Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans may have forgotten a bit about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amidst all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered that will tell how NU will perform this post-season. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions that normal surround Nebraska as it prepares for the bowl. Here are three of the biggest ones that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

What Will Nebraska’s Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question. How hard will a group of college kids, nearly a month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation, and therefore have more chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach being 9-3. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the “us-versus-them” mentality that was one of the defining traits of said fired 9-3 coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska could be razor-sharp and wanting to put on the game of its life in honor and support of Bo Pelini and his staff. Nebraska could be completely flat and listless, feeling like their seasons were stolen with Pelini’s firing. Nebraska could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high, but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field. So finding out what Nebraska team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions to answer in finding out how the Holiday Bowl will play out.

What Will The Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means that defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in full charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be able to call the game he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look fairly drastically different than it has at any point this year. How effective that will be, of course, will be anyone’s guess.

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl. Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has struggled with injuries all season, as have a number of other Nebraska stars.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of an opposing team like USC.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Last Act One of Selfishness and Childishness

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans thought the dismissal of Bo Pelini and the hiring of Mike Riley was the end of a tumultuous relationship between Pelini and the outside world. They thought wrong.

Nebraska football fans heard news of another surreptitious recording of Bo Pelini uttering profanities, this time during his half-hour meeting with the team on Dec. 2 after his firing. A transcript of the recording, obtained by the Omaha World-Herald, said that for “the majority” of that meeting, Pelini complained about Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Or, more accurately, he stood in front of a group of college kids and called Eichorst names.

“I didn’t really have any relationship with the A.D.,” Pelini said. “The guy, you guys saw him (Sunday), the guy is a total p—-. I mean, he is. He’s a total c—.”

One of Pelini’s prime complaints about Eichorst was his lack of public support for Pelini.

“I don’t even really know what those guys do. And I said ‘Hey, you know what, if (Eichorst) ain’t gonna do his job, if he doesn’t have the balls to go out there and support me, to support these kids, support this program, then do me a favor and get rid of me.’”

(This was, of course, the same Eichorst that didn’t fire Pelini after his infamous Coach Chickenbleep press conference after the 2013 Iowa loss.)

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Pelini has been stung by a leaked audio. Last year, Deadspin released an audio tape of Pelini angrily berating Nebraska’s “f—ing fair-weather fanbase” after a comeback win over Ohio State.

Perhaps a bit of advice may be in order. If people are referencing a recording of your embarrassing and profanity-laced tirade, and you have to ask which one they are referring to, you’re probably doing something wrong.

In all honesty, there was probably some merit to Pelini’s complaint about a lack of public support from the top brass at the university (although former Nebraska player Scott Shanle did point out how little that should probably matter to the players on Twitter.) And with two separate releases of damaging and embarrassing audio tapes, the conspiracy theorists will have free reign to craft scenarios about Nebraska brass setting bugs to catch Pelini.

At the end of the day, though, that’s not the point.

Pelini is a 47-year-old man. He’s been one of the most influential leaders in the lives of the players on his team, players who just were shell-shocked to learn that their coach had been fired. They’re looking to Pelini for leadership, for guidance on how to handle a traumatic event in their lives.

How does Pelini respond?

He spends “the majority” of the last meeting he will have with his players venting his spleen, airing his grievances, painting himself as the noble hero in the story dragged down by the “f—ing lawyer” and the people Pelini would “rather f—— work at McDonald’s than work with some of those guys.”

No introspection on what Pelini might have done differently. No advice to his players on how to handle the situation other than a perfunctory do-what-you-want suggestion and an admonition to call him.

Nope. Pelini’s team was a captive audience for the final act in this seven-year drama. As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so self-righteously stunned that one of those players recorded and leaked the audio of that final act.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star called Pelini’s rant to his players “selfish,” which is the perfect adjective. Sipple went on to defend Pelini in a way, reflecting that the job consumed Pelini, making it impossible for him to continue.

The job consumed Pelini? Or Pelini allowed the job to consume him?

“I have been at LSU, I have been at Oklahoma, I have been to these other places. … The scrutiny, the negativity, it ain’t like that everywhere,” Pelini said to his team.

