Earlier this week, we were treated to the beautiful ups and downs of the year that was a run to Roses by the MSU Spartans. Green Akers did a wonderful run down and started this series off right. Now it's Nebraska's turn. Let's take a look at the good, the bad, the really bad, the brutal, and the reality that perspective can make things feel a little better than they might be.
Where We Started:
Honestly, if you were to have asked me what I thought about Nebraska football going into the 2013 season, I would have been cautiously optimistic. Surely the defense would not be as bad as it was against Wisconsin. The offense was a potential juggernaut with Tim Beck looking to make the jump to Head Coach with a good year from his Senior QB Taylor Martinez. Add to that a vicious running game in Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross plus a WR corp that would rival any in the Big Ten with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamal Turner. This, of course, ignored a strong OL anchored by All-American candidate Spencer Long. Basically, I thought this could be another opportunity for Nebraska to make a run at the BCS. At minimum, it would make things interesting by being a hard out with that offense.
Oh, and there was the biggest part of all of it. The schedule was lining up about as perfectly as one could hope. Sure, a loss at the Big House, and even maybe a stumble against UCLA at home. Those were all things that could be overcome. This would be the year that things got put into motion, Pelini got rid of his Pellllini moniker, and the good vibes from little Jack's run in the Spring Game would carry over making this a year to remember in Huskerland.
The Non-con: The Moment I Realized Happy Days Weren't Here to Stay
There was a point in Game 1 when I realized that this year might be tough. While I didn't totally grasp the gravity of the situation - and honestly, while Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, they also were fortunate that our coaches were complete imbeciles at the end of that game - there were cracks in the armor all around. The Offense looked out of sorts, the Defense was in shambles, and Special Teams? Well, that really never got fixed, did it? No, the close call versus Wyoming was a wakeup call. This might be a bad year.
Then UCLA happened. Look, for almost two quarters, UCLA had their backs against the wall. Memorial was rocking, and Nebraska was doing positive things on both sides of the ball. Then Jim Mora, Jr. made adjustments and a second half turned into a massacre. Nebraska played tight, they played scared, and they showed that this team was just not as good as we had thought they could be. All of the things we predicted in the preseason were in flux. Although not one B1G game had been played, nobody thought this team was on the right path. Of course, then fan-fueled chaos went into overdrive. In hindsight, the fact that Nebraska is coached by Bo Pelini right now is downright amazing.
Let's Remember the Greatest Fans in College Football
So, remember this piece? I look back and think that I should have refined my thoughts a bit, but I was pretty angry. As the story goes, a Nebraska fan releases old audio of Bo Pelini literally telling Nebraska fans to fuck off. That was quite an absurd moment, but what made it ridiculous was how petty and obnoxious it was. There is a fine line between passion for your team and insanity and that just blew right past it with reckless abandon. Instead of questions about Xs and Os, we were treated to Nebraska being in the press for all of the wrong reasons. A season of hope had turned into hysteria in three weeks.
Again, remembering all of this only serves to prove the point that it is amazing that Nebraska didn't have mass transfers or lose its coach. Heck, I had written it was probably time for Pelini to move on, and nott for his antics either, but rather questioning if it was best for all parties. While that is still a question to be answered, and I am not convinced he can grow at Nebraska, he did answer any question there was about kids wanting to play for him. Getting back to the point at hand, though... Man, Nebraska fans can be the worst. Oh, and I was called more absurd things on twitter than I can write here, but it was eye opening how fast things get out of hand here.
Conference Play Act I
I remember me and Green Akers writing a piece about our team's various deficiencies before conference play started. I predicted MSU losing to Iowa and Nebraska barely beating Illinois. Nebraska went on to destroy Illinois and Michigan State overcame a halftime deficit to pull away from Iowa behind a pretty incredible defense. Then MSU kept winning and Nebraska got stunned by Minnesota, thus bringing out every Pelini hater - both legitimate and non - to the boards to start talking direction. This was fair game, though, and had very little to do with just getting beat by a perceived inferior team and more to do with legitimate fodder for direction of the program. No coaching changes happened and Nebraska got ready to face Northwestern. Which... Let's talk about that quickly.
In the gigantic scheme of things, it is ridiculous to think that one play should change the fates of a coach and a team. After all, to make decisions based on one game - especially an awful game for the greater part of this one - much less one play is an incredibly bad decision. But, you would be remiss to think this wasn't a breath of fresh air. Going to the Northwestern game, I rode a shuttle and all anybody could talk about was how Northwestern was going to get their mojo back against the Huskers. In Memorial, it felt like everyone was on pins and needles waiting for that to come to fruition and then RKIII did that. Incredible moment for me. With apologies to MNWildcat who invited me along to chill with them in the Northwestern section (which, by the way, put me on TV for the first time at a game because of stressed out Wildcat fans around me), I can honestly say that was one of my favorite moments I've ever encountered live. Just an incredible sound of silence and eruption. Good times.
