LINCOLN — It was such a long kick that holder Jake Wesch was kneeling just inside the sizable red block N at midfield of Memorial Stadium.
Wesch put the football down, Alex Henery whipped his right leg through and the field goal sailed a school-record 57 yards to put Nebraska ahead of Colorado 33-31 with 1:43 left in the 2008 regular-season finale.
“The kick was huge, but how I kind of took things back then was you took each moment as a small little thing,” Henery said. “So I was not worried about anything but the kick going through. Not worried about the big picture.
“It was a good moment, and still an incredible one to look back on now and how it impacted the whole season.”
As the current Huskers prepare to navigate the final three-game stretch in Mike Riley’s first season, the Henery kick is front and center in looking back at how first-year seasons wound down differently for Bo Pelini and Bill Callahan:
» In 2004, after Callahan took over for Frank Solich, NU let a 5-3 season get away by closing 0-3, capped by a home loss to Colorado that snapped the Huskers’ historic 35-year bowl streak.
» In 2008, after Pelini replaced Callahan, the Huskers were 5-4 after a humbling 62-28 loss at Oklahoma, but went 3-0 to finish November. The unlikely Henery kick — and stadium-rocking interception return by Ndamukong Suh that punctuated the 40-31 win over the Buffaloes — upgraded NU to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.
It could be argued that the 2008 finish also helped launch the Huskers back to 10-win status in 2009 — a first since 2003 — and nearly a Big 12 championship.
“I was young, so I didn’t even really think of those situations,” Henery said. “But you look back and for Bo, and for the team, it was a big win just to keep momentum going and keep building the team.”
This year’s Huskers take a 3-6 record into the final three-game stretch. Among the opponents waiting are two unbeatens, No. 6 Michigan State and No. 10 Iowa.
Former NU I-back Cory Ross, a junior in 2004, said none of that should matter for the current players.
“I’m sure it’s a very unstable feeling right now,” Ross said. “If I were to go in and talk to those guys, former player to player, I’d absolutely let them know in life you’re going to go through different coaches, things like that, and learn to better it for yourself and get something out of it.
“I learned as much as I can, and it made me a better player. In trying to relate, I’d tell them, ‘It gets better.’ The next year, we were better.”
Ross said he thinks the Huskers remained on board and stuck together in 2004, even during the 0-3 finish. The three losses were against an Iowa State team that finished 7-5 and Oklahoma and Colorado teams that advanced to the Big 12 championship game.
NU fell behind the Buffaloes 17-0, and lost 26-20 despite a 13-point fourth quarter.
“Everybody has the dream of having the greatest year in college football,” said Ross, now coach of the Omaha Beef. “If it doesn’t come through, you want to make sure you’re doing your best, and not come back and say later, ‘I just wasn’t in it that year.’ You don’t want to have any regrets.”
Joe Ganz lived through the first seasons for both Callahan and Pelini, the latter as the Huskers’ starting quarterback. Ganz led the 2008 finish by throwing for a combined 823 yards and seven touchdowns in wins over Kansas, Kansas State and Colorado.
Though Pelini’s first team had gotten handled by No. 4 OU, the loss followed back-to-back wins over Iowa State and Baylor after an overtime loss at No. 7 Texas Tech.
“We were the type of group that, whatever was going to happen, we were going to go and fight,” Ganz said. “We knew we were capable of playing good football. We’d played it before.
“We had confidence, and that’s just kind of the way some of the leaders on our team were. Realistically I don’t know why, because we were not world-beaters in terms of athletes, but we were well-coached and it was up to us to make plays.”
Ganz was redshirting in 2004 after being a late January recruit by Callahan’s staff. He said he didn’t necessarily see players hesitant to buy in as that first season went on, but said even the least bit of doubt through a week of preparation could sidetrack a team.
Ganz said any comparisons between 2008 and ’15 are tough because of the games this team has lost, most recently to a Purdue squad with no previous FBS wins. The ’08 losses came against Virginia Tech, Missouri, Texas Tech and OU — the latter three being top-10 teams at the time.
“So you don’t know where that confidence is,” he said. “The pride factor is the only thing you can go on, because if you don’t have that confidence it can create doubt.”
Ganz said it helped in 2008 that players and the team had extra motivation for the last three opponents.
Kansas destroyed NU 76-39 the year before. K-State was led by Josh Freeman, the quarterback who decommitted from the Huskers and made a comment about Ganz on his recruiting visit that Ganz remembered. Colorado had driven the final stake in the Callahan era with a 65-51 win in Boulder.
“It kept everybody sharp,” Ganz said. “And I thought Bo and Wats (Shawn Watson) and Carl (Pelini) and JP (John Papuchis) just did a good job of keeping us together.”
Both Callahan and Pelini made progress in their second seasons.
Nebraska survived a three-game skid in 2005 to go 8-4 with an Alamo Bowl win over Michigan, then played in the Big 12 championship game in 2006. The Huskers followed 2008 by playing for Big 12 titles and winning 10 games in both 2009 and ’10.
If Nebraska can’t do enough in these last three games to reach a bowl, Ross said, it will be up to the players to take it personally and respond.
“I remember we talked to each other in the locker room (after the Colorado game) and said, ‘Hey, this never happens again,’ ” Ross said. “I wanted to make it change, and I wanted to do that with that staff.”
Contact the writer: