You can say what you want about Bo Pelini's tenure at Nebraska, but it's seldom boring, or without performances that take your breath away right when you were about to start chanting, “Fire Pelini!” What we witnessed Saturday afternoon was a man who found a ten years' worth of luck last year have just a little left over. Check that, a lot of luck in one play. Pelini, for the third year in a row, was outcoached by Pat Fitzgerald, and was heading for an embarrassing loss, blown by a turnover at the end of a half his team dominated. But his walk-on quarterback and a freshmen receiver staged another Pelini-miracle. But like a lot of Pelini-miracles, the miracle was necessitated by Nebraska's poor performance against an inferior team.
So where does that leave us?
Where does this rank among Pelini's late-game heroic wins? The most comparable situation to this game would be Pelini's first big comeback against Colorado in 2008. Back then, Pelini needed a 57-yard field goal to beat Colorado and keep momentum going into the off-season. This time around, Pelini needed a Hail Mary from a third-string, walk-on quarterback to hold momentum to fire him at bay.
Never before have Pelini's late game heroes been as unsung as Ron Kellogg III and Jordan Westerkamp. While Westerkamp has shown he could be productive player, RK3 has the potential to become the poster boy for a new generation of Husker walk-ons looking for that one shining moment.
How bad would this potential loss have been for Nebraska? Even worse when you look at the starting field position. Early this season, I surmised that as long as the Huskers could get the ball around mid-field, or at least get it close, they score 40 a game with ease. In this instance, that theory didn't hold up.
Tim Beck's gang of replacements had drives that started at the Nebraska 37, 42, 40, and 41, the later three in the second half. None of these ended in points. What's even worse was Nebraska had eight drives that reached the Husker 45 or better that did not result in points. These included Pat Smith's 48-yard missed field after Ameer Abdullah lost three yards on a sweep on third-and-two, and a drive that reached the Northwestern 24 when a chop block penalty took the Huskers out of field goal range. Nebraska didn't even have a situation where they could have gone for it on fourth down, other than a 4th-and-5 from the Northwestern 45 in the second quarter. The whole second half, the Huskers were one third down conversion or one fifteen yard play from getting into field goal range and changing the complexion of the game.
How much are injuries to blame for Nebraska's struggles? With half of the major contributors out on offense, including the starting quarterback, two starting offensive linemen, starting tight end, and the two of the top three receivers, at some point continuity issues are going to arise, and you are not as good a team. Last year, the fact that Nebraska didn't have a lot of major injuries outside of Rex Burkhead didn't get enough credit as the reason Nebraska won six straight games and went 10-4. Now that the Huskers are dealing with a lot of injuries, it's fair to attribute some of the struggles (and losses) to Pelini not having a full deck.
How close could Ameer Abdullah be from ending up on that list of injured players? Closer than Pelini, Tim Beck, and all of Husker nation would admit to. Late in the game, Abdullah came out breathing heavily, and at his size, he could be one blow away from spending a game on the sideline.
To Beck and Pelini's credit, they still kept his carries low in a tight game, but Terrell Newby and Imani Cross need to chip in more than 15 yards on 5 carries. (Although kudos to Cross for his excellent block on Armstrong's touchdown run.) This offense, which ran 91 plays Saturday, can't be carried by one running back.
Nebraska's receiving corps may be as deep as any position at Nebraska in the last ten years. Even without Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner, there was no shortage of hands. Quincy Enumwa made up for his bad day in Minneapolis with 6 catches for 65 yards, and Alonzo Moore, Sam Burtch, and of course Westerkamp got downfield to combine for 163 yards on 10 catches. Burtch's two receptions on Nebraska's last-stand drive were critical in setting up Kellogg's Hail Mary that couldn't have been two yards shorter. Beck, please hand the ball off to these guys on reverses if that's what it takes to get them the ball.
Does it matter who starts at quarterback? Tommy Armstrong threw with better accuracy than in his previous starts, but had three more interceptions, albeit two which were on third downs and pretty close to where Nebraska would have punted. Kellogg III stayed within himself on the final drive, but didn't do much before that, other than throw his first interception of the season. Even with that final drive by RK3, neither quarterback gave opposing defenses a reason to be afraid. Also, why didn't anyone from Nebraska's coaching staff, not Pelini, not even Joe Ganz, go up to Armstrong right after he threw what looked like the game's deciding interception?
The reason it may not matter is that Nebraska's offensive plan seems to be based on Abdullah getting to the outside with his speed, and Armstrong fooling defenders and taking off on his own, with an occasional long play action pass. A very limited plan; one would think that after Pelini got burned by so many motions and bootlegs, he would try a few himself.
Is the defense back? The biggest positive for the Blackshirts was that a lot of players were making big hits-Randy Gregory, Avery Moss, Josh Mitchell, Ciante Evan, Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Northwestern had 150 on their first two drives, but finished with only 326 yards. Their longest drive in the second half was 23 yards. And even though Nebraska lost the turnover battle by three, they made their one turnover really count.
Watching my twitter feed, I wonder if there is a fanbase in America who panics like Nebraska's when their defense is not playing well. My read is this: Northwestern, like South Dakota State, is limited on the line, and Nebraska wore them down after after the first few series. Don't expect the same results against Michigan or Michigan State, although be thankful that their offenses tend to be boring as the phone book.
Would Nebraska have been better served losing? Or will this win turn things around? Earlier today, I wondered if a 7-4 Nebraska team would be better served losing to a 6-5 Iowa team, if it got Pelini out and gave more hope to a fan-base who's stuck with college football's most conservative coach for four more years (minimum). The more Nebraska can win games where they make a lot of mistakes, the less they will be forced to change. Not that it isn't spectacular seeing such a great ending, but it's not great if it fosters mediocrity.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.