The most famous prizefight in the history of Ohio happened in Toledo on July 4, 1919. Jack Dempsey beat Jess Willard that day and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
For about 23 minutes of Nebraska’s 63-38 loss to Ohio State Saturday night, people thought they were watching a heavyweight fight. Two equals taking swings.
The Buckeyes delivered the first big punch, intercepting Taylor Martinez and returning it for a touchdown. Then the Huskers responded with a flurry of punches and 17 unanswered points. Braxton Miller hit back. So did Kenny Bell, punching the Buckeyes twice – on one run – right in the mouth. Ohio State got in the last few blows before halftime and after that they never stopped punching.
In retrospect, Saturday’s football game wasn’t a great heavyweight fight. It was Dempsey-Willard II – a beat down.
In the original, Dempsey actually left the ring after knocking Willard down in the first round, thinking he’d won. When he learned that he hadn’t, Dempsey came back to pound on Willard some more, beating him so savagely that fight fans questioned whether Dempsey had plaster in his gloves. Willard, to his credit, earned plaudits for fighting until he couldn’t answer the bell.
It’s hard to feel the same way about Nebraska’s effort over the final two and a half quarters against the Buckeyes. When asked if he felt the Huskers hadn’t played with enough effort, Bo Pelini offered this response: “I don’t think we played,” then he paused and changed gears, “it looked that way for the last three quarters.”
A few weeks ago a similar question about Nebraska’s “want-to” and its relation to the tackling woes at UCLA drew Pelini’s ire. This answer? The entire feel of the post game press conference? It was resigned.
After yet another big loss in a high-profile game – some of it self-inflicted, some of it not – the Huskers are once again searching for answers. That part of Saturday’s loss is painfully familiar for Nebraska fans. The difference this time is that nobody was offering any.
No process. No fixing us. No pointing the thumb. Just shock and disappointment.
Pelini on Nebraska’s tendency to shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers on the road: “We’ve been here before. We’ve done it before on the road and that’s the most disappointing thing. (We) talk about it, talk about it and talk about it. Believe me, I’m frustrated and I’m disappointed.”
Pelini on why that continues to happen: “I don’t know. I wish I knew and it doesn’t happen at home. We practice with crowd noise every day — every single day — and it hurts us. It hurts you in a situation like that.”
Martinez on why a team with so many senior leaders and upperclassmen continues to be its own worst enemy: “I’m not really sure. I couldn’t answer that.”
Nebraska now has a week off to find some of those answers. Answers that haven’t come in the previous four seasons. The party line after the loss was “win out.” Win out and get to Indianapolis.
It’s possible in a conference that may – given Ohio State’s ineligibility – have no teams ranked in the coaches’ poll on Sunday. Winning the Big Ten in a year like that won’t gain much respect on the national scene – the thing Husker fans crave and what keeps getting lost in big games like the one just played — but it’s what’s available to Nebraska right now.
It would be an achievement given Nebraska’s recent history, but it will require something different. And that was the disappointing thing about Saturday night – the sameness.
After that fight in Toledo in 1919, Jack Dempsey went on to reign as the world champ for the next seven years. The Buckeyes might be on a similar path. Ohio State took another step towards becoming the class of the conference as most expected the Buckeyes would under Urban Meyer.
Nebraska? The Cornhuskers remained what they’ve been – an occasionally exciting but often maddening football team.
Jess Willard went into semi-retirement following his loss to Dempsey. No more title bouts, only exhibitions.
It was nearly four years before he returned to the professional ring, fighting on the first day of boxing in the newly opened Yankee Stadium. At age 41, he won his return to big-time fighting.
Nebraska doesn’t have that long to figure things out, to work up a plan, to get back in the ring, to find some answers. The Huskers have a week.
But they could learn something from Willard’s example. Even though he lost to Dempsey, and lost badly, nobody ever said he wasn’t a fighter.