The Rest of Conference Play
Something I haven't brought up is the crazy amount of injuries that had been piling up. By this point, Nebraska was playing Tommy Armstrong at QB, every WR was hurt, the OL was in shambles, TEs were hobbling around, and the defense was working to come into its own. Michigan was a beautiful game for that defense's confidence and while it would be shook against MSU and Iowa, I still would argue that gave a lot of young kids the swagger they would need to succeed in the future. Nebraska would win at Michigan and Penn State, lose at home against MSU after #AllTheTurnovers, and then lose to Iowa.
But let's talk about Iowa for a moment because it was bizarre. Iowa was the better team. It was apparent pretty early on, though, that Pelini felt like he was coaching for his job, which made things even worse. A loss that was going to be a loss added to someone who is afraid of that loss like the plague gave us a beautiful press conference afterwards. What would Nebraska fans get to talk about during that wonderful month between the season's end and the bowl? Well they would talk about how Coach Pelini basically dared Shawn Eichorst to fire him. So that was fun. Have I mentioned that I still wonder how great a pairing Bo and Nebraska are? I still think he can coach, but that was just painful to watch.
Nebraska was 8-4 after season's end and Nebraska was staring down the barrel of a SEC team in a Florida bowl. Things looked bad all around, and new jokes like, "Bo Pelllllini has all the l's" or something stupid like that.
The Bowl and Some Thoughts
Nebraska looked as prepared as I have seen them in a long time against Georgia. I was impressed by Bo Pelini's gameplan - minus Special Teams - and I was impressed by the fire each player had. Despite what ESPN wanted you to believe about Georgia only losing because of injuries, Nebraska played their hearts out and deserved that win as much as anyone. The conditions were not perfect, but they played great football. It was fun to watch, and seeing Bo smile was rewarding. Nebraska would finish with 9 wins again and while that accomplishment has some interesting connotations in its own right, it was still nice to see some progression and back-to-the-basics gameplanning.
And that, as they say, is the rest of the story. If I had to encapsulate this season in one random noun, it would be 'Roller Coaster' in that this was as much of an up and down season as I can remember. Despite all of that, the Huskers managed to finish ranked in one poll, win 9 games, and actually kept Bo Pelini employed by the University of Nebraska. The whole thing was just an incredibly strange thing to follow and to write about, but that is the nature of big time football. The Big Ten is not the best conference in the nation, but every team does play hard and you can lose any week. Nebraska is still getting used to that - the fans that is - and it will be fascinating to see if they are destined to middle-tier status or if they can have their own renaissance.
I'm not sure what next year holds and until I have time to really take a step back, I'm not making any predictions. Regardless who is playing QB, who is coach, who is cheering for the team, or who is hating them, I'll still be a fan. That's the beauty and awfulness of fandom, though. Sometimes this whole thing pays off and others, you're a Cubs fan. Even in spite of all that drama, I already miss it. Can't believe we made it through another year.
Stats of Note
- Starting with Quincy Enunwa's 99 yard TD catch from Tommy Armstrong, that was the longest play from scrimmage in a bowl game and the longest play from scrimmage for Nebraska all-time. Considering that was from perhaps the one-inch line, you gotta give him crazy props for that. Let's watch that!
- While we are on the Quincy Enunwa subject, it's worth noting that he scored 12 receiving TDs which was a Nebraska record. Pretty low number for a record, I know, but this team wasn't exactly a passing team throughout history.
- Nebraska may have found a gem in Randy Gregory as well. He was a beast at DE and landed 9.5 sacks and 16 TFL this season. The guy is big and fast and that was in his first year in system. He will be a nightmare for Offensive Coordinators next year.
- Did you know Nebraska finished fourth in total defense in conference? That was mostly due to a progressively better defensive output with young talent at every level. I'm truly excited to see what they turn into.
- Nebraska also averaged 3.04 yards per punt return. That's terrible. In conference, that number was 2.75. With how tall these guys are, you almost expect to trip forward and gain more. That obviously wasn't happening.
- Nebraska was also dead last in turnover margin after giving the ball away a ridiculous 29 times. Sure, turnovers are somewhat luck, but holy crap that is terrible.
- Let's finish on a high note, though. Ameer Abdullah was pretty ridiculous this season. In a year where it was sketchy who was blocking for him, he established himself as one of the best RBs in College Football and secured first team All-B1G status. Abdullah's 1,690 yards put him 9th among all players in total yards, and his 130.0 YPG was 7th. Not too shabby for a 3* kid who came in the least heralded among his peers at Nebraska. This season was the fourth best total for a Nebraska player - where we actually do run the ball from time-to-time - and he is well on his way to being one of the best RBs to ever put on a Nebraska uniform. It's amazing to think that he has all but made us forget about how much we loved Rex Burkhead. Going into next year, we have quite a bit to look forward to in Abdullah.