Huskers suffer growing pains

Nebraska coach Bill Callahan is the son of a policeman from the south side of Chicago, so he knows what life-and-death situations are all about.

This season in Lincoln, which has included a home loss to Southern Mississippi, the worst loss in school history (70-10 at Texas Tech) and a road loss to offense-challenged Iowa State, is by no means one of them.

Still, Callahan understands the passion of Nebraska fans, who haven't had to endure a losing season since 1961 and can still vividly remember three national titles in the 1990s (1994, 1995 and 1997). Heck, they probably still have their ticket stubs from last year's 10-win season -- a campaign that got former coach Frank Solich canned.

Husker fans might be wondering if Solich, running an option offense athletic director Steve Pederson deemed passé in firing Solich, would have had this year's Huskers headed for the Big 12 title game. It's a good possibility with the North Division doing its best impression of the Southland Conference.

"We're going through a transition," said Callahan, whose team is 5-4, 3-3 in Big 12 play. "It's a change in culture. I knew there would be growing pains based on what we were installing. We've got coaches joining together from all over the country. It's a great staff. We're a few plays away from being a very good football team.

"We've got great fans, and I would tell them to remain encouraged. We've got a young team."

With second-ranked Oklahoma up next on the Cornhuskers' schedule, this will be a chance for Callahan's team to show it can go into a hostile environment and compete. So far, Nebraska has gone on the road and looked car sick. The Huskers are 1-3 away from Memorial Stadium with their only win (24-17) at Pittsburgh.

The other road losses have been embarrassing. There were seven turnovers in the 70-point debacle in Lubbock. Nebraska then lost 45-21 at Kansas State, giving the Huskers three straight losses to the Wildcats for the first time in a series that dates to 1911. And last Saturday's 34-27 loss at Iowa State probably left many fans wondering if the wheels were coming off completely.

A defense that had been stout at the beginning of the season seemed tired of carrying the load and having to play sudden-change after 18 interceptions and 10 fumbles this season. (Nebraska ranks 115th of 117 teams in turnovers lost this season.) The Cornhuskers gave up 34 points and 466 yards to an Iowa State offense that had been ranked dead last in the Big 12 in both scoring offense (18 points per game) and total offense (291.2 yards per game).

Through the first four games, the Nebraska defense was giving up just 220.8 yards per game and was one of the top defenses in the country. Now its ranked 50th in Division I-A, giving up 350.8 yards per game.

"We have to coach better and coach harder," Callahan said. "We haven't been consistent enough. On defense, I'd like to see us tighten down and contest more balls in the air. We're giving too big of a cushion and getting to balls late."

The Cornhuskers' special teams also have been a liability. Twice in the first three games, Nebraska allowed a kick return for a touchdown and now ranks 107th nationally in kick return defense, giving up an average of 25 yards per return.

But Nebraska is now all about offense, which leads us to sophomore quarterback Joe Dailey. Dailey has completed 48 percent of his passes, but he's also shown a propensity for turning the ball over in the second half. Ten of his 14 interceptions have been in the final two quarters.

With Nebraska leading 17-9 against Southern Miss, Dailey threw an interception returned for a touchdown on the last play of the third quarter and fumbled in the fourth quarter as the Huskers lost 21-17. Against Kansas State, Dailey had an interception and two fumbles, all in the fourth quarter. And against Iowa State, he had an interception on the Huskers' final possession, killing any comeback hopes.

Callahan, however, remains firmly behind Dailey now and for next year.

"There's no doubt," Callahan said. "We've invested a lot of time and effort in Joe. He's only a sophomore, and I feel he's making better decisions. He's making more plays with his feet when he can and not taking as many sacks."

Running back Cory Ross has been the constant bright spot on an offensive unit that has suffered some key losses, including tight end Matt Herian (injury) and All-Big 12 offensive lineman Richie Icognito (suspension).

Coaches point to the team battling back from a 24-7 deficit at Iowa State to show no one has quit on the season. And there's no turning back on this change in culture in Lincoln, no matter how turbulent it gets, Pederson said.

"In any transition, there will be bumps in the road," Pederson said. "The difference in Nebraska is that we seem to just cheer louder when things get tougher."

The question is for how long?

Chip Brown covers the Big 12 for The Dallas Morning News.