With all due respect, that’s nonsense. LSU coach Les Miles is under unremittent pressure in Baton Rouge—and he’s won a conference title and a national title. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops feels the heat in Norman—again, with one more national title ring on his finger than Pelini has.

But, again, that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether Pelini was justified in his complaints about Eichorst and the Nebraska brass. What matters is Pelini—after having more than enough time to marshal his emotions and compose his thoughts—chose to teach his players that the way to handle adversity is by dropping c-bombs about another adult in an ostensibly closed-door setting.

It was the same lesson he taught his players when he swung his hat at the referee during the Iowa loss in 2013. It was the same lesson he taught his players when he called out the “f—ing fair-weather fans” whose devotion paid for his salary and the palatial facilities in which the football team operated. When the going gets tough, just lash out blindly.

Bo Pelini had many good qualities and characteristics. He did a lot of good things for a lot of people, there is little doubt about that.

But when push came to shove, Pelini was incapable of responding to pressure and adversity like an adult.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 10 Best Cornhuskers from the 2014 Season

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans can finally take a breath and look back at the 2014 season, taking stock of who the Cornhuskers’ best players were last year. A coaching change, followed with an out-of-left-field hire, can make fans ready to turn the page pretty quickly to 2015 and the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

But it’s far too soon for that. As Nebraska prepares for its bowl game against USC, let’s take a look back at who the ten best players were for NU in 2014.

No. 10: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Of all the players on the roster, Armstrong is probably the hardest to rate. His numbers still aren’t fantastic—a 51.7 percent completion rate and a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio are not going to win any conference titles.

But Armstrong also showed his leadership throughout the season, coming back from injury against Michigan State and holding the team together offensively after the injury to Ameer Abdullah. His toughness and intangibles have to be credited, even if his statistical deliverables have fallen short this year.

No. 9: Jordan Westerkamp

Westerkamp had a number of games where he was simply a non-factor, although much of that was due to the overall struggles of Nebraska’s offense. But Westerkamp was Nebraska’s most reliable receiver throughout the season, leading the team in receptions and second in yards per game.

Oh, and he also had a catch that was pretty good.

No. 8: Vincent Valentine

Nebraska’s strength in 2014 was certainly its defensive line, and a big part of that was the performance of Valentine. His size (six-foot-three, 320 pounds) makes him a force in the middle, and his development in terms of handing offensive linemen (and therefore freeing up linebackers to make plays) and in making tackles (39 overall) made him a big cog in Nebraska’s defensive performance.

No. 7: Kenny Bell

When Bell is healthy, he was Nebraska’s most dangerous down-field threat. His absence was certainly felt in East Lansing, as Nebraska’s offense evaporated after Bell’s injury removed any deep play threat. Conversely, Bell put Nebraska on his back in Iowa City, making play after play before catching the game winner in overtime.

It will be quite a start for Nebraska fans not to see no. 80 lining up on the outside next season (or see the ‘fro on the sidelines).

No. 6: Nathan Gerry

Going into the 2014 season, many assumed that Nebraska would have a solid performer at safety in Corey Cooper, with Gerry and LeRoy Alexander fighting for the alternate safety spot. Well, it turns out that Nebraska did have a solid performer at safety—Gerry.

After leading the team in interceptions and being second in tackles, an argument could be made that Gerry was Nebraska’s defensive MVP. At the very least, he is one of the shining lights for the Blackshirts coming into 2015.

No. 5: Maliek Collins

While Vincent Valentine made steps in the middle of Nebraska’s defensive line stopping things up, Collins got things going in opposing backfields. Finishing the season second in sacks, Collins became a disruptive force up the middle in the second half of the season. With teams focused on slowing down Nebraska’s defensive ends (particularly Randy Gregory), Collins’ ability to get penetration up the middle made a huge difference in NU’s defensive performances.

No. 4: Zaire Anderson

In general, Nebraska’s linebackers were a disappointment. While NU has a wealth of young talent at linebacker, that talent never really developed or matured to a point where it could effectively contribute.

The one exception to that rule was Anderson, who led the team in tackles with 95 total. Throughout the season, Anderson made crucial stops and provided a measure of consistency in the middle of Nebraska’s defense that was sorely needed.

