"We can never know what might have been, but what is to come is another matter entirely." - C.S. Lewis
Nebraska finished the 2011 regular season at 9-3, did not win its division and ended up in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. But there were a few key turning points in the season where things could have gone differently, one way or the other.
Let’s look back at the season that just ended, and see how close Nebraska was to glory—or disaster.
Yes, Nebraska ended up beating the Huskies comfortably in the rubber match between the two schools. But remember, NU only had a three-point lead going into the half. Nebraska took the opening possession of the third quarter and put a 10-play drive together for a touchdown, extending the lead to 27-17.
Then, in one of the special-teams foul-ups of the year, Washington’s Bishop Sankey fumbled the ensuing kickoff after a miscommunication with his return-mate. Nebraska recovered the ball on the Washington 1, punched it into the end zone on the next play and the rout was on.
But what if Sankey manages to hold onto the ball? Washington had success all day moving the ball on Nebraska, and if UW could have cut the lead back to a one-score game, Washington had the potential for an early-season upset and to start NU off on a real downward spiral.
It’s hard not to remember this game as anything other than a demolition of Nebraska by the Badgers. But midway through the second quarter, the game looked anything but a runaway. It wasn’t until 2:03 left in the second quarter when Wisconsin took the lead, 20-14. NU had a chance to take the game to the locker room, within touching distance, and pull off a huge road win in its first conference game.
Then, inexplicably, Tim Beck decided to throw five straight times against Wisconsin’s defense. Unsurprisingly, the fifth throw was intercepted, and Wisconsin got another touchdown before the end of the half to stretch its lead to 27-14.
Nebraska never recovered, forced to play from two scores down and the hole got deeper and deeper for NU. But without that quick turnaround for Wisconsin at the end of the first half, the game could have been very different.
In the middle of the third quarter against Ohio State, Nebraska’s 2011 season seemed about to implode. After the embarrassment in Madison the week before, we looked up and saw Nebraska down to the Buckeyes, 27-6. For those of you keeping score at home, that kept the cumulative score at Big Ten 75, NU 23.
Nebraska did get a touchdown to cut into Ohio State’s lead, but the next drive was the play that likely saved Nebraska’s season. Ohio State freshman Braxton Miller, who had been giving Nebraska’s defense fits, limped to the sidelines. On came Todd Bauserman, who proceeded to absolutely stink up the joint and give NU’s offense enough time and momentum to engineer the biggest comeback in school history.
It was an amazing game for Nebraska and an amazing achievement to keep swinging and make such a comeback. But in all likelihood, without Miller’s injury, that comeback isn’t successful and NU fans would be engaging in a lot more soul-searching than they are in this offseason.
Yet another in a disturbing trend of baffling home losses to mediocre opponents, Northwestern (yes, the Northwestern that ended 2011 at 6-6, including a loss to Army) came into Memorial Stadium and knocked off Nebraska, 28-25. But it didn’t have to be that way.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Nebraska appeared to be finally exercising its athletic superiority, pulling the score back to a 14-10 deficit. Nebraska had the Purples pinned back inside their own 20. A stop would give Nebraska the chance at good field position and to finally take the lead on a pesky Wildcat team that had led the whole game.
Then, Jeremy Ebert got loose on a crossing pattern and went 81 yards for a touchdown. Northwestern took a 21-10 lead and gained enough momentum to put the crowd to sleep and allow the Wildcats to hold on for a massive upset. Without that shocker, Nebraska was in line for at least a divisional tiebreaker, even with the embarrassing losses to Wisconsin and Michigan.
Amidst all the furor surrounding Happy Valley, it’s almost hard to forget that a game was played. But Nebraska and Penn State did play a tight, defensive affair that came down to the wire. Although for most of the game NU outplayed the Nittany Lions, Nebraska clung to a 17-14 lead with under a minute to go in the game. Penn State had the ball and was driving, but needed to convert a 4th-and-10 to keep its hopes of an upset alive.
Quarterback Matt McGloin completed a pass to Devon Smith for nine yards, and Smith was heading for the sticks to convert another first down. Then, Lavonte David appeared and planted Smith in his tracks, short of the first down, and sealed the win for NU.
If David doesn’t make that stop, and Penn State gets the game into overtime or gets a win in regulation, Nebraska’s 2011 season looks very different than how it turned out.
There were many Nebraska fans who thought things couldn’t get worse than the game in Madison for NU. Those fans should always be careful when saying things like that. Nebraska was thoroughly trounced in Ann Arbor, losing to the Wolverines, 45-17, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
And yet...and yet…
As the fourth quarter started, Nebraska had finally shown some signs of life both on offense and on defense. NU had scratched its way back to a 31-17 deficit and had finally made a stop against Michigan, forcing a punt from the UM 17.
Then Nebraska rolled the dice, calling for a block and instead getting a roughing the kicker call (for the lightest of grazes), giving Michigan a first down and new life in the drive. NU collapsed after that call. Michigan drove the field, scoring another touchdown to go up 38-17 and salt the game away.
Even without the flag, Nebraska’s odds for a comeback against Michigan that day were small. But there’s a huge difference between a small chance at a comeback (see State, Ohio) and no chance.
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