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Nebraska Football: Reviewing The Cornhuskers' 19-7 Loss To Washington

Patrick Runge@@patrickrungeCorrespondent IDecember 31, 2010

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 18: Quarterback Jake Locker #10 of the Washington Huskies points at the line of scrimmage against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on September 18, 2010 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

THE GOOD ...

- IT'S OVER: Plenty of times in Bo Pelini's tenure as Nebraska head coach, there have been games where there was something done well. Usually it was a stellar defensive performance, surrendered to a poor offensive showing. Not this time. The best thing to say about the Holiday Bowl 2010 for Nebraska is that it's over.

- QUICK REDEMPTION: Sept. 17, 2011. The Huskies come to Lincoln and Nebraska gets a chance to redeem themselves after a flat, ugly, uninspired, disinterested performance. Of course, given how Washington handled NU in San Diego, the return game in Lincoln might belong in the "BAD" category.

- THE SILVER LINING: There's two possible bright spots to find in this debacle for Nebraska. First, the collapse in the Big XII title game combined with the Holiday Bowl (and a dash of the Texas A&M nightmare thrown in for good measure) means there can be no doubting a serious, systemic problem with Nebraska's offense.

Even a man as loyal (or stubborn) as Pelini has to see that the status quo is simply unacceptable, and has to make root and branch changes to how NU moves the ball.

The other bright spot? At least we won't have to worry about NU fans having unrealistically high expectations next year.

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THE BAD ...

- YELLOW BLUES: OK, it's really not cute or funny any more. Nebraska has 12 penalties for 102 yards against Washington. Never mind the mind-blowing statistic that NU had more penalty yards than total yards rushing (92) or passing (91) against a 6-6 Washington defense that gave up 28 points to 2-10 Washington State.

And it's not just stupid, overagressive penalties. Nebraska took back-to-back delay of game penalties in the first half, while the outcome was still well in doubt. One delay penalty is bad enough, particularly when NU gets flagged for it with alarming regularity. But two? In a row? That's inexcusable.

When NU was undefeated and in the top 5 nationally, NU fans could yuk it up about it reflecting their tough-guy coach's mentality. Now, the penalties look like a symptom of an undisciplined team...and Pelini's tirades on the sideline in College Station look uncomfortably like the personality Nebraska took on in 2010.

- OFFENSIVE: Pronounce it the right way. You know how, after watching NU try to move the ball against Washington. The offense looked less like a game plan and more like a set of tricks NU tried to run.

The Wildcat never looked more predictable or anemic, and Rex Burkhead's fumble early in the game was the sign of things to come. Nebraska was both predictable and hopeless on first down, putting NU in third-and-long situations.

And Taylor Martinez was consistently asked to drop back and pass the ball in situations where Washington knew what was coming, and when they didn't have to sacrifice coverage to stop his runs like Oklahoma State did.

The Blackshirts didn't cover themselves with glory the way they allowed Washington to run over them, particularly in the way Jake Locker looked like he was toying with the NU defense in the second half.

But they were also asked to (stop me if you've heard this) come in time and time again to bail out an offense that wasn't producing anything. This time, the Blackshirts' well ran dry.

- LACK OF LEADERSHIP: Looking for the one thing to wrap up Nebraska's second half swoon in 2010? Lack of leadership. Martinez (and, please, can we now forever retire the "T-Magic" thing?) was unable to provide leadership on the field. Shawn Watson was unable to provide leadership in the situations he put the offense in.

And, ultimately, Pelini was unable to provide leadership in letting Martinez continue to fail, in letting Watson continue to fail, and in allowing his team to play a flat, sloppy, and disinterested game, and ultimately get embarrassed by a Washington team that is simply not as good as NU from a talent standpoint.

There should be...there had better be...a lot of soul searching amongst the players and coaches between now and spring practice.

... AND THE OVERREACTION.

Here's the point where you, dear reader, will think I am putting on the red-colored glasses. And before I get into the mitigating factors (which is a lawyered-up way of saying "excuses"), don't think for a moment that there aren't systemic problems that need to be addressed inside the Nebraska program. 

Having said that, there WERE a ton of things working against NU in San Diego. Lack of motivation was clearly an issue.

