• Video Below: NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne, players speak to the media; postgame analysis
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LINCOLN — Even up to the last minute, before they put him in an ambulance and took him to the hospital, Bo Pelini was coaching.
“I saw him at halftime,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He was sitting on a bench in the locker room. He looked at me and said, ‘I'm going to be all right. Stay focused out there. Forget about me. Go play the game.' ”
Forget about Bo. Play the game. Easier said than done.
This was a day like no other for Nebraska football. The head coach had left the building for medical reasons. Something was wrong. Few people knew why, and those who might weren't saying.
Athletic Director Tom Osborne said it looked like Pelini “was going to be OK.” The coach released a statement, declaring that he planned to be back to work Sunday.
A handful of NU players said they were praying for their coach. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck nearly broke down talking about it. There were reports that Pelini had flulike symptoms, but you don't offer prayer or break down over the flu.
Here's what we do know about Coach Bo: He had to be darned proud of his team.
The Huskers showed resiliency and fire and finished off Arkansas State, a tricky task, in a 42-13 win. The head man left, but it was like he never left, because he taught his staff and team well.
There was no better example than John Papuchis.
The Huskers' defensive coordinator is a Pelini disciple, who followed Pelini to Lincoln from LSU. He's fiery. He's wired. He snapped at a fan's question at the Big Red Breakfast on Friday.
Pelini entrusted his defensive coordinator title to Papuchis, even while some criticized Papuchis' inexperience. Pelini did it because he believes in “JP.”
That faith was rewarded Saturday.
The Huskers were up 28-3 when Bo left at the half. Suddenly, Papuchis was handed the wheel to the machine and told to keep it on the road.
Beck would call the offense from the press box. The two would deal with big-picture decisions, such as penalties or replays. But Papuchis was on the sideline, running the show.
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Now the story became bigger. Now it was more than atonement for UCLA. The tackling was better, Gus Malzahn's gimmick offense was held in check, to six points. And there were kudos all around for the JP Gang.
But it was now more than that. It was the young protégé, trying to hold it all together, while the mentor was in the hospital.
“Bo is as close to me as anyone,” Papuchis said. “My initial reaction when I heard about him was as a friend. I had to compose myself for a second.
“At the end of the day, I know there's nothing he would have wanted more than for us to do our best.”
Papuchis lauded the players for playing well after a week “when you didn't play well on the road, then there was attrition, and then you realize your leader isn't there.
“It was a very trying and emotional week.”
And Papuchis could have been talking about himself.
The protégé got his initiation scars during the week. If people didn't know who he was before, they could spell his name after the UCLA game.
Some had other names for him. Papuchis got an earful and an eyeful last week. The nasty anonymous messages. The critics in the media. People were questioning Pelini's defensive stature. What do you think they were saying about the sidekick?
Then a defensive tackle left the team. And finally there was breakfast in Omaha, when Papuchis blew off some steam and created a headline.
“It's been a testing week,” Papuchis said. “But I can't do that. I have to hold myself to a higher standard. That won't happen again.”
It was overblown. But consider it a lesson learned for Papuchis, who gained an understanding of what his new position is all about.
Other lessons were learned, too. NU's defense came out in a three-man front at times. There was new personnel on the field. But the big change was execution. There were six tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
And an explosive package defused.
Bo would have been proud, and there was a moment in there, in the third quarter, when you wondered if the big guy wasn't back.
Arkansas State had just recovered a punt that glanced off Ameer Abdullah's foot at the NU 15. It's 28-10 now. And this looked like the visitors' chance to make this a game.
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They didn't. The knuckleball offense doesn't work so well inside the red zone. Two pass attempts to the perimeter, which were well-covered, fell incomplete. ASU had to settle for a harmless field goal.
Over on the sideline, the protégé jumped and hugged and threw high-fives.
Wherever he was watching, or listening, Pelini had to be smiling.
“The great thing about a leader is reproduction,” Brown said. “Being able to reproduce what you teach. You saw that here today.
“Bo prepared us for this moment. He's an overflow guy. He has so much fire and tenacity that it overflows from his bloodstream and onto everyone who's around him. It affects you.
“The coaches and players rallied out there. Bo would have been proud of the tenacity, the spirit.”
Pelini may be back Sunday and back on the sideline next weekend. Things may return to normal.
But they won't be the same for Papuchis. The protégé grew a ton on Saturday. You could see it in how he handled himself on the sideline, in front of the ESPN interviewer after the game. He did most of the talking in the postgame interview session, and he came off like a total pro.
As he walked over to do the Husker radio interview, he held a can of Red Bull. That might be a good nickname for the protégé.
“Early in a week like this, you question yourself a little bit,” Papuchis said. “But I never lost faith in who I am or what I can do.”
Just then, a guy from the Husker Network tapped him on the shoulder. Sorry, Coach. We didn't get that interview. We need to tape it again.
Papuchis sighed. Welcome to the big time.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, email@example.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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>> Video: Nebraska-Arkansas State postgame analysis:
>> Video: Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne addresses the media:
>> Video: NU coordinators John Papuchis and Tim Beck:
>> Video: Nebraska assistant athletic director Keith Mann reads Pelini's statement:
>> Video: Nebraska safety P.J. Smith:
>> Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez:
>> Video: Pregame sights and sounds at the stadium: