INDIANAPOLIS — The Huskers came here to make history. Boy, did they.
Forget the Bill Callahan Error. It included some of the all-time Nebraska stinkers. None of them was worse than this. Those teams weren't as good as this one. The expectations not as high as in 2012.
Colorado 62-36? That one might have hurt more. But at least Nebraska was competitive on offense in that one, kept it close through the third quarter, before the floodgates crashed.
I wasn't here at the end of 1990. Before that, I can't imagine any Tom Osborne or Bob Devaney teams looking this inept or poorly coached.
If there's a worse loss in modern Nebraska history than what transpired at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, I'd like to see it. Or not.
I don't care about points or yards allowed. You can't measure this debacle in terms of numbers, though, for the record, 41,260 was the attendance, not the total yards rushing for Wisconsin.
These were the five-loss, third-place Badgers using and abusing a Nebraska team that said it was ready to take the next step and finish in a conference championship game.
Obviously, Wisconsin is better than its record. Nebraska, not as good.
This wasn't about stats. This wasn't about injuries or missing parts. This wasn't even about Wisconsin having three or four weeks to game-plan for Nebraska, which, by the way, didn't clinch the Legends Division until eight days ago.
This was simply Wisconsin lining up and kicking Nebraska's butt.
This was about Bret Bielema taking his friend Bo Pelini to the woodshed early and often. That was a quick handshake after the game. Not much to say.
We thought Wisconsin and senior running back Montee Ball would have success against Nebraska's beat-up defensive front. But that's not necessarily how it went down.
The Badgers scored on their fourth play from scrimmage, when Melvin Gordon took a handoff and darted to his left. The Badgers sealed the right side of the defense and Gordon had one man to beat on the edge. And he did, for a 56-yard touchdown run.
|TOM SHATEL ON FACEBOOK|
|Click the image above to join the daily conversation on the Tom Shatel Facebook page.|
It was a play that was repeated over and over.
The Badgers also lined up in a wacky formation with several players to the left and quarterback Curt Phillips and a handful of players to the right. Phillips completed a short pass. Everyone laughed. Well, not everyone.
Where were the stodgy, plodding Big Ten bruisers from Madison? They showed up in the second half, when it was time to run out the victory.
Even then, Wisconsin couldn't help but score. That's eight rushing touchdowns, for those keeping score at home.
Nebraska's defense, seemingly recovered from the Ohio State nightmare, was pathetic. Bad tackling. Bad angles. Bad coaching.
After James White waltzed 68 yards to make it 63-17 with 6:42 left in the THIRD quarter, Pelini turned his back and tossed his game-plan card into the air behind him.
It was so brutally bad that Nebraska's offense, which was thought to be a difference-maker in this one, became an afterthought. A non-factor.
Don't put this on Tim Beck. Don't put it on Taylor Martinez. They weren't the problem. They weren't the solution, either. But when the defense is playing touch, and the other guy can't help but score just before half to make it 42-10, game plans aren't worth the card they're printed on.
No, this one goes directly on the head coach's tab.
Nebraska looked ill-prepared, lackluster and like it had no business being on a championship field. This, in the fifth year of Pelini's tenure, with his guys, his seniors, his way of football.
Look at this way: at least you won't hear his name come up for any of the SEC openings.
Of course, there are those who will say that's not a good thing.
Here's the thing. There are three groups of Husker fans when it comes to Pelini. There's one group that will stand behind him no matter what. They're still there this morning. Right?
There's another group that won't ever accept him. He could win a national championship and this group would say he didn't smile enough.
The majority of Husker fans, I believe, are with Pelini win and win. After the Ohio State loss, they were ready to throw him away. Six wins later and the Big Ten title sitting on a tee, he might be the guy who has this thing figured out.
|MORE BIG RED TODAY UPDATES|
|Want the latest Husker headlines delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for email alerts!|
Pelini could have transformed himself with the Big Red Nation with a Big Ten championship. That's what championships do.
Instead, he's cemented his reputation as a guy who gets blinded in the big game, not ready for prime time. Will he ever be?
That's the fair question today. It will be asked for the next several weeks, and into a long offseason, which could be tempered with a bowl win over an SEC team — likely LSU in the Outback.
But there's no Outback Bowl that can make up for what happened on this field.
The Huskers, with everything to play for, and more than enough pieces to get it done, not only came up short. They came unglued.
Where was the gritty team that strung together six tough-as-nails wins in a row? Where did the backbone go? Where's the motivation? Where's the defense, the fundamentals, all those things Pelini was hired to provide?
Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don't. But with Coach Bo, they always seem to disappear at the worst possible times, like the biggest stages.
Nebraska wants to be great, wants to be more than just a division winner. So does Pelini. But it's clear now that he doesn't have any more idea how to do that in year five than he did in year one.
To his credit, Pelini took the hits afterwards. That's what you expect from the man. He apologized. He said his team was outcoached. He said it was on him. He said Wisconsin hadn't caught NU off-guard with anything, that it was the same offense that NU stopped in Lincoln. This time, Pelini said, his guys didn't play their gaps, didn't handle their responsibilities, didn't make tackles.
“I don't have an answer for that,” Pelini said.
He was frustrated, to be sure. But he's supposed to have the answer for that. That's why he was hired. He knows it. You know it. But we're at the end of year five, and we're still asking these questions and he's still apologizing for meltdown losses, a characteristic of the football he was hired to fix.
Once upon a time, Osborne couldn't win the big one, chased the white whale, and had enough time to finally do it. But Osborne never lost by these margins, never looked outclassed, except against national championship-caliber teams from Oklahoma or Miami.
That's not the case here. There's something wrong in the program, a program with good kids and good grades and sound football, but a program that keeps coming up woefully short in the big moments. Pelini begged to differ. But the scoreboard keeps begging to differ with him.
You have to be careful here. This will be an offseason of calls for staff shake-ups. The natives will be restless, and they should be. The head coach of the winning team here fired his offensive line coach back in September. This team needs a special teams coach. But we'll have time to dive into all that stuff later.
What should be remembered is that NU won 10 games. Ten. That's never a bad year. Most times, it's a good year, a very good year, with a lot of progress made in winning six straight. But that won't be remembered now. What people will think of when 2012 comes up is this night, this unreal, bad dream of a game.
It may not seem fair, but that's the standard Nebraska has to hold itself to if it's ever going to get to the other side.
After nights like this, it seems like Pelini's program is getting further away. Something's missing.
Like, a championship ring.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH