Not since a 65-51 loss to Colorado in Boulder ended a miserable 2007 campaign has a potential coaching change at Nebraska seemed so imminent.
While head coach Bo Pelini and his staff will have ample chance to rectify their status with Nebraska’s often high-maintenance fanbase, Saturday’s loss to UCLA certainly had the shock value to start the conversation.
No one saw this one coming.
Nebraska entered the game as a four-and-a-half point favorite. The Big Red was riding a 10-game home winning streak dating back to 2011 and had not lost to a ranked opponent in Lincoln since 2008.
Most experts agreed that if Nebraska did not win decisively, onlookers would see two high-octane offenses trade blows on an even keel for three-and-a-half hours and that whichever team had the ball last would win by the narrowest of margins.
Saturday’s game started as well for Nebraska as anyone possibly could have hoped, with much of Big Red Nation sincerely believing that their team’s national ranking of 23rd in the AP poll was a severe underestimation by college football’s powers that be.
After trading three-and-outs in the game’s opening moments, the Huskers capitalized on a Stanley Jean-Baptiste interception—his third in as many games—and quickly took a 7-0 lead.
After a beautifully methodical 17-play, 92-yard drive—perhaps the Nebraska offense’s best of the season—the Cornhuskers pushed their advantage to two scores at 14-3. In the second quarter, UCLA turned the ball over again deep in Nebraska territory and the Huskers pushed their lead to a seemingly insurmountable 21-3 with 7:12 left in the half.
Nebraska could do no wrong.
The defense was bending but not breaking, yielding a comfortable yard total and just three points against the fast-paced Bruins. The offense had no reason to believe they could be stopped, moving the ball moderately but efficiently and capitalizing twice on a short field.
The route, it seemed, was on.
The play that most will remember as the game’s turning point was a 13-yard scramble by UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley that gave the Bruins a first down on what had been a 3rd-and-12. This was when Nebraska became tragically, bafflingly, almost unrealistically unglued.
After the athletic play by Hundley kept the punt team off the field, a Paul Perkins touchdown run cut the lead to 21-10 just before halftime.
The touchdown, in and of itself, was disappointing. There are hardly words for how badly Nebraska responded to it.
The third quarter was really when the game completed its ugly metamorphosis from measured success to unmitigated disaster.
The Bruins amassed 236 yards of total offense and scored a touchdown each of the four times they had the ball. Nebraska managed just 19 offensive plays on five possessions, advancing only once into Bruin territory.
The fourth quarter was, for the most part, meaningless—Nebraska penetrated the UCLA red zone midway through the quarter before an Ameer Abdullah fumble put to death any hopes of a comeback.
UCLA’s offensive output—504 yards and 41 points—was disappointing but not altogether unexpected. This is, after all, the same team that surrendered 603 yards to Wyoming just two weeks ago.
What was unexpected, what is completely unacceptable if Nebraska wants even to contend for the postseason, let alone a conference championship, was the nearly anemic level of production from Nebraska’s offense Saturday.
After going up 21-3, Nebraska’s offense—touted as one of the best the program has had in years—was shutout and managed just 132 total yards, 69 of which came on one drive.
What has been even more unacceptable has been the output of Taylor Martinez through three games this season. By a combination of poor execution and bad play calling, Martinez has just 111 yards on the ground and has not shown the big-play potential and late-game moxie that Husker fans have become accustom to over the past three seasons.
Martinez’s lack of involvement in the Huskers’ offensive game plan was never more evident than in the final two quarters Saturday.
UCLA scored a lot of points. UCLA is going to score a lot of points against a lot of teams this year. The defense didn’t look like world beaters because this year it isn't. This game was always going to be on the offense.
The overwhelming likelihood is that this won’t be the last time Nebraska gives up 500 yards this season. It has to be the last time the offense plays this poorly, though.
Big Red Nation spent the entire offseason hearing about how good this offensive unit was going to be and learned to expect the worst from the defense. Nebraska has the playmakers to outgun almost anyone it plays this season, but it has to know that with a defense this young, it doesn't get a day off.
It’s only one game—not even a conference game. This season is not beyond salvaging. This game certainly had its red flags, but it probably isn’t time to hit the panic button just yet.
Then again, it might be.