The Souring of Saturdays

The Primitive Index of Success (PISS). Yellow represents the number of all-conference players; green the number of all-Americans; and blue the number of wins.

The Huskers play Northwestern on Saturday afternoon in what has become an important game. So important that a blogger could be excused for thinking it was the most important game of the young season. For one thing, the Wildcats are a half-game up on Nebraska in the division, so a win would solidify the Huskers’ slippery grip on second place. For another, a win, especially a convincing one, would go a long way to wash away the foul taste of the loss last week, in which Nebraska allowed 63 points to supposedly average, but still ranked, Ohio State.

A third reason for focusing on an opponent that is an afterthought for most programs is that Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini has, perhaps unwisely, made winning the remainder of his team’s games something of a goal. The first step in winning the rest of them, of course, is to win Saturday. Mr. Pelini has surely noticed the increasing heat on his seat.

I am willing to admit such criticism of Mr. Pelini may be unfair. But he is stuck in a rut. Observe the chart above. Mr. Pelini’s tenure began in 2008, and he clearly exploited the fairly solid recruiting of his predecessor, Bill Callahan. In 2009, Mr. Pelini turned in a stellar season, narrowly losing the conference championship game and causing doughy chests to puff out all across Nebraska. In the past two seasons, however, progress has been harder to measure.

Nine wins is pretty good, it says here. But it still may not be good enough.

With the uncertainty of the season right now, not many kids are going to consider a school that may not have their head coach at the end of the year…

via Nebraska Recruiting: The 2013 Commit Silence Speaks Volumes – Corn Nation.

…In year five of the program Nebraska’s defense bears an alarming resemblance to the defense Pelini found when he arrived in 2007.

via Nebraska Football: Should Cornhusker Head Coach Bo Pelini Be on the Hot Seat? | Bleacher Report.

On Sunday, the first BCS rankings were released h/t ESPN. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska was nowhere to be found.

via Nebraska Football: Breaking Down Nebraskas Spot in the BCS Rankings | Bleacher Report.

It feels like a rebuilding year, like next year is the year they’ll take the next step. The problem is, it has felt like that during every season of Bo Pelini’s tenure.

via Kansas State, Notre Dame Success Make Nebraska Excuses Tough to Swallow | Bleacher Report.

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A Nebraska Fan Faces the New Reality

A Nebraska Fan Faces the New Reality – NYTimes.com: I was walking through the office when a colleague stopped me. “Did I hear you say something about Nebraska football?” he asked, innocently, cheerfully, not realizing the twisted synapses that were about to fire in my brain. I frowned and shook my head over the idea of writing about the team. “My comments would be too blue,” I assured him glibly.

 

Then I reconsidered.

 

I had not been saying anything about Nebraska football, but if I had been it would be this: Why are sportswriters so impressed that Coach Bo Pelini has assured himself of a fourth consecutive nine-win season?

 

You do not have to be a mathematician to realize that you could just as easily, and more revealingly, say that Pelini has assured himself a fourth consecutive season of at least three losses. The only other coach to do that at Nebraska since 1960 is Bill Callahan — who is the coach Pelini was hired to make us Nebraska fans forget.

 

After a moment’s reflection, though, it occurred to me that losing only three games a season probably sounds pretty good to a lot of people. I confess that, in my youth, it seemed that the numbers 9 and 3 were permanently attached to the word Nebraska. But then Tom Osborne got a maniacal second wind, jammed the Nebraska gear shift into fifth and left it there.

 

National championships were won, statistical standards were established and monickers like “greatest college team ever” were carved into football bedrock.

 

Somewhere in that time — probably 1997, when Nebraska slipped past Missouri on an improbably tipped, last-second touchdown pass and I won a triumphant bet for a bottle of pop with a glum Tiger I knew in Rockford, Ill. — I might have lost my football mind. Between my ears, games were supposed to follow a specific, one-sided script.

 

Nebraska would not simply play opponents, it would crush them. The Huskers would not merely have a game plan, they would unleash an overpowering, relentless offense and a surly defense. The scoreboard was more like a rain gauge, recording an inexorable increase in one monotonous direction.

 

Like any empire, however, Nebraska began to rot from the inside. In the beginning, the ruthless victories showed only minor imperfections; then they stopped appearing.

 

There remains a shell of empire today, in fact, like sun-baked ruins overgrown with grass, e.g. the mad king (a purple-faced Pelini raging on the sideline), the fallen hero (Ndamukong Suh stomping opponents in the N.F.L. as penalty flags rain down around him).

 

Some in Nebraska believe that Pelini is slowly reassembling the machinery of victory. But I am starting to believe that it is my football mind that is being restored.

 

The flaws in the facade are obvious. The Huskers were not competitive in their loss to Wisconsin, and they were too easily unnerved in a similar loss to Michigan. The offense relied too heavily on two smallish men (Rex Burkhead, 5-11 and 210; and Taylor Martinez, 6-1 and 200), who combined for an astounding 433 of 565 running plays and limped through half the season. And the defense was too often a stuttering, confused step behind.

 

But there also was the stirring, if confounding, comeback against Ohio State; the smashmouth putdown of the division champion Michigan State; and the dull, if dominating, victory against newly minted rival Iowa.

 

There is a bowl game yet to be played, and next season (home opener against Southern Miss on Sept. 1), really, is right around the corner.

 

I used to joke with friends that Nebraska football is dead. But now I can see that this — a 9-3 season with both bruising defeats and breezy victories — is what life is like.