During the bye week after a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, the Nebraska coaching staff took time to evaluate its team. Hopefully, there was some serious self-evaluation going on as well.
Well over a million Husker fans also are evaluating. Judging by the e-mail I get, a lot of them are chewing on this question: Has Bo Pelini hit his ceiling as head coach at the University of Nebraska?
The recent evidence does not look encouraging. For the first two and a half years of Bo Pelini's tenure at Nebraska, it felt like the Huskers were slowly getting better. Two years later, the Huskers have sunk into the mushy middle of major college football.
Pelini and the Huskers have missed some good chances to show clear-cut progress along the way, most notably by going minus-3 in turnovers and giving up a 17-0 lead in the final Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma, then enduring a dismal 19-7 loss to the barely respectable Washington Huskies in the 2010 Holiday Bowl (going minus-2 in turnovers), which changed an 11-3 season into a 10-4 finish. The Huskers slid back into the mud of mediocrity.
Everyone remembers the embarrassing road losses to Wisconsin (minus-2 in turnovers) and Michigan (minus-2 in turnovers), but Nebraska still had opportunity for clear-cut progress last year. That all dissolved when 3-5 Northwestern came into Memorial Stadium and upset Nebraska 28-25, the game where the Husker run defense collapsed even though the Big Red was plus-one in turnovers. It was the last time Nebraska was rated in the Top 10 and the only time Pelini has lost at home in the last two years. After a 30-13 Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina (you guessed it, minus-2 in turnovers), Nebraska finished 9-4 – Pelini's fourth consecutive four-loss season.
Two and a half years of climbing followed by nearly two years of sliding. If Pelini and the Huskers are going to gain traction in the Big Ten – and regain some national respect – it's time for a decisive turnaround.
The two-year slide has been marked by serious problems stopping the run, but the biggest issue is turnover margin. The Cornhuskers are 104th this season in turnover margin. Last year, they were 59th. It absolutely has to swing in the Huskers' favor if Nebraska is to become nationally relevant again.
If Pelini is to show clear-cut progress, his opportunity is staring him in the face. The Big Ten is as weak as it's been in a generation. The best team, Ohio State, is ineligible for the title. Now is as good a time as any to make a charge for the Rose Bowl. And the Huskers have a senior-dominated team.
That is most evident on defense, where three of the most athletic – Daimion Stafford, P.J. Smith and Eric Martin – and two of the most experienced – Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith – need to start disrupting and clamping down. Remember the second half of the Wisconsin game? That aggressive surge from the front seven would be welcome again.
They're going up against mobile quarterbacks in Northwestern's Kain Colter and Michigan's Dennard Robinson, the type of situation that has been deadly for the Blackshirts lately. The Wildcats and Wolverines likely will get their 350 total yards of offense, but the Huskers have to make them pay with turnovers along the way. Problem is, this defense has not shown much ability to get takeaways. The last time the Huskers got more than two was the Northwestern game a year ago.
The Huskers need a decisive statement on the road. The last two times they walked off the field after a Big Ten road game, they looked like a mid-major team. That needs to change right away.
In about a year, Nebraska's new athletic director may be doing the evaluating. Will Pelini be trending upward?
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