Shatel: Huskers showed little fight, but they can still salvage season

Nebraska defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun watches the last few minutes of the game tick away. The Huskers, who entered No. 20 nationally in total defense, allowed 590 total yards.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nebraska’s 15 minutes of national spotlight are up.

The Huskers landed with a thud here at venerable Ohio Stadium. A sellout crowd of Ohio State fans showed up on a beautiful November evening to see a duel between top 10 teams with conference and national playoff hopes in the balance.

Instead, they watched a hapless Husker team turn back the clocks — to the Bo Pelini years.

You thought, or hoped, that Nebraska had moved beyond these kinds of stink bombs. You thought, or hoped, wrong.

Not even the most pessimistic Husker fan or optimistic Buckeye expected Ohio State 62, Nebraska 3.

What a polar opposite effort from last weekend’s overtime loss at Wisconsin, where the Big Red looked strong and ready to emerge as a league contender. How could a team look so capable one week and so inept the next?

Mike Riley has some explaining to do. So do the players.

What a horrible disappointment, particularly coming on the heels of NU climbing into the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings and earning the ABC prime-time game of the week.

That 17-point spread? Turns out it was low.

“Wow,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I didn’t see that one coming.”

You’re not alone, coach.

Now it’s important to note that Ohio State has great talent, speed, ability, all that. And the Bucks had their backs against the wall at home. Lose, and their season was all but over. They were trying to get their groove back.

That’s why you saw Ohio State still passing it while up more than 30 points in the second half. My opinion: they were trying to get quarterback J.T. Barrett his confidence back. Ok, and Michigan scored 59 points on Saturday. There’s always that.

But the story for Nebraska wasn’t so much what Ohio State was doing as what the Huskers weren’t doing.

Frankly, they weren’t competing. They weren’t digging in, fighting, not like we have seen time and again this season. That’s been the theme. Not in this one.

Ohio State is a good team, but these Buckeyes went into overtime at Wisconsin — same as the Huskers. They shouldn’t be 59 points better.

There are too many areas to cover here, but the best example of a team that didn’t look ready to play was the poor tackling and coverage on defense. Blackshirts who had wrapped up all season were suddenly arm tackling or grabbing the runner’s shoulder pads. The secondary that had blanketed receivers was a step behind.

How do you perform like this when you’re on a national stage?

Well, seeing your quarterback get carried off on a cart and then loaded into an ambulance can’t help.

That happened with 6:06 left in the second quarter and NU down 24-3. Ohio State had just fumbled a punt to the Huskers, who recovered at the OSU 38.

On third-and-seven, quarterback Tommy Armstrong took off running and had 11 yards when he was forced out of bounds. Armstrong had his legs taken out and his head bounced up off the turf.

He didn’t get up.

Soon, he was surrounded by medical staff, his father Tommy Sr. and his fiancé. They cut off his jersey and fitted him with a neck brace.

The ordeal took about 12 minutes, and finally, when Armstrong was loaded onto the cart, he gave a thumbs up. As he was driven toward the ambulance, he showed that thumbs up.

Later, Armstrong was released from the hospital and reports from doctors indicated he had been knocked unconscious. He returned to the stadium in the third quarter and ran back to the Nebraska sideline, where he was embraced by relieved coaches and teammates.

For Nebraska, this was the positive result of the night. Good to see Armstrong back, apparently feeling OK, and even smiling after the game.

But did it change the result? No.

Had Armstrong played the entire game, the Huskers might have scored a touchdown or two. Who knows? Armstrong was not particularly sharp before the injury. He forced a pass on the very first third down of the game, had it tipped and intercepted and returned for a touchdown that got Buckeye Nation revved up.

By the time Armstrong went out, it was 24-3 and the mood in the old stadium was that this was Ohio State’s night.

There was more good news for Nebraska, if you could use some.

This was only one game. And if the national attention helped take NU’s eye off the ball this weekend, that’s gone now.

But there’s still plenty left on the table for this team. It will be interesting to see how the Huskers respond.

Wisconsin now sits in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers have Illinois and Minnesota at home and go to Purdue. NU would need to win out and see Wisconsin lose one. It’s difficult to imagine the Badgers losing any of those three.

But even without a league championship game appearance, Nebraska can still run out of this season with heads high and something called momentum.

How? Simple. Win out.

Three more wins would give Nebraska 10 wins for the first time since 2012. Four more wins, including a bowl win, would give the Huskers 11 for the first season since 2001.

You could wrap that in a bow and call it progress, even with what happened here Saturday night.

But with this step back in time, anything less than 10 now is going to feel like a letdown. Especially if that includes a loss at Iowa.

Look, what happened here doesn’t erase that this defense has played well, showed real progress, all season. It doesn’t wipe away all the effort and fight put into that 7-2 record.

The spotlight on Nebraska here reminded us how fragile the Huskers still are, even though you hoped they were beyond that. They played well, but not perfectly, and overcame their mistakes through 7-0.

When the bar was raised the last two games, we saw that anything less than maxing out from these coaches and players still isn’t good enough.

But there are three games left to get that back. Can they? This is where leadership, and coaching, will show up.

It’s set up for the Big Red, but Minnesota is playing well. That will be a difficult matchup, and now, who knows who is playing quarterback for NU?

If the Huskers don’t play better than they did in the blinding spotlight at Ohio State, it won’t matter.

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