- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- By Saturday, the drab white tunnel walls were replaced by a fresh coat of red paint and pictures of serious young men who became All-Americans. The hip-hop music that thumped through the Cornhuskers' entrance to the field was gone, because back in the good old days, game faces were molded to the beat of The Alan Parsons Project.
Tom Osborne was everywhere in his first week on the job as Nebraska's interim athletic director. Friday morning, he received standing ovations over eggs, coffee and pep talks in Omaha. Saturday, his presence in a downtrodden football state was palpable. College students walked around campus wearing T-shirts that said, "T.O.'s House Cleaning Service."
The Cornhuskers seemed rejuvenated.
"I'm not going to lie," NU defensive lineman Zach Potter said. "I tried harder when he was out there. Because he's coach Osborne. It's sweet."
But even Osborne can't fix what is spiraling into his beloved program's worst season in nearly half a century. Texas A&M became the latest team to pile onto Nebraska's misery Saturday, hammering out a 36-14 win at a place where beatings are no longer unique or shocking.
They can be ironic, though. Like when the Aggies made defenders whiff and scurry over the option, the same brand of outdated offense the Huskers were running four years ago. Back then, Frank Solich was considered a caveman of sorts and Bill Callahan was fresh and bringing in a fancy, new West Coast offense.
On Saturday, the Cornhuskers yearned for more of the old. They were shut out in the second half, gave up 359 rushing yards and have lost three straight by a combined score of 122-34. They are 4-4 and go to Texas next week. Many considered Saturday the last realistically winnable game of the season.
"Obviously, we're hurting again," Callahan said. "I felt coming into the year we had a good team -- we do have a good football team. We have talent. We're just not getting it done for whatever reason. But I'm not sagging. I'm just really disappointed."
It has been a season of dramatic mood swings and cold, swirling winds. This week alone, there were two impromptu news conferences, one firing, and at least 50 rumors of coaching changes. Callahan's demeanor has changed, too. When the Huskers were blown out at Missouri two weeks ago, he arrived at his weekly news conference determined and on the offensive. They still had the Big 12 North title in sight. On Saturday, he seemed contrite, defeated and almost resigned to the fact that his time in Lincoln is all but over.
To shake things up, he brought offensive coordinator Shawn Watson down from the booth to share play-calling duties. It seemed to be working just before halftime, when Sam Keller hit Maurice Purify for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cut the Aggies' lead to two.
But A&M opened the third quarter with an 80-yard touchdown drive, and Callahan's other new duty for the day -- monitoring the defense -- wasn't quite as successful. Days after being stripped of their coveted Blackshirts, the defense gave up 459 yards.
"We have to stick together," Potter said. "If we just quit now I really don't want to end up being 4-8."
Osborne, who will ultimately decide the coaching staff's fate, says he likes Callahan and believes he was thrust into a difficult situation, following a fired 9-3 coach. He attended at least two football practices this week, and the players said Osborne's presence -- and his old-school changes -- motivated them in the days leading up to the game.
But the makeup of this team is so anti-Osborne. Nebraska's two-deep roster is full of junior-college players and transfers and out-of-staters who've never had the chance to learn what the pictures on the wall of the tunnel mean to Osborne.
Maybe they'll figure it out with a few more coats of paint and a giant scraper.
"I don't think he makes us play better or makes us coach any different," says NU receiver Nate Swift. "But it's nice to have him here."
As the Cornhuskers stumbled off the field late Saturday, fans hung over the rails wearing pitied looks. "Keep your head up, football player!" a man yelled.
The football player kept his eyes fixed on the FieldTurf.
Callahan gathered them together and told the players he was proud of their effort. It was better than last week's 45-14 loss to Oklahoma State.
But it was worlds away from the old Nebraska.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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