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.

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