Cornhuskers look to right themselves after dismal 2002

Updated: August 12, 2003, 2:07 PM ET

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's coaches and players, along with almost everybody else in this football-mad state, would like to think of the 2002 football season as an aberration rather than the start of a down cycle.

At 7-7, the Cornhuskers posted their worst record since 1961. At 3-5 in the Big 12, they lost more conference games than they won for the first time since 1968.

When the preseason Associated Press poll comes out, they're likely to be out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1969.

Don't forget, this is a program that capped the season before last by playing Miami in the national championship game.

"Last year we stepped on the field and thought we were going to win just because we're Nebraska," linebacker Demorrio Williams said.

"Now," offensive tackle Dan Vili Waldrop said, "people want to play us."

To try stopping the slide, coach Frank Solich has made a slew of changes.

Defensive coordinator Craig Bohl and two other assistants were fired, two longtime assistants retired, another was given an administrative job and Solich gave up the offensive coordinator's position.

In addition, Boyd Epley, a national strength-and-conditioning icon, was moved into a fundraising role and his top assistant, Brian Bailey, was promoted to head football strength coach.

"Last year is obviously in everybody's mind," Solich said. "But you need to move forward. We need to have a football team that's not dwelling on last season."

Fullback Judd Davies said the team is using their dismal season as motivation.

"A lot of guys have a chip on their shoulder," he said. "We went from being the bully to getting bullied. When you win so much, it's hard not to win."

For all the talk about how hard players have trained and how they've rededicated themselves to the program, Davies knows it's all just talk until they prove it.

"The question is, What kind of character do we have?" he said. "Do we respond when we're down in the third quarter and fourth quarter? If we're down one or two touchdowns, are we an offense that's not afraid of failing?"

The offense returns quarterback Jammal Lord and four other starters from a unit that ranked 10th in the Big 12 and 59th nationally in both yards (373.1) and scoring (27.4).

Lord set school records for total offense (2,774 yards) and rushing yards by a quarterback (1,412), but his abysmal passing forced the offense to become one-dimensional.

Though I-back David Horne showed promise after shedding his redshirt midway through the season, Lord remained the Huskers' only true threat. And when defenses loaded up to stop the run, the Huskers' offensive line often was overwhelmed.

Lord spent most of the offseason to improving his passing touch. He also could benefit from easier reads in offensive coordinator Barney Cotton's system.

Lord said he hopes to improve his completion rate from last year's 46.6 percent to around 60 percent.

"That by itself will move the ball down the field," Lord said.

But make no mistake, the ground game will remain the staple of Nebraska's offense.

"We will slam it at people and slam it at people," Solich said. "But we'll also try to mix in passes a little bit more."

Three of five starters are back on the offensive line, including tackle Richie Incognito. The receiving corps lacks proven targets other than Ross Pilkington and Mark LeFlore.

On defense, new coordinator Bo Pelini inherits nine players with starting experience, although he's without departed stalwarts Chris Kelsay at rush end and cornerback DeJuan Groce. Their strength is in linebackers T.J. Hollowell, Barrett Ruud and Williams.

Pelini, like Cotton, has kept a lid on scheme changes. His main thrust has been emphasizing discipline and aggressiveness.

The Huskers ranked no higher than 27th nationally in any of the four major defensive categories. In total defense, their 361.9 yards per game was 55th in the country and sixth in the conference.

Worst of all, the defense seemed to quit in the second halves of losses to Penn State, Iowa State, Kansas State and Colorado. The Huskers were outscored a combined 93-17 after halftime in those games.

"We've got a team that can run and hit you," Solich said. "If you get them running the right place and hitting people, you stand a good chance of getting something done."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index