Nebraska’s crushing loss to No. 6 Oklahoma shows depth of despair Cornhuskers must overcome

LINCOLN, Neb. — Sean Taylor had the reasoning for Nebraska’s long-term downturn defined, if not solved. As his once-glorious program was being clobbered by No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday, the 45-year-old Cornhuskers fan became philosophical while leaving Memorial Stadium.

“This is our penance, and we’re OK with it,” said Taylor, a manufacturer of artificial limbs from Omaha, Nebraska.

Penance? Taylor figures Nebraska’s pain could have been avoided if the school didn’t — in his words — become “the only school in the history of college football to fire two nine-win coaches.”

Typical of Nebraska football these days, Taylor didn’t get the little things right. The recently fired Scott Frost was actually the only Huskers coach of the five since Tom Osborne not to win at least nine games.

That complicates the issue of a turnaround that has waited a quarter century. The 49-14 loss to Oklahoma in interim coach Mickey Joseph’s debut was supposed to be the kickoff to a new era (whether the ex-Nebraska quarterback gets the permanent gig or not). Instead, it highlighted the depth of despair as well as the deepness of the hole from which the program must dig out.

“This one is on me,” said Joseph, a legacy adored at Nebraska but one who is just getting his playbook organized to chase the job of a lifetime. “Not my players, not my assistant coaches. I’ve got to do a better job.”

Joseph at least has that part of the head coaching gig figured out: Blame yourself when you lose, credit the players when you win. Unfortunately, the ray of light Joseph provided this week got a bit dimmer at the final whistle.

The idea that Nebraska somehow deserves this misery was merely Taylor’s stadium ideology. The reality is that the Cornhuskers need to get back to basics. The path to that point seems as lengthy as ever.

“We’ve been tagging up [not tackling] for four years,” Nebraska safety Myles Farmer concluded.

That’s a good place to start the rebuild. Last year in this game, Nebraska surprisingly played Oklahoma off its feet, losing 23-16. Frost was fired last Sunday after a litany of single-digit losses that confirmed an overall lack of progress.

One line of thought this week: Joseph’s ascension from wide receivers coach (and associate head coach) would at least inject new life in a once-glorious rivalry renewed last year after lying dormant for a decade.

No such pluck from the Huskers on Saturday. After running out of scripted plays and leading 7-0, they allowed the Sooners to score the next 49 consecutively.

Worse, Oklahoma ran past and through Nebraska. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel scrambled around a confused defense for a 61-yard touchdown. Tennessee running back transfer Eric Gray ran for 113 yards and two scores. OU first-year coach Brent Venables continued to pump life into the defense, his specialty. At one point in the first half, nine of 10 plays run by Nebraska were for no gain or a loss.

“Y’all are going to ask me all your questions I really don’t want to answer,” Farmer told the media. “But at the end of the day, y’all are not in here with us. Y’all are not at practice with us.”

Taylor’s notion that the football gods have spit on the Huskers is just depressing. A large swath of the 87,000 fans left at halftime. Taylor and friend George Jones, an owner of an Omaha beverage company, couldn’t give away passes to the exclusive Champions Club across the street from Memorial Stadium.

The presence of Urban Meyer for the Fox “Big Noon Saturday” broadcast added spice, if only to the student section which chanted his name as he made his way to the on-field set. CBS Sports reported Saturday that Nebraska has made contact with Meyer, but in a sampling of opinion, few in Lincoln think he is right for the program.

That’s a reason to root for this turnaround. There is nothing not to like about these intensely loyal fans who only want to win again. They’re real, Midwestern. They know football. Forgive the likes of Taylor when he reminisces.

“We used to get five fat kids from Aurora, Nebraska,” Taylor said. “We’d get three kids from California, three kids from Florida, five kids from Texas. And then, all right, we’re going to run behind these giant fat kids and have speed coming out of our ass.”

Instead, on Saturday, Oklahoma ran 84 plays with star offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby snapping the ball an average of once every 21 seconds.

“I’ve got to get better as a head coach,” Joseph repeated.

Does he have enough time? There are eight games left in the season. A bowl bid already is slipping away at 1-3. Joseph really, really, really wants the job.  Taylor, as one of a legion of Nebraska fans, would really like him to get it.

Joseph was a prize prospect in the 1980s out of New Orleans who waited in line behind other Huskers to finally get his chance in 1990. He gave blood — literally — for this program. In the 1990 Oklahoma game — the last time Nebraska lost in this series by 35 points — his leg was bloodied in a gruesome sideline injury. In his next meeting with Oklahoma on Saturday, his team’s lip was bloodied.

“They don’t have the swagger,” Taylor said of the Huskers. “These kids should be the one, their d— enters the room 10 feet before they get into it. That’s the attitude Mickey will give them. Right now, they’re just beat [up].”

Based on Saturday, this Nebraska rebuilding project — or whatever you want to call it — is bigger and more extensive than anyone thought.

It was notable — if only for irony’s sake — that Joseph wore a black shirt. There weren’t many of his players worthy of that honor Saturday. In fact, Joseph took away the Blackshirts awarded to achieving defensive players for the time being as he wanted the team to start with a clean slate.

The tradition started in the 1960s when first-team defenders were identified by wearing black jerseys in practice. That was more than 50 years ago. It only seems like it will that long for Nebraska to regain that swagger Taylor longed for after Saturday’s debacle.

“We’re from that era,” he said, “that we’re the best goddamn football team on the planet. We’re never, ever not going to be awesome. Oklahoma is No. 6 in the country for Christ sakes. You could have the Green Bay Packers [as an opponent], and we would still be cautiously optimistic we would win the football game.

“There’s always hope. It’s the hope that hurts.”

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