Before the collision, in the calm of pregame warmups, the two Marks got to chatting.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio shook Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s hand. The two had talked football before. It was small talk this time. So Dantonio asked Banker, “Does it feel different coaching in the Big Ten than the Pac-12?”
In most ways, no. The dimensions of the field are the same. The rules are the same. Football is football is football.
But Banker did bring up something you heard members of the former Husker staff mention often enough after Nebraska initially made the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.
The size of players.
“I said, 'A couple things I learned, guys are real big in this conference,'” Banker said in recalling his answer to Dantonio. “Minnesota is the one that really jumped out. Even the kickers were big, the holder was big. There was a tight end that was like 6-9. I mean, holy s---. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, the quarterback was big. Week in and week out, you’re seeing that same thing. Everybody is big, nobody is small.
"The other thing, very well-coached. I came from a conference where on offense … where they were going to trick you, they were going to get in funny formations … motion here, motion there, go as fast as they could, get a play off as fast as they could, (in) seven seconds, whatever. Here, you’re seeing … a lot of stick-to-itiveness and belief in their system. They run what they’re going to run. It’s just football. And it’s enjoyable that way.”
Yeah, about that size. Banker said in a summer interview with the Journal Star that the Huskers need to recruit “outside-in” on defense.
"We’re going to recruit corners to safeties, safeties to outside linebackers, outside linebackers to middle linebackers, middle linebackers to ends, ends to tackles, and tackles go play offense,” Banker said then. “So, that way there, you’re upgrading your athleticism and speed at every position.”
Has a fall of watching the Big Ten up close changed his opinion on how Nebraska needs to recruit?
“It doesn’t change too much other than the fact that you better really like an undersized guy, whatever undersized is in a position,” Banker said this past week. “And he better be exceptional and you better forecast well that this young man is going to be able to grow into this. … You cannot be a small person. You’ve got to have some arm length. You’ve got to have some girth to you. You got to be able to run still. We don’t want to be a slow team … but you do need to have some physicality to you.”
No matter how long you’ve been coaching, you learn from every season, and Banker said he’s learned plenty from 2015.
Aside from learning about a new league, he’s learned a lot about the capabilities of his players. You can hope to learn strengths and weaknesses, and how fast a player can process new information in April and August, but it’s hard to figure out those things for sure.
“It’s tough to know until you get under the gun and under the fire, and not so much athletically, but what they could handle mentally,” Banker said. “There was some assumptions made with some of the players that, hey, this is what they'll be good at and maybe this is what they can handle mentally.”
Banker said it’s important for players to understand the “why” of what they’re doing. But sometimes it can take awhile to understand that “why.”
The coach started to name off some of the calls that might be said before a play. Getting players to process that new language, and exactly what it means, is one of the battles for any first-year staff.
But with time, “All those things become more apparent, they come to the surface,” Banker said. “Words start to become pictures for them, rather than being just that — words.”
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The picture certainly wasn’t clear back in early September.
"Like the BYU game, that first half, it was a mess," Banker said. "Golly, we made so many mental errors. It was ridiculous. But it was kind of a live-and-learn thing. We could have saved a lot of pain."
There's no Hail Mary heartache, Banker is pretty sure, if the Huskers had been firmer in their knowledge of some of what was being asked at that time.
But he also knows it’s on the coach to figure out exactly what his players can take in without having information overload.
“Those type of things, what the players are handling, it wasn't necessarily what we needed to do at that particular point in time in the season,” Banker said. “It fit what the opposition was showing us, and these are the things that we wanted to do. But apparently it wasn't a firm grasp. The specific execution of it wasn't as crisp as it needed to be against quality opponents."
If there’s going to be pain from that, you'd better get some lessons out of it, too.
Banker thinks that has happened.
“You know what, we learned. We learned a lot, through the agony … I know this old guy will learn a lot from it. You learn every day.”
And the longer you’re around players, the more experiences you have shared together that you can draw from in tough moments.
Banker said it’s not uncommon to say, Remember when this happened? Remember when that happened? We’ve been in this very spot before.
The end of that Michigan State game a couple of weeks ago comes to mind: Nebraska leading by one. Fifteen seconds left. The whole thing reminded the coach a lot of BYU.
"There's no sitting back, all they need is a field goal, so we got four plays, that's what I told them, we've got four plays to shut this s--- down, so let's go get it," Banker said. "Two (plays). And it was the best pass rush we had all game. … We hit the guy with two guys with a four-man rush twice. And the coverage was tight enough on the completion over the middle. If we had that coverage we got there against Wisconsin, we win the Wisconsin game. And then the last one, he had nowhere to throw the ball.”
There was an example of growth.
Now a bye week has finally brought a breath. Just don’t take too deep of one. Banker isn’t about to with undefeated Iowa coming to town Friday.
Those early-season lessons, if used right, could provide a satisfying sprint to the finish line for these Huskers.
“You want to keep that juju going a little bit. I told the players, from a mental standpoint, it’s good that we don’t have a game. So that crush of a game is not there,” Banker said. “But what you got to do is you’ve got to prepare like you’re getting ready for a game so you keep that sharpness. Because all of a sudden you start again and those first couple series, ‘Is this new?’ You don’t want to start all over.”
No, sir. Nobody wants that.