This is hard to say, but it has to be said. Don't buy into the promotional sound bites produced by Bo Pelini and the HuskerVision staff. Right now, Nebraska does not play tough, physical football. In a discouraging 41-21 loss to UCLA Saturday, Nebraska played leaderless football.
It's puzzling. Nebraska got off to exactly the kind of fast start it indeed to win this game – partly because the Huskers benefited from two lucky breaks. The Big Red had everything going its way, yet was unequal to the task. The Huskers got steamrolled for 38 unanswered points by a tougher, more physical, UCLA team.
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The record crowd of 91,471 was rocking with Nebraska's early 21-3 lead, although there were signs that the Huskers were not really dominating. The Huskers took advantage of a fumbled UCLA punt snap for one of their touchdowns and were fortunate to survive an ill-advised Taylor Martinez option pitch that became a fumble when it was batted away by All-America candidate Anthony Barr.
Then came the epic collapse that will only serve to prop up the widely held perception that Nebraska football is in decline, living off its past glories.
In fact, when it comes to national perception, this game probably downgraded the Huskers from declining to irrelevant. This Husker football team likely will be escorted to the shadowy cheap seats outside the Top 25 come Sunday evening. We'll see if it can fight its way back into the limelight.
The much-balleyhooed black jersey game will always be a reminder of what Nebraska football used to be, but currently is not – focused, disciplined, mentally tough and built around strong offensive and defensive lines. Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future, those attributes will return, but right now, confidence seems scarce in Pelini's program.
When Nebraska was on defense, I wasn't too surprised to see everyone looking around, hoping that someone else would make a big play. However, I was very surprised to see the same thing happening with Nebraska on offense. In his postgame press conference, Pelini acknowledged his team looked like its was playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.
Throughout much of the first half, Nebraska's offensive and defensive lines held up well. UCLA had only 53 yards rushing at halftime, which I thought would foretell a Nebraska win. Somehow, Nebraska found a way to fritter away a tremendous amount of momentum in a shockingly short period of time.
How does a senior-dominated o-line pound out a 17-play touchdown drive, then decide to clock out mentally for the rest of the game? I have to question the leadership and mental toughness of a bunch of seniors who allow themselves to get whipped down the stretch by a good, but not great, UCLA defense.
During the second half, the NU o-line did very little to help its younger counterparts on the Husker defense. Not surprisingly, the inexperienced Blackshirts soon cracked, giving up big chunks of yardage and committing frustration penalties. UCLA finished with 504 yards of total offense, including 210 rushing. For all this, I fault the Husker offense more than the defense.
From here, it looked like the veteran Husker offensive line got punched in the mouth and instead of fighting back, as it did last fall at Northwestern and Michigan State, simply went slinking away. It was not pretty to watch 330-pound senior guard Andrew Rodriguez get schooled and manhandled on a bull rush by 225-pound freshman linebacker Myles Jack, who penetrated the backfield and went right over Rodriguez to knock down a screen pass.
Martinez had his good moments, tossing three touchdown passes in the first half, but often looked dazed and befuddled, making sluggish decisions, misfiring on passes and taking sacks at inopportune times. He avoided throwing an interception, but fumbled twice. He seemed much more confused by the pass rush than did UCLA sophomore Brett Hundley. His postage comments were cryptic and disengaged.
This is a game that Martinez and the veteran Husker offense should have grabbed and run away with. Afterward, Martinez seemed the opposite of the confident, effective leader we heard about from Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck during fall camp.
"In the second half, I got the sense that we needed to hold onto this lead," he said. "I don't know; I think we were trying to. But I think we should have just gone out and tried to blow them out. I don't know."
The Huskers were a miserable 3-for-14 in third down conversions, which was reminiscent of last year's game in Pasadena. For the second season in a row, UCLA's defense shut down the Husker offense in the second half, and for the second season in a row, Hundley showed he is a much better quarterback than Martinez. Martinez will end his career with more stats, but Hundley is a better leader and big-game player. He is better at keeping a play alive.
This was one of the bigger underachieving games in Husker offensive football history. I think it's time to cancel all comparisons to the 1983 Scoring Explosion.
But there's some consolation. Husker fans who were fearful that Beck would get lured away this December to become a head coach elsewhere can rest easy.
Beck seemed bound and determined to pound the Bruins between the tackles, so I wonder why he and Ron Brown didn't let Imani Cross take more of those carries. Abdullah needed 23 carries to get 98 yards, and was often stymied, held to three-yard gains. Cross had 19 yards on only three carries.
If Pelini could have found a way to win this one, I think he would have broken his streak of four-loss seasons. Now that streak likely will continue, unless some much-needed senior leadership returns to the Huskers in a decisive way. There is some promising young talent on defense that will improve over the next two months, but it's going to be hard to get a true reading on this team. The Huskers will be a puzzle, even if they win out from here until they travel to Ann Arbor on Nov. 9.
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