After Nebraska’s demolition at the hands of Ohio State, Bo Pelini said NU would (according to Omaha.com) have to win out to make it to the Big Ten Conference Championship in Indianapolis. Few people (apart from one particularly smart and handsome analyst) gave Nebraska much chance of accomplishing that goal.
But, four games later, Nebraska is 8-2 and in control of its own destiny. Talk amongst the Children of the Corn has turned from Pelini’s job to travel arrangements for Indianapolis. Confidence now is very high amongst Nebraska fans.
But the job isn’t over yet. And Nebraska’s dramatic wins may be masking some significant issues with the team. For Nebraska to complete the job and get to Indianapolis—and maybe to win the conference and break its BCS bowl hex—here are five things that need to be addressed.
Nebraska has gotten 17 turnovers from its opponents in 2012. Unfortunately, it has turned the ball over 25 times, for a negative-8 turnover margin. That puts Nebraska at 105th in the country, tied with Tulane and Buffalo in turnover margin.
Throughout Nebraska’s remarkable four-game roller coaster, turnovers have been crucial in putting NU behind and forcing late-game heroics. Against Penn State, a questionable turnover call in favor of Nebraska ultimately helped turn the tide and secure a win.
But if Nebraska is going to continue its march to Indianapolis, holding a slender tiebreaker lead over Michigan, it cannot continue to give the ball away.
Bo Pelini’s defense is a sight read defense, meaning the team will look at what the offense is doing and make adjustments accordingly, either from the sidelines or between the defensive players. That scheme gives the defense a tremendous amount of flexibility to react to and shut down opposing offenses.
But it requires a great deal of communication between the players, and it requires that the coaching staff get the defensive calls in quickly. Pelini admitted he struggled with some of the calls, which contributed to Penn State’s success on offense early.
So if Nebraska is going to continue with Pelini’s system—and rest assured, Pelini will continue with his system come hell or high water—then improvements must be made on how effectively the call comes in from the sideline and is communicated to the team.
O, Santino Panico, where art thou?
Fielding punts has been a huge struggle for Nebraska. Even as a freshman, Ameer Abdullah dazzled with his punt return ability but lost his job due to ball security issues. Kenny Bell has gotten his chances, and struggled with the same issue.
Tim Marlowe, even coming back from injury, seems to have the most trust from the coaching staff as a safe pair of hands—and it was his muffed punt against Penn State in the first half that really turned momentum in favor of the Lions.
It’s not clear if Nebraska has anyone else on the roster who hasn’t had such issues. But a solution needs to be found if Nebraska is going to finish the job of winning out after the Ohio State debacle.
In the four games since Ohio State, Nebraska has been outscored in the first half, 54-37. Nebraska’s late-game heroics have been the stuff of legends, and they have made for a lot of exciting finishes, but they have largely been keyed by Nebraska struggles early in the game.
In fairness, the four teams Nebraska has faced have all been quality opponents, certainly better on paper than the remaining two teams on the schedule. But if Nebraska wants to avoid disaster as the season winds down, starting strong would help immensely.
The string of comebacks Nebraska has put together this year has been nothing short of remarkable and demonstrates a real strength of character and maturity in the team. But there is a potential downside to Nebraska’s streak of comebacks.
If an attitude develops amongst the team that a double-digit deficit is no big deal, then Nebraska could end up losing the urgency needed at the start of the game, assuming it can hit the switch like before and make up the difference.
Up to now, Nebraska has done just that. But it’s a fine, fine line to walk. If one play went the wrong way in any of those comebacks, we could be talking about Nebraska losing four heartbreaking games rather than winning four breathless comebacks.
Instead of Nebraska being 8-2 and in control to win the Legends Division, we could be talking about Nebraska being a hard-luck 4-6 and fighting for a bowl berth.
In football, the good fortune that Nebraska has enjoyed has a disturbing tendency to break the other way at some point. If Nebraska is to finally put another number after the lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships, not trusting in its ability to make everything go right with another miraculous comeback would be a good place to start.
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