A look into the past: the Bill Callahan era

Despite going 7-7 the year before, head coach Frank Solich and the Nebraska Cornhuskers rebounded and finished the 2003 regular season 9-3. What happened next changed the program and not in a positive way. Athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich, saying he would not let Nebraska “gravitate into mediocrity” and not “surrender the Big 12 to Oklahoma and Texas.” Ironic.

Pederson replaced Solich with Oakland Raiders Head Coach Bill Callahan, who just came off leading the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002. However, Oakland finished 2003 with a losing record and Callahan was fired. Pederson used that opportunity and brought in him to take over the program in 2004.

Here’s a look back at the Callahan era at Nebraska.

A look into the past: the Bill Callahan era

2004

Record: 5-6 (3-5 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): NR

Final Ranking (AP): NR

The first season under Callahan was very disappointing. The Huskers opened the 2004 season against the Western Illinois Roughnecks and won 56-17, but things went downhill quickly. Their second game came against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles of Conference USA. The Golden Eagles went into Memorial Stadium and upset Nebraska 21-17. Southern Miss opened the matchup with a 9-3 lead going into halftime. However, the Huskers took the lead in the third quarter, pushing their lead to 17-9. The Golden Eagles ended the game scoring 12 unanswered points, winning 21-17, handing Nebraska their first loss of the season. Callahan and the Huskers finished their non-conference schedule in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Nebraska took down the Panthers 24-17 and went into Big 12 conference play with a 2-1 record.

The Huskers started conference play, hosting the Kansas Jayhawks. Oh boy, was this game low-scoring. The Jayhawks opened up the game, winning 5-0, after forcing a safety and kicking a field goal. However, Nebraska got into the endzone before the end of the first half, going up 7-5 at the half. Kansas kicked another field goal in the third quarter to go up 8-7, but the Huskers scored a touchdown to go up 14-8 and they held on and won. Now sitting at 3-1, it seemed like Nebraska was gaining momentum despite the loss to Southern Miss. However, that changed instantly on the road against the Texas Tech Red Raiders. The Red Raiders, led by quarterback Sonny Crumbie, torched the Huskers, winning 70-10.

The blowout loss single-handily derailed Nebraska’s season, only winning two (Baylor and Missouri) out of the season’s final six games. It was also not a good look for the new coaching staff and athletic department, as it was the first time in 35 seasons (1969-2003) that the Huskers were missing the postseason.

Sophomore quarterback Joe Dailey led the team in passing yards with 2,025 yards, completing 49.4% of his passes with 17 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Junior running back Cory Ross led Nebraska in rushing yards with 207 carries for 1,102 yards and 6 touchdowns.

2004 was a brutal season, but with a top-10 recruiting class, including five-star running back Marlon Lucky and future Nebraska defensive standout Ndamukong Suh, the program could improve heading into 2005.

2005

Record: 8-4 (4-4 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): NR

Final Ranking (AP): 24

The Huskers opened up the 2005 season with five straight home games, starting off with the Maine Black Bears from the FCS. Nebraska won 25-7 to kick off the 2005 campaign. Then, they hosted the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and Pitt Panthers in back-to-back weeks and came out victorious in both to enter conference play 3-0.

Nebraska began Big 12 play against the No. 24 Iowa State Cyclones. The Cyclones entered the matchup 3-0, including a 23-3 win over then No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes in the annual Cy-Hawk rivalry game. Iowa State and the Huskers went back and forth, eventually leading to overtime tied at 13. The Cyclones struck first on a 10-yard run from Greg Coleman, taking a 20-13 lead over Nebraska. The Huskers forced double overtime on a one-yard rush by Ross and put pressure on Iowa State on Nebraska’s first drive of double overtime. The Blackshirts stepped up and forced a turnover on downs to upset the No. 23 Cyclones.

The win was a hard-fought victory for the Huskers, but things wouldn’t get any easier as the No. 15 Red Raiders were next. Nebraska had a bad start, going down 21-0 early in the second quarter, but the Huskers kept fighting, eventually taking a 31-27 lead with five minutes left in the matchup. Texas Tech was given another chance, but Nebraska defensive end Kevin Smith intercepted the Red Raiders pass, but Smith didn’t go down right away. He then fumbled the football on the return and Texas Tech took over at the Huskers’ 18-yard line. The Red Raiders found the end zone with 12 seconds left in the game and won the game 34-31.

It was an absolute heartbreaker for Nebraska, but the Huskers got back in the win column on the road against the Baylor Bears. The next three games were rough for Nebraska. Despite being 5-1, the Huskers dropped their next three games against the Missouri Tigers, Jayhawks and Oklahoma Sooners. Nebraska really needed wins in its final two games against Kansas State and the Colorado Buffaloes. Well, it got those two wins to finish with a 7-4 record and they were heading to the Alamo Bowl against the No. 20 Michigan Wolverines in coach Callahan’s first bowl game as a college head coach. It came down the wire, but the Huskers came out on top against the Wolverines 32-28, finishing with an 8-4 record and ranked No. 24 in the country.

