Is it possible for a football team to be manic-depressive?
I don’t have a medical degree, but that’s my diagnosis after watching Nebraska absorb a 45-17 shellacking at Michigan Saturday.
Talk about mood swings. On Nov. 5, the Cornhuskers sleepwalked through an embarrassing home loss to perennial conference weakling Northwestern. Just one week later on a big stage at State College, Pa., Nebraska covered itself with glory by the way it conducted itself both before and after the opening kickoff.
That glory was short-lived indeed. On an equally big stage in the Big House, the Cornhuskers melted down in a flurry of mistakes and misplays. When all was said and done, Nebraska looked like a mid-level team that is headed for a mid-level bowl game.
Nebraska had just 138 yards rushing and allowed Michigan more than 41 minutes in possession time. When Nebraska can’t run the ball, it doesn’t win. End of story.
Multiple catastrophic failures by the offense (three-for-13 on third down) and kicking game (two fumbles, blocked punt, roughing the kicker penalty, allowed a first down on a fake field goal) put a lot of pressure on the defense, which was on the field for 80 Michigan snaps. The NU offensive line, which came to Ann Arbor healthier than it was at Penn State, was utterly ineffective against a Michigan defensive line that is not the equal of the Nittany Lions.
It was a day filled with questionable decisions and slipshod ball security by quarterback Taylor Martinez, who often appeared confused. He regressed back to his early-season form after making steady progress all season. To be sure, Martinez got very little support from his offensive line and receivers, who missed blocks, were flat-out beaten man-for-man and dropped passes all day long.
It was not a surprise that Nebraska lost, but the 28-point margin was distressing. Once Kenny Bell fumbled away the second-half kickoff, Nebraska was not a factor in the game. Michigan appears to have achieved more consistency in year one of the Brady Hoke era than Nebraska has in year four of the Bo Pelini era. Pelini himself called it a “comedy of errors.”
“We screwed it up,” Pelini said. “We did a lot of things to hurt ourselves.”
Pelini’s teams finished strong in his first two seasons at Nebraska, but that has dramatically turned around. In 2008-09, Pelini’s Husker teams lost only two games from Nov. 1 to the end of the season. In 2010 and so far in 2011, his teams have lost five such games.
There’s no denying that injuries are part of the equation this fall. Nebraska is beat-up in the offensive and defensive lines, but that makes you wonder why Pelini kept Martinez in the game to absorb more punishment after the Huskers had fallen behind by four touchdowns with seven minutes left in the game. Brion Carnes could have benefited from some snaps.
There’s also the theory that in its maiden voyage through the Big Ten, Nebraska is at a disadvantage because it has had to study eight new opponents while its new conference brethren have to learn only one. It’s a tough gig, and I tend to cut the coaching staff some slack for that reason. I had thought that Nebraska’s speed on defense would still turn things in the Huskers’ favor, but I was wrong. The Big Ten has more speed – or Nebraska has less – than I thought. Had Lavonte David not been on the field, Michigan would have easily scored 60 points against the Big Red.
With the possibility of a Big Ten title game appearance now just a distant memory, Nebraska faces Iowa in the home finale the day after Thanksgiving.
Somebody call a real doctor. Bo Pelini and the team’s training staff have a lot of work to do. We’ll see how resilient the Huskers are. Can they be patched up enough – both physically and psychologically – to make a good showing against the Hawkeyes?
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org