The Year in Review: Nebraska (9-4, 5-3)
By Paul Myerberg // Mar 8, 2012
For all that’s changed, the bedrock hasn’t moved an inch. Nebraska still preaches the sort of old-school values that formed the backbone of its generation-long dominance of college football. Toughness is back in vogue. There’s tremendous continuity on the coaching staff – this remains one of Nebraska’s most underrated assets, as it was under Tom Osborne. The defense has regained most of its lost swagger, albeit in fits and starts. The offense has adopted an old-school mentality with a new-school feel, with a spread-based, run-first system filling the role of the option offense. Nine-win seasons have become the norm.
The last point merits an asterisk. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s four seasons, but that fact comes with a twist: Nebraska has also lost at least four games in each year, and have lost at least four games in every season since 2004.
The program won at least nine games every year from 1969-2001. From 1969-2003, the Cornhuskers lost at least four games in a season only twice: 1998 and 2002. From Bob Devaney’s arrival in 1962 to Frank Solich’s departure in 2003, the Cornhuskers lost four or more games in a season four times: 1967, 1968, 1998 and 2002.
In 2008, Pelini’s debut campaign, Nebraska was bombed at home by Missouri, 52-17, and never sniffed Oklahoma in a 62-28 loss. A year later, the Cornhuskers’ failure to mount a competent offensive attack led to heartbreaking losses to Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Texas, the latter in the Big 12 title game.
In 2010, Nebraska’s close-but-no-cigar losses continued with Texas – again, for one last time – Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Last fall, the program’s first in the Big Ten, found the Cornhuskers regressing: Wisconsin rolled, Northwestern pulled off a shocker in Lincoln, Michigan steamrolled in the second half and South Carolina broke Nebraska’s back.
Nebraska no longer wins merely by showing up, as was the case during the program’s heyday. Conference and non-conference opposition are no longer intimidated. There’s not enough consistency on either side of the ball, especially on offense, which has become an annual concern. Things have changed. The values haven’t, but the results have.
Can Nebraska have it both ways? Can the program retain its bedrock of tradition – the values that have defined the team for generations – and still pull off a return to the nation’s elite? Is it time for Nebraska to revisit its own gold standard? Are nine-win, four-loss seasons the new barometer for success?
On the first point: Nebraska’s values make the program. Nebraska is, in fact, defined by these values, and not the wins, conference titles and national titles. This is written in stone along the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium, in a plaque quoting former university professor Hartley Burr Alexander: “Not the victory but the action; not the goal but the game; in the deed the glory.”
If the Cornhuskers do return to the national title mix, it’ll be as a result of a recommitment to the values that motivated the program to such great heights in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a hungry fan base, which welcomed Pelini back with open arms in 2008 but is still waiting – no longer patiently, mind you – for another B.C.S. run.
Any tweaks implemented over the coming season won’t touch the bedrock. Changes will be more cosmetic, less wide-ranging. The offense will continue to develop under second-year coordinator Tim Beck, perhaps with a touch more passing from Taylor Martinez, should he improve his footwork and mechanics. Even if the passing game improves, how Nebraska runs the football will decide its offensive fate.
Pelini’s scientific defensive approach will have the Cornhuskers altering their approach on a weekly basis. Eight men in the box against Penn State. The milling-around-willy-nilly base set against Michigan State. Five defensive backs against Michigan. Ten defensive linemen – it seemed that way, at least – against Iowa.
In the meantime, the fan base should recognize Pelini’s blueprint: it’s modeled after Osborne’s, after all, which shouldn’t be surprising. Osborne’s imprint is felt all over the program’s current incarnation, from his initial hire of Pelini late in 2007 to his subtle coaching suggestions – changing the offense after 2010, for example – in the years since.
Pelini preaches continuity, as did Osborne. Two assistants, Barney Cotton and Ron Brown, coached alongside Pelini at Nebraska in 2003. Another pair, John Papuchis and Terry Joseph, were graduate assistants at L.S.U. when Pelini was the defensive coordinator. Rich Garrison played at Nebraska.
Ross Els came from Ohio, where he served under Solich. Current graduate assistants T.J. Hollowell and Vince Marrow played under Pelini in 2003 and played alongside him in high school, respectively.
The way Nebraska goes about its business hasn’t changed. Again, it’s the results – the wins and losses, with emphasis on the latter – that have altered drastically. Can the program stomach a life outside the national title picture? Even if that return never comes, Nebraska can take some solace in the fact that it has re-embraced its core values. Then again, those values lifted the Cornhuskers to the pinnacle of college football once; they may very well do so again.
Season grade: B+ Well, this was a change: Nebraska’s defense was the team’s primary concern in 2011, not its offense. Four opponents rushed for at least 200 yards; five gained at least 418 yards of total offense. In the early going, the Cornhuskers struggled slowing down Fresno State and Washington, even if Nebraska won both games. The defense bottomed out against Wisconsin, continued scuffling against Ohio State and was embarrassed in losses to Northwestern and Michigan. The Cornhuskers’ greatest defensive success came against more pro-style offenses, as in wins over Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa. After three years of continue growth under Pelini, the defensive decline was troubling. Was the offense perfect? Far from it. In 2012, Nebraska’s goal will be to play with more consistency on both sides of the ball.
High point A three-way tie. On one day, at least, the defense was vintage: Nebraska put the clamps down on Michigan State late in October, controlling the line of scrimmage and harassing Kirk Cousins in a 24-3 win. Two weeks later, the Cornhuskers adopted the perfect tone on and off the field in Penn State’s first game following its sexual-abuse scandal. In the season finale, Nebraska beat new rival Iowa, 20-7.
Low point Either the prime time collapse at Wisconsin, the defensive collapse against Northwestern or the second-half collapse against Michigan. All would work.
Offensive M.V.P. Nebraskans don’t care for Barney Cotton. The fan base frets over Martinez’s development. There’s angst over the direction of the program. Looking for something the fan base can get behind? Try Rex Burkhead. A first-team all-Big Ten pick last fall, when he rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns, Burkhead seems to embody those same values touched on above: toughness and accountability. If not a leader off the field, Burkhead’s on-field mentality gives Nebraska’s offense its identity. He’s also the engine behind the offensive attack as a whole: Nebraska went 6-2 when Burkhead had at least 20 carries. Pelini and Beck will ride him again in 2012.
Defensive M.V.P. I gave linebacker Lavonte David my vote for the Nagurski Award, which should add another qualifier for this section of the year-end retrospectives: If a player is my pick for a national award, he’s probably the best player on his own team. My vote went to David for two reasons: one, he remained one of the most statistically impressive linebackers in the F.B.S., leading the Cornhuskers with 133 tackles; and two, his forced fumble against Ohio State turned around Nebraska’s season, putting the Cornhuskers, for a time, in the mix for a B.C.S. bowl.
Stock watch Good and bad. The good news is that Nebraska’s offense should be among the most improved in the Big Ten. The offensive line has experience at tackle and along the interior. The receiver corps can’t possibly be more inconsistent. Martinez is ready to break through. The Cornhuskers are in their second season in Beck’s system. The bad news? The defense must replace David defensive tackle Jared Crick – who missed most of last season, to be fair – and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Cornhuskers have road games against U.C.L.A., Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. And there’s no escaping how inconsistent the Cornhuskers were over the final five games of last season. This team will win nine games. Can Pelini and Nebraska do more?
Tags: Barney Cotton, Big Ten, Bo Pelini, Lavonte David, Nebraska, Rex Burkhead, Taylor Martinez, Tim Beck, Tom Osborne
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