LINCOLN — The annual expo of Nebraska football foibles under coach Bo Pelini made its tour stop early this year. The penalties, kamikaze tackling whiffs, drops and fumbles left the Huskers spending much of the second half chiding themselves, or each other. There might have been as many confidence-draining huffs as there were UCLA first downs.
So it goes for a team on a long, increasingly dramatic roller coaster. The very thing Pelini claims his process guards against — the rises and drops in mercury in college football, and the 18-to-22-year-olds who play it — is precisely what plagues the program.
NU's inconsistent. And Saturday's 41-21 loss to the Bruins was the finest example yet of this hot/cold persona of the Huskers under Pelini. You look to this column for postmortem particulars — after a game like this, they'd be more like potshots — but Nebraska's gaffes Saturday were so rooted in its past behavior that a program narrative is there, mostly written, in need of a plot twist for a happier ending.
You say the Huskers lack an identity? They do not. They have two. One for the highs created by an intermittently explosive offense and occasionally on-point defense. And one for the crash when the offense outsmarts itself and the defense lacks either the athletes or the experience to make Pelini's scheme click.
Because Nebraska's won 9.6 games per year since Pelini arrived, NU's roller coaster spends much of its time climbing or on a plateau. But the plunges keep getting deeper.
Since 2011, when the Huskers moved to the Big Ten, they've played 22 games against BCS conference opponents. Their record: 13-9. Despite having four more wins than losses, they've been outscored in those 22 games 641-603. The defense gave up 45 points per game in the nine losses. The offense is scoring 24.8 points per game in those nine losses. That's nearly three touchdowns per loss in three years.
It's this mediocrity against teams best in position to actually beat NU — and the extent of the beating when it happens — that throws Pelini's process into inquisition. He's certain it works. Saturday's postgame presser was an exercise in his defense of it. Some fans were disappointed that he didn't utter his usual “point the thumb” phrase. Why? If Pelini wants to be frustrated and baffled, he'd join the legion of ticket-holders whose donations help pay his salary. His certitude hasn't slowed the tide of blowout losses.
But since he otherwise guards Nebraska's privacy and reputation so fiercely — players are perpetually wary of saying something disloyal or revealing, and few outsiders watch practice anymore except BTN and ESPN broadcasters contractually obliged to the opportunity — the on-field product is the only judge and jury of his process and NU's program. In that arena, evidence mounts.
On with the Rewind.
I see you
» Quincy Enunwa: That extra step of speed he seems to have gained in the offseason has been worth a couple of touchdowns. His first scoring catch Saturday on a perfectly run fade route was particularly impressive.
» Kenny Bell: Opened a box of Shake 'N Bake on UCLA's corners. Martinez has to be able to deliver to Bell on deep passes.
» Mauro Bondi: Good job on kickoffs.
» UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr: The best player on the field Saturday. Nebraska rightly treated him like a big center with shot-blocking capability, but it didn't matter. Barr still dominated, forcing three fumbles. Randy Gregory could be that guy, eventually.
» UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley: Stunk for most of a half, but, Eli Manning-style, he kept dealing, found throwing lanes, and finished with 294 passing yards on just 24 attempts. Hundley's a keeper.
» Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He's Nebraska's best corner, period, with no current qualification for Ciante Evans. Evans played one of his poorest games Saturday. Jean-Baptiste wasn't great, but his interception led to a touchdown.
» Defensive end Avery Moss: Yes, he should have closed on that sack of Hundley. But he's shown enough in three games to seriously push Jason Ankrah for the starting job opposite Gregory. Would the coaches pull the trigger on such a thing? Moss was the most active of Husker pass rushers.
» No bang for Taylor Martinez's buck-twelve: Nebraska's quarterback has 112 combined pass and rush attempts for 629 yards. That's 5.6 yards per attempt, and that's anemic. In the first three games of 2012, Martinez's yards per attempt was 10.3. In 2011, it was 7.6. Through three games this year, Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock — a sophomore taking the first snaps of his collegiate career — is averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. He's also averaging slightly more yards per carry (3.32) than Martinez (3.16).
Martinez is made to run fast and far. I've seen him turn down good chances — even against the Bruins — and opt to stay in the pocket and throw, and when he has run, he's looked less explosive. Why?
NU coaches won't cop to Martinez being hurt — he hasn't missed a meaningful snap since 2010, regardless of his health — and Martinez brushed off questions about a walking boot on his left foot. But something — the foot, the mindset, the play-calling — is off. Beck can burn the option plays from the call sheet anytime. Even at full speed, Martinez is no wizard laterally and he rarely pitches.
» Defensive scheme: Pelini said it works. I say it did for a half, until UCLA figured out that Nebraska was often using its interior tackles as stand-up, bear-dancing spies. Hundley adjusted, and the Huskers' defensive backs failed to cover or tackle the Bruins' receivers. And the NU safeties and linebackers failed to tackle Hundley and running back Jordon James. On James' long run to start UCLA's third-quarter onslaught, NU corner Josh Mitchell had his back turned to the play, unaware that James had busted the run open until he'd nearly reached midfield.
Any scheme, in theory, works. Nebraska's defenders have proven, over the last year, that they're not disciplined or fundamental enough to consistently make Pelini's preferred system work. The UCLA offense — not hard to figure out, but tough to repeatedly defend — was a useful gauge. Pelini can either change personnel, cop to using a zone pass defense with more blitzes, or keep trying to make his man-to-man scheme work against the visible odds.
» Punt return misadventures: Opponents are averaging 47.58 yards per punt this year against Nebraska. That's the fourth-highest opponent average in the nation. Again: It's up to Pelini how long he wants to put up with a personnel or scheme issue that, thus far, has repeatedly put his offense in the hole.
» Eight: Fumbles through three games. That's tied for third-worst in the nation. The Huskers have lost three, tied for 18th-worst.
» 10: Plays of 30 yards or more allowed by the Huskers' defense this year. That's tied for eighth-worst in the nation.
» 76.3: Penalty yards per game. That's ninth-worst in the nation.
On my World-Herald Facebook page, I'll ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here. I received more than 115 responses after the game, a new high.
» Lance Morgan: “It is clear that other coaches have the book on us offensively and defensively, and when they have equal talent we have big problems.”
» Chad Lyons: “The team doesn't show the ability to battle the mental adversity in big games when something doesn't go their way or they get hit in the mouth. However, I have no explanation for the offense in the second half. Play calling and blocking seemed timid and trying to play it safe. With a young defense, you have to have the ability to keep your foot on the opponent when they are down.”
» Derek Koehler: “Whenever this team has a lead, they put it on cruise control. No matter the opponent. I can handle a loss, but I cannot handle four blowouts every single year. It's embarrassing. This state deserves a better product than what we're getting.”
» Sylvia Sanchez: “UCLA is not a mediocre team. They're ranked high for a reason. I get so sick of Husker fans that can't take the bad with the good and can sit in their recliners and think they can coach better than the professional coaches.”
» August Schalkham: “The program is in pause mode. Going nowhere. We have been passed by and the program is making no adjustments. If Florida bowl games is all we want, well, we got it.”
Illinois was outgained 615-327 in a 34-24 loss to Washington. Two Husky turnovers saved it from being worse. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, after two strong weeks, went back to his usual inconsistent self, completing just 9 of 25 passes for 156 yards.
Penn State lost at home to Central Florida 34-31. The Nittany Lions' defense doesn't have much talent, and will have to scrap all year.
Sunny spirits down from South Dakota State, as Jackrabbit fans happily gobble up any tickets Husker fans want to unload.
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Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:
Video: NU's Taylor Martinez at the postgame press conference: