to absolutely refuse to shrug them off easily.

    I'm not suggesting that Sackcloth and Ashes should replace Scarlet and Cream, but the cold emptiness of losing should never be acceptable or comfortable, even if you're just passing through. It must be almost as repugnant as the grave, and avoiding it should be as essential as air, food, and water.

    Is that an exaggeration? Not really; not if you want it to become part of the team's DNA. That's how deep it has to reach. That's how integral and ingrained it must be, because if it's a part of you, it's always at hand. If it's in every breath, it colors every moment, and makes those moments useful to the purpose at hand: winning.

    Vince Lombardi had it right: "Winning isn't everything; it's the ONLY thing".

    That's why we always keep score. ALWAYS.

    It may mean fighting political correctness and risking the unearned self-esteem so common in modern youth. It may bruise some tender egos and challenge some delicate sensibilities, but the hardest, most durable steel is forged in the hottest forge, and the only way to keep it flexible and away from going brittle is to beat it relentlessly until it is transformed.

    So it is with the young men who eventually excel in this beautiful, brutal game. The best are willing to bleed for it, day in, day out. They know their suffering builds strength. They know that their hatred of failure only makes success all the sweeter.

    They know that the darkness makes the light all the brighter.

    A team that can't be beat WON'T be beat.

    It's time Nebraska''s football team - players and Coaches alike - started doing what is necessary to make those more than mere words shouted mindlessly before a game.

    It won't happen with ineffective and expensive Coaches. Mike Riley obviously understands this.

    It won't happen with team captains who don't bother to go to class, and mail in the student part of student-athlete the entirety of their final semester.

    Nate Gerry should be ashamed of himself. His teammates expressed support for him publicly, but I sincerely hope that at least some of them called a spade a spade in private, because he BETRAYED his team. He stole the last semester of his scholarship from the University, and he dishonored himself and his family, just a couple of weeks after a fawning newspaper piece extolling their indefatigable work ethic and determination.

    He'll play on Sundays, I suspect, because he is a very talented football player - arguably the best NU had in 2016 - but if I were an NFL General Manager, I'd hammer him relentlessly on the pre-draft questions regarding character and commitment, because he failed his College finals in those categories miserably.

    It isn't a vestige of Bo Pelini, or Bill Callahan, or Frank Solich. It can't just be an artifact of today's generation of athletes - no such problems seem to exist in Tuscaloosa or Columbus or Ann Arbor, after all.

    I suspect it comes from a perfect storm of sorts. The Nebraska Way that used to govern this program came to be taken for granted at some point. It was just assumed that it was a plug and playť proposition, and the price of blood, sweat, and tears was forgotten at some point, perhaps gradually, over years and coaches and the parity of the 85 scholarship limits and the changing Conferences and the money, money, money of Big Time college athletics.

    Nebraskans too often pay lip service to the walk-on program, celebrating the small town Nebraska kid who fights his way up the depth chart to eventually contribute or start, which is of course laudable, but as a whole, the walk-on program serves as an anchor against that perfect storm of change and distraction that I strongly suspect knocked this program off course by degrees over the last 15 years or so. They keep DESIRE alive with a nobility that only those who have to bleed for every inch can exude.

    It's not too late. The Huskers have not fallen so far down the mountain that they cannot still see the peak, and if they can see it, they can start to strive for it starting right now.

    In many ways, the Music City Bowl is the worst of circumstances for Nebraska. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is almost certainly not going to play at all, and his replacement, Ryker Fyfe, is playing with a broken wrist. Running Backs Terrell Newby and Tre Bryant are still dinged up, running behind an offensive line that while healthier than it's been in a couple of months, is still not 100%.

    One of the best 3 or 4 receivers in program history, Jordan Westerkamp, will not play, and another wideout, Alonzo Moore has a shoulder that must look like a lace curtain when x-rayed. Tight End Cethan Carter is still hampered by an unreliable elbow.

    On defense, their most touted defender flunked out of class and won't play, three of its top four linebackers are nicked to one degree or another, and the secondary will be a reshuffled deck.

    Special Teams will be in Beta-Testing on the field, resetting after the ouster of its Coordinator.

    It's a masterpiece of shortcomings, question marks, wild guesses, and blind faith.

    But Tennessee isn't any better overall.

    Their defense was one of the worst in the nation, even when healthy, and they aren't at all healthy, even a month after the season. At least five Volunteer Defensive starters won't be playing tomorrow, leaving NU to face the backups of the starters whose unit stunk on ice the last half of the season, absolutely imploding in the final three games.

    Even Nebraska's depleted Offense should match up well against this brutally ineffective defense.

    If I were scheming for tomorrow Offensive approach, it would start and end with running the ball right at the Volunteers.

    Tennessee will be starting four Defensive Ends across its front, and those in the middle will not be able to hold up over time if NU leans hard on them all afternoon. No stretch plays, no reach blocks nothing to allow speed to compensate. Straight at them HARD. Fullbacks and Whamť blocks with Tight Ends, pulling Guards, if their ankles are finally up to it.

    Just punch them in the mouth, and try to get 4 yards a pop.

    That will allow Ryker Fyfe to play to his strengths, and manage the game, using play action passes and running only when he needs to or Tennessee forgets that he might. He should run tomorrow, but only when its needed or it's wide open, and I'd rather he just get out of bounds every time, if possible, and not risk aggravating that wrist.

    NU will need 2/3 of his passes to connect, and it is imperative that NU does no worse than break even in the turnover ratio.

    If Newby is healthy, he needs 15 or 20 carries, and regardless of his portion, the Huskers need 200 yards rushing out of its running backs tomorrow. Even without Armstrong, this should be doable against Tennessee's defense.

