Once again, the stage swallows the Huskers.
Admit it, Husker fans. When sophomore running back Rex Burkhead tossed his third touchdown in as many passes for the season at the beginning of the second quarter last night, you were making plans for Glendale, AZ. Or at least planning your Fiesta Bowl watch party.
Or maybe you started making plans before that nifty play when the officials actually overturned a call on the field in Nebraska's favorthe Courtney Osborne faux fumble inside the Sooner five yard line after his interception return.
Perhaps you started looking ahead after senior running back Roy Helu burst through the middle of the Sooner defense for a 66-yard touchdown a la the Missouri game that took place what seems like years ago.
Who could blame you? Everything was working in that great first quarter and very early in the second. Runs up the middle. Runs around the end. The read option. The Wildcat. The ferocious Blackshirt defense.
Oh, man, that defense. Give them 17 points and the game is over.
Unfortunately, there happen to be four quarters in a regulation NCAA football game, and the Cornhusker offense had other plans in mind. Seems like they wanted a real game and, well, they gave the Sooners a real game with four opportunities.
And so, for the second straight year, Nebraska fails to obtain its goal due to a monumentally poor offensive performance. At least this year we got one good quarter out of Shawn Watson's side of the ball.
Now, painfully, on to the SWOT:
A Cleansing Game
As far as penalties were concerned, Nebraska saved their best game for last. The Huskers were penalized only three times for a grand total of 15 yardsapproximately 150 yards below their game average (please note the sarcasm barely).
And this was by far the best officiated Husker game this yearperhaps in all Big 12 games. The officials did an outstanding job of managing the game without interfering, making all the necessary reviews and right calls.
But wait, this is supposed to be about the Cornhuskers' strengths.
Senior placekicker/punter/fake-out artist extraordinaire Alex Henery was, once again, his usual stellar self. Besides nailing field goals of 42 and 53 yards he averaged 46 yards on eight punts and put three of those inside the 20-yard line.
Just get on the other side of the 50-yard line and the Skinny Assassin is money. Too bad offensive coordinator Shawn Watson couldn't figure that out late in the game.
And the Lou Groza Award, by the way, is null and void this year. How Henery didn't even wind up on the ballot smacks of Cold War Olympic ice skating judge shenanigans. Not that I watch ice skating.
Monster in the Middle
Junior tackle Jared Crick was Suh-like in the middle of the defense. His two sacks stand out, of course, but the fact that the Sooners' prolific offense could not convert on several short third and fourth down runs up the middle truly defined his presence. Oklahoma was one for 16 on third down conversions. 1 for 16!
Sure, linebacker Lavonte David had another stellar performance with 17 total tackles, but it was Crick plugging up the middle that allowed David to jam running backs for small gains.
Mr. Crick: Please come back next year. The team will need you in the Big Ten.
Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now
It took all year but I finally landed on the Cornhusker offense's theme song.
Many times people point to a specific play or theme that decides the outcome of a game. A dropped pass here, a bad call there. Maybe a trick play or last minute field goal.
Truth is, there are very few times when you can point to one single thing that determines winning a game versus losing it. This is one of those times. The Huskers' turnover woes became the elephant in the room that had had enough, broke its chains, trampled its circus trainer and destroyed a game.
Like I stated above, the Blackshirt defense was not going to give up a 17 point lead. So the offense did it for them.
Earlier I stated everything was working for the Huskers in the first quarter. Well, not quite.
For the entire night freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez sat back in the pocket like a great work of art. A statue by, perhaps, Rodin or DaVinci. His protection was more than adequate. His receivers ran around in the secondary. Linebackers swirled in every direction. Linemen grappled, pushed and grabbed.
And he stood. And stood. And stood. Good Lord how he stood!
In the end, Martinez was 50% on passing with one costly interception in the endzone, no touchdowns, seven sacks, and a crap-ton of yardage lost. He hasn't been himself since the Missouri game and OC Watson hasn't shown very good judgement in managing the struggling quarterback.
Vanderbilt on Line One
A very early and unsubstantiated rumor has it that Vanderbilt University is interested in hiring offensive coordinator Shawn Watson as head coach.
Listen, I hate to point a finger at one specific coach in a heart-breaking loss but, maybe, Watson has gotten the Huskers as far as he can take them offensively. There's no doubt that Watson can game-plan with the best of them but when those plans call for mid-game adjustments well . . . I'm just saying it might be time for a change.
The coach didn't throw the interception. He didn't fumble twice within field goal range. But he did continue to go to the well that had run dry.
Hey, all is not lost! Nebraska is going bowling for the third straight year. And head coach Bo Pelini has been pretty doggone good in bowls. Looks like the Huskers are headed to Arizona after all, just a few days earlier and on a much smaller stage than originally planned.
Insight Bowl, anyone?
Is it better to win big on a small stage or lose on a big stage? Damn, I'd sure like to try the Cornhuskers' luck against a Big East champion in the Fiesta Bowl, though.
Our Winter of Discontent
Husker Nation is ready to start winning conference championships and going to BCS bowls. Winning second tier bowls after losing opportunities in the spotlight is no longer satisfactory.
Where does Nebraska go from here?
Oh, but to be in this position and lose in a second tier bowl? I don't even want to think about that.
And along with discontent comes monumental uncertainty. Excitement about joining the Big Ten is giving way to nervousnessespecially with each Husker loss. How will this offense perform against Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin?
Or, more importantly, how will this defense built on speed to stop the Big 12 spread offenses perform in a league with prolific power running games? How are 190 pound hybrid linebacker/safeties going to stop 240 pound running backs?
Ah, but that is a story for another day and another article.
So Nebraska exits the Big 12 with a whimper and not a bang. Commissioner Dan Beebe got to take the trophy presentation stage with a sigh of relief instead of a tense grin. And all the other Big 12 fans (except for Colorado?) get to do a little jig and wave the Husker's goodbye with well-aimed barbs.
Do your happy dance, Big 12 fans. Do it while you can before the conference comes to its inevitable demise when Missouri eventually gets its long coveted Big Ten invite and Texas launches its own TV network and goes independent.
Husker fans won't care. By then this will all be ancient history.