Out of Line
Nebraska's struggles on offense start up front, at the very position that helped turn the Cornhuskers into a national power
Fans all over the Cornhusker State breathed a sigh of relief last Saturday after Nebraska rallied in the last two minutes to beat Kansas State 27-25. With the victory over the 4-6 Wildcats, the Cornhuskers avoided a fourth straight Big 12 loss and became bowl eligible. At the very least, that is an improvement over last season--the first for coach Bill Callahan and his West Coast offense--when the Huskers finished 5-6 and didn't go to a bowl for the first time since 1968. Still, nobody in Lincoln is ready to start celebrating with a round of Red Beers at Barrymore's just yet.
After 21 games Callahan's offense still hasn't clicked. Formerly coach of the Oakland Raiders, he was hired in January 2004 to open up an attack that had relied too long on the running game; instead the Huskers have had as much trouble running the ball as they have throwing it. Nebraska ranks 106th among the 119 Division I-A programs in total offense. Highly touted quarterback Zac Taylor, a junior college transfer who was knocked out of the Kansas State game with a concussion, has completed only 56.1% of his passes. The injury forced Callahan to burn the redshirt of freshman Harrison Beck, one of the gems in a 2005 recruiting class regarded as one of the nation's best.
"To run a system like the one at Nebraska, you need great skill," says Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who as a defensive assistant at Kansas State and Oklahoma faced the Cornhuskers nine times from 1992 through 2003. "It's more than just a quarterback. If you were a top 100 receiver, you weren't at Nebraska three years ago. They went a whole 360, and it's going to take a great deal of time and patience."
However, patience isn't a Nebraska fan's virtue. Callahan's predecessor, Frank Solich, was fired in late 2003 after finishing the regular season 9-3. ( Nebraska then beat Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.) The explanation was that Solich, a long-time assistant under Tom Osborne, wasn't recruiting the type of athlete Nebraska needed to vie for the national championship. Enter Callahan. His first season was marked by a 70-10 loss to Texas Tech, and two weeks ago Kansas snapped a 36-game losing streak to the Huskers with a 40-15 victory.
Nebraska's problems start up front. Once the pride of a program that led the nation in rushing 15 times from 1962 through 2003, the line this year starts two freshmen at the tackles. Huskers running backs are averaging only 2.6 yards a carry, and while the 93 yards gained on the ground against Kansas State would usually be considered meager by Nebraska standards, consider that in the previous three games the Huskers rushed for -2, 16 and 21 yards, against Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, respectively. Taylor was also sacked nine times against Oklahoma.
Many of the program's outstanding lines of the past were built with homegrown talent. From '62 through '03, 10 of the Cornhuskers' 28 All-America offensive linemen hailed from Nebraska. One source for that talent was the team's unique walk-on program, which often swelled the roster to as many as 170 players. Yet one of the first things Callahan did when he took over was to scale back the program to a more "manageable" number, putting the roster limit today at about 100.
The coach also hasn't helped his cause with a demeanor that many see as condescending, as well as a couple of well-publicized gaffes. After losing to Oklahoma last year, he referred to Sooners fans as "f------ hillbillies" (his response to being pelted with oranges), and during a game against Oklahoma this year he was caught by a TV camera making a throat-slash gesture after arguing with a referee. Though he denied the gesture was a throat slash, he was reprimanded by the Big 12.
Is his job in danger? Not yet. Athletic director Steve Pederson said recently he is encouraged by the progress the program is making. Callahan already has commitments from a handful of highly regarded recruits, including Josh Freeman, a 6'6", 231-pound quarterback from Grandview, Mo. Callahan says that all he and his system need is time. That's hard to come by in a state with anxious fans.