When will 'winning football' return to Nebraska?
Matt Rhule is consistent in his pursuit of a simple standard of play, even after a Michigan mauling.
“My only goal is that before you can win, you have to play winning football,” Matt Rhule said six years ago. It was after his first Big 12 game as Baylor’s head coach, and the Bears had just lost 49-41 to No. 3 Oklahoma in Waco.
Baylor entered the game 0-3, losing to Liberty, UTSA and Duke. Oklahoma was undefeated and had beaten then-No. 2 Ohio State 31-16 in Columbus two weeks earlier. The Sooners were favored by 27.5 points and led 14-0 and 28-10 in the first half before Baylor scored 21 straight in the second and third quarters to take the lead. Down eight with 1:41 left, the Bears kicked and recovered an onside kick, but the Sooners would finally put them away with a sack and fumble recovery three plays later.
There was nothing fluky about Baylor’s out-of-nowhere challenge of Oklahoma in 2017. Turnover margin was even. Third downs were about even, 42% to 40% in favor of Baylor. Quarterback Zach Smith stood on his head a bit—he entered the game completing 36% with four interceptions, but was 33-for-50 with four touchdowns against Oklahoma—and the Bears scored two touchdown of 70-plus yards. A four-touchdown underdog will need to make some plays that probably aren’t all that sustainable, but mostly the box score looks like a game between evenly matched conference rivals, which Baylor and Oklahoma very much weren’t.
“We didn’t beat ourselves,” Rhule said then. “You see growth, you see moving forward…I think you see the kids have heart, and they’re growing up in front of us.”
Baylor would lose four more games before getting its first win, its only win, of Rhule’s first year. We know what happened in Waco the two seasons to follow. With the benefit of that knowledge, which data point from 2017 told you more about where the Bears were headed? The Oklahoma game or the 1-11 season?
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Perhaps that’s why Nebraska’s 45-7 loss at home to No. 2 Michigan stung by more than just the final margin of 38 points. There was no argument to be made for “growth” or “moving forward.” Some would say no argument for “heart” either, though eyeballing and opining on want-to has always been a gray area I try to avoid. The game was just a blowout, worse than expected.
Michigan was always the least likely win on Nebraska’s 2023 schedule, but it was also the Huskers’ best chance to show how much things had already changed in Lincoln. Had Nebraska played well enough to stress the Wolverines for a half, that would’ve been encouraging. Stretch the stress into the fourth quarter, even in a loss, and maybe Husker fans feel like Baylor fans did after the Oklahoma game in 2017.
Or, maybe like Temple fans felt in November of 2013. In Rhule’s first season as head coach there, the 1-8 Owls welcomed No. 15 UCF. The Knights had already beaten Penn State, and were on their way to a 12-1 season with a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. Temple was a 17-point underdog, but led 36-29 with 2:04 left.
UCF scored in 52 seconds, got a stop and kicked a game-winning field goal. Heart-breaking for the Owls, but not fluky. The Knights gained a ton of yards and were plus-one in turnovers. Temple was better on third down and in the red zone. It was, like Baylor-Oklahoma four seasons later, an even game that was expected to be uneven.
“I think there’s some momentum with the way we’re playing,” Rhule said after the UCF loss, Temple’s ninth of the season. “Now we need something tangible to show for all that hard work.”
Something tangible didn’t arrive the following week. The Owls, as a touchdown favorite, lost to 0-9 Connecticut.
The world didn’t instantly change from black-and-white to color for Baylor either after it hung with Oklahoma. The Bears didn’t just lose their next four, they were outscored 168-79 before finally finding the win column against Kansas. It’s only by knowing where those programs went under Rhule that we can even posit those two Year 1 games were anything more than a fledgling program staying in the air for their longest stretches yet. Both were good performance, but it didn’t mean either was airborne.
Nobody was confusing Nebraska for airborne after Saturday. Quite the opposite. Maybe too far the opposite, but that’s how college football works. It’s four hours of action, which comes with intense interest at a place like Nebraska, followed by hundreds of hours of discussion meant to serve that interest. However long it has taken you to read this contributes to that total.
In punditry circles, “don’t let Michigan beat you twice” will be a popular refrain. Two days on from the Michigan mauling, it might be as important to note that the loss won’t be counted twice just because it was ugly.
With his own time to review the game, Rhule, at his press conference Monday, offered a simple postmortem: “Michigan is an excellent team, but we could’ve played better than that.” He went into greater detail, of course, but that line let you know the bottom line.
Rhule is consistent with his “winning football” approach, the idea being that playing at a certain level will produce wins consistently, but not always. The Huskers weren’t close to that level on Saturday. Even if they were, Nebraska still might have lost, like Baylor and Temple under Rhule before them.
But those more palatable losses help prove the point—playing to a standard is maybe the only thing a team can control. Sometimes the games still go the other way.
Unless you want to count the Minnesota game, Nebraska hasn’t played “winning football” yet, at least not against a Power 5 opponent, where the Huskers are 0-3. Power 5 opponents are all that’s left on the schedule.
Nebraska, down 10 spots to 69th in the latest SP+ ratings, has a chance to define its 2023 season over the next four games. The Huskers will face teams ranked between 57th and 95th in those same rankings, starting at Illinois (58th) Friday.
Faced with a short week and wanting to get the bad taste of Michigan out of their mouths, the Huskers had a full practice Sunday night rather than their usual reduced load after a game.
Rhule called the practice “winning football.”