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McKewon: Thoughts on Big Ten bowls, Huskers' RB coach search, Wan’Dale Robinson and more

McKewon: Thoughts on Big Ten bowls, Huskers' RB coach search, Wan’Dale Robinson and more

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Ohio State's Jaxon Smith-Njigba set a bowl record for receiving yards as Utah couldn't slow the receiver or quarterback C.J. Stroud. That's despite other top OSU wideouts opting out of the game. The Buckeyes have so much talent and depth, they won anyway.

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LINCOLN — Whether bowls matter to players, coaches, fans or TV executives, they make terrific homework for the college football beat writer, especially in watching Big Ten teams succeed — then struggle — over the course of a week.

We’ll get to what I think it means for Nebraska. First, the league.

If Ohio State’s Ryan Day was born on third base as a coach, thinking he hit a triple — as Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh intimated after the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes in late November — he still helped rescue the conference from embarrassment with a 48-45 comeback win over Utah in the Rose Bowl.

If OSU hadn’t pulled it off, you would have had losses by the two divisional champs, plus the Buckeyes and Penn State, in the span of 24 hours.

Day was helped by quarterback C.J. Stroud and a wideout room so deep that two stars opted out and Jaxon Smith-Njigba still set a bowl record for receiving yards. The great thing about QBs and receivers? No deficit is too big for them not to rack up some yards and points.

So as OSU made every possible mistake in the first half, Stroud kept throwing. Smith-Njigba, remarkably, kept running wide open. Utah couldn’t stop them — even as the Utes scored 45 points.

“C.J. and he just have a great connection,” Day said of Stroud and Smith-Njigba, who connected a lot in OSU’s 26-17 win over Nebraska earlier this year. “They have a great feel, and I think there's a lot of trust there that's been built over the year.”

Top-100 recruits tend to have feel and engender trust; that’s how they got to be top-100 recruits. OSU had at one point three top-100 receivers, a top-100 quarterback and a top-100 running back on the field Saturday — and none was older than a sophomore. For the Buckeyes, the show goes on.

Harbaugh tried to say as much for his team after a 34-11 loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

“I think our ballclub was in position to do it and weren't able to get it done tonight, but always building and attacking at the same time,” Harbaugh said in a typical for him run-on thought.

Michigan was in position — I thought it would beat Georgia. Until its offensive line couldn’t block Georgia and its defense failed to overtake Georgia’s offensive line.

The Bulldogs iced the game in one quarter, illustrating again the kind of talent — at every spot on the field — it takes to win one of the biggest games. Harbaugh built a great team with good players. But Michigan doesn’t have Ohio State’s receivers. Or Ohio State’s quarterback. Or the advantage of playing Georgia in the cold at the end of a regular season vs. one month later in the heat.

Still, by season’s end, Nebraska played seven nine-win teams in the Big Ten, plus one more (Oklahoma) in nonconference play. The Huskers arguably have never had a schedule so numerically impressive. That record context matters when measuring Scott Frost’s progress with the program.

The bowl context matters, too. Aside from Maryland hammering Virginia Tech, the Big Ten did not mow down its foes.

Minnesota sat on West Virginia for four quarters and more than 200 rushing yards and still scored only 18 points. Wisconsin outlasted an Arizona State team headed for a rough offseason. Purdue perhaps had the best bowl win, staring down Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. Coach Jeff Brohm has quarterback Aidan O’Connell for one more year, and it may help Purdue become the Big Ten West favorite.

Nebraska’s challenge remains this: Lifting its level of play to beat merely good teams. Bowl teams. That’s an important tier to reach among Power Five teams, and outside of six weeks in 2010, that’s more or less the highest tier NU has achieved in 15 years.

The next tier is the one Michigan lives on, where the sum is greater than the very good parts, even if the sum is less than Georgia’s in a College Football Playoff game. The tier after that, where Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson live, will likely take the kind of recruiting only few teams can achieve.

The Huskers are on the bottom tier at the moment. No sugarcoating that. No matter which coach is scaling this mountain — for now, it’s Frost — the climb will be tough.

The second tier seems like a good spot. The third tier seems reachable if everything goes right in the next four years. The fourth tier? Get the right quarterback, receivers, linemen, running backs, pass rushers and corners, perhaps in that order. Few teams can.

Ohio State did — and it saved the Big Ten from a black eye in bowl season.

Quick fire thoughts on a variety of Husker topics:

» Football staff: This could be the week coaching hires are announced.

NU hiring Bill Busch for special teams and some defensive coaching role while Mike Dawson slides down to coach the full four-man front still makes sense. Especially if Busch, a longtime defensive backs coach, takes the nickel spot, where Isaac Gifford, a healing Javin Wright and perhaps a few others are ready to battle.

At running back, Florida’s Greg Knox is one key candidate, while TCU’s Bryan Applewhite and Virginia Tech’s Jafar Williams, who coached with Busch at Rutgers, are names to watch, as well. Williams has coached running backs and receivers at Tech, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, among other schools.

Who — if anyone — can go get a running back in the next three weeks? Nebraska needs a couple.

Kentucky and Baylor have a stable of backs you’d take any day. Decisive, tough, they break tackles. The top two guys on each team are three-star backs from McDonough, Georgia; Wetumpka, Alabama; Henderson, Texas; and Abilene, Texas.

» Recruiting map: Nebraska could stand to recruit a little more in Texas, by the way.

Baylor, Texas Tech, UTSA and Houston all have guys who would start and excel in the Big Ten. The Bears, in particular, have a variety of versatile, violent, hard-running defenders who fit what NU wants to do on defense. A lot of three-star kids from Texas.

» Transfer quarterbacks: Chubba Purdy has a known scholarship offer, but given how little college football he’s played, a Purdy commit (no cinch!) may be paired with an older guy, too.

I like Casey Thompson — his story, his personality, his production in one year at Texas — but I could see NU offensive coordinator Mark Whipple wanting someone taller than the 6-foot-1 200-pounder.

» The O-line: With the addition of Hunter Anthony, Nebraska has three returning offensive line starters, two transfers — Anthony and Kevin Williams — expected to start and several young guys, like Henry Lutovsky, who were a little green in 2021 but may be ripe to contend for time next season.

Who plays center?

Ethan Piper has worked there. Nouredin Nouili — sharp guy, better practice habits — would be interesting. Ditto for Turner Corcoran, whose game most resembles Nick Gates, a multiyear Husker starter at tackle before moving to center in the NFL.

Corcoran has the attitude fitting for a center, too. That position requires a vocal leader. It wasn’t the strongest trait of Cam Jurgens.

» Wan’Dale Robinson: MVP of the Citrus Bowl against Iowa is an example of a transfer success story that benefited Robinson and Kentucky, and may have also benefited Nebraska, where almost inevitably, there would have been friction and frustration this season over Robinson’s usage and role.

Simply: I don’t think Robinson’s presence on the roster wins Nebraska three more games — or even two more games. What Kentucky has — and NU lacks — is an offensive line and running backs who can produce a good run game, allowing Robinson to work in the slot and get open in a variety of ways.

» To bowl or not to bowl: The discussion — on TV, on social media — about players opting out of bowl games represented two generational ships passing in the night. But for all the internet criticism ESPN analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard drew for suggesting that players today don’t love the game the way Herbstreit and Howard did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was struck by the results of a Twitter poll I conducted last week.

Out of 5,584 voters, 56% said they were bothered by players opting out. And 12% more indicated that they would say out loud they didn’t but privately did.

On Sunday, I asked the question again — after the injury to Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral and Ohio State’s Rose Bowl win despite the absence of two star receivers.

The vote shifted — a lot. The yes vote comprised 48%.

» What's the payoff?: The problem with sponsors paying top guys to play in certain bowl games? There’s no incentive to do so with College Football Playoff games or the NCAA tournament in basketball. Who’s opting out of those games to protect NFL futures?

» Women's hoops: The Nebraska women’s basketball team will have to find ways to beat slower, taller, less skilled Big Ten foes who crash the boards, foul a lot and dare the officials to call half of them.

NU has struggled at times to do so under Amy Williams — who prefers a quicker, more versatile team that, if it isn’t making its shots, can struggle to win the rebounding battle. One good takeaway from the first loss of the season, 72-69 at Michigan State, was the play of Sam Haiby, who excels as a closer but may need to get her downhill game to the rim going earlier.

» Volleyball: Wisconsin is the current queen bee, and has already added Kansas transfer Caroline Crawford for next season. Kayla Caffey’s return for a rare seventh season would surpass any Husker football player’s decision heading into 2021.

Who might NU land in the portal? Consider some of the incredible additions over the years: Caffey, Lexi Sun, Cook’s daughter Lauren and, of course, Kelsey Robinson, who carried NU to the Elite Eight in 2013. listed NU as the preseason No. 1 for 2022, followed by Louisville, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Pitt and Washington in the top 10. Creighton, one assumes, must be close.

» Bengal connection: Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor. That’s one heck of a quarterback/coach combo in the NFL, and together, they’re headed to the playoffs after the Bengals beat the Chiefs on Sunday to win the AFC North.

With Big Ben retiring soon, Lamar Jackson banged up and my wife’s Browns underachieving, Cincy could go on a nice long run of playoff appearances.