LINCOLN — Here's a hunch about what was behind all of Bo Pelini's positive talk after Nebraska's 41-28 loss to Michigan State.
Penn State and Iowa.
Despite an offensive game plan well-suited to dismantle the Spartans' defense, the Huskers beat themselves with nerves and miscalculations that, at this point, appear almost embedded in the Pelini regime, scarlet blots on cream parchment. The disappointment after Saturday's loss was so acute — Tim Beck, architect of that offensive plan, was outwardly calm but clearly beside himself on a day that should have been one of his best — that Pelini, and thus the team, chose to turn the page with a noticeable rustle. They can carry only their effort forward from a day like that.
It's another coaching move in a season full of subtle prompts and pushed buttons to transform a talented-but-fragile team beyond its injuries and inherent flaws. When you look back at the year, however it turns out, you'll see all those moves. Captains. Practice changes. Private conversations. Quarterback rotations. An emphasis on “fun,” the definition of which tends to be pretty peculiar in such a violent sport.
Whether it works — whether Pelini and his staff can patch enough leaks to steer the ship home to nine wins, which still carries mythic weight — will be determined by how NU pursues and plays these two games. Nebraska is more talented than both, deeper than both, and more erratic than both. To Happy Valley, the Huskers tote an ego split in half. One part is buoyed by what they could have done to the Spartans. The other part is bruised by what they did to themselves and what they've been doing to themselves for five years.
Beck found ways of forcing — through formation and the wide splits of his receivers — Michigan State to empty the box of its vaunted defenders. That directly led to Imani Cross' long touchdown, in which he wasn't touched because Beck had, as he did in 2011 and 2012, outschemed MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to create a big play. Beck created a consistent ground game by putting lead blockers close to the line of scrimmage, so Michigan State's backside pursuit couldn't leak through. He relied on Ameer Abdullah to pick and dart through holes. Beck used outside combo routes — a medley of post, corner and fade routes — to create the one-on-one matchups Nebraska could win.
It was a great plan.
If the Huskers don't botch the entire first quarter, all bets for Michigan State's offense would have been off. The team's identity is bound up in its defense — if you crack it, you crack open the whole walnut and dig out the meat. It's Missouri 2010 or Michigan State 2011 all over again, and with Sports Illustrated and USA Today in town, it's a new coat of fur on Bo and Beck. Why, on Friday, SI all but wrote Pelini was doing the best any coach could. A win would have been continued validation for the Pelini process.
But Nebraska did — as Nebraska does — spectacularly botch the first quarter. Especially on another ill-fated punt return, where the Huskers are seemingly perpetually in fear of the fake that burned them against Iowa State in 2009. Their wary scheme appears to address little else unless the punt is a soft, 35-yard grounder to the return man.
And Beck did — as Beck does — try to split the atom on that third-and-11 quarterback draw before halftime. No need. Plunge into the line and run the clock. Call a play best-suited to your goal, which was to run, as fast as possible, to the locker room.
And Tommy Armstrong did — as Husker quarterbacks under Pelini do — pick unusually bad spots to press. Joe Ganz did it. Zac Lee did it. Cody Green did it. Taylor Martinez did it. Nebraska asks a lot of its quarterbacks. They respond, almost annually, with a grab bag of excellence and agony.
And Nebraska's pass defense did not — as Nebraska's pass defense sometimes does not — take away the middle crossing and post routes that eventually burned them because the interior pass rush did not — as it often does not — get home.
These traits speak to the overarching management of the program. Pelini and Beck probably had better schemes than their counterparts. But together they've built a program like shoes that are dependable, even comfortable, but whose soles no longer snap with sound when they hit the sales room floor. On with the Rewind:
I see you
» Running back Ameer Abdullah: He beat Spartans to the corner. He took on tacklers in the box. He squirted through tiny holes. He caught a touchdown pass late when pride was all that mattered. He's the best — read that again — skill player of the Pelini era. Better than Rex Burkhead. Better than Martinez. Better than Roy Helu. The best. Even with the occasional fumbles. He might be slightly less versatile than Burkhead as a Wildcat quarterback, but he's a better return guy than Burkhead.
“All this kid does is produce,” said ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. on a teleconference last Thursday. “The way he runs. He's one of the hardest workers on the team, he's hard to find and locate when he's running the ball behind the linemen ... he does everything you want. He's been very impressive.”
Is Nebraska going to give him the awards campaign he's earned? Will it reward on-field play the way it does some all-district academic list? When players land All-American teams or win major awards — like the Doak Walker, which Abdullah absolutely could still win — it's a big recruiting chip. Husker coaches occasionally wax on the challenges to recruiting at NU; awards are an antidote to that.
» Linebackers Zaire Anderson, David Santos and Michael Rose: A mix of good and bad, but the learning experience for these three will be valuable. The more chemistry NU gets in its base defense, the better it'll adhere in the offseason. And there will be studs like Courtney Love and Marcus Newby that they'll have to fight off for playing time, too.
» Wide receiver Kenny Bell: Another highlight reel catch on the 38-yard touchdown. He looked healthier running, too.
» Wide receiver Sam Burtch: This may be the best season of his Husker career, but he's been good enough to keep a talented scholarship guy in Taariq Allen on the bench.
» Defensive end Randy Gregory: Another sack. Four more hurries. Kiper said Gregory should return for a junior year. I agree. Squeezing three years out of this kid could be a stretch.
» Michigan State punter Mike Sadler: He downed four punts inside the 20 while averaging 40.7 yards per kick. And that was before he pulled off a fake field goal. He will have my All-America vote.
» Michigan State wide receivers: I expected this group to be a liability Saturday. They were the opposite. Big grab after big grab. Kudos to MSU quarterback Connor Cook for making strong throws, but Andrew Maxwell and Kirk Cousins made similar throws in 2012 and 2011 and didn't get the receiver play that Cook did. The Spartans simply beat the Huskers secondary. Couldn't have guessed that if I had tried.
» Punt return: When Niles Paul and Nate Swift handled punt return duties from 2008-2010, NU averaged more than 10 yards per return each year. The decline started in 2011. This year, NU is averaging 3.6 yards per return. In 2004, Santino Panico averaged 3.1 yards without the fumbles. The prosecution rests.
» Own-goal offense: The covered wagon finally went over the cliff. Given the situation Saturday, sneak, sneak, sneak would have been a decent series rather than running a power play that featured a pulling guard and power action.
» Fatigue and injuries: A carryover from previous Rewinds. So many Huskers had to pull themselves off the turf against Michigan State.
» 31: Sacks for the Huskers this year. That's second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and ninth nationally. NU is tied for 10th nationally in tackles for loss.
» 1,556: All-purpose yards for Abdullah. That's good for No. 3 in the Pelini era. Abdullah's 1,884 yards last year — which included 569 yards on kick and punt returns — is No. 1. Paul's 1,697 yards in 2009 is No. 2.
» 11: Third-down conversions for Michigan State. That's the most since the 2013 Capital One Bowl, when Georgia converted 12 of 17. If you recall that game, the Huskers tried some blitzes late that didn't get home and paid for it. Ditto for Saturday. With MSU at NU's 27, Pelini dialed up heat on third-and-13. The blitz didn't get home — not many did — and Cook nailed Keith Mumphrey for a 27-yard, game-clinching touchdown.
» 13: Lost fumbles. That's 119th in the nation. NU averages 2.2 fumbles per game against FBS opponents; that's 118th in the nation. The Huskers are 110th in turnover margin. And you can't use Martinez as the scapegoat for it.
» 5.7: Yards per attempt — running and passing — for Armstrong. He's getting chunk plays in the passing game, where he's averaging 7.0 yards per attempt. During his redshirt freshman year — with better weapons around him — Martinez averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. That was the best average of Martinez's career. Ron Kellogg is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, as 87 percent of his attempts have been passes. I'll let you decide if Kellogg's apparent efficiency is a mirage. I know he's not turning the ball over 2.25 times a game.
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here.
Brian Parsons: “Teams with an identity beat teams that don't. Nebraska frankly looked more talented, but Michigan State's no mistakes, tough defense consistency stands in stark contrast to the Huskers' Jekyll and Hyde persona.”
Travis Siebrass: “Not sure how anybody can blame the staff for this game. The game was there for Nebraska to win despite 5 turnovers.”
Dan Piller: “Nebraska shows all the signs of micro-management. In the business world, a good executive knows there is a big difference between what is planned in the meeting room and what happens in the real world. So it is with football. The game often doesn't develop the way it is envisioned in the meeting room. The talent is there, it's just strung too tight. Pelini, Beck and Papuchis need to give the game back to the players.”
Pat Ford: “Call me an eternal optimist, but if you had told me in August that we were going to perform that well with the current list of injured players, I would have been encouraged. A young, beat up team gave it their all. GBR.”
Chris Kohtz: “Sigh.”
We'll set aside Penn State and look forward, instead, at bowl projections. Cross off any BCS bowl, the Rose Bowl or the Capital One Bowl, where Nebraska has been the last two years. I will not miss Orlando.
That leaves the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. The prevailing notion is that the Huskers fall to Tempe and reunite with Oklahoma or Kansas State. I wouldn't count on that, because you're likely to see, in a “down” year for the Big Ten, two teams in the BCS.
Wisconsin is beating Minnesota, folks, and it's beating Penn State to end the year. Ohio State or Michigan State is probably getting the auto bid to the Rose Bowl, or, if the Buckeyes are lucky, a berth in the national title game.
Whichever team of the three — I'll say Michigan State — that doesn't get in the BCS is headed to Orlando. That leaves the Outback either courting Michigan for a return trip, chewing on what I expect will be an 8-4 Minnesota team, or picking Nebraska. The Huskers could beg off the Outback, I suppose — there's probably more fans in Arizona and California itching for a West Coast bowl game — but Pelini's M.O. has been to play the best team possible. NU also recruits more in Florida than Arizona.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Michigan State game:
Video: NU receiver Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: