The story of Nebraska's 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game will possibly never be fully understood, nor will the catastrophic way the Blackshirts fell apart Saturday night in Indianapolis.
How could a battle-tested, senior-dominated defense – one that had been improving each game throughout the second half of the season – make so many fundamental breakdowns so often against a mediocre one-dimensional football team?
The first half was far beyond embarrassing. It was easily the worst half of football during the Pelini era, and it brought back painful memories of the Callahan years, including the infamous homecoming loss to Oklahoma State in 2007. How many Nebraska teams ever allowed two opponents to run for 200 yards in the same game? None until now, as both Heisman candidate Montee Ball and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon surpassed the 200-yard mark. What's more, a third Badger, junior James White, eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
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Gordon averaged almost 40 yards a carry on his first five rushing attempts, all of them jet sweeps that should have worked only once, or maybe twice at most.
It's a shame that a bunch of Husker seniors, who had made great gains in leadership and mental toughness this year, allowed a five-loss Wisconsin team with only nine seniors on its roster to turn them into a laughingstock. I never thought I'd see a Nebraska team collapse like that with Rex Burkhead in the game. Unfortunately, this pretty much wipes out the nation's memory of four great double-digit comebacks by the Huskers this fall.
The players' collapse on the field simply mirrored the one one shown by Bo Pelini, John Papuchis and Tim Beck, who got hammered by the Badger coaching staff. In fact, it was so one-sided that you've got to wonder if Wisconsin played deliberately plain vanilla in overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State while spending a good chunk of its preparation time for the Ohio State and Penn State games working on schemes and trick plays to use against Nebraska. Or did Pelini and his staff just turn in their worst coaching job of the past five years?
It was inconceivable that the Blackshirts, who improved steadily throughout the season and got into the Top 20 on total defense, were completely sliced up by Wisconsin, allowing nearly 400 yards in the first half alone and 550 after three quarters. The final totals were beyond pathetic; NU surrendered 10.8 yards per running play.
A team with the opportunity to win its first conference title in 13 years and go to the Rose Bowl with a realistic shot at beating Stanford, instead gets to face an SEC team in either the Capital One or Outback Bowl. A season that was on the verge of falling apart in mid-October turned into one that was on the verge of being great. Now Pelini and the Huskers settle for "pretty good."
When the emotion dies down a week or so from now, hopefully Husker fans will appreciate some small gains the program made this year, including winning all seven home games and getting back to the 10-win mark. But if Nebraska loses to whatever SEC team it faces Jan. 1 in Florida, a 10-4 mark would be a very small step forward.
Nebraska had everything go wrong that possibly could have gone wrong early in the game, and then the Huskers came apart in every way they could possibly have come apart. The one thing Nebraska did the best in 2012 – getting back up off the deck and punching the other guy in the mouth – totally disappeared, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
Possibly the biggest disappointment to me is that Burkhead was absolutely no factor in the game. That's partly due to Beck's reprise of his 2011 panic job in Madison. Beck once again abandoned the running game in the first half before things got out of hand. Burkhead carried the ball only four times and Ameer Abdullah once in the first half. The Huskers did not line up in their effective diamond formation until they trailed 49-10.
The Husker offensive linemen were sometimes serviceable, but often lousy, especially when pass blocking. They allowed six sacks. Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles took turns being equally ineffective at left tackle.
Taylor Martinez, without pass protection, started to revert to his old habits, losing a fumble and throwing two interceptions. The first – the pick-six on the Huskers' first snap from scrimmage – was Kenny Bell's fault, not Martinez's, but the Husker quarterback made more than his share of mistakes. However he made one of the best runs under the worst of circumstances in the history of the Cornhusker football program, scrambling 76 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to pump life into a silent Nebraska sideline and cut Wisconsin's early lead to 14-7.
The Huskers came as close as 14-10, but the Blackshirts were not equal to the moment. They made every kind of mistake you can make against the running game, taking poor angles, losing containment on reverses and cutback runs, and were flat-out beaten man-to-man at the line of scrimmage. Frankly, at times they looked like they gave up, especially on Ball's 16-yard touchdown sweep midway through the second quarter to make it 35-10.
When I thought about a worst possible early scenario for the Huskers, it was Ball shredding the Big Red between the tackles, not getting torched on the same jet sweep time and time again. It was a flashback to the lack of speed on defense, the same thing that bothered Nebraska in the UCLA game. But it was the poor fundamentals that really raise questions. Defensive ends failed to stay home, linebackers were badly outrun on the edge and defensive backs took poor angles. Over and over and over again.
Pelini was obviously angry and befuddled in his postage press conference, calling his team's defensive effort "unacceptable."
"It was like a leaking boat. We'd get one thing corrected, and then it would show up again," Pelini said. "I've never been part of a game like that. It falls on me. I obviously didn't coach us well enough. I apologize to the team, I apologize to the coaching staff and the fans. It falls on me."
There were no explanations. It was hard to understand less than an hour after the game ended. It will not get much easier in the coming weeks.
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