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Steven M. Sipple: Offseason fluff gives way to hard facts

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Monday, Sep 24, 2007 - 12:23:55 am CDT

Football offseason stinks. It’s a detestable period that overflows with fluff stories and college recruiting propaganda. Heaven knows I’ve written my share of fluff stories and fell victim to recruiting propaganda.

Thank heaven for games. Game day is a golden day. Games reveal much of what we need to know about a program. Games inform us about a coaching staff’s organizational skills and attention to detail. Competition tells us about a team’s chemistry.

Throughout the offseason, I became convinced Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan’s program was making significant strides. Now, following two straight utter defensive debacles in Memorial Stadium, it’s only natural to wonder if the Huskers are quickly backsliding after showing signs of forward progress in 2006.

Story Photo
Dante Love of Ball State hauls in a 51 yard pass in the fourth quarter in front of Cortney Grixby of Nebraska. Love had 10 catches for 214 yards. (Michael McNamara)

A question arises: Will Husker fans’ obvious frustrations evolve into measurable apathy at some point soon?

It was telling to hear Nebraska fans lustily booing the Husker defense during a 41-40 win against Ball State on Saturday. That result came on the heels of a 49-31 loss to top-ranked Southern Cal in which the Huskers’ front seven was physically manhandled to a startling degree on national television.

Nebraska’s defense again faltered badly against Ball State, surrendering 610 total yards to a Cardinals outfit that hasn’t had a winning season in 11 years and has never beaten a BCS squad.

Consider this: Ball State’s past three recruiting classes (2005-07) have been ranked Nos. 103, 77 and 79 by Rivals.com. Those classes were devoid of any four- or five-star players and had just five three-star guys combined. By comparison, Nebraska’s last three classes have been ranked Nos. 5, 20 and 13, for whatever it’s worth — which is not much, best I could tell Saturday.

Many Nebraska fans are confused and frustrated, and rightfully so. They hear all about these wonderful Husker recruits throughout the off-seasons, yet the better team (Ball State) lost Saturday. Yes, it sounds crazy, but on that particular day the Cardinals were indeed the better team. Most Husker backers expected greater progress in Callahan’s fourth year.

The Huskers are 3-1, but it’s obviously a shaky 3-1. They’ve shown progress in the passing game (they’re 12th nationally in passing offense and 14th in total offense) and in some areas of special teams. You knew NU still had cracks in the armor. But who knew there were canyon-sized holes on defense?

It could be an interesting week at Memorial Stadium. Hard questions will be asked. No time for fluff. Will Steve Pederson be listening to see how well his coaching staff handles the heat? You hope the coaches handle it better than senior linebacker Steve Octavien, whose frustrations apparently boiled over Saturday during an interview on the Husker Sports Network’s postgame locker room show.

Asked about fan criticism of Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, Octavien said, “We’re not worried about the fans. They can’t play for us. They’re not on the field. We’re the ones putting in the hard work. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to come out and watch the games.”

Octavien is a competitor, hence his harsh reaction. Nebraska’s defense has endured three straight poor outings. Chemistry obviously is lacking, not to mention a consistent pass rush. The Huskers are ranked 111th nationally with three sacks (by way of comparison, Oklahoma has 16 sacks to rank No. 6). NU ranks No. 75 nationally in total defense and No. 99 against the run. Startlingly poor numbers considering the constant recruiting hype.

I thoroughly overestimated the prowess of Nebraska’s front seven. The drop-off in d-line play is meaning more offensive linemen are getting clean shots at linebackers.

Callahan, meanwhile, finds himself in an uncomfortable spot. His friend (Cosgrove) is under fire. The pressure-cooker on Stadium Drive is boiling hot. Coz quickly has to find a way to get his defenders to play with emotion and energy. Do the players believe in his system? Perhaps the Blackshirts will rebound with the same zeal they did following last season’s loss at Oklahoma State. Coz’s boys were strong down the stretch last season.

In some ways, the Ball State game seemed surreal. What has happened to Nebraska? It feels like a “Twilight Zone” on many Saturdays on Stadium Drive anymore. But this stuff is hard, cold reality for NU fans. Fluff time is over. Let the learning continue.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


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