LINCOLN — More than six months from the 2023 season, Matt Rhule had a pop quiz for the Nebraska football team. Perhaps you saw it on social media.
Freezing temps. Inches of snow. A Memorial Stadium under the lights. Weight sleds on the turf.
Husker players broke into groups and raced. It probably wasn’t the hardest workout of NU’s February “mat drills.” It might have been one of the most fun, though, and it underlined the competitive ethos Rhule wants to instill in his team. Fourth quarters are won in the freezing cold, 195 days from kickoff in Minneapolis. It’s not about playcalling in those workouts, but a test of toughness in one of three key areas Rhule uses to measure his program.
Ask Rhule what it takes to win the Big Ten, and his answer is refreshingly direct, and a good way for fans to assess Nebraska beyond wins and losses. As the Rhule era unfolds, use this column as a crib sheet, an analysis tool.
Rhule’s report card, so to speak, is not revolutionary, and that’s a comfort; at this point, Nebraska football could stand to embrace three square meals a day. But it’s always helpful to have a coach — the expert — apply a framework to the question: What will it take?
Rhule offered three areas of focus:
Roster creation and player development
The acquisition, retention and year-over-year improvement of the football players in the building.
Xs and Os
The strategy of the game.
Forming and maintaining, through relationships, a team’s identity, core values and collective standards for excellence.
“If you’re not dealing with the roster, if you’re not dealing with the Xs and Os and you’re not dealing with the culture and brotherhood of the team, then you’re missing out,” Rhule said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. They worry about one or two of those, and you have to worry about all three. If you have a focus on all three of those, you’re checking all the boxes.”
It’s here we can imagine the “select a character” screen in a video game, where the three abilities of each available competitor are measured in glowing horizontal boxes.
“You can have a coach who majors in Xs and Os, and he has to have great people around him who help make sure there’s a great culture,” Rhule said. “And they do an elite job with the roster in terms of player development and recruiting.”
You can have a top-shelf culture keeper, too, in a PJ Fleck, whose offense just might run inside zone 22 times in a row. Minnesota won five of its last six, too and beat Nebraska every which way for the last four seasons.
Scott Frost’s strength lay in tactics and, to some degree, roster construction. He sat under great minds — including current UCLA coach Chip Kelly — learning a spread system that toggled between run and pass with ease. When Frost suggested he hoped the Big Ten would have to adjust to Nebraska, he meant the system he brought to Lincoln. It included cultural components — the way NU players stretched before games, for example — but resided largely in scheme.
His initial recruiting vision got an overhaul late in his tenure. And I had the lingering sense that, for various reasons, he never quite had a pulse on his first two teams — especially the 2019 squad that underachieved.
Rhule’s different. His offense may be pro-style starchy — perhaps even a little stiff — at the outset. Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense may take a year to fully gel. But Nebraska aims to get the culture right — right now.
“I’ll probably always err on the side of development and on the side of culture,” Rhule said. “To me, I set the tone for culture in terms of what we’ll tolerate and what we’re not — the standards we’re going to have — and then we hope the Xs and Os are great. I don’t want to be known the greatest tactician in the world. I’d like to think we’re pretty decent at that, but I’m always going to start with player development and a strong, physical team.”
The staff size — at 50, including full-time assistant coaches — is geared toward player growth. It’s a good “student-to-teacher” ratio, Rhule said, especially when jobs are well-defined.
“I want people here to have very specific jobs and their role is to invest in players’ lives, and players’ development,” Rhule said. “So whether that’s player development, whether that’s operation, whether that’s recruiting, everyone’s here to make sure the players are being developed.”
In countless interviews — including one with the World-Herald — Rhule has already hashed out the “rebuilding” question. He readily praises NU’s former coaches for recruiting good talent and good character. The cupboard, he said is not empty, and he’s right. Nebraska should have a good secondary. The quarterbacks are seasoned, talented guys. And the way Rhule talked about NU’s running backs — particularly Gabe Ervin and Rahmir Johnson — makes one think the Huskers have a stable.
But a learning curve remains. Nebraska players are punctual for all football-related activities. Rhule wants more. Every study hall. Every class. He wants a program that leads the rest of the athletic department, that shows up on campus, that’s outside of its own bubble. Social media-savvy Husker fans noticed football players on Twitter promoting the #PackthePBA event for women’s basketball. That’s a downstream effort from Rhule, who attended both the women’s game Saturday and the NU wrestling meet Sunday.
Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts calls it a “cascading effect.” When football’s right, it’s the tide lifting all other boats.
Can Rhule do that? We’ll see. He’d rather not talk about future success, and he’s telling his players — who want to win so badly — to focus on the next drill.
But you know the keys to his program’s success. He’s laid them out.
“I hope we’re strong in all three areas,” Rhule said. “We have to be, right?”
On with the Rewind.
The Athletic did a fun little exercise where it polled fans of each Big Ten team, asking which protected rival they would prefer to play annually in the league’s new scheduling format.
Nebraska fans picked Iowa. No surprise there. Minnesota finished second, and that’s no surprise, either — that’s driven by Fleck, who has worked his way into the psyche of Husker faithful.
Iowa fans first picked…Nebraska. Well, well, well.
I imagine The Athletic polling pool skews young and some older fans may swear by the Minnesota and Wisconsin rivalries. Generally, though, fans measure rivalries by the amount of joy or derision they derive — and inflict — from winning or losing the game. Which of the three fan bases is more puffed-up after a win? More despondent after a loss? It’s Nebraska.
The Nebraska women’s basketball team looked exhausted Saturday. The team played its third game in seven days, all losses, and had to be mentally drained trying to figure out how to defend the sport’s best 1-2 scoring combo, Caitlyn Clark and Monika Czinano, on Saturday.
The Huskers failed that exam. Clark and Czinano combined for 50.
NU never led once in an 80-60 loss. Only briefly did the Huskers forge a tie. Tireless, athletic-department-wide campaigning to achieve a school-record crowd paid off — 14,289 fans packed Pinnacle Bank Arena — and, for a brief moment, Nebraska leveraged that crowd. It had the Hawkeyes rattled. Then NU missed a boatload of shots and the moment passed.
For a 6 minute, 40-second stretch of the fourth quarter, Nebraska committed six turnovers and missed seven 3s as Iowa rattled off 17 straight points. Balls thrown three feet high, shots barely drawing iron — it would have been shocking had NU not endured similar stretches in wins over Michigan State and Northwestern.
“It’s kind of like a focus thing — we have to be locked in for 40 minutes,” guard Jaz Shelley said. “Against anyone in the Big Ten, you have to be able to play 40 minutes if you’re going to beat anyone. It starts on the (defensive) end and we’ve got to knock down shots.”
I thought Nebraska had to get to 18 wins to make a NCAA Tournament case. That’ll take quite a run for a team that, on Saturday, appeared to be running on fumes. The NIT is no lock, either.
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