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?
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.