The Nebraska offense was led by Wake Forest transfer quarterback Zac Taylor, who threw for 2,653 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and completed 55.1% of his passes. Ross led the Huskers in rushing once again on 225 carries for 882 yards and 5 touchdowns. Defensively, sophomore linebacker Corey McKeon led the Blackshirts in tackles with 97 tackles, including 19 for loss and 7 sacks. McKeon had 3 interceptions as well in 2005.

The Huskers didn’t finish with a top-10 recruiting class; however, they finished with a 20th-ranked class going into 2006. With the improvement in 2005, things were looking up going into the next season.

2006

Record: 9-5 (6-2 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 20

Final Ranking (AP): NR

For the first time since 2003, Nebraska entered the regular season ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25 Poll, this time as No. 20. The Huskers opened up the 2006 season with two blowout victories against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (49-10) and Nicholls State (56-7) Colonels. The competition would step up a notch as Nebraska had to travel to Southern California to take on the No. 4 USC Trojans, who were led by Pete Carroll. Hopes were running high, but those came to a halt as the Trojans defeated the Huskers 28-10.

Nebraska rebounded from the loss with four-straight victories over the Troy Trojans, Kansas Jayhawks, Iowa State Cyclones and Kansas State Wildcats. Now up to No. 17 in the country, the Huskers got to host the No. 5 Texas Longhorns. Once again, against a top 25 opponent, Nebraska held the lead with less than five minutes to go in the game. However, with 23 seconds left, the Longhorn’s kicker, Greg Bailey, hit a go-ahead 22-yard field goal to take a 22-20 lead over the Huskers. Texas went on and defeated Nebraska and the Huskers lost again the next week on the road against the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Despite sitting at a 6-3 record with three games left, Nebraska still had a shot at making the Big 12 Championship game. The Huskers’ three games left were against Missouri, the No. 23 Texas A&M Aggies and Colorado. Nebraska defeated the Tigers 34-20, then went into College Station and took down the Aggies 28-27. Now, all the No. 23 Huskers had to do was beat their long-time rival Buffaloes. Colorado, 2-9 on the season, stood no chance as the Nebraska offense put up 37 while the Buffaloes only scored 14.

Going into 2007, the Huskers landed the No. 21 overall recruiting class with future standouts like defensive lineman Jared Crick, cornerback Prince Amukamara and running back Roy Helu Jr.

2007

Record: 5-7 (2-6 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 20

Postseason Ranking (AP): NR

Going into the 2007 season, Callahan and the Huskers improved every season, starting 5-6 in 2004 and going 9-5 in 2006. National voters saw it, too, as they ranked Nebraska No. 20 in the AP Preseason Top 25 poll. There was a lot of promise going into the season and one game early on in the season was circled on the calendar. That being the matchup against No. 1 USC. First, the Huskers had the Nevada Wolfpack before facing off with Wake Forest on the road. The Wolfpack stood no chance against Nebraska as the Huskers won 52-10. Next, going on the road against the Demon Deacons wouldn’t be easy. Wake Forest gave Nebraska a fight, but the Huskers pulled through 20-17. 

Now ranked No. 14 in the country, the biggest game in the Callahan era had arrived. ESPN’s College Gameday was in town and there was hope for a potential upset. The rowdy crowd at Memorial Stadium got to see a top-ranked team rush all over its opponent. However, it’s not how it used to be. The top-ranked Trojans ran all over the Huskers, rushing for over 300 yards as USC defeated Nebraska 49-31. Callahan didn’t get that breakthrough victory that he was looking for and it got worse for him. 

The Ball State Cardinals were next and it went down to the wire as the Huskers survived 41-40. After defeating Iowa State, Nebraska went on and lost its next six of seven games with only a 73-31 victory over Kansas State. 

The End of the Callahan Era

The end of the era started after the Huskers lost their homecoming game against Oklahoma State as athletic director Steve Pedersen was relieved of his duties by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Pedersen was replaced by legendary head coach Tom Osbourne. Now fast-forward to after Nebraska’s 51-65 loss to Colorado, Osbourne fired Callahan after a disappointing four seasons. An issue that was seen throughout all four seasons was the defense. Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove was a standout for the Wisconsin Badgers under head coach Barry Alvarez in the Big Ten conference. Even having a statistical rise through the first three seasons in Lincoln, Cosgrove’s defense didn’t fit the mold of a Big 12 defense as in 2007, the Huskers had the No. 114 ranked scoring defense, allowing nearly 38 points per game. There were a lot more issues than just the defense, but it’s something to think about. 

Now fast-forward to 2024. The Huskers are on their fourth coach since 2007. There were seven seasons of Bo Pelini but fired due to not being able to win the big games and having an attitude problem. There were three seasons of Mike Riley, where there was hope in 2016 after starting 7-0 but finishing 9-4. Riley was fired after going 4-8 in 2017. Then there was the “savior” of Nebraska football. Former quarterback and National Champion in 1997, Scott Frost was hired after his unprecedented turnaround at Central Florida. After four seasons and three games in his fifth season, Frost was fired by athletic director Trev Alberts after a 42-45 loss to the Georgia Southern Eagles at home. Now, Matt Rhule is one season in and still no bowl game appearance. However, things couldn’t be looking more up as Rhule is bringing in a top 20 recruiting class and the No. 1 quarterback, who could help bring Nebraska back to where they used to dominate. The “promised land”. 

Main Image: Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

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