What a difference a year makes. Better yet, what a difference one day makes.
Nebraska’s 24-19 win over No. 22 Georgia in the Gator Bowl was the start to 2014 that Bo Pelini had to have. It wasn’t perfect or pretty, and it came with a little bit of luck, but this is an enormous victory for a coach who needed it in the worst way.
Last year started with a gut punch. The Huskers lost 45-31 to the Bulldogs on New Year’s Day in the Capital One Bowl, giving up 589 yards along the way. This prompted many to question the leadership of the head coach, and the regular-season results that followed didn’t exactly settle matters.
There was the second half against UCLA back in September. The Cornhuskers, seemingly in control early on, were outscored 31-0 in the third and fourth quarters, losing 41-21.
Shortly after the UCLA loss, the now infamous Pelini audio surfaced on Deadspin. The context, which is well known by now, prompted immediate backlash at a time when the team was already down.
Along the way, Pelini also lost his starting quarterback to a foot injury. Senior Taylor Martinez missed a majority of the year—including the bowl game—forcing the coach to adjust his offense entirely.
And in the final regular-season game of the year, Nebraska was thoroughly handled by Iowa at home, losing 38-17. The blowout prompted more speculation over Pelini’s status, more doubt in the program and a postgame rant that was overblown to a degree.
In short, momentum appeared lost.
Only one day into the New Year, however, the picture is a bit brighter.
Despite entering the Gator Bowl as more than a seven-point underdog against Georgia, the Huskers delivered an unexpected win.
Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. wasn’t perfect, but he did flash moments of brilliance. Operating in his own end zone, Armstrong’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa proved to be the biggest moment in the game.
Of course, Nebraska finally got a little luck, as well. (OK, a little more luck if you’re thinking back to the game-winning Hail Mary against Northwestern.)
With Georgia driving in the final minute, reliable Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a pass on fourth down in the slippery conditions. This gave the Cornhuskers the ball and the win.
Following the game, Pelini shared the moment with everyone involved.
Pelini at trophy presentation: "The way we do things at Nebraska, this is a team win." Team includes administration and fans.— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) January 1, 2014
For Pelini, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Athletic director Shawn Eichorst backed the head coach following the final regular-season game, which served as a bit surprise given the circumstances.
In a statement sent out by the school, Eichorst—while somewhat cryptic in his delivery—cooled the rumors.
My approach has always been to not comment publicly about our coaches until their full seasons are complete, as I strongly believe it is unfair and counter to best practices. However, given the volume of unfounded speculation and conjecture about our head football coach, I want to reaffirm what I have said many times since I have arrived at the University of Nebraska—that I positively respect, appreciate and support our football student-athletes, coaches and staff, as we do everyone in the Husker family. We very much look forward to our upcoming bowl game and Coach Pelini continuing to lead our program in the future.
Of course, the issues at Nebraska aren’t immediately erased with one unexpected win. Questions and concerns regarding the long-term outlook of the program remain.
Pelini has somewhat quietly won at least nine games in every season, however, and perhaps is under-appreciated to a degree.
There’s also this, which provides some perspective on his tenure at Nebraska.
They announced that Bo has now the same number of wins in his first 6 years as the legendary Tom Osborne did.— Ben Cotton (@BenCotton81) January 1, 2014
At the very least, Pelini can take a well-deserved deep breath.
There will be questions going forward surrounding the performance of the team, the need to spark recruiting and the other issues which have hampered the program in recent years. But for one day, the first day of 2014, Pelini can (and should) enjoy this.
It certainly beats last year.