OU vs. Nebraska football: Will Cornhuskers have the juice to win without Scott Frost?

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OU writes the next chapter in a storied rivalry at 11 a.m. Saturday when it faces Nebraska in Lincoln.

The Cornhuskers (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) are in a transition period following the firing of head coach Scott Frost on Sunday. They've since filled the void with interim head coach Mickey Joseph.

To learn more about OU's Week 3 opponent, we spoke with Evan Bland. He's the Nebraska football beat writer for The Omaha World-Herald, and this is what he had to say about the Cornhuskers:

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FILE - Then-Nebraska associate head coach and wide receivers/passing game coordinator Mickey Joseph chats with red team wide receiver Latrell Neville (7) during the second half of Nebraska's NCAA college football annual red-white spring game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, April 9, 2022. Mickey Joseph begins his run as Nebraska's interim head coach following Scott Frost's firing. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz, File)

What's the mood of Nebraska fans following the firing of Scott Frost?

Bland: "I think they had a pretty strong sense that it was inevitable at some point, especially coming off the Georgia Southern loss where a Sun Belt team rolled up more yards than any school has at Memorial Stadium in 100 years. They knew it was coming. I think the surprise this week is that it happened this week. It's pretty well known that the buyout for Scott Frost was set to be cut in half if he was still the Nebraska coach into October, but they felt strong enough that a change needed to be made that they did it now. They ate about an additional $8 million to fire him now. I think there's some curiosity to what's next, what Mickey Joseph can bring, what changes there might be, what a change like this can do to maybe light a fire or change the message for some of these players who still have nine games to play. Obviously, there's a big one this weekend. It's certainly a chaotic time with the change. I don't know that people fully understand or know what to expect at this point. But just the way the season was going and the way that Nebraska performed in its first three games, I think people are cautiously optimistic that the product will be a little better this weekend."

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Then-Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches his team against Georgia Southern last weekend.
Then-Nebraska head coach Scott Frost watches his team against Georgia Southern last weekend.

What can you tell me about interim head coach Mickey Joseph?

Bland: "It's a major opportunity for him. He's built his career on being a very strong position coach, mostly as a wide receivers coach. To step into the head coaching role and have nine games as sort of an audition to prove himself - he has a big personality. He's a charismatic, tough-minded guy who is going to make some changes. Trev Alberts, the athletic director, said yesterday that any moves Mickey Joseph wants to make, he'll endorse and the athletic department will back. We don't know what exactly those changes might be at this point, but this is somebody who is going to come in and shake things up a little bit. He's somebody who was just hired last winter, so he doesn't necessarily have a strong loyalty to how things have been done here over the last four years. This is his first real shot as a head coach. He was with an NAIA school (Langston) as a head coach about 10 years ago down there in Oklahoma. But otherwise, he's pretty much been a career assistant who has been with some big programs. This is his big shot to prove he deserves to have some consideration maybe for the head coaching job at his alma mater."

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FILE - Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, right, chats with head coach Scott Frost during a timeout in the first half of Nebraska's NCAA college football annual red-white spring game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, April 9, 2022. Nebraska coach Scott Frost says there's no tension between him and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Frost commented Monday, Aug. 29, after being asked to expand on his postgame remarks about the play-calling in the loss to Northwestern in Ireland.(AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz, File)

What are some differences you've seen with first-year Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple now in the mix?

Bland: "When Scott Frost was calling plays, he was doing that the last four years, I think you would probably characterize their offense as a spread attack. They mixed in a lot of quarterback runs, a lot of deep balls and things of that nature. They were a lot more up-tempo. And under Mark Whipple, it's been more of what Whipple was known for at Pitt. It's more of a West Coast offense, more pass heavy. Casey Thompson, a Texas transfer, has been a good addition for them. His ability to go through his progressions reliably, his ability to throw the short and intermediate passes consistently have been an improvement from what Nebraska had the previous four years with its starter at that time (Adrian Martinez). I would say it's more pass heavy. They do feel like they found a running back in Anthony Grant, who is a junior college transfer (New Mexico Military Institute). It's an offense that's still coming together in a lot of ways. The quarterback and the running back are both transfers. There are multiple wide receiver transfers led by Marcus Washington and Trey Palmer, so there's a lot of moving pieces. They're still figuring things out. But, at the base level, I think it's more of a pass-heavy look than what Nebraska has had in recent years."

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Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson throws a pass on Saturday against Georgia Southern.
Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson throws a pass on Saturday against Georgia Southern.

Who is Casey Thompson's top receiving target?

