Published Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 7:48 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: Fix-it list to occupy Pelini for months
Capital One Bowl
Who: Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: Noon, Jan. 1
Where: Florida Citrus Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
TV: ABC
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

Every Monday during the season, World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon breaks down Nebraska football news, last weekend's game and previews the next opponent.

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INDIANAPOLIS — Such a lovely city for an autopsy. Maybe Nebraska can return one day and give a proper accounting of its football program.

When — if — it does, the Huskers may have different coaches.

I'm not even hinting Bo Pelini needs to go anywhere. I'm trying to give him a little advance credit. After his team imploded for the sixth time in two seasons, using the words “we failed” after the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin, Bo must know.

» Bo must know that he's primarily paid almost $3 million to find, sign and develop players — not run a graduate school of coaching. Pelini gives young guys chances. He got his own chance as a young guy in the NFL, so he's paying it forward. Respectable. But not to this extent.

Aside from Ron Brown, there isn't any coach on the Huskers' staff who can tell Bo much about BCS-level football that he wouldn't already know, and he's been coaching in college since only 2003.

Coaching is strategic vision, made real by preparation (psychological, physical) supplemented by on-the-fly shifts. Nebraska' defense looked unprepared Saturday night, then shocked, then pitiable. Safeties and linebackers took shallow, ruinous pursuit angles like they were diving in front of bullets, as if the game depended on their desperate, one-armed kamikaze swipes. The Big Ten title slipping away, they lost their poise, threw up their hands, and started guessing, instead of playing.

» Bo must know that his staff has recruited and developed defensive linemen poorly enough that NU played a former linebacker (Eric Martin) at end Saturday night and sent 260-pound Cameron Meredith — a kid who'd run through walls — to absorb 650 pounds of Wisconsin double-teams.

In three years, the Huskers went from Ndamukong Suh-Jared Crick to a bunch of highly touted underclassmen presumably so unhealthy or unprepared that they can't earn a single snap. Position coach Rick Kaczenski inherited this roster, and knows he needs players — his players — to fix it. He looked distraught Saturday night.

» Bo must know that his offense was one Taylor Martinez injury away from total meltdown, and that Martinez's ability to make big plays and somehow avoid that big injury was a considerable stroke of fortune. Martinez is mercurial like March weather in Minden, but the position outside of his presence is a Siberian winter.

Nebraska's signed seven quarterbacks since Pelini arrived. One blew out both knees and retired, another won a conference title for Tulsa on Saturday, two switched positions, one's playing pro baseball, one is redshirting and one is Martinez, who pays for his own quarterbacks coach in the summer and works with a 26-year-old graduate assistant during the season.

The kid's dogged, stubborn and loose with the ball. But offensive coordinator Tim Beck — whom I like, who easily deserves another year — doesn't have any backups to push Martinez, or a dedicated, paid position coach to groom him. Does Beck have the freedom to make the staffing decisions he wants and shape the offense how he pleases?

» Bo must know — and if he doesn't, here's his notice — that Nebraska hasn't been a good road-neutral team since the 2010 Kansas State game. It has been a snowball perched on a peak, liable to roll either way.

In the 17 games away from home since beating KSU, Nebraska is 8-9. The Blackshirts are giving up an average of 30.3 points and 400 yards. The Huskers' turnover margin in those 17 games is minus-27, with 40 turnovers. That's 2.4 giveaways per game.

That's a little more than 17 isolated cases of poor execution. But again: Which coach — besides Brown — can offer his own informed take on how to flip it? Don't say Tom Osborne. He's retiring, he wouldn't meddle and Bo shouldn't ask.

» Bo must know that Nebraska's offensive line has its own developmental problems. NU started three upgraded walk-ons this year over guys the Huskers have spent years scouting and developing. Cole Pensick, probably the most consistent lineman all year, had to swing from center to guard to center Saturday night because, again, many of these supposedly skilled underclassmen are not healthy or prepared to contribute. Bo's undersized nephew, Mark Pelini, has apparently made more progress at center than a whole slew of top recruits NU sweated to bring on campus. Kudos to Mark. But why? How?

The dilemma recalls the 2010 Big 12 title game, when Keith Williams — another run-through-walls guy — had to play on one good foot because offensive line coach Barney Cotton didn't trust anyone to replace him.

This Rewind probably reads like revisionist history, given the six-game winning streak that delivered Nebraska to its Indy execution. It's not. NU's flaws lurked under the surface.