    Whatever it was that landed him in the Coaches' doghouse, Devine Ozigbo needs to chew through his leash and get back in the game. If Bryant is hobbled, then Mikale Wilbon needs to play a clean game in terms of ball security and offer the Huskers the change of pace his unique skillset offers.

    Brandon Reilly has to fill in at slot as he has before this year and that means more than just adequatelyť, NU needs him to break a couple with his speed. Stanley Morgan has to run tight routes and have sticky hands, Cethan Carter needs at least 5 touches, and if Alonzo Moore has anything left to give, he needs to leave it on the field in Nashville tomorrow. Fyfe needs each of them to make one or two 50/50ť balls go the Husker's way.

    There aren't enough healthy stars on offense for NU tomorrow, but there is enough of a TEAM to get the job done. Somewhere between 28 and 35 points should be enough to win this game, regardless.

    Yes, the weaker or more damaged units in this game - NU's Offense vs. Tennessee's Defense - is probably a match-up that Nebraska can win.

    It's the Blackshirts without Nate Gerry and with that beat-up Linebacking corps facing a very mobile quarterback in Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs.

    Dobbs is solid, completing 63% of his passes, with 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He tallies about 220 yards a game through the air and adds another 60 or so on the ground. He's their second leading rusher, and the focus of the entire Volunteer Offense.

    He needs to be the focus of the Nebraska Defense, and Mark Banker's crew needs to make Nissan Stadium look like a bloodbathť tomorrow. Dobbs can be rattled, and he can be goaded into pressing, which could open up some turnover opportunities.

    Tennessee features a big Offensive Line, big, physical receivers, and good speed in the backfield. This will be a tough matchup. The Vols aren't quite on a par with Oregon or Ohio State in terms of speed, but if NU's Linebackers or Safeties false-step or over-react, they're fast enough to make them pay dearly.

    It will be absolutely vital for NU to generate a pass rush with its front four. They aren't likely to get all the way home that often, given Dobbs speed, but they need to keep him from settling in too comfortably.

    The Blackshirts' back seven has to play their best overall game of the season, pure and simple, because the margin for error is very slim. Every point will count, and this is a game where Tennessee could blow it open with only the barest of opportunities. It's also a game where NU's defense could provide short fields and points of its own.

    Special Teams is a wild card.

    Tennessee would hold a clear advantage, if we were to take into account only the regular season we saw out of both teams. But Nebraska's Special Teams are under new management, and we really aren't certain what we'll see schematically, or in terms of personnel deployed in each return or coverage unit.

    So we can't be too sure of much of anything.

    The Vols probably still hold an advantage, but the magnitude may not be all that great.

    NU Punter Caleb Lightbourn needs to first do no harm. His punting has been nothing short of abysmal in 2016, and excuses based on Sam Foltz's passing and the pressure on a true Freshman wore thin about six games ago. He has to come through tomorrow.

    I'm not worried about Drew Brown. If there are points to be had via Field Goal within 42 yards, go ahead and book them.

    The final match-up, which I believe will ultimately decide this game, is one that I've heard almost no one mention.

    Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley versus Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones.

    I've never quite understood the accolades Jones receives. He's solid enough, I suppose, but hardly the kind of coaching acumen that strikes fear into the heart of opponents.

    He did pretty well in the MAC, and then in the Big East, (which is a lateral move, really), but hasn't worked any miracles at Tennessee yet, despite a wealth of talent and money.

    It'll be a home game for Tennessee, and that's pressure on the Vols. If you read a lot of the Tennessee message boards and chat rooms, you'll quickly notice that it isn't a particularly friendly pressure. Whatever home field advantage Tennessee will enjoy at the outset can be taken away quickly, because UT fans aren't exactly brimming with patience for Jones.

    They were expecting to challenge Alabama this year.

    They didn't. At all.

    I think that given 4 weeks, Mike Riley can scheme circles around Butch Jones. For whatever criticisms there might be about Riley as a college Head Coach, he has been excellent in Bowl games, sitting currently at 7-2 overall.

    Riley doesn't have all the Offensive weapons he had at his disposal in last year's Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA, but then the Volunteers have far more exploitable vulnerabilities defensively than did those Bruins.

    This is the leverage point that can propel NU past its own troubles and hurts to win this game.

    The Blackshirts need only maintain a credible Bend, Don't Break posture on the afternoon, and make Tennessee work very hard for every yard, and to suffer for every one of 24 or so points or less.

    Offensively, it's a ground-based, clock-draining attack that would best serve the Huskers. Ryker Fyfe cannot be expected to carry the team on his back in the passing game, but if the rushing game is clicking, key moments CAN be put in his hands, and he'll have opportunities to make his final start very memorable, indeed.

    I'd like to see NU slow-play Tennessee early on, eating up time right out of the gate, shortening the game, and shrinking the number of points necessary with every drive.

    I'd like to see this for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious: if NU only needs 21 or 24 points to win, that's easier than 31 or 35.

    The second, and probably more important reason is that If they see that they're only going to get limited touches, I firmly believe that Tennessee, from Head Coach Butch Jones to Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, will try to do too much too quickly, and open themselves up to an early catastrophic turning point in the game a pick 6, a strip sack, a big hit on Dobbs on the run that forces a fumble and shakes his confidence.

    Riley's been around long enough to see chinks in an opponent's armor. There is a very good chance that he'll see just enough of those to provide just enough opportunities to enable Nebraska to eke out a 10th win in 2016.

    Nebraska 31, Tennessee 27

    After all the darkness of Black Friday in Iowa City, the lights will be particularly bright in the Music City come Saturday night.

    Nebraska can paint the town red.

    Then it's back to Lincoln, to start re-writing the law of averages.
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