McKewon: BTN analyst sees one-score games as key to Nebraska’s fate in 2022 | football

LINCOLN — First things first: Gerry DiNardo thinks Nebraska’s football schedule — how hard it has been for several years — is a thing. It’s not a thing NU coach Scott Frost can unpack without being accused of whining but DiNardo, lead studio analyst for Big Ten Network, knows six straight games against Ohio State is tough.

“There can be a legitimate discussion about how hard the schedule has been for Nebraska since they joined the conference,” DiNardo said in the week before Big Ten media days. “And there’s changing ADs — all those things you guys talk about, write about constantly — too. But it’s hard to openly complain about a schedule. Your players read that and think ‘what’s the coach saying — we can’t beat Ohio State?’ Maybe you beat them once — can you beat ’em six years in a row?

“Tell me another conference that calls six games in a row a ‘rotating schedule.’”

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Nebraska didn’t beat Ohio State in any of those games, and was only competitive twice — in 2018 and 2021. Last season, the Huskers drew Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all in one season. Those teams combined for 34 wins. Iowa played Maryland, Penn State and Indiana, which combined for 16 wins.

DiNardo believes in crossover schedule draws enough to make it part of his prediction process each August. As he waited for an appointment last week, I read a few over the phone to him. Nebraska’s draw — Indiana at home, Michigan and Rutgers on the road — is far easier than last season. DiNardo now wants to see each team in camp before slotting where he thinks they belong.

DiNardo sees a defensive staff intact — that’s a good thing — from last season, when the Huskers allowed 22.7 points and 366 yards per game.

On offense, the former LSU and Indiana coach sees what you do: A new offensive coordinator; new assistants, a new quarterback; a new CEO role for Scott Frost. He sees a historically strong program that hasn’t maximized its resources in a Big Ten West that, since Frost arrived, has beaten Nebraska 17 of 23 times. Not a misprint. NU is 6-17 against the Big Ten West since 2018. Iowa is 16-8.

“How many ugly wins have they had? An ugly win is a lot better than a pretty loss,” DiNardo said of the Hawkeyes. “Throw the ball all over the lot, this and that, run the spread — and I’m a spread guy — but, I’m just sayin’, there’s nothing wrong with winning ugly. It’s still a happy Sunday when you’re watching the tape.”

Over four seasons, Iowa has played 13 one-score games within its division, going 8-5.

Nebraska has played 14 one-score games against West division teams. The records: 2-12. Even a .500 record would have resulted in a few bowl games in Detroit.

That’s one of two areas, DiNardo said, where NU has to get better. The other category won’t surprise seasoned Husker fans.

Facing a compressed timetable, Nebraska is tasked with gelling quickly in fall camp

“You have to see improvement in is special teams and a better record in one-score games. That’s a fair, fair expectation for a fan. Those are two of the most important indications of how well the team is coached. Special teams and close games.

“We can argue about why Iowa is still the I formation or why Wisconsin doesn’t throw the ball a lot, but I don’t think anybody can argue that special teams and close game are major points of attention to detail, motivation, overall organization and staff strength.”

That says plenty. Nebraska’s special teams have been awful and costly on and off the field — NU’s mismanagement by a special teams analyst in 2020 resulted in an NCAA investigation and a five-day in-season suspension for Frost. Those issues, coupled with a muddled offensive identity, leave the Huskers here, five years with no bowl game, and Frost on a hot seat.

If NU gets on track, and reverses recent misfortune, it’s still on track to be one of the top teams in the West — however long it might last.

“If you look at the West division,” DiNardo said, “and all seven teams are maximizing their resources — and, to me, history is one of your resources, the importance you put on the sport — why wouldn’t Nebraska, I don’t know, why wouldn’t it be 1, 2 or 3?”

Divisions in basketball?

Big Ten divisions in…basketball? DiNardo sees a possibility for that and every sport that plays more than once a week once USC and UCLA join the Big Ten in 2024.

“Volleyball, lacrosse, basketball, it just makes sense to cut the travel down as much as you could and still allow players to play everybody in the conference,” DiNardo said. “I would hate to take away the experience of a Rutgers or Maryland playing USC or UCLA if they’re basketball. Can you do that when school is out?”

In a Big Ten West basketball division, you’d ship Purdue to the East, add USC and UCLA to the West, leaving Nebraska, USC, UCLA, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin on one side. They’d each play home-and-home contests against each other (14 games) and six games against East teams — three home, and three away. Over 20-game slate, only one team would be missed each year.

In volleyball, a strict East/West split seems tilted westward unless Penn State rediscovers the groove that led to six national titles in eight years.

preseason poll

Our Evan Bland votes annually in the Big Ten media preseason poll — which should be released on the eve of the event.

I’d guess Nebraska is preseason sixth in the West, just ahead of Northwestern. Hello Ireland!

Play it as it lays

Reporters generally try to approach media access the way a serious golfer does their Titleist in the rough: Play it as it lays.

So if Nebraska wants to take away eight of its ten assistants during the regular season, readers should listen for how Mark Whipple, blunt as they come, assesses the play of running backs, tight ends, receivers and offensive linemen.

Big Ten Recruiting Scoreboard: While East teams tumble, Nebraska makes its move

NCAA on transfers

If, through entropy or willful abdication, big institutions decline often enough to defend themselves, they’ll pack their own boxes. The NCAA Division I Council’s recently-passed proposal to allow unlimited immediate eligibility transfers seems like quitting time, a washing its hands of any chaos that comes from a highly deregulated market.

That’s what’ll come from the current iteration of name, image and likeness when coupled with multiple “free” transfers. Unrestricted free agency by the year.

Nebraska may be positioned well in the market, but that level of instability makes it nearly impossible to build chemistry over multiple years. Proposed transfer windows — 45 days in December and January, 15 days in May — only deliver formal clarity; it’s not like 19-year-olds don’t entertain transfer thoughts until a clock’s chime. Athletes will check out, mentally preparing for the first day in the portal.

And, again, this door swings both ways: Some college coaches will process players who don’t really want to leave by nudging them to the portal. Imagine that happening three times to a student-athlete. It renders their college experience a joke.

The NCAA may begin Congress to intervene, craft a law with an anti-trust exemption that allows the institution to stave off unionization or more lawsuits. Maybe Congress acts. Just as likely, the NCAA — which, whatever its many flaws, has done a lot of good and created a lot of opportunities — will collapse, cut up by a thousand legal briefs.

No PBA for volleyball

It’s surprising Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook declined to put one of NU’s home matches at Pinnacle Bank Arena so that twice the Husker volleyball fans could attend.

Tickets to the Devaney Center aren’t easy to score, given the popularity of the team, and there are many teams on Nebraska’s schedule that will lose in three sets. Missed opportunity.

Jordan Larson statue

I’d greenlight a statue of Jordan Larson, too, though.

Volleyball Super Six

We write this annually but this time we really mean it: Hardest World-Herald Super Six ever to pick. And, yes, we’ll keep our annual high school prospect preview at six, even though nine in-state players are committed to Power Five schools so far.

Guess what? In 2022, we’re adding a long-overdue feature: The Volleyball Super Six. Yep — the top six volleyball seniors in the state as determined by the World-Herald. It’s a volleyball state, after all.

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