No. 3: Randy Gregory

It might be a measure of Gregory’s greatness that it seemed like his season wasn’t the tour de force we had anticipated, even though he led the team in sacks, was third in tackles for loss, and sixth in tackles overall.

Gregory’s speed and length was a disruptive force for Nebraska’s defense throughout the 2014 season. Assuming Gregory does not return for his senior season, the Blackshirts will have some big shoes to fill next year.

No. 2: De’Mornay Pierson-El

How many games can a punt returner affect? Against Michigan State, Pierson-El’s return gave Nebraska a fighting chance after being dominated most of the game. Against Northwestern, the fear of Pierson-El gave Nebraska such good field position that NU was able to wear the Wildcats down. And against Iowa, a game that looked to be slipping away was turned by two long punt returns keying Nebraska’s comeback.

Pierson-El worked his way into the starting lineup as a wide receiver, although he was curiously absent from the offensive game plans after Ameer Abdullah’s injury. Regardless, though, Nebraska’s clear breakout star of 2014 should provide fans with a lot to look forward to next season.

No. 1: Ameer Abdullah

Nebraska’s season turned on a botched snap early in the game against Purdue. In diving for the loose ball, Abdullah was hurt and was never the same. Nebraska’s offense never recovered, and its offensive ineptitude helped fuel Wisconsin’s mauling of the Blackshirts, as well as Minnesota’s bare-knuckle victory in Lincoln.

Contrast that with Nebraska’s 41-31 win against Miami, where Abdullah ran like a man possessed, notching 229 yards and two touchdowns in NU’s most impressive and complete performance of the season.

Even more than Rex Burkhead’s injury in 2012, Abdullah’s loss at the end of 2014 presents a painful “what if” moment for Nebraska fans wondering how the season would have transpired with a healthy Abdullah in the backfield.

Nebraska Football: Many Husker Fans’ Complaints About Mike Riley Hire Misguided

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans were floored by the announcement that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley to be NU’s new head coach. Riley, who had coached the Beavers for twelve of the last fourteen years (with an unsuccessful stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the interim) was a surprise to everyone, and that surprise did not sit well with some Nebraska fans (as recounted by Hail Varsity).

Of course, fans are emotional, and some of those fans reacted without putting a lot of thought into their criticism. Here’s why some of the most common complaints were off base.

We shoulda hired Scott Frost!

Of all the negative reactions to Riley’s hiring, this was probably the most common. And sure, the story is compelling.

A championship-winning Nebraska quarterback, coming home to take the program back to its glory days. He’s one of us! He gets what it means at Nebraska!

Stop. I mean really, just stop. Frost, in his second year as offensive coordinator at Oregon, is a promising young coach with what looks to be a bright future ahead of him.

Does that sound at all familiar? Nebraska hires a young coach, a talented coordinator with no head coaching experience, to take over one of the most storied programs in college football.

Haven’t we seen this movie, and know how it ends?

That’s not to say Frost isn’t a good coach, and won’t perhaps someday be a great head coach. But Nebraska just went through seven years of giving an untested rookie on-the-job training on the sidelines in Lincoln.

Plus, how many other programs were looking to hire Frost as a head coach this season? If your answer was “none,” then you win the prize.

It’s understandable for Nebraska fans worried about an uncertain future to reach out for something familiar. But with all the risk involved with making a coaching change, allowing sentiment to drive the decision would be a dreadful mistake.

His record is worse than Pelini’s!

In Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, his teams went 66-27. Under Riley during the same time period, his teams went 46-42. Overall, Riley is 96-80 as a collegiate head coach.

See! Pelini’s way better than Riley! Pelini’s never won fewer than nine games, something Riley’s only done once since 2009. Why did we fire Pelini to get this guy?

Yes, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (or lost fewer than four games) in his career. At Nebraska. And Riley has done what he’s done at Oregon State.

Put simply, Oregon State isn’t Nebraska. Before Riley arrived in Corvallis, the Beavers had won nine games in a season twice—once in 1939, and again in 1962. Oregon State hadn’t had a winning record since 1970, and had only won a total of 14 games in the seven years before Riley took the job.

