For the third consecutive year, a once-promising Nebraska football season has ended in disappointment.
Ironically, the Huskers’ 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capitol One Bowl on January 1 didn’t leave a particularly bad taste in the mouths of the Big Red faithful. For a team aspiring to one day win a BCS National Championship, every loss is disappointing and unacceptable at some level, but after a 39-point shellacking at the hands of five-loss Wisconsin in the B1G Championship game, spotting the third-ranked team in the nation 14 points doesn’t seem so bad.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray set a Capitol One Bowl record with 427 passing yards, but he did so on just 18 completions. Murray had three touchdown passes that would have been incomplete passes had they been thrown by literally anyone else. Nebraska, who managed 441 yards of offense against one of those imperturbable SEC defenses, fell victim to possibly the best passing quarterback in the nation having his best college game.
Nebraska played well and was beaten by a better team. Most Husker fans are knowledgeable enough to know that.
Still, this marks the 11th consecutive season that Nebraska has lost at least four games. When, those same knowledgeable fans want to know, did the Nebraska Cornhuskers stop being a team that should expect All-Americans, conference championships and January bowl games?
Head Coach Bo Pelini has done a lot of good things in five years in Lincoln. It is important for Nebraska fans, possibly more so than any other fan base, to be reminded of how good they have it from time to time.
Nebraska has won 48 games in the past five seasons. That’s more than Florida State. It’s more than Miami. It’s more than Texas.
Nebraska has started winning big games again. While Frank Solich was criticized for his notoriously bad record against nationally relevant opponents and Bill Callahan’s teams had trouble finishing the season strong, Pelini is 4-1 against ranked teams at home and is 15-4 in the month of November. This statistic is in direct correlation with Nebraska’s three conference-championship game appearances in five years.
These teams, while very good, have had some unsettling and recurring issues that Pelini needs to fix if he plans on staying in Lincoln for much longer. A few things that, if left unchecked, will always prevent Nebraska from bridging the gap between a team that wins more than it loses and a national championship contender.
Nebraska hasn’t fielded a good defensive line since 2009, and even that was more the dominance of one player than the entire unit. Since the departure of Ndamukong Suh, the Blackshirts’ pass rush has been inconsistent at the best of times and non-existent at the worst. Even the 2010 defense that gave up just 17.4 points per game finished 11th in the Big 12 in sacks and tackles for loss.
That team had two cornerbacks that are now starters in the NFL and a safety that was Third-Team All-American. In their absence, the Blackshirts gave up 23.4 points per game in 2011 and 27.6 in 2012. The Huskers finished 84th nationally against the run this season and gave up an embarrassing 539 rushing yards to Wisconsin in the BIG Championship Game.
Drop-back passers and running backs aren’t the only ones having fun when Nebraska takes the field. The inability to stop running quarterbacks has plagued the Huskers for the entirety of Pelini’s tenure in Lincoln.
This is so prevalent that Husker fans are almost passive about it, as if stopping Denard Robinson or Russell Wilson in 2011 or Brett Hundley in 2012 would have been impossible anyway, and Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis can hardly be expected to scheme up a way to stop a quarterback that doesn’t just stand there and let you sack him.
These are difficult issues to fix but the fact of the matter is that until they are resolved, Nebraska will never be a championship-caliber team. And it doesn’t help that five once-highly-touted recruits have left the team in the last three seasons, if one includes the expected departure of running back Braylon Heard.
It’s been five years almost to the day since the announcement that Nebraska’s football program would be led by Bo Pelini with Tom Osborne as the Athletic Director. There was a measure of grace in his first two seasons as Nebraska found its identity on offense while Pelini’s recruits emerged as the team’s star defensive talent.
This has not happened. Not defensively anyway.
Ever since an infamous contest with Colorado on November 22, 2001, 62 points will forever be Husker fans’ proverbial Mendoza line with regards to a horrifyingly bad defensive performance. Bill Callahan allowed at least that many points three times before he was fired. The last time, on the same field against the same opponent, was his final game as Nebraska’s head coach. Pelini has also allowed at least 62 points three times, his seat growing a bit hotter with each one.
It’s hard to say whether or not there is a substantially better choice than Pelini who is both interested and available for the job. What’s less difficult to say is that most Husker fans thought the program would have ascended to elite status by year five, and that if things don’t improve soon, it couldn’t hurt to start looking.