Where Another Big Husker Helping Hand is Needed
When Bo Pelini did the EPSN car-wash of interviews this summer, he sounded exhausted and unengaged doing Nebraska football's biggest publicity opportunity of the year. My mind went back to December of 2011, where I had thought that Pelini should have hired an elite defensive coordinator to replace his brother Carl and take some of the burden off himself as the head coach. At the time I though such a move would finally get Nebraska football over the proverbial hump and back into the Top 10 on a more consistent basis.
<div style="float:left; text-align:right; width:400px; max-width:400px; margin:0 20px 10px 0;">
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
</div>On Saturday, Pelini once again paid the price for taking on too much responsibility.
Nebraska football got humiliated again on Saturday, and while that is nothing new, something seems to have shifted. Unlike the routs in Madison and Ann Arbor in 2011, games where Nebraska clearly outgunned, the Huskers had every reason to believe football fortunes were in their favor Saturday. They had two short drives setup by a turnover and a fake punt respectively. A replay overturns a field goal. First downs by penalties. The Huskers were making headway on both lines of scrimmage, and for a second, Nebraska's return to national respect was dangling out there. Fortune said to them, “Here's the game, jump up and take it!”
But in one quarter, UCLA made a mockery of Nebraska's offense that was working brilliantly six years ago when Kansas was using it to help push Bill Callahan out the door. The Bruins ran the no huddle a team is supposed to in 2013 -- a snap in 17 seconds, not waiting for the quarterback to do a dog-and-pony show. Nebraska's offense did what they did in Indianapolis last December -- they went into a shell, while Pelini blitzed and called fake punts two series after he should have. It was alarming to see Nebraska run out the clock at the end of both of halves and not even try to make a point.
Yes, I was wrong two weeks ago when I told all of you not to worry. Granted, most of the Big Ten will not be able to exploit Nebraska the way UCLA did. It's not like Michigan State runs their offense with the same kind of pace, although the Spartans (and Purdue) have the luxury of a bye week before they play Nebraska, as UCLA did.
But back to Pelini. In his first five years, he had slightly more wins than Tommy Bowden or Kirk Ferentz had in any five year-stretch at Clemson and Iowa respectively. The former hot assistant coach is the mirror image of his current quarterback: amazing numbers against the mediocre teams while not intimidating big boys (see the quotes by UCLA's Anthony Barr after yesterday's game or Wisconsin's David Gilbert last year). An 8-4 season could justify a firing, but given the Pelini's consistent track record it would be worth it to match Pelini with an experienced defensive coach. This is not a call for John Papuchis to be fired, but it looks so cheap for a major program like Nebraska to have one of the youngest coordinators in college football. Pelini needs an old faithful hand to entrust with the defense while he manages the team like Ron Zook, Gene Chizik, or, should he be fired by Illinois, Tim Beckman. That's the dream list, but all of them would command at least an annual salary of a million or more. A more realistic dream candidate would be Ohio defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow.
I've read on Twitter that Pelini will never fire one of his boys, and that may be true. But let's consider something else: Tom Osborne said he fired two assistants in twenty-five years, and desired strongly that Pelini keep Shawn Watson on when Osborne hired Pelini. Frank Solich, like Pelini, kept assistants a year longer than he should have. What's to say that Osborne, even though he's no longer AD, doesn't encourage Pelini's loyalty to his assistants and promoting from within, rather than plucking experienced, successful coordinator from the MAC or Conference USA?
But nobody wins in football, college or pro, without elite assistants at their sides. Look at why Brett Bielema dumped Wisconsin. Even if Scott Frost, or another hot candidate, agrees to come home and save his alma mater, it will not matter if he does not have better assistants than Pelini does now. As long as the program does not self-destruct down the stretch, it's worth it to let Pelini try again for another year with new assistants. For the pressure Nebraska puts on its head coach, it owes said great assistants to help him succeed.