Forgive me. I don’t know how to start this column and I have no idea where it’s going.
This is supposed to be a column about Nebraska bouncing back from the Big Ten championship game, and how much Bo Pelini needs to win the Capital One Bowl.
What the coach really needed on Friday was to go hug his kids.
Might as well begin on Friday night. The images of an American horror story were flashing on the TV, young children being led out of a school, parents crying, terrified kids being interviewed. Awful stuff.
I felt gutted. I couldn’t watch anymore. So I switched the channel over to the Big Ten Network.
Which just so happened to be showing my Sunday assignment, the Big Ten championship game. You might recall it. Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31. A Husker fan’s worst nightmare.
Forgive me. I’m about to plow through a no-trespassing zone, like a bull in a china shop. One of the worst clichés in my business is, whenever a tragic event occurs, to try to lecture readers that sports don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
You know what? Sports do matter.
Life matters more.
You don’t need me to tell you that. Creighton senior Josh Jones offered a fine delivery of the message last week, as he grappled with a heart problem and a possible future without his favorite game. Jones’ first-class press conference was a perfect reminder that just beyond the fantasy world lies the real world, waiting to slap us in the face at any given moment.
It’s also a reminder that sports are the most important unimportant things in the world. They provide us escape from life’s won-loss scoreboard.
I needed that fantasy world on Friday afternoon. As I waited outside the doors of the Hawks Championship Center to interview Nebraska coaches and players about a game they lost two weeks ago, I desperately wanted to be at my daughters’ school, taking them home early, protecting them, wrapping them in a daddy bearhug.
But soon, asking Will Compton what in the wide world of sports happened against the Badgers proved good therapy for a scared dad.
Just like turning the channel on Friday night. Who’d have thought you would turn to that horrible game for relief?
Let’s do it. Come escape with me.
There are mysteries of life. There are mysteries of football. What happened in Indianapolis was the latter.
Much has been written about the battered state of the Nebraska offensive and defensive lines. But as I watched the replay again on Friday night, one theme was perfectly clear.
Wisconsin coached and played faster, and with more purpose, than NU. The Huskers were a step behind on everything.
It was all over their body language. The Badgers popped them in the mouth. The Big Red went into a funk.
The question, still, is why? After six weeks of taking body shots and getting up off the canvas and finding ways to win each week, why didn’t they fight here?
One theory: the Huskers were gassed.
I hadn’t heard that, or considered it, until Greg Sharpe, the voice of the Huskers, spoke to the Omaha Press Club last week. Sharpe mentioned talking to a Wisconsin player at the ESPN awards show on Dec. 6, and the Badger told him he thought Nebraska players were “gassed” in the game.
Six weeks of living on the edge? A defensive line down worn to the nub? Maybe the Huskers got to the finish line of Pelini’s goal of “winning out” six straight games and mentally checked out.
Maybe Pelini should have said, “We need to win seven straight.”
It’s possible. But here’s where I don’t buy it: Wisconsin had just as much right to empty tanks, having lost three overtime games and failing to close the deal. And yet somehow the Badgers played with vigor, coached with imagination.
Gassed? Compton doesn’t think that was an issue, either.
“Nah, I don’t buy that,” said the senior linebacker. “For some reason, we just didn’t come to play. We didn’t do our jobs. That’s really what it was. They did stuff we practiced on all week. We had a great game plan.”
A lot of teams are “gassed” this time of year. They’re beat up. Pelini’s decision to redshirt several defensive players, particularly young linemen, may have come back to bite them here. But NU expects to be younger and better up front next season, and more athletic at linebacker.
Should he have played more of those younger kids this year? It’s perfect hindsight. But that doesn’t excuse the offense, which was flying high and had no answers, either.
Pelini said he didn’t go into the game thinking the Huskers were low on gas.
“I thought it was a tough stretch we went through,” he said. “At times I thought we were a step slow. I thought we were ready going in.
“I thought a lot about the game. I can’t put my finger on it. I’ve been through games like that before. I really don’t have an answer. I don’t know if the kids wanted it too bad. But I know you can’t dial it back. You can’t have a do-over.”
The next best thing is the Capital One Bowl date with SEC runner-up Georgia. The Bulldogs have the SEC look, as did South Carolina last year, and that was a team NU played even with until the Huskers couldn’t stop a Hail Mary or hold onto the ball.
In last year’s Outback Bowl, Georgia lost to Michigan State, a team that NU beat. This is a game Nebraska will have to play well, play inspired, to win. Who will show up?
It was hard to tell on Friday. The Huskers appeared to be light, in a good mood. They talked about the incentive to win, to get that 11th win, something the program hasn’t had since 2001. But these guys have always said all the right things.
They can’t erase Indy or the disappointment of the finish. But they can spin it forward to 2013 with a victory over Georgia. A win in a big game. Isn’t that what this program needs?
Today, I’ll settle for a hug from my kids. Now that’s winning.
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