LINCOLN — Rewind, for a second, to kickoff on Black Friday and an electric crowd inside Memorial Stadium. Nebraska, which had roused its moribund, frustrating season with an upset win over Michigan State, had a fine shot at upending undefeated Iowa.
Within the NU program, coaches and players were confident, especially after a bye week of preparation, that Iowa would have to play its best game to escape with a win.
As it turned out, the Hawkeyes won 28-20 and really didn’t have to escape at all. They wobbled plenty, but the Huskers handed them the game with four turnovers and a few defensive busts that will haunt the team into the offseason, regardless of what happens in Saturday’s Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA.
That Iowa loss was a microcosm of Nebraska’s football program in recent years. NU rises, peers out the window at opportunity, rubs the crust out of its eyes, and turns right back into its slumber. In this way, the
Huskers embody dissonance — the bigger the moment, the harder the crash, it seems, back under the blankets, into the cocoon of long sellout streaks, plush facilities and a squabbling family of media and fans who helicopter their way around the franchise instead of letting it sink or swim on its own merits.
And so comes a bowl game on a California night just after Christmas that some of Nebraska’s own players on social media said they didn’t earn. At 5-7, NU wouldn’t have made a bowl in any other year, but there are now so many games that there weren’t enough six-win teams that qualified. So the Huskers, with a strong Academic Progress Rate, drew a plum national television spot — Saturday night on ESPN in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, home of Super Bowl 50 — against a team that has twice put Nebraska back to its slumber in recent years.
This is no lump of coal. It’s a gift. An unexpected alarm offering Nebraska the chance at momentum heading into the offseason.
“This would be a nice start to a new year and a new season,” Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas said.
“We’re lucky to get this extra game,” wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said. “We’re going to give it our all. ... We didn’t do the selection. We got selected.”
Players and coaches alike have described practices as full of “excited” and “energetic” players. Before NU left for the Bay Area — Santa Clara is south of San Francisco and Oakland and snuggled up against San Jose — tempers even boiled over in a weekend practice where a mini-fracas reportedly broke out. “Guys being dudes,” as defensive end Jack Gangwish termed it.
“Things get a little wild once in awhile,” Gangwish said.
So motivation doesn’t appear — at least until kickoff — to be a major question. Nebraska will be awake. The bigger questions arrive after kickoff.
Can Nebraska’s defense manage UCLA’s speed better than it did in 2012 and 2013? In 36-30 and 41-21 losses, NU’s defense was exposed, giving up 653 yards in the 2012 game and 504 yards in the 2013 game. Aside from a sluggish two quarters in the 2013 game, the Bruins ran and passed at will with their no-huddle, spread attack. Only Wisconsin and Ohio State worked over Bo Pelini’s defenses better than UCLA did.
“You have to think faster and move faster,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said of playing UCLA’s offense. The last time NU coach Mike Riley squared off against the Bruins was in 2012, just after UCLA had beaten Nebraska and racked up those 653 yards. The Bruins gained 444 yards but lost 27-20 to the Beavers.
Will quarterback Tommy Armstrong find a happy medium between play-making and prudence? Nebraska once again finds itself with a turnover-prone signal caller who makes his share of eye-popping plays while he struggles to keep the ball away from the other team. Armstrong played a big role in NU’s continuing turnover margin problems this season; NU finished minus-11 over the last five games and minus-13 for the season. Armstrong threw two pick-sixes down the stretch.
In a frank chat with reporters, Armstrong vowed to hit the reset button and work on decision-making and throwing mechanics. He asked offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to “treat me like a freshman.”
“There’s some aspects of the game I’m not a veteran in, like decision-making and forcing balls,” Armstrong said. “So that’s where it comes from — treat me like I just got here. Like he’s my coach for the first time and making sure he holds me accountable for every mistake I make.”
Langsdorf, a growing lightning rod for criticism even though his unit averaged 442 yards and 32.5 points per game, is ready to meet Armstrong halfway.
“You’ve got to live with the ups and downs and keep working and keep trying to put our guys in the best position to win,” he said.
Does Nebraska have a complete game in it? Even by generous measurements, NU has played only a couple of such games this season — against overmatched South Alabama and at Minnesota. Even the Huskers’ thrilling, 39-38 win over Michigan State came with its share of warts. UCLA, a team some Nebraska players compared favorably to Miami, which beat NU 36-33 in overtime, might be the most talented squad the Huskers face in 2015. The Bruins have a hotshot freshman quarterback in Josh Rosen, speed and agility to burn at the skill positions, and top defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who could declare for the NFL draft.
NU has plenty of motivation — a desire for vengeance and recompense. Will it have purpose? Does it rouse itself from a seasonlong stupor, even if it won’t lead to a winning record?
“There’s no time like the present to get started,” Riley said.
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