Nebraska football fans have now had a few days to digest Nebraska’s epic collapse on Saturday, losing at home to UCLA 41-21 after holding a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. Rage and frustration filled the call-in shows as the Nebraska faithful tried to make some sense of how Nebraska could look so dominant at the start of the game and so inept at the end.
The numbers are hard to ignore.
UCLA scored 38 straight points against Nebraska. Nebraska only tallied 120 yards of total offense in the second half. Nebraska only had two drives that entered UCLA territory in the second half, one being the opening drive. UCLA had almost five minutes more time of possession in the second half. UCLA scored on every drive but one in the second half.
So, yeah, the second half didn’t go well for Nebraska.
Earlier, I made the point that the Wyoming game was a “canary-in-the-coal-mine” moment for Nebraska like the near-miss against Ball State in 2007, a signal of bad things to come. I said that if Wyoming was like Ball State, then 2013 UCLA was like 2013 Missouri, an ugly loss.
Upon further reflection, I was wrong. 2013 UCLA wasn’t like 2007 Missouri. It was like 2007 USC.
It’s hard to remember the optimism coming into that game, given what happened afterwards. But Nebraska fans thought the Trojans were going to provide NU the means to re-emerge on the national stage.
Nebraska had come off a tough loss in the Big 12 title game the year before, and it felt like everything was coming together. ESPN’s GameDay crew was in Lincoln, and the nation’s eyes were watching to see if Nebraska really was back.
We know what happened, of course. Nebraska laid a gigantic egg on national television, and the downward spiral from that game cost both a coach and an athletic director their jobs.
So is the past a prelude? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the Bo Pelini era, like we did with the Bill Callahan era in 2007?
Well, of course there are significant differences. Pelini doesn’t already have a losing season on his resume, as Callahan did. Perhaps more significantly, the nearly universally loathed Steve Pederson is not the athletic director. Instead, the man in charge is Shawn Eichorst, in his first year after Tom Osborne hired him away from Miami.
But the setting is disturbingly similar.
When Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel opens his post-UCLA column talking about hopelessness arriving early for Nebraska fans in 2013, there are problems. When Nebraska legend Tommie Frazier calls for a wholesale change in Nebraska’s defensive brain trust, there are problems.
And when Nebraska fans start leaving Memorial Stadium halfway through the fourth quarter, there are real problems.
The vocal response after the collapse has been almost universal in discussion of a coaching change. The response in my inbox has been a consensus that the fans are done with Pelini, that what he’s offering simply isn’t good enough.
It’s not that Pelini hasn’t been successful to a degree. Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games in the five years he has been in charge.
It’s that Nebraska has never lost fewer than four.
And it’s how the losses happened, especially in the last two years. Too many times on a national stage—Ohio State, Wisconsin and now UCLA in one calendar year—Nebraska has fallen victim to Mike Tyson Syndrome.
Perhaps Tyson’s most famous quote is, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Too many times, Nebraska has been punched in the face and not been able to respond.
When asked about second-half momentum, Pelini said (according to Huskers.com), “At times, when I looked at our guys on the sidelines, I felt like it looked like they'd seen a ghost.”
Perhaps they did, the specters of epic collapses past haunting Tom Osborne Field. Certainly in the second half the team played as if it had seen ghosts.
At this point, a trust has been broken between this team and its fanbase. Like at the end of the Callahan era, Nebraska fans will now be going into any “big game” with an expectation of disappointment, rather than an anticipation of victory.
And Nebraska’s schedule over the next few weeks gives little opportunity for redemption. Nebraska faces FCS foe South Dakota State next week, then opens conference play against Illinois and on the road at Purdue and Minnesota.
Say what you will about taking each game as it comes, but wins over those teams will not earn back the trust of Nebraska fans that the team can answer the bell when the lights are shining the brightest.
It isn’t until November, when Nebraska plays Northwestern, at Michigan, Michigan State and at Penn State, that Pelini and his crew will have a shot to exorcise those ghosts haunting the Scarlet and Cream. That’s a long time for pessimism and fatalism to seep into the pores of a fanbase and a team full of college kids.
According to the Associated Press, Pelini is already circling the wagons, telling his players (via the Washington Post), “We can’t worry about what people are saying. It’s going to be negative. It’s going to be negative by the fans, by the media, by everybody. In times like these, all we can do is stick together because the only people who can fix it is us.”
He’s right. On November 2, Nebraska could be 6-1, and it is likely that most fans will be expecting the worst when Northwestern comes to Lincoln. That negativity could very easily create a pressure on the team, particularly when Nebraska struggles against a very good Wildcats squad. Assuming Nebraska takes care of business between now and then, that Northwestern game may be the most difficult coaching job of Pelini’s career.
So where are we now?
Well, we know that Nebraska has the talent to be successful. The first half against UCLA, the defending Pac-12 South champions, proved it’s not a talent issue. Now it’s about coaching, about a mental toughness in a team and in a coaching staff to overcome adversity instead of wilting at the sight of a ghost.
Don’t forget, Nebraska has done this before. Many fans left Nebraska for dead after Ohio State embarrassed NU on national television last year. Pelini and his team pulled together a remarkable string of six straight wins before running out of emotional gas and seeing another ghost in Indianapolis.
Pelini isn’t coaching for his job this season, unless the wheels completely fall off and Nebraska ends the season with a losing record. But there is a new boss in town, and Eichorst isn’t the man who hired Pelini. One way or the other, the status quo will not be maintained after 2013.
Here are the scenarios that I see as most likely. If Nebraska wins the Legends Division and if NU is competitive in the Big Ten title game, then at least some of the ghosts will have been laid to rest. At the very least, that performance—which would include beating Northwestern and Michigan on the road, plus a strong showing against Ohio State—will provide some hope and win back some of the fans’ trust.
That scenario is the minimum requirement for things to continue in Lincoln with no major shakeups.
If Nebraska does not achieve that goal, look for Eichorst to force Pelini to make wholesale changes to his coaching staff. Pelini will have to hire an outside mind (like one smart and particularly handsome analyst said he should have done before) to break up the echo chamber of his coaching staff.
Remember, Pelini is a first-time head coach, learning on the job at a place like Nebraska. He hasn’t had stops like Ball State and Bowling Green to learn his trade as a head coach before taking the big stage. His performance in returning Nebraska to respectability from the smoldering crater left to him by Callahan and Pederson has been little short of remarkable.
But respectability isn’t good enough at Nebraska. And, fair or not, in Year 6 of his time in charge he is expected to deliver trophies, or at least deliver enough hope to a fanbase that trophies are within reach.
Many Nebraska fans have written this season off and retreated to the safety of pessimism and fatalism that served them so well in the Callahan era. But the rest of this season should prove to be a fascinating, and pivotal, nine-game stretch in the history of the Nebraska football program.
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