NU gave up 653 yards of offense to UCLA in their 36-30 loss, which ranks as the second most yards ever a Nebraska defense has surrendered in school history. The record goes all the way back to 1956, when national champion Oklahoma went off for 656 yards. The Bruins actually had 658 yards of offense on Saturday until the final two plays when they took a loss of 5 yards to run out the clock.
The above excerpt captures something of the whiplash whirlwind that assaulted Nebraska football fans, sunk deep in their sagging couches on Saturday night, not to mention a bit of the acrid taste dried into their gaped mouths on Sunday morning. The paragraph starts with an alarming fact — “second most yards” — then pivots back in time, arcing elegantly over the Huskers’ most successful seasons like an errant Taylor Martinez pass. The third sentence is a sickening punchline, shouted from the back of a smoky bar by an indignant, over-indulged heckler.
The 36-30 loss to U.C.L.A. on Saturday night did not look or feel like an ass-kicking as I was watching it, but it was.
“We were inconsistent,” Coach Bo Pelini told The Omaha World-Herald. “Our fundamentals were lousy.”
Coaches always say that. “Our fundamentals were lousy.” We didn’t execute. How, I ask, is that possible* so early in the season after so many practices?
I shouldn’t make too much of that. It’s just coachspeak. It has no real meaning.
But I should like to make too much of some of Mr. Pelini’s decisions. How is it possible that someone like him, who describes himself proudly as old school, who talks about emphasizing the running game, stood by in a tie game that was by no means a lost cause while the offense rattled off six consecutive pass plays — all failures.
To be fair, Nebraska is a bit improved this season, I think, from a club that was an overachieving 9-4. The offense is far more dynamic and capable of breaking off big gains than it was last season. The team, over all, seems to play more coolly and cerebrally, and to make fewer mistakes — at least in the sense of drive-killing penalties. And, remember, these are just kids.
But these things are, of course, relative. Nebraska fans are still big time; the Rose Bowl was saturated in red. But the team, it has been written here, is nothing like it used to be. Probably, it won’t ever be again, though not really because of any failing by Mr. Pelini or Mr. Martinez. It is hard for a team to get traction after sliding backward. The landscape of college football is softer and more uneven than it has ever been. There are far more programs that consider themselves “major,” and it is probably harder to lure top athletes to a place like Lincoln than it ever was for Tom Osborne.
The Huskers’ defense, for one thing, is nothing like its predecessors. This should not have been a surprise. But despite the fact that no major preseason all-star team had a Nebraska defender on its first team, numerous sportswriters and Saturday’s broadcasters boasted about the unit as a team strength, robotically applying the should-be-retired-by-now nickname Blackshirts.
The Huskers smell like a team that is built to be a top-25 power. They play like a team that is just trying to stay in contention for a bowl game.
Mr. Martinez, who has made great strides as a passer — never mind that he has done so two full seasons into his Nebraska career — encompasses the club’s problem. His improvement, though laughable, is also palpable. Mr. Martinez, bless him, really is throwing the ball better. On Saturday, he led Nebraska on a brisk two-minute drill to tie the game just before halftime. It was brilliant. A Nebraska offense has probably never displayed that kind of nimbleness.
Just the same, Mr. Martinez has certainly made no strides in game sense or intelligence. Maybe that is why no other big program recruited him as a quarterback.
Mr. Martinez showed appalling judgment for a junior on numerous occasions against U.C.L.A., including on two sacks in the second half. On the first, Mr. Martinez had his knee on the ground as he threw a wild pass to no one in particular. (It was picked off; referees reversed the call on video review.) On the second, Mr. Martinez chucked the ball wildly behind him as he was being sacked for a tiebreaking safety — inexplicably threatening to turn 2 points into 6.
All you really need to know about what happened on Saturday is that the childishly temperamental Mr. Pelini did not once lose his temper. Think of it. Each season, Mr. Pelini’s headphones are hurled into the air above a football field in a spectacular, purple-hued, slobber-irrigated tantrum with the metronomic regularity of chewing gum’s being hurled onto a New York City street. But on Saturday in Pasadena, he was a model of restraint.
And the simplest explanation is that he was never, not once in the 90-degree heat or in all those hundreds of yards, provoked to anger. He must have known it would happen.
Mr. Pelini, in his usual lucid style, told reporters afterward, “I’m pointing the thumb first.”
* A coach last week told The World-Herald that in the opener, the Huskers’ long snapper struggled with sweaty hands? How is that possible? I grew up in Nebraska and do not remember an August day when I didn’t sweat.
- Pasadena pain: Huskers can’t overcome second-half breakdowns (omaha.com)
- Shatel: Bruin beatdown shows it’s a long road back to Pasadena (omaha.com)
- Nebraska Loses To UCLA 36-30 As the Big Ten Burns Down (cornnation.com)
- Nebraska Football: 10 Things We Learned from Cornhuskers’ Loss Against Bruins (bleacherreport.com)
- Hundley leads UCLA past No. 17 Nebraska 36-30 (yahoo.com)