LINCOLN — Kenny Bell leaned against the podium, backpack over his shoulders, poofy hair pulled back.
For four minutes, he answered media questions thoughtfully, presenting an upbeat perspective on Nebraska's goal-crushing loss to Michigan State.
Will the guys in the locker room share your positive outlook following this loss?
“It's a positive outlook on life, brother,” the junior receiver said, laughing.
“I mean, I love football. And it hurts. We put a lot of time into this. When you put 350 days out of a year into something, it's going to hurt when you lose. But you've got to have a positive outlook on life, man. We play a game. We're blessed.
“Everybody in that locker room has a pretty good understanding of what's going on. You've got to stay mentally tough, and the way you do that is you circle the wagons around the guys you love, the guys that come in and do it every single day — in the weight room, upstairs and in the locker room, down on the practice field. So everything else can go by the wayside. We've got each other. That's all we need.”
Put that sound bite on an NCAA commercial. Put it on a university brochure. That's what college athletics is all about.
Bell's comments, echoed by several NU teammates and coaches, illustrate why Nebraska football is in such murky territory as Bo Pelini's sixth season comes to a close.
This roster is full of good dudes who play hard, even when it'd be easier not to. They fight through injuries. They fill the stadium. They win nine games. They produce some epic moments along the way. That's all important stuff.
But the flipside is Nebraska is far too accustomed to dropping big games. The program isn't good enough to compete nationally, let alone challenge Ohio State for a Big Ten title. And there's no evidence to suggest it's changing anytime soon.
Nebraska lost Saturday like it's lost so many times before — by shooting itself in the cleats.
“I'm proud of the way they fought,” Bo Pelini said. “We didn't lose that football game because of a lack of effort or a lack of want-to. We just made too many mistakes to overcome. ...
“Our kids played with heart,” he said moments later. “They played with passion. As a head football coach, that's all you can ask.”
This is where the situation gets hairy. Heart and passion are admirable. Inspiring, even. But it's not all you can ask. It's not all your fans can ask.
The consistent failures of execution — especially on the big stage — haunt this program now as much as they did in 2009, when NU committed eight turnovers against Iowa State. How do you explain four fumbles and an interception, I asked Tim Beck.
“I don't know,” said the offensive coordinator, after a pause. “It's hard to put a finger on. I don't think anybody's trying to make those mistakes. I don't think he's trying to throw an interception or drop a pitch, you know what I mean? ... But it happens.”
It happens. Put that on a scarlet and cream bumper sticker.
Nebraskans are watching the same season over and over while the standards of success slowly fall like a balloon running out of helium.
I admire Kenny Bell's words. I admire Ameer Abdullah's toughness. I admire Jeremiah Sirles racing onto the field in pregame warmups in order to show his coach he can play on a sprained knee. I admire the culture of resilience that Pelini has established. It's real. It's worth cheering.
“They love each other,” Beck said. “They love playing football. It's what allowed us to be able to fight today. Heck, five turnovers and we still almost pulled it out. It's a tribute to them and how hard they played.”
But is it enough? Shawn Eichorst and Harvey Perlman face an extremely difficult decision at the end of the month. And before making it, you need to ask yourself what your expectation is.
Saturday afternoons at Memorial Stadium are — at their core — the same as they were 20 years ago, when I was sitting in North Stadium. Friends, family and strangers from all corners of the state unite and rally around the red “N.”
They wear red. They clap along to the fight song. They cheer like heck. It's remarkable to witness, especially after a moment like Jordan Westerkamp's Hail Mary catch.
A loss like Saturday's isn't turning anybody away from the program. Are seasons like this satisfactory?
Or do you believe, as I do, that success must be more than sellout streaks and skinned knees?
That if you're spending more time outside the Top 25 than inside it, you're selling the program short. That the steady erosion of expectations over the past decade is as disturbing as any individual outcome.
No, it's not 1993 anymore. Scholarship limits hurt Nebraska. So did Prop 48 restrictions and conference expansion and cable TV and a whole host of other factors. But the difference between Nebraska and places like Missouri and Iowa and Kansas State and Michigan State is where the Huskers set the bar. What's too low? What's too high?
Ten years ago this weekend — Nov. 15, 2003 — Nebraska had two losses when it hosted its top divisional challenger on ABC at 2:30 p.m. Kansas State dominated the second half, exposing a roster full of nice guys who had played a soft schedule and simply weren't good enough to compete nationally.
That was the final straw for the sixth-year head coach. Steve Pederson cited a gravitation toward mediocrity and fired Frank Solich, fracturing the fan base for a long, long time. (Coincidentally, Bo Pelini coached the Alamo Bowl, leading an inspired win over Michigan State).
No, it's not 1993 anymore. But it feels a lot like 2003. Over the next few weeks, the fan base will engage in a familiar debate. How can NU turn its back on a coach who's never won fewer than nine? How can NU continue with a coach who routinely loses big games by large margins? Soon Eichorst and Perlman will make their call.
Before they do, step back and ask yourself the critical question: What do you want out of Saturday afternoons?
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Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis:
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Michigan State game:
Video: NU receiver Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game: