The 2009 Nebraska Cornhusker football season has been a roller coaster to say the least. Sometimes tired old cliches just decribe it the best.
The atmosphere in Lincoln was close to poisonous in October after a disastrous loss to a mediocore Iowa State team that started backups at quarterback and running back. Nebraska was back in the national spotlight after that one, but not for good cause. Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads' Rudy-esque postgame speech to his cheering overachievers become an instant sensation on Youtube.
Slowly after the Iowa State debacle though, the Huskers built back up the pride and interest it had lost in the fan base with a slew of solid conference wins. Capping it all off with a thrilling near win (or stolen win, depending on your take with the officiating) against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game. After that stirring performance against the undefeated Longhorns, something like a sense of bravado and cockiness settled on the Big Red nation. Or it did, at least, in my experience.
Ndamukong Suh did his part too in stoking the fire. Suh's run at a number of presitgious national awards and the subsequent widespread media coverage after the Big 12 Championship game made it seem like overnight Nebraska was back in the mix of things and only one second away from playing, as Rocky Balboa would say, with real "contenders" in the Fiesta and Orange Bowls.
I hate to rain on this parade, but really Nebraska fans, not so fast.
This Nebraska team is 9-4 on the season, has a historically unreliable offense, and a defense that despite all its acclaim in three of the losses this year gave up game changing big plays and late go-ahead touchdown or field goal drives.
Yes, I am criticizing the defense.
If Iowa State's backup quarterback, Jake Williams, doesn't complete a 47-yard bomb to Jerome Tiller, the Huskers avert that upset. If Virginia Tech's quarterback Tyrod Taylor doesn't improbably nail Danny Coale for an 80-yard completion, the Blackshirts preserve that nonconference win. And finally, if Nebraska doesn't commit a series of blunders on the final drive vs. Texas, including giving up a long completion and committing a 15 yerd personal foul, we would be talking about the Orange or Fiesta bowl now.
The point of all this is that Nebraska should take its matchup against the Arizona Wildcats very seriously. Many Cornhusker fans view this game as a gimme for Bo Pelini and his team, but another monstrously bad performance by the offense or late collapse on the part of the defense and it could make for a long offseason.
Arizona just might be the team to pull it off too.
Tied for second in the Pac-10, the 8-4 Wildcats have been plucky all year long. In many ways, they are a team that resembles Nebraska in its overall performance with the only exception being that they are a more balanced football team on both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats lack the elite defense, but also don't shoulder such an abyssmal offense. Arizona ranks nationally on both sides of the ball in the 30s and 40s. This season they are have been like the steady student who takes home Bs in everything, while Nebraska was the savant who aced one class only to fail another.
Just as importantly, in my opinion, Arizona is a team who has shown strong progress all year long. I saw them play in person at Kinnick Stadium vs. the Iowa Hawkeyes in September and they were far from impressive. Frankly, they looked less talented than a Northern Iowa Panthers' team that had taken the Hawkeyes to the wire only weeks before.
Watching Arizona's games later in the season vs. Pac-10 foes though, I almost did not recognize them they were that much improved. This is a testament to solid coaching by Mike Stoops and his staff and you have to wonder what they can do with the extra month of practice between the end of the regular season and the bowl game.
All things considered, I think the 2009 Holiday Bowl is an important and close matchup. Nebraska should be glad to get away with a win against the Wildcats that helps them build upon the momentum and good feeling from the better parts of the 2009 campaign.