It’s not as though Mark Whipple uttered a football thought in camp interviews that hasn’t been expressed in some way before. Nor has that been the attempt in an offseason where the Huskers have generally succeeded in revealing little – certainly about the offense.
But for a guy new to the Husker scene in 2022, Nebraska’s offensive coordinator has struck me as someone who, whether purposefully or indirectly, has several times put his finger right on the button of ailments that have plagued Big Red psychology in recent years.
Go back to near the end of camp in Lincoln for a prime example. He was speaking on that day’s practice, which was going along well enough. But there was a lull during one of the practice stations. Husker player voices started to rise up to try to get momentum back. That, in itself, is not a bad thing.
Still, the coach of four decades must’ve sensed something a little off in the air, or at least an opportune moment to drive home a point: More or less, he wanted them to know he knows how much it matters to them, but don’t press.
“I just said, ‘Look, you guys have worked hard. It’s been a really good camp.’ It reminded me of when I had to call the plays in the Super Bowl and I thought right before if I screw this play up I won’t be able to go back to Pittsburgh because they’ll murder me. So those guys, it’s important to them, but they’ve got to relax,” Whipple shared after that practice.
“There’s that fine line, where you just say, ‘You’ve done well. We’re going to make mistakes. How are you going to handle adversity?’ So just a little reminder there. They can’t get uptight.”
Husker head coach Scott Frost acknowledged his team played uptight in Week Zero a year ago at Illinois, a game like this one against Northwestern where Nebraska was similarly favored but also carrying the load of a state’s passion. And so even before a QB fumble that was returned for a score, the Huskers biffed it up on elementary stuff – a talented veteran losing his wits for a moment on a punt return to give away two points, a wide-open touchdown pass missed, an interception negated for giving the QB a little extra in a time when refs are looking to make an example of you.
Uptight or just plain sloppiness with no excuse for it, last year is brought up only because the Huskers hope they learned a thing or two from it. Frost has multiple times spoken about his team letting it rip this time around. And while he did make the “business trip” point clear, you may have noticed the Huskers aren’t just locked up in their rooms in Ireland, staring at the walls, uttering, “Gotta make a play, gotta make a play.”
They’re out and about some each day – visiting century-old buildings and catching some of the local flavor. There’s a big task at hand, but haven’t you done way better at any job interview you had when you were relatively relaxed and didn’t overthink it to the point you just became lost to word soup?
Frost said Thursday his team is confident, but also is as eager as you to see how they meet that adversity Whipple mentioned.
“But when we do, I want to make sure they keep attacking up 40, down 40, up 7, down 7, they need to be on the attack,” Frost said.
That has been easier said than done with Husker football of late. But Frost said some of the new blood has brought some added confidence perhaps. Casey Thompson, Trey Palmer, Marcus Washington. Headliners now who weren’t on the 3-9 squad last year. “Some of those guys are almost confident to a fault. And our offense needed a little injection of that,” Frost said.
Can they still supply it when jam your toe on the bed frame? Or if you have a first quarter where the output is only a trickle? What if it’s 0-0 about 20 minutes into the game or you’re down 7-3? It’d be good for Husker fan health for Nebraska to jump out early and not look over its shoulder. How about Jaquez Yant or someone running for 60 yards and stiff-arming a dude for 20 of it right away again? But Whipple knows first games don’t always just begin with you seated in a racecar.
“I’ve been on both ends of it. Get out of the first quarter without giving the game away and settle in,” Whipple said this week.
Intended or not, there was a critical point of past waning Husker psychology taken on there too. One bad play or one so-so quarter does not have to define the day. In the past, with Husker football there have been those “Oh, no, there it is” moments. And sometimes they’ve come when there is much game still left.
How do you break that pattern? It’s hard to put to words, but as this mystery 2022 season begins, Nebraska’s recent past is not the past of Whipple and Mickey Joseph and Bryan Applewhite and Donovan Raiola. It’s not the shared past of 33 new scholarship guys.
“I think the confidence comes from your training,” said one of those newcomers, Casey Thompson, recalling an old saying he keeps close. “‘You don’t rise to the level of the occasion, you fall back on your training.'”
Sounds similar to the camp words of a coach who has seen a thing or two.
That coach and that quarterback didn’t live through last year like you did, although Thompson had his own adversity at Texas he hopes to grow from. They weren’t there for all those ‘close’ losses, or on the sideline to see a a 99-yard Northwestern drive in the final two minutes, or a blown 17-point lead in Boulder. The point is not to lob water balloons from the past here. The point is they don’t wear those memories.
And maybe, maybe on a weekend hope has wings and a new Nebraska football campaign begins, maybe some new blood is useful in turning “here we go again” moments into a composed, believing response of “here we go.”
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