Oregon State is a tiny college town in northern Oregon, dwarfed in stature and resources by the school in Eugene that is funded to the hilt by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. And yet Riley has consistently won there, at a level far exceeding what the school’s size, prestige, and resource level would dictate.

Want an analogy that is a little more familiar, Husker fan? Oregon State is a lot like Iowa State—if Iowa had a blank check with a swoosh on it to build facilities. If a coach was able to do in Ames what Riley did in Corvallis, wouldn’t you be intrigued by the prospect of what he could do in Lincoln?

It’s time to get over the “nine-win” thing, Husker fans.

He’s never won anything!

OK, fine, you say. Winning nine games isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t come with a championship at the end. And as a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, Eichorst made a bold statement that playing for championships is the standard for NU, nothing less.

I thought Eichorst said championships were the standard! How can we hire a coach that hasn’t won anything more than Pelini has?

Riley has never won a conference title at Oregon State. He’s been close, and Dennis Erickson took Riley’s players (including Chad later-to-be-Ochocinco Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, you may have heard of them) to an 11-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2000.

So yes, Riley hasn’t won a championship at Oregon State. We’ve discussed already how winning titles at Oregon State is a much harder task than winning them at Nebraska.

But Eichorst also talked about the importance of Nebraska competing in the “games that matter,” something Nebraska was notoriously bad at under Pelini. How do Pelini and Riley compare in that category?

Well, let’s take a look at games against top-15 opponents, which is a fair estimation of Eichorst’s “championship-caliber” teams. In the last seven years, Pelini has notched wins over no. 7 Missouri (2010) and no. 9 Michigan State (2011). In that same time period, Riley has wins over no. 1 USC (2008), no. 2 Cal (2007), no. 9 Arizona (2010), no. 13 Wisconsin (2012, the same year the Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31), and no. 6 Arizona State (2014).

None of Pelini’s wins come close to Riley’s teams knocking off the no. 1 and no. 2 teams in the country. Heck, a pretty good argument could be made that none of Pelini’s wins are better than Riley’s squad this year taking no. 6 Arizona State out of playoff contention.

So are you saying Nebraska’s a lock for the playoff next year?

Of course not. Riley is far from a guaranteed success in Lincoln. With Nebraska opening against BYU, its toughest lid-lifter in a decade, it’s possible Riley could start his scarlet-and-cream career at 0-1.

Next season, Pelini’s defenders and those inclined to snark will be quick to pounce if Nebraska wins fewer than nine games. Is that expectation fair? Probably not, but it’s what Riley will have to deal with as he starts his career in Lincoln.

But the ultimate question is this. Does Nebraska have a better chance to win a conference title in the near future by making a change and hiring Riley, or by keeping Pelini and maintaining the status quo?

Eichorst made it crystal clear on which side of that question he came down. And while there will be many doubts raised about the move in the coming months, as the inevitable challenges hit Riley and his new staff in Lincoln, hopefully calmer and more rational minds can set aside those challenges that are less well thought out.

Nebraska Football: Eichorst Sets Bar For Huskers At Championship Level By Firing Pelini

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Is that good enough?

Ultimately, that was the question Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst answered on Sunday when he announced the firing of seventh-year head football coach Bo Pelini.  In his tenure, Pelini was 67-27, never winning fewer than nine games, with no major scandals and a great graduation rate.

Is that good enough?

Under Pelini, Nebraska had never missed a bowl game.

Is that good enough?

In Pelini’s seven years, only Alabama had won more games than Nebraska.

Is that good enough?

Implicit in the question is the level to which Nebraska to be as a football program. If consistently appearing in bowl games, winning nine games, and doing right by your kids is good enough, then Pelini’s performance was certainly good enough.

But Eichorst, in his comments about Pelini’s firing, pushed all the scarlet and cream chips into the center of the table.

“We just, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship quality and caliber opponents. I didn’t see that changing at the end of the day… Although we won a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most.”

There’s no doubts left in that statement, is there? At Nebraska, the standard is championships. Anything less isn’t good enough.

To say out loud that some games matter—and by implication, admit that some games don’t—is a pretty stunning thing to hear from an athletic director. It’s a huge act of confidence—or hubris—for Eichorst to say that Nebraska is the type of program that defines itself by trophies in the cabinet, not complied wins against the Average Joes of college football.

