January 2008. The Superdome in New Orleans. Media day for the BCS national championship game between LSU and Ohio State.
Reporters huddle around one of the hot young names in college football, the same man who a month earlier accepted the head coaching job at Nebraska.
A TV guy from Ohio asks Bo Pelini about the speed disparity between the SEC and Big Ten.
“Here's where speed is,” the coach says, pointing to his heart. “It's knowing where you are going, being coached, having confidence in what you are doing. That's speed.”
That's Bo Pelini.
July 2009. A hotel ballroom in Dallas. Big 12 media days.
A reporter asks Nebraska's second-year head coach about Big 12 spread offenses. He has fielded this question dozens of times. It annoys him.
“These offenses, they aren't reinventing the wheel,'' Pelini says. “It's not magical. I think people put too much into what's going on. ... It's not about tricking somebody. It's about dominating somebody.''
That's Bo Pelini.
September 2012. Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's spread offense discovers a weakness in the Blackshirts.
In the first half, the Bruins line up in a one-back set, then motion him toward the sideline. Nebraska's middle linebacker follows, creating a 1-on-1 mismatch — and a gaping hole over the middle.
UCLA gains 24 yards. It runs the same look for 31 yards. Then 24. Then 7. Then 49. Then 23.
Pelini does not adjust. The Bruins keep sending Johnathan Franklin out of the backfield, piling on yards — 653 at night's end.
Two days later, back in Lincoln, I ask Pelini what happened, not only in Los Angeles, but over the last two years. Why had his defense declined?
“No. 1, college football is changing a little bit,” he says. “You see a lot of types of offenses right now.
“The day and age of being able to just shut everybody out all the time probably isn't happening, especially when you are playing the type of spread-out teams we're seeing week to week. There's a lot of different challenges out there now.”
College football is changing? Spread offenses are too good? That's Bo Pelini?
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Since he arrived in Lincoln five years ago, Husker fans have taken comfort in one thing: As long as Bo was around, they would have a defense.
Yes, the offense might stink sometimes. Yes, players might commit too many penalties and turnovers. But defense was constant. The security blanket. The foundation of the program.
You might have better recruits. But we will have better coaching. We will have more heart.
Now, for the first time, a considerable slice of the Husker fan base doesn't seem to trust Pelini to do what he does best.
It's one thing to watch Bo's team lose 14-7. But seeing the Blackshirts fail shakes the foundation. Isn't this why he was hired?
Pelini has experienced ups and downs in five years. But he's never faced issues this critical so early in a season. As he brainstorms, the public grows restless. Former Huskers hit the talk-radio circuit, questioning Bo's principles.
Why didn't he hire more experienced coordinators? Why do his best recruits — Aaron Green, Tyler Moore, Ryan Klachko, Chase Rome — keep walking out the door?
Why is such a veteran defense — nine of 11 starters Saturday were juniors and seniors — struggling with fundamentals? Why can't he develop young talent, or at least get young talent on the field faster?
And most of all, why doesn't he abandon the two-gap scheme that handcuffs his defensive line?
Pelini must answer those critiques not with words, but with performance.
Starting Sept. 29, Nebraska plays five straight losable games. If the Huskers want to be relevant in November, they need to win at least three.
Pelini has two weeks to get ready. To shake this malaise that feels like an identity crisis.
He grew up in Big Ten country. The Rust Belt. But Nebraska's conference move shook him up. Just when he'd mastered Big 12 spread offenses, the Big Red bolted.
Suddenly Pelini had to stop Wisconsin, not Missouri. He changed his template. He loaded up on traditional linebackers. Focused more on brawn, less on agility.
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“Then you come back (to nonconference play) and you're playing a bunch of spread teams,” Pelini said. “You're jumping back and forth a lot. You have to use your personnel differently. It presents some challenges.”
Traditionally, Pelini defenses are fast defenses. Now he's working with a speed deficiency, and he looks lost.
His new players aren't good enough to run his old system. He must tweak the lineup or the scheme. Or both.
When Arkansas State attacks Nebraska with its up-tempo spread, we may see a new set of Husker linebackers. We may see a three-man front. We certainly will see change.
Pelini, famously abrasive with the media, spent most of Monday's press conference sincerely trying to explain what happened at UCLA and what it means. Only once did his cordial tone change.
A TV guy asked if the defensive mistakes were a matter of desire — of “want-to.” Eric Martin said so. Will Compton, too.
Pelini glared at the reporter.
“C'mon. Want-to from our players?
“Let me tell you something about our football team. ... There isn't any more want-to out there. Don't start questioning the integrity of our football team.
“Believe me, there ain't a guy out there who took that field or EVER will take that field for Nebraska who doesn't want to make the play.”
That's Bo Pelini, determined and defiant, the same man who lifted Nebraska's defense out of the mud and carried it to the mountaintop. That's Bo Pelini, coming to grips with a hard truth.
“Want-to” only takes you so far.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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