During a historic week in Nebraska football, let's tackle a bit of program history.
Or set it straight.
During Nebraska's glory years in the 1990s, and even before that, the Huskers "tackled in practice up to a point," recalls George Darlington, a defensive assistant at the school from 1973-2002.
Key words: Up to a point.
"We would tackle but would not knock the backs to the ground," Darlington says. "Which means you would go almost full-speed, head up, face across the bow, whip the arms, grab the ball carrier, but be in control enough that you didn't go completely through him and knock him to the ground."
Darlington's memories may come as a surprise to those who will try to tell you that Nebraska's most potent defenses of the 1990s were a product of practices that included an ample amount of full-on, vicious tackling.
Many folks felt there wasn't enough full-on tackling in practice during Bo Pelini's tenure as Nebraska's head coach. Then, last week, new Husker coach Mike Riley told reporters, "We will rarely be tackling full-speed during the season" in practice.
Lots of folks have opinions on the matter. You'll hear plenty of fans puff out their chests and say, "How can you tackle well in games if you don't regularly take guys to the ground in practice?"
I think you have to trust the professionals (read: the coaches) on this matter.
It almost goes without saying that college coaches put defenders through various tackling drills throughout the season — sometimes using "dummies" and sometimes against each other. But when the top units square off against scout teams, live tackling is typically limited.
As for taking ball carriers to the ground in full-on, in-season scrimmaging, "We seldom ever did that in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s," Darlington says.
Nebraska did do some live scrimmaging during the week, including a handful of plays that pitted top units near the goal line. Those were extremely physical encounters. In addition, Darlington says, the top units would square off for about a dozen scripted plays on Wednesdays.
"It got pretty intense," he says. "I'm not going to say nobody ever got tackled in those periods. It was basically as close to a game as you could get without completely knocking people to the ground."
Bottom line, a team can improve its tackling without taking backs to the ground in practice on a regular or even semi-regular basis. That is the sort of wisdom Darlington imparts on those who attend his annual football facts class, which this year begins Sept. 10 and runs seven Thursday nights in a row (for information, call 402-437-2700 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org).
"You have to be almost more athletic to take proper angles full-speed, use proper tackling technique and wrap up the ball carrier — doing all that without taking the back to the ground," Darlington says. "It's easier to run full-speed, wrap him up and take him to the ground.
"But we did not want our scout-team backs to get brutalized."
The brutalizing occurred on Saturdays, as you saw — and hope to see again at a championship level.
Reserve three to four hours: No. 20 Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Alabama, at Arlington, Texas (7 p.m., ABC). Wisconsin's offensive line is young and banged up, which doesn't bode well when pitted against Alabama's vaunted front seven. Few are giving the Badgers much of a chance to win. But the same was true in last season's opener, when they controlled then-No. 13 LSU for three quarters before losing by four. The margin will be at least double that in this game, as the Tide proves too strong in the trenches.
A good waste of time: Illinois State at Iowa (11 a.m., BTN). Let's not mince words, this is a potentially scary opener for Kirk Ferentz's crew. Granted, Illinois State is an FCS team. But it finished 13-2 last season and welcomed back arguably the top quarterback-running back tandem in the FCS, in quarterback Tre Roberson (formerly of Indiana) and Marshaun Coprich. The Hawkeyes aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut. They'll have to grind out a close win. Our favorite play-by-play man, Kevin Kugler, should enjoy this one.
Food for thought
If I were a normal person (not a sports writer covering Nebraska football), I would camp in my recliner Saturday starting at 11 a.m. At 11:45 or so, I would order grilled Jumbo wings, 15 of them, from the Watering Hole downtown (eight minutes from our house), the best wings in Lincoln. Seven of the wings would be slathered in spicy barbecue sauce. I'd get ranch dressing on the side and extra celery and carrots. My wife would hand me a roll of paper towels for the mess. The bye week can't arrive soon enough.
Let's not overthink this
Nebraska has to run the ball effectively this season, right? Right? Tommy Armstrong appears to have improved as a passer, but he still isn't necessarily the guy you want to always count on to win games with his arm. Chew on this: NU has averaged at least 200 rushing yards in each of the past five seasons. It likely will need to continue on that jag to win the Big Ten West division.
Thumbs up, down
Thumbs up to Mike Riley, who says all the right things. And guess what ... he's as genuine as the Oregon mist. He's handled the nine months since his hiring exceptionally well. We're confident he's a good coach. But he'll have to be much better than good to last very long here, as recent history has shown.
Thumbs down. Let me get this straight. You have a chancellor and former law professor who preaches academic freedom and is (supposedly) a staunch supporter of the First Amendment. But he allowed his university to take bold steps to squash someone who dared speak his mind, in a fit of passion. Bad form for dear ol' NU.
6. Six Huskers are playing this season as graduate students. Kevin Williams (August 2014), Jamal Turner (December 2014), Givens Price, Matt Finnin and Taariq Allen (May 2015) and Alex Lewis (August 2015) have all earned bachelor's degrees.
Five to go
Five facts to know about Nebraska's Blackshirt tradition (from Husker football historian and great friend Mike Babcock):
1. The tradition dates to 1964, Bob Devaney's third season as Nebraska head coach.
2. After the season opener, Devaney decided to use two platoons, leading to the decision to put black pullovers on first-team defenders.
3. The black jerseys were purchased at a Lincoln sporting goods store by assistant coach Mike Corgan, who was in charge of procuring equipment. His purchase of the black pullovers "was an accident of availability," defensive line coach George Kelly once said.
4. Initially, the black pullovers were distributed each day at practice and collected afterward. They had to continually be earned.
5. It was during Tom Osborne's tenure as head coach, beginning in 1973, that members of the top defensive units received Blackshirts a week or so before the opener, as apparently will be the case under Mike Riley.