Source: USA TODAY
LINCOLN, Neb. — Bo Pelini is explaining the five turnovers that cost Nebraska dearly in a loss last weekend to Michigan State. Only there is no real explanation:
“This is a crazy game,” he says, in the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “I don’t think people understand that.”
Flash back a few weeks, and Pelini might have been talking about the Hail Mary that beat Northwestern. Until Auburn beat Georgia on Saturday – for crazy, check out that bounce – it was the most dramatic finish in college football this season.
Go back a few years, Pelini could have referenced the one second that was lost and then found, providing Texas the time necessary to beat Nebraska with a field goal in the 2009 Big 12 championship game.
A second here, a deflection there, a football just flat out dropping from someone’s hands and bouncing into an opponent’s arms – some things in football are inexplicable. They just occur. And they sometimes change the course of games, or seasons – or careers.
In his sixth season at Nebraska, Pelini’s career record is 56-23 (counting a victory in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, when he was the Huskers’ interim head coach). Four times, the Huskers have won at least a share of a divisional title. They played in the Big 12 championship game twice, the Big Ten championship game last year.
And yet after the 41-28 loss to Michigan State, Pelini’s job security is a hot topic. Again.
“You know what? People are gonna say what they want to say,” he says. “I really don’t care. If they want someone – if somebody wants someone else – so be it. I’ll move on.
“I know what I know, and I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in how we’re doing it. We do it the right way here. That’s about it. That’s all you can do.”
That’s the Bo we’ve come to know: combative, defiant, with more than a flash of fire. But as he noted earlier Monday in his weekly news conference, he also knows the standard at Nebraska is championships. The context was how the Huskers had been eliminated from the race for the Big Ten’s Legends Division title. But as he clarified a few moments later, the standard is not conference championships.
“It’s national championships,” he said.
Never mind that it has been a very long time since the mid-1990s. Today’s recruits were toddlers when Tom Osborne’s teams won three national titles in four years, college football’s last dynasty until Nick Saban built Alabama into a monster. Nebraska has not won a conference championship since 1999, or played in a BCS bowl game since 2002, when the infernal formula disregarded a blowout loss to Colorado to end the 2001 season and placed the Huskers in the BCS championship game, anyway.
Miami rolled 37-14. Nebraska hasn’t been a factor in the BCS title chase since.
Pelini has gotten the Huskers closer than his predecessors Frank Solich or Bill Callahan did.
Three times, they’ve played in conference championship games. They’ve won 10 games three times, nine games twice – and lost four games in each of those seasons, too. There’s a sense the program has hit a plateau, and it might have.
Last season the Huskers won the Legends Division but were blown out 70-31 in the Big Ten championship by a four-loss Wisconsin team.
Expectations for this season were high, and fell hard.
If the win against Northwestern came down to a lucky bounce, it’s worth wondering what might have happened, and how things might have been different, if the Big 12 officials hadn’t found another second for Texas. Nebraska has been very close, during Pelini’s tenure, to breaking through.
“But people don’t want to hear it,” he says.
They also don’t want to hear about the inexperience of youth, or the injuries, including four lost starters on the offensive line and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, which have been factors in this season’s results. Or that Pelini believes “in the next couple of years, we have a chance to be pretty special.”
They definitely don’t want to hear – and Pelini would disagree with this – that the standard might be too high, that college football’s landscape has shifted away from Nebraska’s relatively remote location. Of the traditional powers, there truly is no place like Nebraska. But the nation’s best recruits have multiple options closer to home – and little or no memory of when the Huskers ruled college football.
“I knew all that coming in,” Pelini says. “I’m not a guy that sits here and looks to make an excuse. It is what it is, and we’re working tooth and nail to go win ‘em all. That’s my standard. That’s our standard. And it won’t change.”
Huskers supporters simply want results, and while it’s difficult to discern a true temperature – as in so many other things, critics are often the most vocal – there’s clearly division in the fan base.
Without question, some of Pelini’s wounds have been self-inflicted. The fans definitely didn’t want to hear, with a sellout streak at Memorial Stadium that’s now at 332 games, the head coach’s expletive-filled rant against – well, them. That came in late September, during a perfect storm: a devastating loss to UCLA, criticism from a Husker great and the anonymous release of a two-year-old audiotape.
Nebraska led UCLA 21-10 at halftime Sept. 14 in Lincoln – and lost 41-21. Tommie Frazier, the former Nebraska quarterback, called for changes in the coaching staff. Asked about Frazier’s criticism, Pelini said: “If he feels like that, we don’t need him.”
After a loss five weeks later at Minnesota, Frazier tweeted: “Do I need to say anymore?” The Hail Mary quieted things, and winning the next week at Michigan – even this poor version of Michigan – helped, too. But the momentum ended with the loss to Michigan State. At Monday’s news conference, Pelini was asked if he felt personal pressure to win.
“It’s my job to win football games,” he said. “That’s my job. Regardless of what the situation is, I don’t change my approach.”
Through a spokesman, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst declined an interview request from USA TODAY Sports, saying his policy is not to publicly discuss the state of the program during the season. It’s not a unique position, but contrast Eichorst’s silence with, for example, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley’s assertion last week that he was “1,000 percent” behind Will Muschamp and certain the Gators have the right coach, quieting speculation over Muschamp’s immediate future (though next season will be huge).
At Nebraska, the speculation swirls on. And when Pelini says, “it’s not healthy for our program,” here’s what he means:
“It affects you in a lot of different ways,” he says. “It affects you in recruiting, in a lot of different things when people are wondering, you know – but it’s part of the deal. That’s what this profession is.
“It’s a crazy business,” he adds. “So you never know.”
George Schroeder, a national college football reporter for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.
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