Bo Pelini

Bo Pelini runs off the field for the last time as the Huskers' coach in 2014. Since that day, Nebraska has had a tremendously curious run of bad luck in close games.

A leaky O-line. A weary defense. Conservative playcalling. A struggling quarterback.

Pick your favorite target for Saturday’s loss, Husker fans. I’m pointing the finger at the Pelini Curse.

I’m kidding (mostly).

Bo took a lot of flack for Mike Riley’s failures. He surely doesn’t bear the burden for Nebraska’s second-half meltdown in Boulder. But, man, sometimes I look at the Huskers’ late-game failures and wonder what kind of deal Shawn Eichorst struck with the devil five years ago.

Remember Black Friday 2014 in Iowa City. Pelini’s Huskers rallied from 17 down in the third quarter (sound familiar?), pushed the game to overtime at 31-31 (ahem), held Iowa to a field goal (ahem) and won it with a subsequent touchdown, 37-34.

Two days later, Eichorst fired Pelini.

We can argue all day about the wisdom of that decision, but that’s not the point here. I bring it up because of a head-spinning shift in the program since then. Patterns have flipped.

The Huskers are 21-23 this decade in games decided by seven points or less. Basically what you’d expect. But that record includes wild swings. A period when everything broke Nebraska’s way (2012-13) and now a 1-6 stretch under Frost.

Pelini’s teams frequently got shellacked under pressure — check Wisconsin’s record books for the evidence. But bizarrely, they also came up clutch over and over, often under extraordinary circumstances. Get to the fourth quarter within shouting distance and Pelini was going to win.

Jamal Turner

Back in 2012, Nebraska's Jamal Turner pulled in a touchdown pass with six seconds left at Michigan State to give Nebraska one of several improbable wins that season.

From Sept. 29, 2012 to Sept. 6, 2014, Nebraska won 10 consecutive games decided by seven points or less. Ten!

Among the highlights:

» Wisconsin 2012: Nebraska rallied from a 27-10 deficit.

» Northwestern 2012: Nebraska rallied from 28-16 down with 8:31 left. No Husker team had come back from such a deficit with so little time since 1964! 

» Michigan State 2012: Taylor Martinez did it again. Two fourth-quarter drives — culminating with Jamal Turner’s game-winning touchdown with six seconds left — overcame a 24-14 deficit.

» Northwestern 2013: Hail Mary! Jordan Westerkamp made it to the end zone with inches to spare.

» Penn State 2013: Pat Smith’s overtime field goal cut through Nittany Lion screams and a frigid night.

» Georgia, New Year’s Day 2014: The game changed with Tommy Armstrong to Quincy Enunwa, 99 yards! The Blackshirts sealed it with a stop in the final minute.

» McNeese State 2014: Ameer Abdullah saved NU from a potentially stunning upset at Memorial Stadium with his career highlight, a 58-yard, tiebreaking catch and run with 20 seconds left.

Pelini dropped a couple of knee-knockers later that season — Michigan State and Minnesota. But nothing like what’s happened since.

» 2015: Riley goes 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less, including impossible defeats to BYUIllinois and Wisconsin.

» 2016: 3-1. Better.

» 2017: 2-3. Worse.

» 2018: Here comes Frost, guns blazing. Like Riley in his debut season, Frost goes 1-5 in close games. Colorado by five, Troy by five, Northwestern in OT (how did Nebraska lose that game!?!), Ohio State by five and Iowa by three. The only close win? Michigan State, 9-6.

Scott Frost

It's hard to believe Nebraska has gone 1-6 under Scott Frost in games decided by seven points or less.

I expected a Year 2 “leap” from Nebraska, not only because Frost had done it before but because continuity and chemistry generally produce better results at crunch time. Instead, we witnessed another meltdown Saturday in a game Nebraska had no business losing.

Since Pelini’s firing, Big Red is now 7-16 in games decided by seven or less. Is Bo sticking pins in a Herbie Husker voodoo doll? Are the football gods punishing Nebraska for firing a coach who (you may have heard) won nine games every season?

Nah, that’s silly. But you hear a lot about “learning to win.” And while it feels like bunk sometimes, Pelini’s tenure actually inspires a little hope, too.

Back in 2009, you might remember that Nebraska was in the midst of a similar spell of “bad luck.” The Blackshirts give up a bomb at Virginia Tech and lose, improbably, 16-15. Then the offense commits eight turnovers in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State. Things were ugly. This was supposed to be Year 2. Where’s the progress?

Eventually, it came. And while Pelini never got over the hump, his teams did learn to win close games. Ten straight Ws in 50-50 games. That may never happen again. But Frost’s team should improve at crunch time, too. It takes time.

At the moment, the Huskers are constantly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I suppose it’s better than giving up 408 yards to Melvin Gordon, but it’s no way to spend a Saturday.

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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