The timing doesn’t look good for Bo Pelini.
Nebraska is thumping Wisconsin 17-3. Melvin Gordon dashes down the sideline 62 yards. Pelini spends at least 75 seconds on the sideline reaming Daniel Davie. The Badgers promptly score the next 49 points.
I wrote today about Nebraska’s penchant for sudden meltdowns. Several emailers pointed to the Davie situation. Here’s a sampling:
From Jerry: The odd thing to me is that Pelini can't seem to see the forest for the trees....... He can't figure out why the kids overthink plays and try not to lose instead of playing to win. He needs to look at the film of him screaming his lungs out at each kid after a blown assignment.
From Don: What did Pelini do immediately after Gordon's first big run. He immediately verbally attacked a player and the defensive coordinator. It is bad enough doing so in front of a national audience; but it is even more traumatic for the Husker players. Every player witnessing those episodes immediately begin thinking: "I do not want to be the next guy to be chewed out on national TV." They pucker up, and like their coach, they lose focus and lose control. Pelini only needs to look at himself.
From Lance: I think if you go a little farther into this you may find the flips follow Pelini's tirades on players and assistant coaches. Pelini panics and the team follows his lead. Panic explains the quick breakdowns on assignment football and the lack of mental toughness when adversity strikes.
From Bill: Pelini panics and the whole team panics. He wants to win against the ranked teams so bad, he pushed too hard. He doesn't so much against the non-ranked teams. If you go back to all of the flips you listed, you will find a moment when the other team scored and Pelini just blew up at a player or unit.
From Daniel: The team plays like the coaches. When Pelini blows up and loses his temper and ESPN shows him yelling at kids (which I know ESPN etc. are out to find those shots)...the team responds like the coaches do.
From David: Do the kids play to avoid losing or to avoid the raging lunatic on the sidelines?
No doubt this is the elephant in the room when it comes to Nebraska’s meltdowns. I think there’s some truth to these theories. I think there’s some exaggeration, too.
Only a small segment of the team was even aware of Pelini’s tirade Saturday. The kickoff team probably wasn’t. Nor was the offense. When Tommy Armstrong threw wild on third down on the next drive, it didn’t have anything to do with Pelini and Davie. And remember, Nebraska actually forced another Gordon fumble on the next Wisconsin possession. The team didn’t really fall apart until the next possession, when Gordon embarrassed Josh Mitchell in the backfield.
As convenient as it sounds, I don’t think the meltdown was a direct result of Pelini’s exchange with Davie. I do think, however, that the Huskers are mentally fragile and this is influenced (heavily) by Pelini’s general leadership style. I asked him Saturday after the game: What was he saying to players on the sideline as it all fell apart?
“That’s between me and the players,” he said.
Perhaps it wasn't PG-13.
Something is terribly wrong in those situations. Maybe Pelini is simply unable to make schematic adjustments (a distinct possibility). But it certainly doesn't help when players (and perhaps even assistant coaches) are avoiding him because they're afraid of a tongue-lashing. How can he make those adjustments when he's scolding everyone in sight?
You don't have to be a football coach to see how panic at the top of an organization filters through the team.
But let me throw another curveball at you. Yes, these meltdowns are part of Nebraska’s personality. But remember, prior to the Michigan State loss, NU had won 10 consecutive games decided by a touchdown or less. You could basically guarantee that if the Huskers were in a close game in the fourth quarter, they were going to win it.
Doesn’t that take poise? Doesn’t that take composure? It’s a hard program to figure out, isn’t it?
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>> One thing the Big Ten has done is shield Nebraska’s defense from speed and skill. Watch quarterbacks and receivers in the Big Ten compared to the Big 12, SEC or Pac-12. There’s a noticeable difference, even on TV.
Since Nebraska has joined the Big Ten in 2011, it’s faced only 10 offenses ranked among the nation’s top 25 in total yards or scoring. How did the Blackshirts fare?
