We're hearing lots and lots of talk about the culture within Nebraska's football program.
Whenever that happens, a very telling word springs to mind: Uh-oh.
When you're hearing that sort of talk, it typically means a program is scuffling. Nebraska (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) has dropped three of its past four games. Of its four losses on the season, only one makes complete sense in that Ohio State was far superior in terms of talent. The gross disparity was such that I almost throw out the game in evaluating Scott Frost's program in its second year.
As for Nebraska's other three losses, there's no way you could convince me that Colorado, Minnesota and Indiana held significant advantages in overall talent. In each case, though, the Huskers' opponent played with at least as much want-to as Frost's crew. Let's be real: The Gophers actually played with a much harder edge than the Huskers. P.J. Fleck's 2019 crew performs as if it's on a mission.
And, yes, the Hoosiers clearly played with a chip on their shoulders, even if it meant using a contrived line of reasoning to feel disrespected.
Whatever the case, it would be nice for Nebraska fans to see the Huskers play a game as if they had something to prove. It would be nice to see NU take on the look of a team on a mission. If you're a Big Red fan, you want to see more hunger. Isn't that largely what all this culture talk is about: Getting a team to play with more hunger on a consistent basis? Getting a team to a point where it has a burning desire to excel?
Frost himself keeps referencing a part of the team that doesn't care like it should. He's right. It's right there in front of us. How often do you watch this year's Nebraska's defense and think, "Man, they're really rallying hard to the ball on pretty much every down?"
Not that often, right?
"How would I characterize our hunger (on defense)?" said straight-shooting Nebraska defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, essentially repeating my question. "It's kind of hard to characterize our defense's hunger. You would like to think that the defense would be super-hungry. But we haven't proved it. So I can't answer that question. Because we haven't proved it."
He actually answered it quite well. We saw the answer in the late stages of last week's 38-31 loss to Indiana in Lincoln. On a third-and-7, with the home team desperately needing a stop, Hoosier quarterback Peyton Ramsey scooted around the edge for 11 yards. It looked far too easy. It looked that way in part because an outside linebacker blew an assignment. You could say it was a lack of execution. But players have to be hungry to excel in that moment. Hungry to execute correctly.
On the next play, Indiana running back Stevie Scott rushed over right end for 11 more yards. Looked easy. Game over.
Yeah, Nebraska fans should expect more. I mean, that's all the defense could muster on a day when the program wore black alternate jerseys to honor the venerable Blackshirt tradition? Could each of those defenders say they did all they could to get a critical stop? I think we know the answer.
Granted, Nebraska has exactly zero surefire 2019 first-team all-conference picks on its roster. But this isn't a talent discussion. This is a want-to discussion. This is a discussion that former Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski joined the other day on "Early Break" (93.7 FM), with yours truly and co-host Jake Sorensen. Kaczenski was part of Bo Pelini's staff. He still calls himself a "Husker homer." He watches all the games. He loved being part of the program for three seasons (2012-14). Loved the tradition.
He played for Notre Dame, another program with a proud tradition, starting for three seasons at center (1995-97). He helped the Irish reach the 1995 Fiesta Bowl and 1996 Orange Bowl. His message to players he's coached: Football is your life right now, brother.
"I can tell you that when I get together with the guys I played with -- we do it twice a year -- after the tables fill up with cans and bottles, there's a silence with some deep thoughts of what we left on the table and what we could've did differently to accomplish what we set out to do but didn't," Kaczenski said. "You have a small window in life to accomplish great things when you play at this level, for a program like Nebraska, Notre Dame, Georgia, USC ...
"You have a responsibility to everybody that came before you to do whatever you have to do to get things done. You don't represent only yourself. It's not a right to play football at Nebraska, it's a privilege. Literally 25 years later, I can think of some things I could've done differently on and off the field."
I got chills listening to him. All sorts of thoughts arise. You wonder what goes through the mind of Nebraska veteran players right now. If you're a Husker fan, you perhaps hope they're not thinking about themselves. You hope they're thinking a proud program's history, and what representing it means.
When Nebraska plays a beat-up Purdue squad Saturday, the teams will be comparable in terms of talent. Give the Huskers an edge in that regard. But forget talent. By midafternoon, perhaps we'll be talking about a Husker team that finally played four quarters as though it were on a mission, with something to prove.
It's not too late for Nebraska to significantly alter this season's story — and perhaps erase some serious regrets.