EVANSTON, Ill. — The death knell came on second down from the Nebraska 34.
With 7 minutes left, the Huskers trailed 28-16. Taylor Martinez had just thrown a ball into traffic and, mercifully, three Northwestern defenders failed to grab it.
This time Martinez changed the play at the line of scrimmage, made a quick drop and set his eyes on Jamal Turner.
He never saw the safety. Interception.
Half an hour later, Northwestern students were celebrating on the field. Nebraska fans — even reasonable ones — were calling for Bo Pelini's job. The team he put on the field Saturday demonstrated all the bad things about Husker football.
Turnovers. Penalties. Questionable play calling. Mental breakdowns, one after another.
“We just didn't execute,” Pelini said afterward. “We beat ourselves.”
It's Sunday morning, Oct. 21, 2012. And Nebraska is 4-3. With three very losable games the next three Saturdays.
We're looking at 2002 — maybe even 2007 — all over again.
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He dropped the ball. Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell dropped the interception.
And on the next play, Martinez hit Kyler Reed for a first down. And five plays later, Martinez hit Taariq Allen for a touchdown. And then the defense got a stop. And then Martinez led another scoring drive. And then Northwestern missed a 53-yard field goal.
And then Ben Cotton walked off the field and raised his helmet to the Husker masses in the south end zone. Teammates joined him, throwing gloves to the people, who chanted “Go Big Red!” You should've heard the noise.
And then Pelini finished a TV interview and walked toward the tunnel as they went crazy again, chanting “Bo! Bo! Bo!” He approached a few teenagers on the fence-line and said, “You guys were big time today.”
And then Pelini went to the locker room and told his team how proud he was. He shed a few tears — “Like he always does,” Will Compton said.
And watching it all unfold, it felt like Nebraska had just done something extraordinary. Epic.
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And yet, look how close we were to a very different reality. How close you came to reading that first column.
One play. One dropped interception.
This isn't 2007. It's not. The schedule is much, much easier. And Pelini and his team have too much heart. They fight like heck. And when they get momentum, it's fun to watch. Trouble is, they don't keep it very long.
Nebraska won Saturday — and that beats a loss every day of the week. But the actual events at Ryan Field should give you less hope — not more — about the long-term future of the program.
You want to talk about process? Where do these events fit into the process:
» Jeremiah Sirles and Reed run into each other on fourth-and-3, letting a defender crush Martinez for a loss.
» Sirles and Ben Cotton miscommunicate on a blocking assignment, letting a Wildcat sack Martinez for a 9-yard loss.
» Sirles lines up off the line of scrimmage, drawing a flag for illegal formation, wiping out a third-down conversion.
» On Nebraska's first 11 third-down opportunities, the offense converts one.
» Two Husker blitzers run into each other on third-and-long, giving Trevor Siemian a running lane for a first down. Didn't matter because Antonio Bell got flagged for holding.
On the sideline, Pelini says something to Bell and the senior gets so angry, Cotton pulls him aside and calms him down.
» Conor McDermott gets flagged for holding on Kenny Bell's long kickoff return, costing Nebraska 40 yards of field position.
» Daimion Stafford shoves a Northwestern player in the back on punt coverage, erasing a Husker fumble recovery.
» Ameer Abdullah fumbles a punt. Kenny Bell fumbles a punt. Nebraska starts fair-catching punts, prompting a sarcastic roar from Husker fans.
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All of those errors came after a bye week. Most of those errors came from players who've spent three or four years in the program.
This wasn't Ohio State or Michigan. Nebraska is physically superior to Northwestern at 90 percent of the positions on the field. It had a 50-50 split in the bleachers.
And it still needed Campbell to drop that interception. What's the excuse?
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There's something I left out of the postgame scene, right before Bo approached those kids on the fence-line, right after he finished his TV interview.
“Bo! Bo! Bo!”
Pelini heard the chants, looked up and waved 'em off — the same gesture he occasionally makes toward officials. Why?
It wasn't anger. It wasn't disrespect. It was ... what's the word ... sheepishness. Like the golfer who blades a bunker shot, watches the ball hit the flagstick and drop in the hole.
Bo wasn't worthy of the cheers. And he knew it.
You can look at the scoreboard — 29-28 — and celebrate one of the most improbable rallies in school history. There's nothing wrong with that. The Big Red spirit lives on.
But the standard has to be more than a win or a loss. Especially in year five.
At some point, Nebraska has to start playing like Nebraska again. At some point, those fans in the bleachers are going to ask themselves a serious question:
How much closer are they now than the day Pelini walked in the door?
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, email@example.com; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Nebraska linebacker Will Compton after the Northwestern game:
>> Video: Jon Nyatawa's postgame analysis: