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McKewon: How eight coaching names fit Nebraska's big picture after another gut punch

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LINCOLN — Trev Alberts has played in a few bad-weather games. So it was little surprise to see the Nebraska Athletic Director braving the cold for a few in-game timeout photos with the various former Huskers and honorees paraded onto the field by event staff. He wore no hat and no gloves. Hey — you try it.

Now, after a 15-14 loss to Wisconsin that may as well be a summary statement for NU’s decade-long struggles, comes the tough stuff.

It’s Trev’s turn to parade a coach in front of Husker Nation.

In a week’s time — at the latest — we should have a face to memorize, a catchphrase to start cultivating, a staff to start speculating about and perhaps even an introductory press conference. Players who still want to be a part of Nebraska — after this many losses over this many years, some will invariably transfer — will have an office appointment to make with the new leader.

Alberts has to pick wisely, be a sidekick in public, run interference when necessary, and smooth the tracks for a head coach to assemble his staff quickly. No full staff migrations from another school, either.

The new coach has a full menu to fill out, too, based just on the loss to Wisconsin, a defeat that would be more much maddening two years prior but now feels as numb as quarterback Casey Thompson’s pinky finger. Nebraska couldn’t hold an 11-point fourth quarter lead because the defense was exhausted and the offense couldn’t get a first down when it mattered most. Couldn’t run the ball. Couldn’t protect Thompson.

When multiple defenders, after the game, were asked if they figured they’d have to defend one more drive after a crucial stop and Wisconsin punt, the response was straightforward.

“Yep, we knew we were probably have to go out there one more time,” defensive tackle Ty Robinson said. Robinson, being a good teammate, added that was “fine” with him, although the offense finishing the game on the field would have been better.

NU’s offenses have had a habit of doing that for years. Nebraska couldn’t finish the deal in the 2018 Northwestern game. Couldn’t finish in 2019 against Iowa or Purdue. Or in 2020 at Northwestern. Or in 2021 at Michigan State. The Huskers haven’t been good at this for some time. They haven’t been quite this inept, either, on offense. Four games — NU led in all three at home — and a total of 39 offensive points. The opponents scored 95.

Alberts could present, roadshow-style, film of all four games to a new coach and say, “This, here, is what we need to change.”

Nebraska’s offensive line is one issue. Pro Football Focus data argues that Bryce Benhart has been NU’s highest-graded starting lineman — not sure I agree with that — followed by Ethan Piper, Trent Hixson, Broc Bando, Teddy Prochazka, Henry Lutovsky, Hunter Anthony and, finally, Turner Corocran, whose pass blocking grade of 9.4 (out of 100) is only slightly better than the 0.0 he earned last season. He was at 78.7 over 106 snaps in 2020. He’s been banged up, and he’s also regressed.

“We’ve got to put some competition up there,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said. “You heard me say before, we have to get a competitive roster. And we have to get some depth up there. You have to have 16 to 17 guys that are on scholarship to get some depth, to get them going.”

NU’s defense, for as hard as it played Saturday, lacks elite playmakers. That’s another issue. It gets fixed with recruiting more explosive and savvy athletes who make life harder on opponents. The Huskers need three or four more Ernest Hausmanns and Luke Reimers. 

Nebraska needs an offense, too. One with a clear, foundational identity, not whatever this pick-a-play here, seven-on-seven drill there schema Mark Whipple ran this year and Scott Frost ran for most of his time in Lincoln. Granted, offensive line woes/quarterback derby matters prevented NU from forming a full plan of attack. But NU can’t wander in the “let’s draw up big plays” wilderness much longer. Watching running back Anthony Grant trying to run around Wisconsin defenders — instead of taking the three or four yards in front of him —is an example of a good player pressing.

Addressing those concerns — along with the rest of NU’s in-program weaknesses — are crucial to restoring Husker football to some sense of stability. The institutional support — facilities, boosters, academic services, sports psychology, and apparel — is there in surplus.

