Bo Pelini's face said it all in his "presser" following Friday's 20-7 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the first annual "Hickoff Classic" in Lincoln. A subdued Pelini looked more relieved than excited that his team had just won. And with good reason.
To be sure, this has been a long season. A very long season. His team is beat up. Some of his best players either couldn't play Friday or were hobbling on and off the field.
This November has been a rough stretch for the Huskers, going 2-2. Prior to this month, Pelini's three-year November record at Nebraska is 10-2 for a 83.3% win rate. His only losses came in a 28-62 blowout at Oklahoma in '08 and a 6-9 setback last year at Texas A&M.
WOLVES AT THE DOOR
Two of the three Husker losses this year were on the road, at Wisconsin 17-48 in October and this month in a mistake-filled contest at Michigan 17-45. Those two blowout losses to conference foes, coupled with the unexplainable home loss to lowly Northwestern (25-28), have caused the wolves to start nipping at Bo's heels. A loss Friday would have further empowered his detractors and may have led some to doubt Pelini's ability to restore the Husker football team to national prominence.
Sitting at 9-3 is a TON better than going 8-4. Lose to Iowa, and shades of last year's 1-3 season-ending fade would have reared its ugly head. With a bowl win, Nebraska can still reach last year's 10-game win total, but a blowout loss in that game would be hard to take going into the offseason. (It's also good to note that Frank Solich was fired after his team had an identical 9-3 regular-season record in 2003.)
So you wanted style points Friday? There weren't many, but you have to marvel at Rex Burkhead's record-setting performance (38 carries) and Lavonte David's big plays that helped Nebraska keep its distance from the Hawkeyes. Husker fans should feel fortunate that Nebraska won nine games this year. Remember it was just a few years ago (2007) that Bill Callahan's last team won only five games and went bowl-less for the second time in his four-year tenure at Nebraska.
Husker fans looking for answers why their team isn't playing in this Saturday's B1G Ten Championship game in Indianapolis needn't look too far. Truthfully, as beat up as the Huskers are right now, preparing for Wisconsin this week would have been daunting. Another crippling blowout loss in that game would not be good for this football program. It's similar to the 2001 Husker team that should never have played for the NC in the Rose Bowl against Miami. (That loss, coupled with the blowout defeat at Colorado that same year, derailed the program and it still has yet to recover.)
Nebraska needs to get healed up and rested. This has been a long season, and having more than a month off should pay big dividends come bowl time in January.
The following observations aren't meant to be excuses for a season cut short of playing for a league title, but here are some things Husker fans need to realize before they get too upset with Nebraska's record:
Yes, every team gets them, especially this time of the year, but the Husker losses have been especially difficult this year. Heading the list was preseason All American and All Big Ten DT Jared Crick, who was lost early in the season. It was a M*A*S*H unit for much of the year for Nebraska. Constantly juggling the lineup helped foster inconsistent play which plagued the Huskers most of the year.
The loss of NFL picks Prince Amukamara, Dejon Gomes and Eric Hagg had a much greater impact on this year's defense than many (including me) thought.
Nebraska faced three new nonconference opponents and eight new conference opponents for the first time since who knows when.
*TIM BECK II OFFENSE
The Tim Beck II Offense (not to be confused with Timbuktu, a West African town in Mali) was a work in progress this year. The low point was at Wisconsin. Since then, Beck has called good games and should only get better as he continues in that role at Nebraska.
With the loss in the offseason of Mike Ekeler (LB), Marvin Sanders (DB), Ted Gilmore (R) and Shawn Watson (OC), Nebraska added some new faces to its coaching staff. Ross Els replaced Ekeler, Corey Raymond for Sanders and Rich Fisher for Gilmore. John Garrison was promoted from grad assisstant (OL) and Watson was replaced by Tim Beck, who switched from RB coach to OC. And longtime Husker assistant Ron Brown switched from receivers coach to RB coach. Players had to adapt to new coaches, different styles, different schemes, terminology etc. (In his five years at Nebraska, Husker senior safety Austin Cassidy went through two different ADs, two head coaches, three position coaches and two conferences.)
HUSKER DAN'S ARMY
If you know of a trooper who is deployed in the Middle East, now is the chance for you to send him/her (and no cost to you) a Husker Care Package, courtesy of Husker Dan's Army. For about 7 years, HDA has been sending boxes filled with Husker memorabilia to troopers who register with us. HDA began in response to a soldier stationed in Iraq who wrote me, asking if I could help him get Husker apparel he could hand out to the Iraqi children as part of a gesture of good will.
The response was overwhelming. He got boxes from a family in Irvine, California, another one from a man in New York City, another from Minneapolis. The boxes kept coming and coming. Finally, he wrote, asking if I could tell Husker fans to stop sending any more boxes! At that point, we realized two things: the power of the Internet and the generosity of Husker fans.
We knew that if we could raise money and find some way to coordinate the project, there was the potential to send Care Packages directly to troopers. But who would be willing to take on the project?
This is where Gary McGirr, president of the Northeast Kansans For Nebraska in Topeka, Kansas, comes in. I told Gary that I would be willing to use this column to solicit donations, but I didn't want to get in the middle of handling money or coordinating the process. So Gary's group stepped up to the plate.
Then I wrote about HDA and a couple of weeks later, we received our first check from Betty Walker, a longtime rabid Husker fan who was living in Lincoln, California, at the time. (She has since passed away.) And that's when HDA became official. (We have set up a scholarship in Betty's name at UNL.)
THE RED ZONE
Gary got the help of the Red Zone in Omaha to provide the Husker items at discounted prices and handle all the shipping and handling of the boxes.
Since HDA began, we have provided a touch of home to many US troopers deployed in the Middle East.
Gary also sought the help of HuskerVision at UNL to send Husker game day DVDs to those who also register with us. All we need is the trooper's name, email address, APO address and length of deployment and we'll get a Husker Care Package to the trooper ASAP. My daughter, Kelly, now coordinates the project.
Please send us the necessary information and we'll do our best to try to get the packages there by Christmas. Write me at HuskerDan@cox.net.