Bland: "His most popular target by far has been Trey Palmer, the LSU transfer. He's one of the fastest guys on the team, and he's involved in some of the return aspects of the game. He'd be the main guy. Marcus Washington, from Texas, has immediate rapport with Casey Thompson considering they were both Longhorns a year ago. Omar Manning is a guy that Nebraska has liked for a while who remains involved. And then they sort of have a handful of other guys who have had their moments whether that's Alante Brown, Oliver Martin or a couple of other guys. But there's really no doubt that as much as Nebraska hit the transfer (portal) in the offseason, and they did by adding 16 portal guys, that's probably been one of the positions where those additions have helped the most just in terms of guys who can create after the catch and guys who now are getting snaps out there on the field."

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What is Nebraska's biggest struggle on defense?

Bland: "It didn't help that they had one of their co-captains out with an injury in Nick Henrich, a middle linebacker who injured his hand in the opener. It's questionable as to whether or not he'll be back this week. That was sort of the idea, that he would be. They have a bye week after this one, so I'll be curious to see which way they go. But missed tackling has been a big problem through three weeks, especially on third downs. It seems like opponents have often been able to slip a tackle and extend drives after that. And I think it's also the fact that there are so many new guys out there. Tommi Hill is a starting corner who's a transfer from Arizona State. They have multiple defensive linemen, Stephon Wynn and Devin Drew, who were at other programs last year. Ochaun Mathis, an edge rusher, was at TCU last year. So I think that's part of the learning curve, too. And some of it too has been some of the same stuff that has bugged them for a number of years. They're generally slow to adjust when an opponent has something rolling. Georgia Southern certainly did, and Northwestern did a couple weeks before that. There's been more continuity on that side of the ball, but in terms of personnel and the shakeups that they've had, I think you've seen how that learning curve has sort of fleshed itself out early in the season."

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Nebraska only has two sacks this season. Who are some guys who need to step up on the defensive line?

Bland: "That's been a surprise because the talk coming out of camp in the preseason and the offseason was that the edge rusher would be one of their strengths, and it just hasn't turned out to be that way so far. Ochaun Mathis was the big headliner from TCU because of what he did in his career there. Another is Garrett Nelson, a co-captain and pretty much the heart and soul of the defense. He's had a couple of moments, but I think he would tell you that he can do more. And then Caleb Tannor, he's a fifth-year guy who has played in every game at Nebraska since 2018 is someone who has been able to get to the quarterback pretty well in the past. Those are the guys who stand out in terms of being able to rush the passer or drop back and over somebody if they need to. But again, it just hasn't necessarily happened through three games. I think some of that, especially against Northwestern and North Dakota, has been the conservative way that they've called games. I think from Nebraska's perspective, the way that Oklahoma likes to be more open with its offense, that would be a chance for Nebraska to maybe pressure the quarterback in a way that they just haven't been able to the past three games."

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What does Nebraska need to do to win?

Bland: "It has to stop the run. It's been a major problem. Georgia Southern, a self-described air raid team ran all over Nebraska last week. I'm sure Oklahoma is fine with opening it up. But if they don't have to, if they can just run between the tackles and gash them for five yards per carry, I don't know how much the passing game will even come into play. I would think stopping the run has got to be the top priority. Get your fits right and get your assignments right. That's been something that they've struggled to do consistently. If you can set up a third-down situation where you can rush the passer, they feel like maybe that's a strength for them. And then on the other side of the ball, I think it's just about offensive balance. There have been times where Nebraska has sort of fallen in love with the pass a little bit too much, and that doesn't necessarily carry you through 60 minutes of football. Being disciplined enough to lean on Anthony Grant as a rusher and control that clock a little bit more is a key as well. And then you're going to need a good game from Casey Thompson. He's proven himself to be one of the more reliable starters on this team through three games. He's going to have to have a big game and makes some plays if Nebraska is going to get into a shootout and potentially win one with the Sooners."

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Nebraska never won a game against a Top 25 team under coach Scott Frost.
Nebraska never won a game against a Top 25 team under coach Scott Frost.

Even if Nebraska doesn't win, what would Cornhuskers fans consider a successful outing?

Bland: "Well, the pressure is now off, in a sense, because Scott Frost has been fired and they know that a change is coming. I'll be curious to see if that sort of releases the pressure on the players at all, if they can feel that and if they can go with that. One of the things that will mark the Scott Frost era is that they had no signature wins. They never beat a Top 25 team. There's no game that you can point to and say, 'This could've been a turning point.' It's interesting that Mickey Joseph, right off the bat, if he were able to win on Saturday, would have a better win than Scott Frost had in four-plus seasons. Through this season, the first three games for Nebraska have been a don't-lose situation where they're expected to win and the pressure is on them. This weekend, that's just not the case. With the coaching change and the way things have gone, I think they understand that nobody is picking them to win this game. Sometimes the psychology of that can play in your favor when you've been trying to protect something and now you can take something that nobody thinks they can do. We'll see if that makes a difference, if that lets them play a little bit freer now that some of those changes have been made. "

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OU vs. Nebraska football: Can Cornhuskers win without Scott Frost?