In the final home game of Bo Pelini’s fifth season, irresistible Nebraska and immovable Nebraska were finally able to play football together.
It was a long time coming, but there’s no time like now.
Over the past four-plus years under Pelini, Nebraska has looked title-worthy on defense at times and championship-ready on offense at others. Doing both at the same time? That’s what actually wins titles and the Huskers have typically struggled to do both at the same time.
During Saturday’s 38-14 win over Minnesota, the Huskers looked very, very close to the ideal mix of both.
Yes, it was against Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), a team that got to bowl eligibility without beating a team better than Syracuse (6-5). Yes, it was against a true freshman quarterback. Yes, it was against a team that Nebraska was favored to beat by nearly three touchdowns.
But it wasn’t whom Nebraska beat so much as how. There are a number of statistics that illustrate the dominance but if you want to get to the meat of it, the second quarter is a good place to start.
Nebraska ran 35 plays in the second quarter, gaining 174 yards. Minnesota ran 11 for 6 yards. Of Nebraska’s 35 plays, none of them went for negative yards. Three of Minnesota’s 11 plays in that quarter gained positive yards. The Huskers picked up 12 first downs. The Gophers had one (and 11 in the game). Nebraska went 3-for-4 on third down. Minnesota went 0-for-3. The Huskers only outscored the Gophers by 14-points because Nebraska’s final drive of the first half ended one-yard short of the end zone.
It felt like a quarter five years in the making. If so, the timing was impeccable.
Memorial Stadium said goodbye to 29 seniors on Saturday, 25 of them part of Pelini’s first recruiting class at Nebraska. While there are some who will say it’s taken long enough, it would make for nice storytelling if now is the time that it all came together. It would be proof of “the process.”
Those 29 seniors don’t comprise the most talented team Pelini’s had, but they’re making a strong case for being the best. The Huskers two losses, as ugly as they were at the time, have looked better as the season wore on. UCLA is headed to the Pac-12 title game. Ohio State “won” its division. Against the toughest schedule in the Big Ten — according to rankings guru Jeff Sagarin — the Huskers are in a position to win their division too. It took some luck to get there, but it also took a lot of heart.
Pelini’s been referencing that for the past five weeks. It’s sometimes hard to separate the truth from the easy answer when you’re talking to football coaches. Deciding how much truth to reveal is practically part of their jobs. But there might be something to experience. This team knows disappointment. Most of the major players on this team have had at least one conference title slip through their fingers. Some have had two. Disappointment is woven into the fabric of their Nebraska experience.
But it doesn’t have to define it. One more win will get Nebraska to Indianapolis. A win there, and a conference crown, completes the massive reconstruction of Nebraska football those seniors and Bo Pelini started in 2008.
“(The seniors) called us in in January and said ‘We’re done being average, we’re sick of being 9-4 and losses at bowl games. We want a conference championship and we want bowl victories,’” sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell said after his career-best game on Senior Day.
On Saturday that was ultimately the difference. Nebraska has looked good in phases for parts of the past four seasons. Against Minnesota, the Huskers actually looked like a team that was tired of being average.
It took a while to get there, but it’s a good look.