In other words, wins over middle-of-the-road programs are expected at Nebraska, and success is defined by wins over championship-caliber opponents.

That’s a high bar to set, a brave standard to hold your program. But, for most Nebraska fans, it’s an eloquent and powerful statement of how they view their team.

In terms of resources and local talent pools, there isn’t a direct comparison of Nebraska with schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and other similarly situated programs. But let’s consider how Nebraska has competed with its comparable rivals.

Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar challenges when it comes to recruiting bases and allures to athletes from warm-weather climates. Under Pelini, Nebraska was 1-3 against the Badgers. In the last two meetings, Wisconsin outscored Nebraska 129-55, surrendering 1100 yards of rushing offense.

Nebraska is 1-3 against Michigan State, another program with comparable recruiting challenges. Nebraska has dropped two straight to Minnesota, a program over which Nebraska enjoys significant advantages in terms of resources.

That’s not good enough. Eichorst said so on Sunday. And almost every Nebraska fan would acknowledge the hard truth of that assessment.

Heck, Nebraska was 1-1 in the last two meetings against Iowa, needing overtime and a miracle comeback to get a win last Friday. And we heard from Eichorst how much stock he put into the win over Iowa.

“I am trying to look at who are championship level football teams in that moment. How competitive were we in those games. We were not playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. And I have great respect to Iowa, it is a wonderful institution, and a great football program. But in the final analysis, there record was where it was and our record was where it was.”

Iowa is, in many ways, very similar to Nebraska. Same locale. Same climate. Same lack of local recruiting talent.

The Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz have (for the most part) gone to bowl games, graduated their players, and enjoyed a program free from scandal. Is that good enough?

For Iowa fans, ultimately, the answer is yes. Some of that may be due to the monstrous buy-out clause Ferentz negotiated, making his termination far more expensive than the $7.65 million it will cost Nebraska to dismiss Pelini (as reported by the Omaha World-Herald).

But more importantly, the majority of Iowa’s fan base is willing to accept the Hawkeyes’ performance under Ferentz. It’s good enough to keep filling (mostly) the stands in Kinnick Stadium, buying black-and-gold merchandise, and following the team to its bowl destination.

On Sunday, Eichorst made a statement—and a gamble—that Nebraska fans do not accept Pelini’s performance as good enough.

It’s a gamble because the hiring process could go bad. Nebraska fans have seen that movie, in 2003, when the coaching search descended into farce. (Houston Nutt, fer cryin’ out loud?) And the hire itself could be a flop—some guy whose name rhymes with Cill Ballahan demonstrated the damage the wrong guy for a program can do in a few short years.

Eichorst has put his neck on the chopping block with this move. He’s risking his job by making a bold statement about the type of program Nebraska is, and should be, in the college football world.

Pelini is a good man, and a good coach. The near-universal support he is receiving from current and former players is testament to what he did for them during their time at Nebraska. His ability to take on the cultural disaster that was Nebraska after Callahan speaks to his skill as a coach.

But so does his record against championship-level competition—in Eichorst’s words, the “games that matter.” Nebraska failed to win a conference championship in seven years under Pelini’s leadership.

On Sunday, Eichorst said out loud and with authority what most Nebraska fans believe.

That’s not good enough.

All quotes from the Omaha World-Herald.

Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Progress at Nebraska Little Different Than Callahan’s

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that seasons—and careers—turn on fine margins. Even coming off a number of bad losses, Nebraska was still just a few plays away from making that next step. One play going the wrong way in a championship game, keeping Nebraska from finally winning that elusive conference title.  A fumble by a wide receiver at the end of a critical game costing Nebraska a much-needed win. If both of those plays go the other way, the status of the Nebraska program looks very different.

Boy, that Bill Callahan guy was close, wasn’t he?

I know, the opening of this column sounds like Bo Pelini’s near-misses, against Texas (and Oklahoma, really) in the Big 12 title game, and last week’s loss to Minnesota. But Callahan, the man who has become a cartoon villain amongst many Nebraska fans, has a resume that looks eerily similar.

