LINCOLN, Neb. — Week 3 for Nebraska is here. And not since 1944 have the Huskers opened at Memorial Stadium after consecutive losses. So there’s the backdrop for Matt Rhule’s coaching debut in Lincoln.
More pressing matters hover this week as Nebraska readies for Northern Illinois. Notably, quarterback Jeff Sims did not practice Sunday because of an ankle injury suffered in the fourth quarter Saturday during the Huskers’ 36-14 loss at Colorado.
Starting with the QB situation, here are five key questions that face Nebraska — with answers Monday from Rhule at his weekly news conference:
Sherman: It’s time for Nebraska to accept what it has become as a football program
Should Nebraska sit Jeff Sims?
Sims’ six turnovers in two games, even after missing more than half of the fourth quarter at Colorado, rate as more than all but 12 teams nationally. And it’s not simply the number of turnovers that have hurt Nebraska. Sims threw interceptions in the final minute of both halves against Minnesota to end drives that could have put the Huskers in front.
At Colorado, he fumbled a snap on Nebraska’s opening possession after it had moved into scoring range. He fumbled another snap and threw an interception deep in Nebraska territory to relinquish momentum and hand the Buffs their first 10 points.
Nebraska ranks 127th nationally in scoring offense, last out of 133 teams in turnovers and 117th in total offense. Sims’ play in two games, despite 158 rushing yards and a 58.8 percent completion rate, has been dreadful. But a decision to bench him will not come easily — and it’s not happening if he’s healthy two games into his time in Lincoln.
Sims is here because Nebraska coaches believe in him. Maybe their evaluation was wrong. The Huskers don’t possess an experienced option behind him. Heinrich Haarberg is unrefined as a passer. Chubba Purdy, bothered by an injury this month, would need to take a huge step forward from last year to adequately lead the offense.
But if Sims remains hobbled and unable to practice deep into the week, a change makes sense.
What Rhule said: “I just lean back on what I said at the end of training camp — that I felt like we could win with Chubba, and I felt like we could win with Heinrich. They both can run, so they can maintain some of the things we’re doing. … Obviously, right now, with where we’re at, the offense isn’t doing what we want it to do in general. But I have a lot of confidence in both those guys. And I think they both bring unique skill sets to the table.
“I’m going to see (Sims) practice first. Jeff’s our starting quarterback. If this (injury) hadn’t happened, he’d still be out there. That being said, we can’t keep turning the ball over.”
Did Rhule overestimate the Huskers’ readiness to win?
Rhule said repeatedly in the offseason that he liked the roster he inherited. He has praised the resolve of Nebraska players and their advanced work ethic in difficult training sessions. This rebuild, two weeks ago, appeared set to start closer to the desired level of play than in Rhule’s coaching stops at Temple and Baylor.
But his first two games at Nebraska went no better than his starts with the Owls and Bears. He lost his first six games at Temple and his first eight at Baylor. Understand this, too: Nebraska was the only Power 5 program this year to open on the road in back-to-back games against P5 competition.
So the picture presented as the Huskers come home this week is perhaps out of focus.
What Rhule said: “We’re learning how to win. It’s painful right now. It’s painful. It’s painful. It’s painful. But we’re never going to waste a crisis. We’re not going to waste these losses. We’re going to learn from it.
“We’re just trying to attack it, all throughout the program. Everybody sees it. We can’t punt the ball 25 yards. All these little things come together. But if program-wide, everybody takes accountability, blocks out the noise and everyone tries to handle these little things, when it all comes together … it’ll be, I think, pretty hard to deal with.”
How should Nebraska set expectations for the next two weeks?
Win both games. Protect the ball. Find consistency at quarterback. Reduce penalties. Answer setbacks with authoritative statements — like Colorado did in driving 75 yards for a touchdown after Nebraska scored in the third quarter Saturday.
Quick thoughts on Nebraska’s turnover-filled loss at Colorado
Continue to increase the playing time for young players who can help Nebraska more as the season progresses and into next season.
Build on a strong defensive start. Dominate at the line of scrimmage. Give the fans and recruits a reason to feel good about Nebraska.
What Rhule said: “This is kind of what you get when you hire me. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be, we believe, built to last. It’s going to be built on rock. And so, we take advantage of these painful, painful moments. Our goal right now is to say to ourselves as a coaching staff in three years, we did our best coaching these weeks.”
What’s the most positive aspect of the Huskers’ performance so far?
The disruptive nature of Tony White’s defense. We knew before the Huskers visited Minnesota that their defense had progressed more smoothly in the offseason and in camp than the offense.
The Blackshirts aren’t playing at a 2009-10 level, when Bo Pelini’s defenders struck fear into the hearts of opponents behind the likes of first-round NFL draft picks Ndamukong Suh and Prince Amukamara. But Nebraska’s 11 sacks tie it with Tennessee for the national lead. The Huskers hit hard and don’t miss many tackles.
New contributors Omar Brown, John Bullock, DeShon Singleton, Mikai Gbayor and Javin Wright have flashed in moments. Freshman defensive lineman Cameron Lenhardt is undoubtedly a star in the making — maybe the kind of player who can soon inspire teammates with his play and his voice.
The Huskers don’t have enough of those “dogs,” to use the locker-room vocabulary. But this defense, with the aggressive style that White promotes, appears capable of creating a few in a short time.
What Rhule said: “I think Tony’s fantastic. He has this amazing gift. That tempo (at Colorado) was so fast, I was kind of hoping with Big Ten refs, they’d slow the tempo down a little bit. … But I’ve never seen a defense be able to get into so many multiple looks versus that tempo. And that’s Tony’s teaching. That’s the defensive staff. Tony just stays so calm during the game. He doesn’t get emotional. He just sees what’s happening.”
What’s the most discouraging aspect of the Huskers’ performance so far?
Beyond the turnovers, which goes without saying, Nebraska is hurting itself with untimely penalties and mental errors. The three botched snaps against Colorado in the first half generated a swing at least of 13 points. For a team that’s scored 24 points in two games — including a TD with one second to play when down 29 points — 13 is big.
And more puzzling, the snapping issues seemingly came from nowhere. When the flow of the game shifts in Nebraska’s favor, it’s like the Huskers subconsciously cook up a way to subvert positive energy. Twice, the bad snaps occurred as Nebraska sent a wide receiver or tight end in motion in an effort to help Sims identify CU coverage. It’s a basic concept, and Nebraska botched it.
Same with the second-and-goal play from the 1-yard line late in the first half at Minnesota. Guard Ethan Piper jumped before the Huskers could execute a basic run or a QB sneak.
The Huskers are experiencing “way too many ball-handling issues,” according to the coach. The zone-read concept, for instance, looks out of sync. Once in Boulder, it resulted in a 12-yard loss for Rahmir Johnson.
The list of mishaps goes on.
Nebraska jumped offsides on Colorado’s first possession when the Buffs lined up to go on fourth-and-5. Sims ran out of bounds short of the sticks on third down late in the first half to preserve time for Colorado’s last-minute scoring drive.
What Rhule said: “I’m not going to change. We’re going to double down on our process. We’re going to double down on what we’re doing. It’s working in some areas. Some other areas, it’s slow. We’re just going to keep staying with it.
“I just have to do a good job as the head coach of pushing the guys through until we get to the other side of this.”
(Top photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)