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5 things we learned about Nebraska football in Matt Rhule’s first season



Nebraska football
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska football didn’t reach a bowl game in Matt Rhule’s first season, but that doesn’t mean the Huskers are doomed.

The last seven years have been painful for Nebraska football fans. Hell, the last 20 have been. It’s just a reality. The Huskers haven’t won a conference championship since 1999.

They also haven’t contended for a national championship since 2001. With the 12-team playoff, my hope is that can change.

Matt Rhule’s first season ended prematurely on Friday, at least it ended sooner than we all hoped. Nebraska football was 5-3 after the win over Purdue and a bowl game felt inevitable.

Then, you think to yourself, have you learned anything?

Nothing has come easy for this Nebraska program, but I believe it’s headed in the right direction, as disappointed as I am in the end of Rhule’s first season.

As a fan, it can be hard to keep perspective. But after 48 hours of separation from the Iowa game here are five things we learned from Matt Rhule’s first season on the job.

There was progress this season

Nebraska was inflicted with many of the same issues that it was the past few years under Scott Frost such as turning the ball over too much, too many penalties, and poor late-game execution.

That doesn’t mean Rhule is a bad coach. I was hopeful that he would be able to correct some of these things. If Nebraska had been able to protect the ball, it could have easily have won eight games. That’s far from an exaggeration, which makes the 5-7 finish even more staggering.

The game management needs to be better at the end of games. But that also comes with better execution. If you get a quality quarterback, you don’t have to worry about taking your foot off the gas and managing him so much.

However, the offensive line made real progress this season. In fact, Nebraska football did in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Ty Robinson and Nash Hutmacher took gigantic steps forward and Terrance Knighton looks like a real find as the D-line coach.

Thinking about all the young talent there, as well as Robinson coming back, hopefully, Hutmacher too, the Huskers should be really good up front next season. That’s a solid starting point.

Nebraska needs a quarterback

Chubba Purdy showed some progress over the last couple of games, but he made critical mistakes against Maryland and Iowa.

That doesn’t mean he can’t improve — it’s just too risky to put all your eggs in his basket as the starter. Nebraska needs to find a legit quarterback in the transfer portal — someone like Sam Hartman for Notre Dame.

Even if it’s just a one-year rental, the schedule is pretty manageable next season. All seven home games are winnable with UCLA and Wisconsin, as well as Colorado looming as the most difficult.

You have road games against Iowa, USC, and Ohio State. So getting 10 wins will be very difficult, but getting to six shouldn’t be that tough, especially if the Huskers land a proven starting quarterback.

The Blackshirts played like Blackshirts

Nebraska did itself proud on the defensive side of the ball. Nebraska ranked 18th in scoring defense in college football and only allowed five teams to score 20 points or more. One of those games was against Wisconsin in overtime.

The run defense was particularly impressive and allowed just three yards per carry this season. I would like to see more takeaways and sacks next season.

Bottom line: Tony White did a great job. He was an elite hire by Rhule, who needs to make sure that he gets more money for White before he leaves unless someone decides to make him their head coach. Then, there isn’t much Rhule can do.

Turnovers have to stop

It’s hard enough to win football games in the Big Ten, but it’s nearly impossible to do it when you are giving the ball away 2.6 times per game.

Nebraska led college football in turnovers and still almost made a bowl game. It’s been a plague on the program through multiple head coaches, but Rhule needs to find the solution.

Whether it’s getting better players, coaching the current ones better, or something else, this program isn’t going to reach the postseason until it solves the turnover issue.

Special teams need to be special

Rhule talked about the “special teams needing to be special” as part of his formula. This season, the Huskers failed to meet that expectation.

The coverage units were much better. Nebraska didn’t allow any special teams touchdowns this season. However, there were missed kicks against Iowa and Wisconsin that could have been the difference between winning and losing.

Nebraska is obviously playing the game differently if it’s leading 13-10 in the fourth quarter. That being said, Nebraska has the right placekicker and he’s going to be great.

Yet, the return game wasn’t good after Rahmir Johnson got hurt. It was especially bad against Michigan State when the Huskers had Billy Kemp fair catch every punt instead of using a healthy return guy.

That’s a decision Rhule would surely want back. There are a couple, but those game-management decisions, while frustrating, aren’t the top-5 among concerns going into next season.

Nebraska just needs to get better and based on his history, the Huskers can expect a big leap in year two. Rhule led a one-game improvement in 2023, despite an insane amount of injuries, and if he can do even just that next season, Nebraska will go bowling.

However, I’d be almost disappointed with six wins, because if Rhule is the head coach we believe him to be, the improvement next season should be much more evident than that.

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Chris has worked in sports journalism since 2005 writing for multiple newspapers and websites such as the Bleacher Report and Fansided before starting Husker Big Red, A fan site for hardcore followers of the #Huskers offering articles, podcasts, videos and more exclusive content on all things Nebraska