Orlando, Fla.— Sometimes … maybe most of the time, you just can’t tell.
Ron Brown has been a coach on many Husker teams at many different bowl sites in many different circumstances, and he’ll be the first to tell you it can be challenging to tell “what’s real and what’s bravado.”
After all, every team preparing for a bowl game says they’re ready to play. They all say they’re on a business trip and have put behind them whatever failures came in the regular season before.
So you never know for sure, and you especially don’t know in a case like the one facing Nebraska, a team just a month removed from the meltdown that was a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
But Nebraska’s running back has a good feeling. The response from players, he believes, has been the right one.
“A lot can happen between your last game and your bowl game,” Brown said. “There’s three weeks in there. … People don’t stay the same for three weeks, especially when you’re not playing games. So you’re either going to go incrementally this way or go incrementally that way. And I see us really taking the right approach to going in the right direction. I’m very optimistic about it.”
Back home, the optimism might not be flowing quite as freely as Nebraska gets ready to take on a sixth-ranked Georgia team in the Capital One Bowl on Tuesday.
The doubters have become a rather loud choir.
After Nebraska’s recent embarrassment in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs were favored by at least 10 points by some oddsmakers.
Among the physical challenges Georgia presents, there is reason to wonder what type of mental mind-set the Huskers will be in after falling flat in a championship game they had been targeting all season.
What’s a coach to do after a setback like that one in Indianapolis? How do you build your players back up to not allow one bad performance to automatically lead to another one?
“I think you have to be honest with them,” Brown said. “I mean, that was devastating, that was tough. And you get it all out. You don’t just let it hang in there and have it seep out as time goes on, and then when you’re playing the bowl game, you’re still kind of demoralized. You get it all out. And I thought Bo did a great job of that, getting out the emotion, saying, ‘Man, that stunk.’ And then just saying, ‘That’s not who we are.’”
Of course, you have to really, truly believe that’s who you are.
That’s why defensive coordinator John Papuchis said coaches spent plenty of time in the last few weeks talking about the positives this team has done.
“Obviously we have to fix the things we didn’t do well in the last game of the year, but I don’t want to lose sight of the other 10 games that they won and played well, especially on the defensive side,” Papuchis said. “In our 10 wins we played extremely well. In our three losses, we played as bad as we could play. Somehow we got to make sure our guys understand there is some positive to be taken from a 10-win season … and not to lose sight of that because we played poorly in the last game.”
Junior wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said he has done his best to just block out the negative chatter back home that followed Nebraska’s performance against the Badgers.
“Each game is just one game,” Enunwa said. “If it’s a loss, it’s a loss. I can be down for that hour but then I have to get over it afterwards because I have another game to play.”
Everyone has a different way of dealing with a defeat.
Sophomore defensive tackle Chase Rome said some guys just need a few days to themselves to get over a bad game.
And for him?
“It’s just looking at the next team,” Rome said. “Just being so involved in that process and seeing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, it kind of beats off the bad memory a little bit.”
The break has helped, Papuchis thinks.
While he doesn’t blame the championship debacle on being mentally and physically fatigued, he does think the time in December has helped this team feel a “renewed energy” heading into Tuesday’s game.
“I think our guys understand we have one shot to finish the season the way we want to finish it,” Papuchis said.
They’ll be playing one of the top teams in the SEC, the big, bad SEC that has been widely considered by most to be the best conference in recent years.
While Husker players have been respectful of their foe this week, they’ve also not overdone it with flattery.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez has said Georgia’s defense reminds of some of the Big Ten defenses they’ve seen, and offensive lineman Cole Pensick has said the Bulldogs’ defensive line is "athletic, big, can move, (but) nothing that the Big Ten doesn’t have in their D-lines."
For a team trying to get in the right mental mind frame, it makes sense as to why they wouldn’t build up the opponent too much.
“Everybody bleeds just like we do,” said senior defensive end Eric Martin. “You can’t really look at a football team like they’re aliens or they have some sort of superpowers. They’re just human.”
Game film from Georgia’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina shows that.
When asked about Nebraska’s ugly showing against Wisconsin, Georgia coach Mark Richt said “we had our game like that too.”
And despite how out of hand that Big Ten Championship got, Brown said the mistakes from that game are not as overwhelming as you might think when analyzing the film.
“They’re little things that can be corrected,” Brown said. “I think you have to convince your team we’re not that far off. I feel like the faster you can do that, the more you’re going to get them back. And then you have to breathe sunshine in them. You got to have fun with them. They got to know that there’s a level of belief in them from the coaching staff, which there is. And then you got to show them in practice, ‘Look, this is who they are.’”
No more waiting. For better or worse, everyone’s about to see more of who they are.