LINCOLN — Not one of the defensive players who started for Nebraska on the darkest night of the Bo Pelini era is still in the program. And not one of the defenders who now start for the Huskers had a tackle that night.
That doesn’t mean Pelini’s memory would ever quite blot out the 2012 Big Ten title game. Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31? It still happened. He still saw it. Fly sweep. Gut run. Fly sweep. Gut run. It’s not every day — or any ever — that an opponent runs for 539 yards and 10.8 yards per carry.
“I’ll never flush that out,” Pelini said. “It’s hard to flush that one away. But there’s nothing you can do about it. That was one of the most unusual games I’ve ever been a part of and frustrating at the same time.”
Yes, the memory lingers.
“Just the feeling that I’m a part of this university and that’s what happened — it kind of still gets at you,” said defensive end Greg McMullen.
Pelini’s choice to redshirt McMullen and defensive tackle Vincent Valentine in 2012 burned him once the team’s top defensive tackle, Baker Steinkuhler, tore his ACL the week before Nebraska played Wisconsin in Indianapolis.
“I still got a bitter taste,” said safety Corey Cooper, a backup that night who played sparingly. “Got beat pretty bad.”
But Cooper adds: “What happened in 2012 is pretty much irrelevant.”
He’ll get no argument from left guard Jake Cotton, a backup that night.
“While it’s kind of in the back of your mind, it’s kind of like the Miami matchup we had this year,” Cotton said. “Everyone wanted to make comparisons to the 1994 season and draw all these big storylines. But, really, we’re going out to play the 2014 Badgers and try to get a win out there.”
Almost all of the starters on both teams have now departed. The Badgers’ top two defenders that year — linebacker Chris Borland and safety Dez Southward — won games with their respective NFL teams Sunday. The Huskers have only three current offensive starters from that night — wide receivers Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner, plus center Mark Pelini — still on the roster, and only Bell is guaranteed to start Saturday.
Husker starting safety Nate Gerry, a sophomore who didn’t join the program until 2013, said Monday he’s not sure he even watched the game.
Two things haven’t changed, and they’re plenty relevant: the offensive scheme Wisconsin uses and the top runner from that night, Melvin Gordon.
The Badgers lost coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas in the weeks after the 2012 title game, but current coach Gary Andersen, who came from Utah State, retained the Badgers’ torque-driven, motion-laden running game that few college programs choose to replicate.
The system relies on a blend of power blocking and misdirection to overwhelm defenses. Considering it churns out 325 yards per game with scant passing aid from quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, it still works as well as it did that night in Indianapolis.
“They know what they want to do,” Bo Pelini said. “They’re physical, they’re well-coached, and they execute very, very well. It hasn’t changed a lot. And you know what? That was probably a smart move on their part. You have a defensive guy (Andersen) taking over, why mess with a good thing? They haven’t.”
Gordon ran for 216 yards — on nine carries — against the Huskers. He scored on a 59-yard fly sweep not two minutes into that game, and he currently leads the nation with 1,501 rushing yards and a mind-bending 10 runs of 40 yards or longer.
“There’s not much he can’t do,” Cooper said.
It was Gordon — plus Montee Ball and James White — who made a few Husker defenders miss early in the 2012 title game. Once that happened, Pelini said, the defense got “off-kilter” and began making mistakes — playing the wrong gaps and techniques — that turned into an avalanche of points. Nebraska’s offense — which itself struggled with two turnovers and third-down inefficiency — lacked the chance to mount a comeback.
“If you would have looked back at that game, you would have thought you had a group that had never been coached before,” Pelini said. It was not a quip, but a lament. “For whatever reason, I don’t know. It happened. I watched it. Unfortunately, I watched it again. A number of times since then.”
Pelini said he watches all game films — wins and losses — with the same cold-blooded, unbiased viewpoint. There’s plenty to learn from every experience.
And even if the Nebraska-Wisconsin game now involves a Freedom Trophy — unveiled Monday — the Huskers see the Badgers in the way of a more important trophy now that the game is a divisional tilt.
“We are pretty much playing for a chance to go to the Big Ten championship,” Cooper said.
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Video: Bo Pelini at Monday's press conference
Video: Jake Cotton at Monday's press conference
Video: Nathan Gerry at Monday's press conference
Video: Corey Cooper at Monday's press conference
Video: Adam Carriker on TBL Monday