Conference title near-miss? In 2006, Nebraska faced Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Midway through the third quarter, the score was tied 14-14 and Nebraska had Oklahoma in a third-and-long inside its own five yard line. With the statistical advantage on both offense and defense, a stop for the Blackshirts on that play gives NU the ball with great field position, momentum, and a clear chance to get the conference title monkey off its back. A win in that game puts Nebraska back on the map in Callahan’s third season, potentially changing the trajectory of the program. A stop on that third down goes a long way towards that win.

Instead, Paul Thompson hits Jermel Greshman for a 35-yard completion and converts the first down. The Sooners end up with a 99-yard touchdown drive and squeeze the life out of Nebraska, 21-7.

A late-game wide receiver turnover costing Nebraska a much-needed win? Look back to 2006 again, when Nebraska faced no. 5 Texas. With 2:23 left in the game, Nebraska held a 20-19 lead and had the ball, looking to get its first win over the Longhorns since 1999. But Terrence Nunn, after hauling in a Zac Taylor pass, lost a fumble to Texas’ Aaron Ross.

Texas drove the short field for a field goal, and Nebraska’s last-second comeback fell short, leaving NU once again coming oh-so-close to a huge win.

Of course, the analogies aren’t perfect. Pelini’s loss to Texas in 2009 was probably closer to glory than Callahan’s loss to Oklahoma in 2006. Pelini’s loss to Minnesota this year is almost certainly worse than Callahan’s loss to the no. 5 rated Longhorns in 2006.

Most importantly, Pelini is not Callahan—although his “I haven’t forgotten how to defend the run” quote after the 2011 win over Wisconsin (from Huskers.com) might hang around his neck in the same way Callahan’s “I’m doing an excellent job in every area” quote did in 2007 (from the Lincoln Journal-Star). Pelini has never missed a bowl game—indeed, he’s never won fewer than nine games in a season. Up until last week, he had not lost consecutive conference games since 2009.

The point is that football seasons turn on fine margins. We remember Callahan’s four years at the helm in Lincoln as an unmitigated disaster. And, given how the 2007 season ended, there’s good reason to look back in horror at what unfurled under his leadership.

But the smoke from the blazing hulk of the 2007 can obscure how close Callahan came to turning the metaphorical corner at Nebraska. Much like Pelini, Callahan was fingertips (literally, with Nunn’s fumble) away from a career-defining moment.

The fact remains, though, that those moments never happened, that corner never got turned. Being close to greatness isn’t greatness, just as being part of an entourage doesn’t make you a star.

Callahan had four years of getting close before a seven-loss season (along with near-universal loathing for his boss, former athletic director Steve Pederson) cost him his job. Pelini has had seven years. He’s had the same agonizingly-close brushes with glory as Callahan—along with the hide-the-children debacles on national television.

What Pelini hasn’t had is a seven-loss disaster like Callahan did in 2007. Whether that’s enough to keep him for year eight is up to current athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Nebraska Football: Fans Should Be Thankful For Clarity Provided by Minnesota Loss

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Nebraska fans will be looking hard for something about which to be thankful. In the course of seven days, Nebraska fans saw their Cornhuskers go from an 8-1 team on the periphery of the College Football Playoff to (at best) the third-best team in the Big Ten West. In the process, Nebraska fans saw Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon set the FBS all-time record for rushing yards in one game—needing only three quarters to do so—and saw less-than-fleet Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner gash the Blackshirts for 133 yards on the ground.

So what can Nebraska fans be thankful for as they sit down to their turkey and trimmings?

Clarity.

Think about what would have happened if Jordan Westerkamp had hauled in Tommy Armstrong’s across-the-field throw for a touchdown to salvage an ugly win against the Gophers. Nebraska would have gone to Iowa City at 9-2, with a chance to win the B1G West with help. The struggles of 2014 would have been seen as a blip, rather than evidence of the program’s level.

Yes, the struggles of 2014, not just the past week. Remember, this is the same Nebraska squad that needed a miracle play from Ameer Abdullah to avoid defeat at home against FCS McNeese State. The same Nebraska squad that was down 27-3 against Michigan State going into the fourth quarter, before staging a furious comeback—fueled by a punt return and a short drive led by backup quarterback Ryker Fife.

A win over Minnesota on Saturday—driven by a broken play, a blocked field goal, and a last-minute touchdown drive—would have allowed Nebraska to paper over the cracks for another year, allowed fans to tell themselves their team was something it was not.  A contender.

In seven years, Bo Pelini’s Nebraska teams have been to three conference title games. In 2009, an Ndamukong-Suh led Nebraska squad was one second away from beating Texas. In 2010, a freshman Taylor Martinez threw an interception that likely turned the tide in Oklahoma’s 20-13 victory.

And in 2012—well, Nebraska fans all remember what a 7-5 Wisconsin squad who finished third in the Leaders Division and went to Indianapolis only due to sanctions levied against Ohio State and Penn State did to that crew of Cornhuskers.

Two years removed from that title game, and Nebraska is on track (if oddsmakers are to be believed) for Pelini’s seventh four-loss regular season in seven seasons.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst noted after Wisconsin’s 59-24 mauling of Nebraska in Madison, a Nebraska program ending the season at 10-2 or 9-3 would be hard-pressed to dismiss Pelini, even though that record really would not be indicative of whether Nebraska was a contender to win a division title.  The record would mask the true state of the program under Pelini at the end of the 2014 season.

But with a loss to Minnesota, the second loss on the bounce against the Gophers? With the oddsmakers favoring Nebraska to drop a second straight to Iowa, producing this year’s version of a four-loss season with a three-game losing streak?

Clarity. The loss to Minnesota provides clarity to anyone observing the Nebraska program as to what it is.

The question about what to do, of course, is open. Pelini thinks his program is on the right track, and on the verge of a breakthrough season. Pelini takes care of his players, runs a clean program, and gets his teams to bowl games each year. His quote after the Wisconsin game that “[a] lot of programs across the country would die to have won the amount of games we’ve won” (from Huskers.com) is accurate.

Of course, most programs around the country don’t have the investment in football, the tradition, resources, or fan base support Nebraska provides, but that’s another story.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of good reasons to retain Pelini’s services as Nebraska’s head coach, either positive (his winning record, his recruiting, the program he runs) or negative (the cost of a firing, the trauma to the fanbase, and the fear of the unknown with a new coach).

But at least after the Minnesota loss, those pros and cons can be debated by the Nebraska fan base—and ultimately by athletic director Shawn Eichorst—with a clear perspective as to where Nebraska’s football program currently lies, without a deceptive and unrepresentative win-loss record concealing the blemishes.

Clarity. If you’re looking for something to be thankful for about Nebraska football this holiday season, be thankful for clarity.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Nebraska Football: Epic Collapses Now The Defining Trait of Pelini’s Husker Program

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

“It should not define our program. It’s one game.”

- Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, after NU’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in 2014. (As quoted in the Grand Island Independent)

“It’s one game today … I never look back.”

- Nebraska head football coach Bill Callahan, after Nebraska’s 2004 season ended at 5-6, breaking NU’s 35-year streak of bowls. (As quoted in USA Today)

Nebraska fans had a sickening feeling of déjà vu on Saturday as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon racked up 408 yards on the ground—breaking the NCAA single-game rushing record in three quarters—as the Badgers scored 56 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 59-24.

The last time Nebraska faced Gordon was in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game, when Gordon torched Nebraska for 216 yards on nine (!) carries en route to a 70-31 humiliation of NU.

It seemed like a long time had passed since that debacle in Indianapolis, though. The recruiting struggles of 2010 and 2011 were behind Nebraska, and NU had the athletes to compete at the highest level. Bo Pelini, after a tumultuous offseason, had matured and put the embarrassing collapses behind him.

This was the year Nebraska turned the metaphorical corner, it seemed. In year seven of Bo Pelini’s tenure in charge of the Nebraska program, 2014 was the year Nebraska returned to the national relevance fans have ached for since 2001.

Heck, Nebraska fans were even getting ready to cheer for Miami, to help NU’s strength of schedule and bolster the Huskers’ argument to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. If there’s anything that will tell you how desperate Nebraska fans were to bask in the glow of a nationally-competitive football program, that’s it.

At 17-3, those dreams were intact. Then, Gordon ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run. And the meltdown was on. Again.

“And it’s not like it only happens to us. Look across the country. It happens.”

- Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, at his weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game (as quoted by Huskers.com)

With all due respect, coach, no it doesn’t. No one has ever given up 408 yards to one opposing player—certainly not in only three quarters of game time. The teams at the level at which Nebraska aspires to achieve—teams that are regularly in the discussion for conference titles, and now for inclusion in the four-team College Football Playoff—don’t get humiliated on a regular basis.

How regular? Well …

2014 Wisconsin 59, Nebraska 24 (NU led 17-3)
2013 UCLA 41, Nebraska 21 (NU led 21-3)
2012 Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31
2012 Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38 (NU led 17-7)
2011 Michigan 45, Nebraska 17
2011 Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17 (NU led 7-0 and 14-7)

 

In case you were curious, that means in six games against marquee opponents over the past four years, Nebraska was outscored 326-148, after having leads in four of those games.

So, no. It’s not just one game, Coach Beck. Quite honestly, since 2011 collapses like the ones against Wisconsin on Saturday have pretty much been the defining characteristic of the Nebraska program.

“We’ve won a lot of football games since I’ve been here, a lot of football games. A lot of football programs across the country would die to have won the amount of football games we’ve won.”

- Pelini, defending the state of the Nebraska program in a post-game interview after the Wisconsin loss on Saturday (as quoted by ESPN)

Is it fair to define Pelini’s program by the ugly losses? Isn’t he right to point out that under Pelini Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games? Is that really fair on Pelini?

Maybe not. But fair ain’t nothing but a four-letter f-word. And fair or not, the one thing Nebraska is known for on a national stage are the six ugly, face-on-a-rake losses Nebraska has endured on a national spotlight since 2011.

It’s year seven of Pelini’s time at the helm in Lincoln. There’s no more rebuilding from the Callahan legacy. There’s no more disruption from a conference shift. There’s no more recovering from a bad recruiting cycle early in his career.

This is Pelini’s program. It’s his team, with his players and his culture. And in six of the biggest games since 2011—four of which his teams have held leads—his teams have been outscored by a combined 178 points.

So what now? While questions have been raised after Saturday’s debacle, Pelini’s job is in no serious jeopardy. If Nebraska wins its next two games—and yes, Nebraska has enough talent to win out—NU will end the season at 10-2. The state nearly came unglued when Frank Solich was fired with a far worse record than Pelini’s. So absent an epic meltdown on Pelini’s part—like we saw against Iowa last year—Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst is unlikely to consider any change at the helm.

“I believe this program is on a good track. It’s on the right track.”

- Pelini on the status of the Nebraska program, from the weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game.

In some ways, it’s a trap. Pelini’s teams have delivered good seasons, never less than nine wins. But they’ve never delivered great seasons, with a conference title or a truly marquee win for Nebraska fans to hang their collective hat on. The only time Pelini’s job was ever truly in jeopardy wasn’t for the wins and losses, but for Pelini’s immature and boorish behavior at the end of last season. Assuming he’s not foolish enough to repeat that behavior, his record is such that he’s unlikely to be fired.

So what do Nebraska fans, so desperate to see NU return to what they see as its rightful place as a major player in college football, do now?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

- Hebrews 11:1 (King James Version)

Yes, I know Nebraska football is not religion—although in this state, some may be forgiven for mistaking the two. But at this point, the principle is the same. Pelini, absent a post-Iowa presser like last year, isn’t going anywhere unless his team completely implodes. So Nebraska fans have two choices. The first is to hope Nebraska starts losing on an epic level that will force Eichorst’s hand to make a change. But that kind of toxic karma will do no good for either the fans who would engage in those dark arts or for the kids currently in the program who are putting their bodies on the line every Saturday for the Sea of Red.

The other option is to have faith—blind faith, to be sure, given Pelini’s history and his statements at the post-Wisconsin press conference that he has “no idea” why Nebraska keeps collapsing under his watch like it does—that Pelini is right about Nebraska being on the right track and on target to start winning conference and national titles.

Is it rational? Not based on the evidence of things seen.

But it’s all you’ve got left to hold on to, Husker fans.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.