The two best Blackshirts of the 21st century stood on the sideline in street clothes, watching helplessly as the big plays piled up.
21 yards, then 24, then 29 ...
75, 24, 24 ...
49, 31, 24, 87.
If only there were a way to sneak Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David into red uniforms. It doesn't work that way. Stars leave and you start over. That's the game. But aren't great programs supposed to reload?
Once upon a time, Bo Pelini executed a miraculous defensive rehabilitation, securing his status as one of college football's great defensive coaches. Three short years later, he doesn't have future NFL starters in the lineup. And Nebraska is getting embarrassed every time it faces a formidable offense.
In four losses this season, the Blackshirts allowed 53.5 points and 595 yards per game. Read that sentence again.
Without a dominant defense, who is Nebraska? What does it do better than anyone else? How does it stand out? What does it recruit to? These are the questions I keep coming back to.
What is Nebraska's edge?
Look around college football today. Look especially at the nationally relevant northern schools. All have established an advantage. All have an identity. Something that defines them. Something that separates them.
Oregon is the epitome of cool. Uniforms. Nike gear. And the sexiest offense in the land. Chip Kelly can attract elite prospects because of his tempo. And when he gets pieces, he knows how to use them.
Kansas State has none of those things. What it does have is Bill Snyder, who uncovers diamonds and maximizes every shred of talent he has. There are two ways to win. Avoid mistakes or overcome them. Most teams overcome. K-State has found a way to avoid them. Play clean football.
Notre Dame, after all these years, doesn't need wrinkles. It is still the most prestigious brand in the country, thanks to NBC and its Catholic roots. The TV ratings for the national title game will be off the charts.
Stanford had academic prestige, too. Then Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw built one of the most physical programs in the country. The Cardinal mastered the fundamentals of power football.
So did Wisconsin, which is known nationally for its ability to develop offensive linemen.
Virginia Tech, when it was rolling, had the best special teams in the country.
Ohio State sits in the best recruiting hotbed north of the Mason-Dixon. And now it has a coach with two national championships.
All of these schools, like Nebraska, possess massive football budgets. But unlike NU, they've found ways to get to 11, 12, 13 wins. They've found a niche in the world of SEC dominance. Something they can do better than everyone else.
For years, Nebraska had distinguishable traits, too. More than any program in college football, in fact.
Not only was Tom Osborne one of the sport's greatest tacticians, he orchestrated an unconventional offensive system that appealed to running quarterbacks and I-backs across the country. Nebraska didn't even need to wear uniforms in order to be recognized on Saturdays.
With just those two features — a mastermind and his unique playbook — Nebraska would've won a bunch of games. But there was more.
Ľ Facilities, especially in strength and conditioning, that were equal to or better than any in the country.
Ľ A staff of assistant coaches that never left, creating an environment not only conducive to great game management, but talent development.
Ľ A walk-on program perfectly tailored for those veteran assistants. Football is a numbers game and Osborne had a larger pool of potential contributors. His staff knew exactly how to mold them and get them ready in years four and five.
Ľ A reputation for taking academic projects, giving them help and watching them blossom into All-Americans.
Ľ On top of all that, there was no ESPN2 or Big Ten Network. Hardly any games were on TV. Osborne could tell kids, “There aren't 10 programs in the country who will be watched as much as you.” Nebraska became a national brand. Success bred success.
Together, the ingredients compensated for sparse population and bad weather. Nebraska not only lost three games or less for 29 consecutive years (1969-'97), it finished in the top 12 an astounding 26 times.
Now ask yourself this: How many of those advantages still exist? And what has Nebraska done to replace the ones it lost?
When Osborne hired Pelini, defense appeared to be the place where NU could hang its hat. Pelini would build a Top 10 defense. Every year.
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Now? The demise from 2010 to '12 is almost as stunning as the resurgence from 2007 to '09.
The Blackshirts' nationally ranked pass defense, which looked great against Big Ten quarterbacks, got shredded by Aaron Murray. The run defense got pummeled by Ohio State and Wisconsin. Without significant changes, it's hard to see how Pelini rebuilds the defense to an elite level — I'm not talking about leading the Big Ten, I'm talking about matching Alabama and LSU.
Pelini has squandered any recruiting advantage he had from coaching the most dominant defensive lineman of the past decade. He has not figured out how to get young players on the field — that's a potential recruiting tool, too.
And his scheme that worked so well his first eight years in college football? Good offenses are gaining yards by the Walmart parking lot.
Over the next few months, Pelini has to tutor a new crop of defensive linemen and linebackers. He has to fix Nebraska's abysmal turnover margin. He has to improve the hidden yards category — special teams and penalties.
But in a larger context, he has to step back and do something more important: Do what Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne did. Craft a vision for the program. Identify where Nebraska can gain an upper hand.
It might mean re-thinking what an ideal coaching staff looks like. Does he need recruiters, teachers or whiteboard wizards? Friends or strangers? Youth or experience?
It might mean revolutionizing his schemes. Can he go back to the drawing board and change the game defensively the way Chip Kelly changed it offensively?
It might mean overhauling his recruiting philosophy. Can he find new ways — and new places — to market his program?
It might mean renewing some of Osborne's advantages. Can he reconstruct practices in a way that enhances depth? Can he gain in talent development what he loses in recruiting?
It might mean taking old traditions and finding new ways to employ them. Embrace the Blackshirts. Don't downplay the brand, promote it.
I don't know the specific answers. But it's time to ask the big questions.
Nebraska absolutely can re-join college football's elite class. But first it needs to redefine its edge.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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>> Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Capital One Bowl: