Published Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:22 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: For one half, it was OK for Husker fans to dream

LINCOLN — Hopelessness arrived early this year.

It fell out of the sky like a piano on Memorial Stadium, though the locals are numb to the feeling. Play it again, Bo.

This is the part where we say the season isn't over. Not by a long shot. But speaking of long shots, would you like us to wake you when the Huskers win the Big Ten?

For one half on a beautiful Saturday, it was OK to dream. They teased us. NU was up on UCLA 21-3 late in the second quarter. The Bruins were the ones who didn't answer the bell. And it looked like we had a football season.

Then we had a second half.

The Huskers were outscored 31-0 in the second half. Up by 18, lose by 20. Don't even bother trying to rank this collapse. Who cares? At some point, they all look the same.

And that's a problem, potentially a big problem for Bo Pelini, as fans trudged over the bridge or toward downtown Lincoln. Will they be back? Of course. Husker fans always come back, don't they?

Don't they?

I got the first Husker fan email late in the fourth quarter. Fire Bo. It will be loud this week. This will be the dialogue now for the next six weeks, as the bye weeks and Illinois and Purdues are lined up. Bo has made himself the story. We've seen and heard this before in Lincoln. And once these things start, it takes moving a mountain to stop them.

There are nine games left — five in a decisive November — for Pelini to change the conversation. But short of winning the Big Ten, what happened Saturday will be a stain that the sixth-year coach can't wash off.

The alternative is that people stop talking about it altogether, but that's hardly a desirable option. Apathy is a big-time coach's enemy.

How did this happen again? That is the crux of the problem. Nobody here knows.

Maybe it's obvious. What we saw here Saturday was a microcosm of what this program is right now.

These are good kids. They get good grades. This program does good things, like the moment of silence for the late Nick Pasquale of UCLA, including releasing yellow and blue balloons. Nice touch all around. They knock these things out of the park.

This isn't about scheme or fundamentals or execution. And if I hear Pelini or another coach point the finger at execution, I'm going to scream. Execution goes on the coach's tab.

But execution existed in the first half. The scheme worked. The routes were covered, the pass rush smothered Brett Hundley. The offense seized the moment after an interception and a botched UCLA punt. Maybe it was the Huskers' turn.

Then it happened. Just before the half, Hundley was scrambling around, and Avery Moss had him, but Hundley got away. He made a play. UCLA got new life and scored. It was 21-10 at the half.

A tough one. But not a play that should change the game. Not a play that should start the snowball effect.

Then there was the fake punt. Nice idea, down 31-21, with 1:11 left in the third quarter. Shake things up. Stop the snowball.

Wrong idea, giving the honors to big Brodrick Nickens, who lumbered for 2 yards but fell a yard short. Isn't there someone more swift afoot than a big defensive tackle? Pelini said “that's what we thought was there.” It wasn't there when UCLA had time to recover.

Again, that's not a play that decides the game. It's part of a bigger picture and a larger question with this program.

What is the foundation of Pelini's program? Does it have one?

This does not look like a case of the yips. It's a pattern that has repeated too often. Hang tough early. Face some adversity. Back down. Start the snowball.

The Bruins had real adversity to deal with this week. They gave a clinic on toughness, in front of 90,000 Nebraskans who expected their coach to do the same when he was hired.

But when the going gets tough, the tough guy's bunch is anything but.

On Saturday, the Huskers stopped tackling and blocking. Receivers dropped passes. There was a fumble in the UCLA red zone. And Taylor Martinez, so cool and calm in the first half, danced aimlessly in the pocket looking for somewhere to go.

Meanwhile, UCLA's offense found its groove and went back to the well of isolating receivers in open spaces and letting them juke a defender and gash for big yards. Or letting Hundley take off for chunks.

NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck couldn't keep pace. There were 16 runs and 19 passes in the second half. Nothing worked, but Beck doesn't always give it a chance to work. Third-and-short, and there's a pass out of the shotgun, with no fullback or Imani Cross in the game.

When asked after the game if his offense had an identity, Beck gave an interesting answer.

“I don't know. Who are you? Do you run it? Or spread it? No question, we can do a lot, but you have to think that's an advantage. But as a light bulb, it's hard to find something to show the players that's working.”

Beck also said the play-action pass wasn't effective because the Bruins wouldn't bite on the fake. You have to make them respect the run by running it. Sometimes it seems NU confuses itself instead of the defense. Is NU trying to be Oregon? Or a devastating ground attack? It's a trick to be both.

And what exactly is Martinez's identity these days? He used to scare opponents to death with his 80-yard dashes. Those are far and few between these days. Maybe something's wrong with him: He wore a walking boot on his left foot after the game, but he said he's fine. In any case, opponents will continue to let Martinez try to beat them with his arm.

He had it going in the first half. But then came the trap door. Why does it keep happening in big games? Pelini had no answers afterward. He mentioned that his team seems to play not to lose instead of continuing to attack.

Good observation. Anyone have a solution?

They need a foundation. They need something to fall back on, to draw from. When things go south, they go south. Players forget to execute. Coaches get outcoached.

There are two months left to find an identity, to find a shrink, to find a solid middle. But nobody will believe anything they see the next four games, unless NU loses. It will be impossible to erase this memory until November. If then.

By that most important November, with a new boss in town, Pelini could be coaching for his future.

What we know is that in the next two months, we'll find out what Pelini's program is made of. Then again, maybe you don't want to know.

* * *

Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:



Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Taylor Martinez at the postgame press conference:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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