For decades, that simple red “N” stood for something. A style. An intent. A promise.
Physicality. Speed. Laterals. Power. Execution. Purpose. Rage. Absolute self-confidence. Quarterbacks you can’t tackle, tailbacks you can’t catch, centers you can’t shake, and defensive ends you can’t block.
The N on Nebraska’s helmet was three-and-a-half hours of having your manhood tested, of having your resolve pounded into powder, then scattered to the four winds.
The N meant it was time to buckle your freaking chin straps. The N said, We’re invading your backyard and we’re bringing the whole dang state with us.
It’s still the backyard invasion, still the whole dang state. But after that …
“Boy,” Dan Shonka, GM with Ourlads’ NFL scouting, said with a laugh. “That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t know. I really don’t know what their identity is.
“They used to have a real physical team. I don’t think they’re that anymore. Their defense is very physical and their front seven [was] when [Bill] Callahan was there, and [Bo] Pelini. It’s just … they’ve got some good athletes and everything, but I don’t know what they’re trying to establish.”
And that’s kind of the rub, isn’t it?
‘I don’t want to be Wisconsin’
Michigan is khakis, old-school specs, and winged helmets. Ohio State, which visits Lincoln for a prime-time showdown this weekend, is Urban Meyer and Buckeye leaves, the perfect marriage of old-school hubris and new-school badass. Wisconsin is the fourth-quarter stat line of last Saturday’s 38-17 victory at Memorial Stadium, a concrete manifesto: 22 carries, 125 rushing yards; just 17 yards allowed; and 13 minutes and 16 seconds with the rock in their collective mitts.
Nebraska is … ummm ….
“I don’t want to be Wisconsin,” Huskers guard Jerald Foster had noted late Saturday. “I’m Nebraska. But that’s simple enough to say. I don’t want to be them. I believe in what we have with our quarterback. He’s a gunslinger, so in the sense of him being able to do what he does, I don’t want us just to be running the ball the whole time.
“We have great backs, definitely. But being able to have two parts to the game — being able to run it, being able to pass it, at the same time, is how you become an A-list team. And I’m not saying Wisconsin’s not. That’s their identity, that’s something that they stick to.”
What’s your identity, then?
Air Big Red?
Chuck and duck?
‘There are times I wish they’d bring Frank Solich back.’
— Former NFL scout and Ourlads GM Dan Shonka on Nebraska’s identity
“Well that one thing about Wisconsin is, they know what they are,” Shonka countered. “They’re a zone-blocking team, and just like Iowa, they’re I-formation oriented. They run a pro-style offense and they get tough kids up front and they’ve got linebackers who can play with anybody. Wisconsin at linebacker, [the Badgers] were 3-deep last year before they got everybody hurt, and it’s amazing how many good linebackers they have back there.
“The state produces big offensive linemen and a few big defensive linemen, but they know exactly what they are and [coach-turned-athletic director] Barry Alvarez brought that in there years and years ago. And when he hired guys, he knew exactly what he wanted and he’s been [consistent] with that all the way through.
“Bob Devaney’s not here. They have to have that guy, that football guy that can steer the ship … It’s not an overnight fix.”
It’s not, and it also goes to part of what’s been eating at loyal Huskers fans for more than a decade now. Nebraska faithful want their football to be entertaining, fundamentally sound, and nationally relevant — but not necessarily in that order.
If boring means 11-1 or 12-0, boring works better than a sexy, undisciplined and reckless approach that consistently lands at 7-5 or 8-4.
“The recruiting results have spoken for themselves,” offered Allen Trieu, Midwest football recruiting manager with Scout.com. “Now I think everyone wants to see them take the next step and challenge for, at least, their half of the conference.”
The N, the brand, still sells. It still plays on TV, still has a mystique to prospective parents and recruits.
But what’s the mission statement?
Wisconsin: Power offense. Attacking 3-4 defense.
Nebraska: Multiple, pro-style offense. Still learning the 3-4 defense.
The Badgers don’t care if you’ve got a good idea what’s coming — they dare you to cowboy up and stop it.
Hang on a minute.
Doesn’t that sound like an awful lot like a program we used to know?
“I don’t know,” Shonka said. “There are times I wish they’d bring Frank Solich back. I think that Callahan did a good job there. His problem was he was very loyal to a couple of assistants that were not very good. Because they left a lot of talent for Pelini, including [Ndamukong] Suh, and they were loaded with athletes after they were switching over to the West Coast offense …
“The A.D. [Shawn Eichorst, who was fired last month] went the opposite [from] the personality Pelini had, that personality of screaming on the sideline, and some of the alums were tired of that and they go with Mike Riley, who doesn’t do any of that. Then the A.D., he ends up getting fired, too, because [of] hiring the wrong guy, or the perceived wrong guy.
“Mike Riley is a good football coach. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. Maybe you wonder if they could ever be the old Nebraska. Because you’re in a different conference, for one thing.”
‘Nebraska was more than just the option’
Power football still works. The concept of mobile quarterbacks never stopped working.
Even the option works in the Power 5, if there’s a commitment and a plan — Paul Johnson brought the flexbone to the ACC in 2008, producing a .604 winning percentage at Georgia Tech with two Orange Bowl appearances.
“See, Nebraska was more than just the option,” Shonka said. “They were downhill, I-formation runs, ran that inside trap and stuff like that. They’re weren’t the wishbone, but they did have some.
“The fan base — you’d go for the winning. They’d go for the winning, but I don’t know if they’d go for the Georgia Tech [approach]. Nebraska still wants to have some identity as developing some NFL players, so I don’t think that going to the option would solve that. Because I’ll tell you what — see, you’re recruiting a whole different player. So you’re going to set your program back another three years.”
Although working from flexbone in college didn’t exactly crush wide receiver Demaryius Thomas’ pro prospects, did it? At some point, you’ve got to hitch the wagon to something.
And to something more than the past.
“I don’t know what their identity is,” Shonka said. “I really don’t know. I mean, it’s not that downhill running team like they used to be. They’re a spread type. I don’t know what their identity is.”