If anything, appreciate the “win out” streak even more. The Huskers' sum was greater than their parts, and Martinez threw daggers weekly. That streak is still a great story — and the NU fans who showed up in Evanston, East Lansing and Iowa City especially know it.

But when those parts broke down — and Martinez fell back into his old patterns of rushed mechanics, poor reads and bad ball security — you saw, for the sixth time in two years, a game that got outside the grasp of Pelini's considerable intelligence and into the wild.

The way Bo chooses to shape his program — intricate, ever-changing defensive game plans, a mobile quarterback who will be exposed to injury, a power-based, no-huddle offense — is clearly ambitious. It demands no less than the Big Ten's best-paid, most experienced staff.

Bo knows. Now let's see what — if anything — Bo does. On with The Rewind:

I see you

» Wisconsin running back Montee Ball: He's grown on me. He has good wiggle and a better stiff arm.

» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Clean, great block. The flag was a shame. Bell also found the Wisconsin cornerback he blew up, Devin Smith, and gave him a hug after the game.

» Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland: He suplexed Martinez by accident, I guess, since he apologized a half-minute afterward. Kudos to NU guard Spencer Long for coming to Martinez's immediate defense, and wide receiver Jamal Turner for talking some sense into Borland.

» Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon: NU's reaction time made him look like Carl Lewis.

» Meredith: Great effort in the face of a brutal assignment. He needs more help down there.

» Wisconsin's offensive line: It was one night, not a vintage bunch. But when the Badgers' big boys play like that, there isn't a prettier offense in college football.

» Safety Courtney Osborne: Until Saturday night, the senior had nine tackles in the last two seasons — mostly on special teams. He had eight against the Badgers.

» Turner: If Martinez throws to No. 10 on NU's first play instead of Bell, it's a 20-yard gain. Wisconsin forgot to cover Turner.

Three concerns

» Bouncing back: Nebraska players wouldn't hide their disappointment after the game, and they shouldn't. They'll have to find motivation quickly to hang with Georgia, even if the Bulldogs have to find motivation themselves.

» Capital One Bowl turnout: Airline tickets are off-the-charts expensive, Orlando hotels aren't cheap, and a lot of Husker fans just visited Disney World last year. Tough sell, even for this fan base.

» Special teams: Pelini has to put more of his stamp on this unit in the offseason. Nebraska's return game has run aground, and the Huskers have to break in a new long snapper and kicker.

Three questions

» Can Nebraska get the defensive line help it needs in junior college recruiting? It's the Huskers' top priority. They've targeted the right guys, lured them in for official visits and clearly have immediate, abundant playing time to offer. If Kaczenski can coax the right combination of guys to sign with NU, 2013 looks brighter.

» Will Martinez shed the bad throws and bad fumbles? The ball security thing is pretty ingrained and may always be an issue. The poor reads can be tied to coaching. Martinez can hold the ball a second longer than he usually does, and hold his play-action fakes better, too. By year's end, he threw the ball from every angle north of submarine.

» Which Big Ten team has the best chance to win its bowl game? Northwestern, which plays Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. If the league wins more than two bowl games, count me as stunned.

Three stats

» 95th: Nebraska's national ranking in run defense. That's the lowest rank since 2007, when the Huskers finished 116th.

» 105th: The Huskers' ranking in turnover margin. That sound you hear is the other shoe finally dropping.

» 360: The total yards Martinez would need in the Capital One Bowl to hit 4,000 yards of total offense for the year. It'd be quite a feat.

Opponent watch

Of the three teams Nebraska could have played in a bowl after Saturday night — Georgia, LSU or Texas A&M — the Bulldogs are the best overall, but also the best matchup for the Huskers. Georgia nearly pulled an upset in the SEC championship, falling one play short in a 32-28 loss to Alabama. The Bulldogs will struggle to find a reason to win in Orlando, even if their overall talent gives them a big edge.

Georgia's balanced, pro-style offense makes it a tough matchup for the Huskers' defense. The Bulldogs have speed that Wisconsin wishes it had, especially at wide receiver. At quarterback, Aaron Murray has a tag of failing to win the big games, a tag coach Mark Richt didn't like at all in the postgame press conference Saturday night.

Richt's a good guy, mild-mannered, amiable. He was born in Omaha, liked NU growing up, respects the Nebraska brand and won't be out to humiliate the Huskers.

Forecast

Dark skies

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com; Twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

* * *

>> Video: Jon Nyatawa's postgame analysis:



>> Video: Postgame press conference video with Bo Pelini:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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