MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Hope makes you feel stupid. Hope plays tricks on you. Hope taunts you. Hope makes you so mad you wanna kick hope in the gut.
Thousands of Nebraska football fans showed up at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday and sweated till they stunk. Millions more watched back home. By the end of the first quarter, it was clear they were all wasting their time.
Nebraska was the slower, weaker, less disciplined, less motivated team, which is saying something considering an airplane banner overhead called for Al Golden’s job.
So much has changed at Nebraska in 10 months. So much. Yet the Huskers basically mirrored the band we watched last November at Wisconsin. Mike Riley wasn’t Bo Pelini. He was Bill Callahan 2.0. And he was violating the No. 1 rule of coaching at Nebraska: Don’t embarrass the program.
Then, out of nowhere, hope tugged back. Tommy Armstrong scrambled like a fourth-grader at recess, eluding blitzers and picking apart Miami’s defense. The Blackshirts (with a little help from Miami’s sputtering offense) forced punts. The Huskers closed a 23-point deficit in the final 9 minutes. When Armstrong completed the tying two-point conversion, Husker fans exploded.
“Go Big Red. Go Big Red.”
You know what happened next. Game over. 36-33, Miami.
The record says 1-2 for the first time since 1981. But this is way more complicated than wins and losses. Hope and hopelessness are waging an epic tug of war in Husker hearts. It’s been going on for, oh, about 18 years now and it shows no signs of resolution.
Is Nebraska an underachieving program that just needs the right coach? Or a program whose younger generation will forever have to listen to stories of the glory years? Saturday provided zero answers.
The Blackshirts pounded Peyton Manning. Scott Frost raised his index finger — No. 1! Jason Peter threw his big bicep around Tom Osborne’s narrow shoulders. National championship, baby.
Since that night, Nebraska has tried just about everything to get back to college football’s summit. First it tried continuity. Frank Solich kept the template and that didn’t work. Then Nebraska tried revolution. Bill Callahan scrapped 40 years of tradition in favor of modernization. That didn’t work. Then Nebraska tried energy and passion. Bo Pelini was doomed by the defense he came to save. That didn’t work.
Every move took Nebraska farther and farther away from the destination. Every time hope tugged — the 2005 Alamo Bowl, the 2009 Holiday Bowl, etc. — hopelessness tugged back, reminding Nebraskans that Tom Osborne was long gone and college football had moved on.
Most fan bases would’ve said the heck with it by now. (Or something more profane). Husker fans show up again and again, ready to sweat it out.
Saturday’s loss was a perfect microcosm of the Nebraska Football Experience the past 14 years. Emotions jumped all over the place. Just like Iowa and Michigan State 2014. And Northwestern and UCLA 2013. And countless days before that.
Truth is, Nebraska is lacking talent and/or depth in key areas. Defensive end. Linebacker. Cornerback. Offensive line. Wide receiver. Running back. Tight end. OK, lots of key areas.
Pelini didn’t recruit well the past few years. And Riley’s staff hasn’t maximized what they have, especially on defense. Bad combination.
At times, the talent discrepancy between Nebraska and Miami was comparable to the gap in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Miami was too fast on the edges. And too strong in the trenches. Only this time it was worse. Miami was unranked, not No. 1. The stadium was two-thirds full and the rest of the country didn’t care.
The first three quarters reinforced this nagging fear that Nebraska is not coming back. That this is the new normal. That Shawn Eichorst was wrong.
The Nebraska A.D. surveyed history last fall and decided on a new Husker experiment, maybe the only door left: competence.
The theory: Nebraska has the infrastructure to compete at the highest level, all it needs is an experienced, level-headed coaching staff. No revolution necessary. No genius necessary. Just good old-fashioned evaluation, development and positive energy.
Hope vs. hopelessness. How long does this tug-of-war go on?
Riley can’t possibly establish the depth chart and culture he needs in year one. He needs three years, maybe four. But my goodness, after everything Nebraska has endured, four years sounds like 40. Just before he walked out of his postgame press conference, I asked Riley, “How’s your heart?”
“I’m alright,” he said. “I think. I better start working out again.”
There’s a few million Nebraska fans who know exactly how you feel.
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