59 points, 627 yards (Wisconsin ’14)
49 points, 498 yards (Ohio State ’12)
48 points, 486 yards (Wisconsin ’11)
45 points, 589 yards (Georgia ’12)
41 points, 504 yards (UCLA ’13)
38 points, 420 yards (Washington ’11)
34 points, 653 yards (UCLA ’12)
34 points, 602 yards (Wyoming ’13)
19 points, 416 yards (Georgia ’13)*
6 points, 286 yards (Arkansas State ’12)
* The Bulldogs clearly weren’t a top-25-caliber offense without injured Aaron Murray, but they're still on the list.
Notice this doesn’t include the 2012 Big Ten championship game or the 2011 Michigan game.
Let's compare those numbers to Kevin Cosgrove.
In Cosgrove’s four years as defensive coordinator, he faced 13 offenses that finished in the top 25 in scoring or total yards.
76/572 (Kansas ’07)
70/523 (Texas Tech ’04)
45/551 (Oklahoma State ’07)
41/606 (Missouri ’07)
41/523 (Missouri ’05)
41/496 (Oklahoma State ’06)
34/412 (Texas Tech ’05)
30/511 (Oklahoma ’04)
28/545 (Texas ’07)
28/399 (USC ’06)
27/443 (Texas A&M ’06)
22/348 (Texas ’06)
20/363 (Missouri ’06)
(Notable opponents that weren’t top-25 offenses: USC 2007, Ball State 2007 and Colorado 2007.)
Pelini’s averages against top-25 offenses 2011-14: 37.3 points, 508.1 yards.
Cosgrove’s averages against top-25 offenses 2004-07: 38.7 points, 484 yards.
In fairness to Pelini, offenses are generally better than seven years ago. In fairness to Cosgrove, he regularly faced top-10 offenses — the Big 12 was loaded in 2007 especially. Pelini’s best opponents are mostly in the 10s and 20s.
Pelini was hired to fix Cosgrove’s defense. He did a miraculous job in 2009-10. But since 2011 — almost without exception — good offenses have embarrassed the Blackshirts.
>> Who wants to talk bowl trips!? Nebraska fans have exhausted their appetite for Florida bowl games the past three years, so the Huskers are basically guaranteed the Holiday Bowl. The opponent would be a Pac-12 team, likely Arizona or Utah. That’s no easy draw.
>> Sometimes Pelini comes so close to criticizing his own fan base. He did it again Monday when he said perception of his program is better nationally than it is locally. Do you agree? I posed the question to Twitter followers:
@ColinWWard: Only because of NU’s irrelevance. What’s NC State’s national vs local reputation? Who cares, they don’t matter.
@Jonzor234: National perception is... nothing. No one cares to bother with us. Local is disappointed. Not sure how those compare?
@NUHusker1: ... YA. Nebraska fans are whiners and REALLY negative.
@mattpoulsen: Not remotely. For quite some time the national reputation has been "Nebraska used to be really good…right?"
@stefantwall: Yes. My college football tuned friends in MT don't view Nebraska's rep nearly as bad as my Neb friends.
@rettali8: as long as sports pundits leave out "against nebraska" when say Melvin Gordon breaks rushing record. Then yes it's lovely
@bolinPGA: I don't. Live in Hutchison, KS. Big 12 fans wish we were still in conference so they had a shot a the record books.
@JamesStevenson: if apathy is better than angst, I suppose
@JPARSE: No. We are rarely discussed nationally and when we are it is often because of another embarrassing televised disemboweling.
@jayinlincoln: saw 1 national guy compare Gordon's day to a wind aided track record because it was vs NU. We're a punchline. Which is worse?
@drusifer: 2 weeks ago they were viewed as 13th best team in college football. View now in NE is we have no program. National > local
@JeffWaddington: You first need to HAVE a national reputation before you can compare it. We don't register nationally any more.
@lauramyers1119: Not at all. It's a nice fantasy world he lives in to make himself feel better about the poor job performance.
@lhinds7: it’s better nationally because outside of a 50-mile radius of Lincoln, nobody cares
@JAByrd2000: if apathy and irrelevancy is better than frustration and anger, then I guess that may be the case.
@nnealey1: yes. As fans we have pretty high expectations. Those who aren't fans have a different few of the program than we do.
>> Tons of college football goodies in Pat Forde’s weekly column. Nebraska is not among the top five dumpster fires in the country, you’ll be happy to know.
