The flat trend line by Bo Pelini's program leaves me feeling bland. Those four-loss seasons punctuated by blowouts have become irritatingly familiar. Sure, it's nice that Nebraska is one of only five major college programs to win nine or more games over the past five seasons, but the miserable spectacle of the Huskers' crash-and-burn in Lucas Oil Stadium when they botched their golden opportunity to win their first conference title in 13 seasons still leaves me cold.
I think I'm starting to get a bellyful of weak finishes. The Huskers under Bo Pelini are 2-6 in games played Dec. 1 or after, and that losing streak stands at five.
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As I look back at the 2012 season, the sloppy come-from-behind victories were enjoyable, the last-second heroics by Taylor Martinez, Jammal Turner and Ben Cotton memorable. It was a 10-4 season, coming on the heels of back-to-back 9-4 seasons. This is not acceptable anymore; the expectations of Husker fans have risen to pre-Callahan levels.
Technically speaking, I would say that Nebraska's football program showed improvement last year – by the slightest of margins. The main reason is that the Huskers swept their home schedule for the first time since 2001. I think Pelini did a good job of coaching, squeezing 10 wins out of a team that did not have much talent in the defensive front seven. Then again, with everything on the line, Pelini was thoroughly out-coached in Indianapolis.
With national signing day less than two weeks away, everyone is talking recruiting and I'm hopeful the Huskers will land a good class. Pelini had me convinced three years ago that he was building his team around the offensive and defensive lines. Trouble is, there has been very little outstanding production by any lineman signed by Pelini, and an alarming number have been flat-out busts. Eric Martin had some great games, but I'm coming up empty trying to think of any other scholarship lineman who has stood out, even occasionally.
Andrew Rodriguez has been symptomatic of Nebraska's problems with scholarship linemen. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Aurora was the can't-miss in-state prospect who everyone was excited to get, but he has not improved enough to make a difference in the Big Ten. He showed some promise as a guard, but his move to tackle has not been a success. Like his team, the trajectory of Rodriguez has been flat. He enters his senior season with plenty to prove.
On defense, nobody has more to prove than junior DT Chase Rome, who showed courage in coming back to the Husker program after quitting a midseason, but he looked just as unremarkable at season's end as anyone else on the defensive front seven. I'm not counting on much from senior Thad Randle, who battles hard but has a bum knee.
It's hard to get excited about a Husker program whose signature unit, the Blackshirts, has been embarrassed multiple times over the past two seasons. A crop of what surely will be more talented young players is coming up, and I will be interested to see how they look April 6 in the spring game, but it's going to take a long time for many of them to grasp Pelini's two-gap defensive system. Is Pelini flexible enough to devise a way to speed up their learning curve? Will a second year as defensive coordinator be a much-improved one for John Papuchis?
Looking at this fall, even though the schedule gets much easier, it's easy to envision yet another four-loss season with the Huskers losing a squeaker at home to UCLA, then getting routed at Michigan and falling short in the Big Ten Championship and a bowl game, thus closing the door on the Martinez era without a championship. If Michigan runs the table in the Legends Division, though, the Wolverines likely would play back-to-back weeks against Ohio State, which might actually give NU a better shot at a three-loss season.
There's a lot about Pelini and his program that I like – especially the good citizenship, the excellent academics and plain-talking, straight-shooting style Pelini and his coaches use to recruit players. But they have been utterly unable to get the Huskers to play disciplined football. Their turnover margin has been a disgrace over the past three seasons, the Blackshirts are soft against the run and special teams play has slowly gotten worse.
Is it possible that I'm this apathetic about the Huskers less than eight months before newly-remodeled Memorial Stadium will have its first game of more than 90,000 in the stands?
Then again, if Vincent Valentine or Aaron Curry turns into a game-changer by midseason, a couple of linebackers start playing with reckless abandon and at least two of the senior offensive tackles can learn to pass block, I just might get my attitude straightened out. In the meantime, take me out to Haymarket Park.
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