Cliches become cliches for a reason, and we saw again the "bet against the team who doesn't want to be in a bowl" specter haunt a prohibitive favorite.

But even beyond the motivational issues, remember that this NU team was thin on offense to start with, and had just about every playmaker (Martinez, Roy Helu, Niles Paul, Burkhead) struggling with some form of injury. 

So is Nebraska as bad as it looked against Washington? Probably not. The game was a perfect storm of intangibles working for Washington and against Nebraska.

Clearly, that wasn't the only reason for the dreadful performance NU put on in San Diego, maybe not even the most significant reason.

Washington knew what they wanted to do, stuck with it, and outplayed Nebraska on both sides of the ball, deserving every bit of the win they earned.

But they got quite a bit of help from a Nebraska team that sure looked like they came to San Diego with unmotivated players and unprepared coaches.

THE BIG PICTURE

"We're back, and we're here to stay." - Bo Pelini, after winning the 2009 Holiday Bowl.

Um, yeah. Nebraska will almost assuredly end the 2010 season unranked. Somehow, that's not quite what most NU fans had in mind by Nebraska being "back."

Sports are strange. Last year, Nebraska ended the season 10-4, and fans were sky-high. This year, Nebraska ended the season 10-4, and most fans will go to bed wondering if NU will get to a bowl game in 2011.

So how do you put the Holiday Bowl, and the 2010 season into perspective?

What might help is to take a step back and look at Nebraska since 2009. Nebraska's defensive performance has been consistently excellent throughout that time period (heck, even in the Holiday Bowl 2010 the defense played well enough to keep NU in the game).

The offense was hopeless for almost the entirety of 2009, and for the second half of 2010. Of course, the offense was sparkling in the first half of 2010.

But when you expand the lens and look at a broader set of data, the offensive prowess of early 2010 looks like the aberration, brought about by a phenomenal athlete and an offensive game plan that could be schemed against.

Let's face it. If FCS South Dakota State can stymie Nebraska's offense, there's something fundamentally wrong with Nebraska's offense.

It's very easy to dismiss the Holiday Bowl debacle as a one-off, a meaningless loss. That would be very dangerous for Nebraska to do. Sure, NU isn't as bad as they looked against Washington, but that doesn't mean that systemic changes aren't needed.

First and foremost, Nebraska's offense has to improve. Immediately. If Nebraska can't establish the run against Washington, things aren't going to be pretty against Wisconsin and Ohio State.

It's hard to find any evidence to suggest that Watson can be the man who engineers that offensive turnaround.

And even if he can, NU's glaring offensive problems might justify making a change just for the sake of change, for the sake of impressing upon the team that the status quo on offense is unacceptable.

But that's not the only change, and maybe not even the biggest change. Watson is an easy punching bag for angry Nebraska fans looking for a villain to blame. But Pelini is the guy in charge.

Pelini is the guy who let Martinez stay in games when he was clearly floundering and hurting his team's changes to win. Pelini is the guy who allowed an inept offensive game plan to be rolled out game after game. Pelini is the guy whose teams routinely rack up double-digit penalties and triple-digit penalty yardage.

More than anything, this offseason is about accountability. Pelini's the boss, and he's famous for his loyalty to his staff and for his stubbornness in clinging to his way of doing things.

Those traits have earned him a lot of success, and it shouldn't be lost that Nebraska is still a 10-4 team at the end of the season.

After Bill Callahan's tenure ended, many Nebraska fans (yours truly included) thought it might be a decade before Nebraska would crack the ten-win mark.

But 10-4 and getting dominated by a 6-6 Washington team in a bowl game isn't good enough at Nebraska. Pelini knows that. And life isn't going to get any easier next year when Nebraska sails into the teeth of the Big Ten schedule. 

Loyalty's great. Sticking to your principles is great. But neither of them are great if they are at the expense of being successful, and it's hard not to draw that conclusion. One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Pelini's not crazy. And he's not stupid. And he wants Nebraska to be successful more than me, you, or anyone else reading this column. 

But does he have the vision, and the fortitude, to make the changes that have to be made to get Nebraska off the plateau it seems to find itself trapped in...even if some of those changes might violate some of his core principles?

That is the ultimate question that will be answered over the coming months. Brace yourselves for a long, uncomfortable offseason, Nebraska fans. Is it April yet?

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