>> I’ve lived in Omaha for six years. Had you told me in 2008 that, over the following 10 years, the city would host three Olympic Swim Trials, a U.S. Senior Open and a 2018 NCAA men’s basketball regional, I would’ve immediately wondered if California, Texas and Florida had seceded from the union.
What a jaw-dropper Monday. I look forward to seeing Tim Miles vs. Mike Krzyzewski for a spot in the Final Four. (Relax Creighton fans, you can’t play a regional on your home court, so your regional final will be in another city.)
>> Doug McDermott, photo bomber.
>> “It’s been the longest 22 years of my life,” a downcast Kelly Smith said. Smith, it’s worth noting, is 22 years old. This, on the pathetic Redskins, is the funniest thing I’ve read all week.
>> If you’re a golf fan, read this column by Geoff Ogilvy. So much insight.
>> Good stuff from NBA expert Zach Lowe on the media’s incessant need to find narratives.
>> I wonder if Bill Callahan watched Sunday Night Football and thought of Nebraska. Patriots running back Jonas Gray ran wild and scored four touchdowns. Gray, before he played at Notre Dame, had committed to Nebraska in 2007. What a recruiting class it would’ve been.
>> Finally, two years ago after Nebraska’s Big Ten championship game loss to Wisconsin, I wrote the following blog post. I think most of it (except the part about Michigan) still applies today:
Someday, Husker fans, it will be worth it.
All the time, money and emotion you poured into the football program the past 11 years. All the anxiety, humiliation and regret. It will pay off. It must. But that day, right now, seems far, far away.
You didn’t just suffer heartbreak Saturday night, you were victims of fraud. You got suckered into thinking this was the year momentum changed, the year Nebraska started playing like vintage Nebraska again.
Coaches and players sold you on progress. Most of the media bought in. Six straight wins. A level of resilience that defines championship teams. How do you explain four double-digit comebacks? These guys were flawed, but also unique. Special.
Turns out, the joke’s on you. It was smoke and mirrors. I can count on one hand how many times a Nebraska performance has shocked me like this one. Iowa State 1992. Arizona State 1996. Colorado 2001. This was the ugliest of the bunch.
From Saturday morning to Sunday morning, the perception of the program crashed more than any 24-hour period I can remember.
Like that ’01 season, a soft 2012 schedule created an illusion of power. The best comparison, though, might be 2003, when Nebraska went 10-3. It beat nobody. Its three losses were by a combined 70 points. You know what happened to Frank Solich after that season.
Bo Pelini’s new AD likely will have more patience than Solich’s -- and more sense. But some of the same red flags exist.
Pelini’s players swear by him. He’s built a roster of smart, high-character guys; I don’t remember many senior classes more likable than this one. But his teams continually go deer-in-the-headlights in big games.
Bo isn’t good enough to get over the hump. He isn’t bad enough to fire. Nebraska is stuck in purgatory.
It’s like the girl who’s been dating the same guy for eight years. He says and does all the right things, but won’t get down on one knee. Is this program trending up or down? Who knows.
At least in 2002 the embarrassment was new. At least in 2007 you knew change was coming. How is Nebraska football going to change? Pelini seems completely without explanations or ideas. He knows one way to conduct his business and only one.
Barring a bowl game upset of Georgia, he’ll lose four games for the fifth straight year. It easily could’ve been worse.
This team needed a decade’s worth of breaks just to win the Legends Division. Face it, Nebraska has more in common with Michigan State and Northwestern than with Top-10 teams. And considering the meltdowns on national TV, which have tarnished the Big Red brand immeasurably, college football fans won’t take NU seriously for a long time.
Of course, regardless of what happens in Orlando, by next August local optimism will return in full. It always does. You’ll be talking about a dynamic offense and a fast, young defense and an early-season schedule as soft as Cheetos Puffs. Nebraska will start 7-1, maybe even 8-0. And you’ll think, “Maybe, just maybe, this is it.”
Then the Huskers will travel to Michigan, a program with a veteran coaching staff that is stockpiling top-10 recruiting classes.
I’m not gonna tell you to resist hope at that moment. Without hope, there’s no reason to watch. But be careful with your emotions. Guard your hearts ... or risk getting duped again.
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