Confronting fact vs. fiction as Matt Rhule vs. Deion Sanders nears

LINCOLN, Neb. — The weekend for Nebraska and its supporters began painfully. It ended amid a heightened sense of angst, at least outside of Memorial Stadium, that bled into Monday with a word of caution from coach Matt Rhule.

The Huskers’ next opponent, Colorado, deserves a Top 25 ranking when the Associated Press poll ahead of Week 2 is released Tuesday.

“Maybe even a top-10 team,” Rhule said.

The Buffaloes impressed Rhule — and seemingly everyone who watched Saturday — in winning on the road against No. 17 TCU, 45-42, as the Deion Sanders coaching era at CU opened with a resounding message that he’s set this year to silence the doubters.

Colorado was the national story of Week 1. Nebraska, meanwhile, lost 13-10 at Minnesota Thursday night. The Huskers committed two turnovers in the final five minutes. The miscues led to 10 Minnesota points, including a 47-yard walk-off field goal.

Rhule’s opener marked the 14th one-score loss for Nebraska since the start of the 2021 season.

“I’m kind of an incrementalist,” Rhule said. “I’m kind of a process guy. So I can say two things and mean them. I’m crushed that we lost the game the way we did for the guys. Not for me, for the guys. (I’m) upset for them — while at the same time recognizing how much better the football is than early last year.”


Quick thoughts on Nebraska’s late loss to Minnesota

The Huskers will play Saturday at Colorado’s Folsom Field, the site of Big Noon Kickoff on Fox, in front of a large audience eager to see what Sanders and the Buffs do next against a former college football power. Betting lines in the offseason favored Nebraska by two scores. Monday, according to BetMGM, Nebraska was a 3.5-point underdog.

Rhule’s message to his team this week is simple: Focus on football.

“This has to be about football,” he said. “This can’t be about tempo. This can’t be about altitude. This can’t be about playing a ranked opponent or being on the road.”

New and old storylines abound as Nebraska heads to Boulder for the first time in four years. And so, too, do the narratives in Husker Nation after a jarring first weekend of football involving these former bitter rivals in the Big 12.



Seeds of doubt remain at Nebraska, no matter Matt Rhule’s approach

The following is an attempt to separate fact from fiction at the outset of an intriguing week:

Nebraska quarterback Jeff Sims is a lost cause: Fiction

Sims struggled in his Nebraska debut. He hit 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards and was intercepted three times. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior was picked in the end zone at the end of the first half and at midfield with less than a minute to play. Sims locked on receivers and struggled with accuracy, both concerns that followed him to Nebraska from Georgia Tech — where he threw 23 interceptions and completed 57.5 percent of his passes in 25 games over three years.

Even so, Thursday rated as an anomaly. Sims threw three interceptions last season in 188 pass attempts. Nebraska can work to benefit from Sims’ running ability after he gained 117 yards (not including lost yardage on sacks) and to devise a game plan that builds his confidence.

When Rhule left his office at Memorial Stadium Sunday night he said Sims stayed to watch film.

“He’s not the first quarterback who’s ever thrown three interceptions,” Rhule said. “The great ones bounce back from it even better. I think you find out about people when they go through a little adversity.”

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Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims threw three interceptions in his debut at Nebraska. (Matt Krohn / USA Today)

The Huskers’ situation at wide receiver is growing dire: Fact

Offseason attrition and the departure in training camp of Zavier Betts left Nebraska in a tough spot. It promoted Alex Bullock and awarded him with a scholarship. Bullock then caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Sims on a nearly broken trick play after the QB mishandled a throwback pass from running back Anthony Grant.

But also in Minneapolis, starter Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda suffered a season-ending knee injury. “I’m heartbroken for him,” Rhule said.

Marcus Washington returned from a first-half suspension to match Bullock for the team lead with three catches last week. Those two plus Virginia transfer Billy Kemp — held without a reception against Minnesota — must now carry the load. Kemp was the top progression on nine called pass plays against the Gophers, Rhule said.

“It’s all hands on deck,” the coach said Monday, mentioning true freshmen Jaylen Lloyd and Malachi Coleman.

Walk-on Ty Hahn will factor in. Options are limited in the early days of September.

“We’re just going to have to go with the guys that are there and trust and believe that they’ll make the plays,” Rhule said.

Nebraska can’t match up with Colorado’s talent: Fiction

Be careful about observations gathered from one week of evidence. If the Buffs’ production on offense holds up, it will have two leading Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Shedeur Sanders and do-it-all athlete Travis Hunter.

The head coach’s son, Shedeur Sanders threw for a single-game Colorado record 510 yards against TCU. Hunter, the consensus No. 1-rated recruiting prospect in the 2021 class, caught 11 balls for 119 yards and starred at cornerback.



Shedeur Sanders is ready for his closeup. Is the rest of college football?

Hunter played 129 snaps in the Texas heat. “He’s one of the most conditioned athletes I’ve seen,” Rhule said.

Three other Buffs topped 100 receiving yards, including true freshman running back Dylan Edwards.

That said, it was one game. Colorado had the element of surprise on its side. It has the attention now of every foe starting this week with Nebraska.

Rhule offered praise for the younger Sanders. “He played like a guy who’s played a lot of football.”

“But we’re still going to show up,” Rhule said. “Our defense is going to be there. We’ll play and see what we can do.”

Nebraska figures to try to control the tempo with a methodical offensive plan. Its style stands in direct contrast to TCU, which matched the Buffs’ fast pace and got burned because of it.

As for the matchups, Nebraska’s secondary ranks as a strength. An effective pass rush for the Huskers is essential. And it must play in the first half without defensive tackle Ty Robinson, suspended because of a targeting penalty last week.

A Nebraska win in Boulder would rate as more significant than anything it could have accomplished against Minnesota: Fact

Even before Colorado stunned TCU, the second game of the season was a bigger deal for Nebraska than the first. Forget the Big Ten West implications. The Huskers almost certainly weren’t going to win the division this year, no matter what happened in Minneapolis.

Rhule vs. Sanders is a big deal. Because of the timing, their NFL backgrounds, contrasting personalities and the condition of both programs as handed to the new coaches, they will face comparisons for as long as Rhule and Sanders stay with these programs.

And now the stakes are heightened because of Colorado’s fast start.

“It’s a great chance for us to take a step as a team,” Rhule said.

The national audience and festive atmosphere for Sanders’ home debut Saturday add to the importance of the outcome for Nebraska.

“All that is what it is,” Rhule said of the peripheral factors. “But it’s still going to come down to blocking and tackling. They went down to TCU last week, and while everyone thought it was going to be about all this stuff, they played football. They went out there (and) caught the ball. They played good football, and they won the game.

“We’re just going to try to make it football.”

(Top photo: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

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