McKewon: No guarantee Blackshirts get back even after Chinander firing

McKewon: No guarantee Blackshirts get back even after Chinander firing

Sam McKewon, with the Omaha World-Herald, breaks down the Oklahoma vs. Nebraska football game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday, September 17, 2022. Oklahoma won the game 49-14.

LINCOLN – Mickey Joseph is serious about trying to become Nebraska’s permanent head coach, and he clearly sees a way where NU’s defense – as bad as it’s ever been – doesn’t wither on the vine.

That’s one key takeaway from Joseph’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Erik Chinander on Sunday, 24 hours after the Huskers’ 49-14 loss to Oklahoma.

Nebraska allowed 580 yards in the loss to the Sooners, who could have racked up 700 had they kept in their starters.

Was Saturday’s performance Chinander’s fault? In the micro, not entirely; he dialed up some blitzes and tried to keep OU off balance, struggling to succeed in the second and third quarters in part because NU’s offense stunk up the joint.

In the macro? Well, yes. Chinander ran that side of the ball, and Nebraska’s defense is comprised of his recruits. Chinander is the one who hired a defensive line coach, Tony Tuioti, who spent three years recruiting mediocre prospects for a crucial unit, and it’s Chinander who called a too-passive scheme in the 45-42 loss to Georgia Southern.

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Still – this is a bold move from Joseph, to remove the leader of a defensive staff, install Bill Busch – the special teams coordinator – to oversee the staff and try to flip a culture in two weeks.

“Chins,” as he was known, was popular among players and reporters. He was consistently thoughtful and humble in ways that sometimes eluded his former boss, Scott Frost. And Chinander’s defense had improved each season on campus – until this year. Since it’s possible Nebraska will not retain any of the coaches currently on staff, why not give Chinander two weeks to retool for opponents not named Oklahoma?

Joseph will answer that question on Tuesday, when he meets with the media.

On Saturday, after the loss, I asked him if he foresaw any changes at the coaching level. It is, admittedly, a hard question in that moment; Joseph perhaps hadn’t decided in his mind what he’d do and, if he had, wasn’t going to tell the press first.

His answer: “No, no. I can’t see that right now. I do not know if I’ll be able to see that tomorrow, but I can’t see that right now.”

Joseph saw something different Sunday. So did anyone who rewatched the game.

The Huskers missed 16 tackles. OU’s receivers outscrapped NU’s defensive backs on both run plays and quick passes. At times Nebraska’s defensive front seems more focused on fitting run responsibilities than bringing down ball carriers. It looks like six guys, battling hard and tackling no one. On and on.

So Chinander is out. It’s a tough business. He had an $850,000 salary through the end of this season and next season, so Nebraska’s likely to pay him more than $1 million, mitigated by the salary of any new job, as part of his buyout. Chinander was a fair dealer with the media, well-liked by many around the program. He will likely not be recalled the way Bob Diaco is remembered.

Now Busch gets to do the job. Nebraska will have to find a new special teams cooridinator – hard to see Busch doing that, too – and, more importantly, a new vibe on defense.

Yes, vibe. Edge. Spirit. Fire. Busch can provide that. He’s a live wire kind of coach. He can draw upon lessons from 2007, when Busch was on Kevin Cosgrove’s staff and watched that defense collapse. And he may be able to reconfigure NU’s run defense in ways above my knowledge and paygrade.

But there are only so many schemes he can draw up and buttons he can push. And Busch can’t sign players in free agency. This is the group.

Perhaps Nebraska can get, say, 100 yards and seven points better in Big Ten play. NU is allowing 514 yards and 35.5 points; if it can reduce those to, say, 414 and 28, it gives the Huskers’ offense a fighting chance to do damage. NU’s first two opponents after the bye week, Indiana and Rutgers, will help the Huskers tell the tale. In the Big Ten, the Hoosiers rank 12th yards per game. The Scarlet Knights rank 13th, and that includes a game against Wagner, which may not win the Class A state title.

So Nebraska has a chance to regroup and revive itself on defense. If Blackshirts get even halfway back to where Chinander had them last season, they may put the season back on track.

Either way, NU goes on without Chinander, who was failed time and again by NU’s offense and special teams last season.

This place is hard on DCs. Always has been.

Charlie McBride took years of guff before a switch to the 4-3 made him a genius in the last eight years of his career. Craig Bohl took over in 2000 and lasted three years before getting run out. Bo Pelini was a one-year genius as DC, then a two-year genius as head coach, before the Big Ten caught up to his mousetrap scheme and Wisconsin trampled all over Nebraska. Cosgrove had terrific defenses in 2005 and 2006; no matter in 2007. Mark Banker lasted two years – deserved more – and got fired a few months after he praised Iowa’s practice regimen. Diaco’s manner invited – and received – a lot of guff. And Chinander, the DC willing to live with Frost’s fast-paced, free-wheeling offense, got fired, too, by an assistant who just arrived ten months ago.

Tough business. But it’s Joseph’s team, and the interim HC may only have eight games left. To remove the interim tag, he needs to win a lot. Sunday, he made a choice that he thinks will help him do it.

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