So which coach best fits that criteria? As the clock ticks, let’s examine popular, speculative names in alphabetical order:

Matt Campbell

His current Iowa State team is his worst because it is scoring 16.6 points per game in a league that grants 17 points for just writing the name on the test. The Cyclones recruit in the mid-40s on average, rarely beat Iowa for a coveted in-state recruit, yet have the keys to Kansas City in a way Nebraska does not. ISU relies heavily on a single tailback — the school had David Montgomery and Breece Hall back-to-back — for its run game. This year, it’s poor. Campbell has likely reached his ceiling in Ames.

Dave Doeren

The Drake University graduate has consistently won seven games per year at North Carolina State, which ranks among the ACC’s top defenses in 2021 and 2022. He employs two offensive coaches — coordinator Tim Beck and line coach John Garrison — who know Nebraska intimately. Beck’s turned more to the pass than the run. In a recruiting hotbed, the Wolfpack signed the nation’s 55th-ranked class in 2022.

Luke Fickell

His Cincinnati defenses have stellar, confident athletes who can run, hit and cover. That’s a Big Ten-ready defense he’s built. Coaching at Nebraska would be a distinct change for the state of Ohio lifer, and he’s already turned down Michigan State, where it’s easier to recruit. He’d recruit eastward, in Ohio, the Big Ten footprint and Florida.

Mickey Joseph

The interim head coach has harped on better recruiting to such a degree that one wonders if offensive development is high enough on the list. Joseph has a good eye for talent and toughness, and he nailed a question about recruiting California — sparingly, and only for the very best players. He got dealt a lousy hand with the talent, an offensive coordinator battling health issues, and an inexperienced offensive line coach. Still — NU’s offense has never looked this adrift in the Big Ten.

Chris Klieman

Kansas State, where Klieman coaches, has a terrific offensive line, a multiple-but-run-centered offense, and generally dynamic defensive play. Klieman would conduct run-out-the-clock press conferences and embrace recruiting the Midwest. I also think his K-State team would win the current Big Ten West division. Does he want to leave K-State?

Lance Leipold

His offense at Kansas is balanced, quarterback-friendly and full of wrinkles for quarterback run game and tight end passes. Recruiting is a question mark; Leipold would be wise to hold onto Joseph, a favorite among deep-pocketed, old-school boosters because of his preference for no-nonsense accountability among players. According to a connected program source, any prospective coach who wants to make the money men happy keeps Mickey.

Jeff Monken

Army’s service academy offense is a bit primordial for the Big Ten, but Monken, alongside offensive coordinator Brent Davis, could adapt their scheme for a new league. Monken’s Nebraska would have a clear identity. Recruiting would take time. If NU’s down to kick the tires on Monken, why not just hire Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell or Tulane’s Willie Fritz?

Matt Rhule

He’d cost a lot, and he may not want to return to coaching right now after getting fired by Carolina, but he’d recruit defensive playmakers. He did so at Temple and Baylor. The question with Rhule, as with many defensive coaches, is whether they can build cohesive offenses and adequately prioritize quarterback acquisition and development. There are seven Big Ten teams either ranked or getting votes in the Associated Press Top 25. Six of seven have offensive-minded head coaches.

That eight-man group — it’s smaller than that now, perhaps four or five — seems like a reasonable pool. Alberts will dive in a bag of money and hopefully an understanding that who surrounds the head coach — the assistants — is equally as important as the head coach. NU will have to pay handsomely for all of it. But Nebraska has the resources.

Now’s the time to use them.

On with the Rewind

I See You

Inside linebacker Ernest Hausmann: Must-keep guy, part one. He had 12 tackles and, in the words of teammate Ty Robinson, made a lot of defensive linemen right on Saturday if they guessed wrong. He has 26 tackles over the last three games.

Cornerback Malcolm Hartzog: Must-keep guy, part two. If we’re picking freshman of the year, Hartzog gets the nod after starting the final eight games and leading the team in interceptions (three).

