Well, with the college football magazines sprouting up at the grocery stores, it's almost time to start thinking of next season... of course, before we can look forward to 2006, let's review 2005.
Last season got off to a less-than spectacular start with a 25-7 win over 1-AA Maine. While the defense looked a bit stronger, the offense looked inept. When Maine scored on a long touchdown pass to pull within 1 score early in the 4th quarter, a nervous hush fell over Memorial Stadium. Fortunately, Bo Ruud soon scored on an interception return a few minutes later to save the victory. The next week, the offense continued to sputter against Wake Forest, but the defense scored 3 times to make the 31-3 final much more respectable.
The night before the Wake Forest games, much of the Husker nation tuned into ESPN2 to catch Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats take on the next week's opponent, Pitt. The heavily favored Panthers scored on the opening kickoff of the game, but Solich's Bobcats outplayed them the next 58 minutes and led 10-7 until the exhausted Bobcats called a prevent defense. And as frequently happens, the offense drives the field against the prevent, and Pitt kicks a field goal to send the game into overtime. But in overtime, Ohio's Dion Byrum intercepted Pitt quarterback and scored the winning touchdown sending Solich fans in Nebraska into delirium.
That delirium led to a feeling of deja 'vu next week as Pitt again drove the field against a prevent defense...but this time, Pitt twice missed converting a game winning field goal in a 7-6 Husker win. A game that was so painful to watch, Brent Musburger couldn't wait to start drinking, getting busted outside Memorial Stadium for violating Nebraska's open container law. Nebraska was 3-0, but the defense had scored more touchdowns than the offense and quarterback Zac Taylor was making fans reconsider how bad they thought Jammal Lord and Mickey Joseph were passing.
After a bye week, Callahan made several adjustments against Iowa State, the most noticeable being putting Taylor into the shotgun. The result was a more productive Taylor, throwing for 431 yards, though once again they had trouble scoring offensive touchdowns. The Huskers nearly lost this game in the first overtime as Iowa State's Nick Leaders dropped an interception of Taylor, which would have ended the game. The next week, defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove opened with the prevent defense that was so effective in holding Texas Tech to only 49 points in the 2nd half the year before. After the Red Raiders scored their 70th straight point on the Huskers, Cosgrove finally realized what many fans (myself included) realized a year earlier: you must pressure Tech's quarterback. Nebraska came back and took the lead, but Cosgrove reverted to the ill-conceived prevent defense late, allowing Tech to come back for a 34-31 win.
A decent win on the road at Baylor led to the first trouncing of the year at Mizzou. See AJ's photo at the right? See any Huskers on the field? Thanks to another horrific defensive game plan from Kevin Cosgrove, Brad Smith ran up and down the field uncontested in a 41-24 loss that, unlike the 41-24 loss 2 years earlier, wasn't nearly that close.
Against Oklahoma the next week, the effects of the pounding Zac Taylor was taking game after game began to take it's toll. Taylor was missing wide-open receivers as he was worried more about who was going to hit him next. Meanwhile, Bill Callahan was having his annual embarrassing gaffe with his throat slash.
They always say it's darkest just before the dawn...if that's the case, then the 40-15 loss to Kansas will go down as the low-point in the coaching change. It was a horrible, horrible performance that plunged the Callahan era well below mediocrity. The next week, Nebraska and Kansas State played an ugly game in a gale. Harrison Beck burned his redshirt after Zac Taylor finally took one too many hard hits, and proceeded to throw one pass into the West Stadium stands, another into the hands of a K-State defender who nearly returned it for a lead-changing touchdown late in the 4th quarter, and then finally completing a pass to a Husker receiver to set up the game winning field goal. Callahan had another brain-fart of a play-call in calling a swing pass in the end zone (resulting in the second safety of the game), and recruiting-all-American Zack Bowman bit hard on a fake pass route, chasing a KSU receiver down the field and all the way past the Runza at 10th & Cornhusker.
Another bye-week did the Huskers well, as Nebraska finally put a complete game together for the first time in the Bill Callahan era, beating Colorado 30-3. The offense clicked, the defense clicked. And perhaps most importantly, the team chemistry seemed to click. Chris Patrick and Matt Slauson, inserted into the offensive line, gave the line the ability to protect Zac Taylor, and he delivered completion after completion. With the momentum from the Colorado win, Nebraska moved up in the standings to get an Alamo Bowl matchup with Michigoon. And in a poorly officiated game, the Huskers came out on top and with a solid boost in momentum from the gloom and doom of the games against Kansas and Kansas State.
Now, the optimism of the Colorado and Michigoon victories needs to be tempered by the fact that Kansas State, Colorado, and Michigoon all overhauled their coaching staffs after the season, indicating that those programs were having their own serious problems. And while the Huskers should be pleased with the progress at the end of 2005, they must guard against reading too much into those victories. Optimists will claim that Nebraska was just a couple of bounces away from a Big XII North championship, but they also need to remember that they were a couple of bounces (2 missed field goal attempts by Pitt and a dropped interception by Iowa State) away from their second straight losing season.
So what to expect for the upcoming season? That's a subject for another day.