Defensive tackle Colton Feist: Must-keep guy, part three. Yes, Feist! He had another strong game up front, another tackle for loss, and he technically has one more year left.

Cornerback Quinton Newsome: Does he stick it out one more year at NU? After completing a strong game — despite losing contain on Allen’s 22-yard run — and a strong season, Newsome will have some transfer portal opportunities. This feels like a must-keep, but Newsome has given quite a bit to the Huskers, too, and may not have the same secondary coach.

Punter Brian Buschini: Averaged 43.5 yards per punt — the net was a little less — in tough conditions. Buschini has helped make Nebraska’s special teams respectable in 2022.

Quarterback Casey Thompson: He deserved more from NU’s offensive line and playcaller. Nebraska can’t execute a basic bootleg rollout with receivers running routes at three levels, and Thompson is having to scramble a split second after he completes his drop because he can see he’ll be swamped otherwise.

Wisconsin defensive lineman Keeanu Benton: Hard to block, finished with 2½ tackles for loss. He’s the keystone to a lot of what the Badgers can do against the run.

Wisconsin linebacker Maema Njongmeta: A sack, 2½ tackles for loss, and a couple quarterback hurries. The Badgers’ top pass rusher, Nick Herbig, had a quiet day until his targeting penalty. Njongmeta compensated for Herbig’s so-so outing.

Five Stats

Six: Wins over Big Ten West opponents in five seasons. Minnesota and Illinois in 2018, Illinois and Northwestern in 2019, Purdue in 2020, Northwestern in 2021 and bupkis so far in 2022. The Huskers are 0-5 against the West in 2022 with losses by 3, 6, 17, 7 and 1. That’s 6.8 points per game, and 1½ of those games were played without Thompson. Nebraska will soon have a new peer set of …the entire Big Ten … and it probably can’t come too soon.

Six: One-score wins in the Frost era, which officially ends on Black Friday. They are: Michigan State in 2018; Illinois and Northwestern in 2019; Penn State and Rutgers in 2020; and Rutgers this season. The Huskers have had five one-score losses this season alone — the four losses to West teams, plus Georgia Southern. One must travel back to 2015, however, for the last one-point loss, at Illinois, when the infamous third-and-seven pass was thrown late in the fourth quarter. That game, like this one, was played in terrible weather conditions.

24.5: Points per game allowed since Bill Busch took over as NU’s defensive coordinator. That’s four points below what NU is allowing for the season and represents real growth, given the anemic nature of the current Husker offense. Over the last month, Nebraska has allowed exactly two runs of 20 yards or longer and the longest, Allen’s 22-yarder on Saturday, is a number NU will take any day of the week. Busch successfully slowed down opponents. The Huskers’ O didn’t do its part.

Five: Times Nebraska has been under 30 carries in a game this season. That inches toward the six such occasions in 2017, when NU defaulted to throwing the ball as many times as possible in games. Thing is, the Huskers could throw better that season than NU has in 2022. And most of Thompson’s carries, on Saturday, were either sacks or scrambles; Whipple appears to have a handful of run plays that, if they don’t work, head to the pantry of his playsheet.

59.48%: Completion rate for Nebraska quarterbacks after Saturday’s game. If NU’s stays at that rate, or dips in the final game against Iowa, it’ll be the first time NU is below 60% since 2017. Thompson is comfortably above the number at 62.7%. Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers drag it down.

Opponent Watch

>>Iowa is Iowa, and all this Iowa team has to do to win the Big Ten West is beat Nebraska. The Hawkeyes put themselves in the driver’s seat by beating Minnesota 13-10 on Saturday. Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell — who should be a legitimate Heisman candidate — had an interception and a forced fumble to key the win. Kirk Ferentz has never lost to PJ Fleck; for that reason alone, you have to respect Ferentz more than a little.

Forecast

Sun’s out, turkey’s in and by the time you eat that last leftover sandwich, Nebraska will have a new football coach.

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