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Close Encounters

Nebraska was close to walking out of the Rose Bowl with a win over UCLA on Saturday night. It would have been an ugly win – an undeserved win – but that sort of thing happens to good college football teams year in and year out. Teams play poorly overall but make enough plays, maybe just one or two, to survive.

The Huskers were not one of those teams on Saturday. Nebraska hasn’t been one of those teams for a while.

Bo Pelini got Nebraska “close” relatively quickly after the depths of the Bill Callahan era. Nebraska was one play away from a Big 12 title in 2009 and a handful of plays away from another one in 2010.  Of the 17 losses Nebraska now has under Pelini, you could argue that the Huskers were only truly outclassed in maybe two or three of them.

In three of Nebraska’s four losses last season the Huskers were in the game at halftime and self-destructed to various degrees. The Northwestern game qualifies as a “one play away” loss. One more first down, one more stop, one less penalty, one less turnover, and things are different. That list is considerably longer: Virginia Tech (2008, 2009), Texas (2009, 2010), Iowa State (2009), Texas A&M (2010), Oklahoma (2010).

Despite the 653 yards Nebraska allowed on defense — the second most in school history — the Huskers were close against UCLA too. The Huskers under Pelini are almost always “close.” But, as the UCLA game proved yet again, Nebraska isn’t there. Saturday’s loss was the same loss that Nebraska fans have seen for the past four years. Penalties, execution, and inconsistency were principal players yet again in this one. At this point, they’re probably drawing residual checks.

How does Nebraska change that? There were few answers available Saturday.

As the postgame fireworks boomed over the Rose Bowl, Pelini focused yet again on accountability. He pulled out his “point the thumb, not the finger” line. He said he was “embarrassed” by the loss.

“UCLA earned the win,” Pelini said. “We didn’t earn it.”

That’s true, but here’s the thing about accountability: It’s an action thing, not a word thing. It’s more than just recognizing the need to be accountable. Nebraska has always been good at the words part. But, so far, the Huskers haven’t been good on the action front.

It’s impossible to say if things will be different this time. “Doing things differently” was the theme for this team in the offseason and it was forgotten by game two, but there’s still time.

The team’s primary goal of winning the Big Ten is still on the table. Nebraska had a chance Saturday night to separate itself a little from a conference whose reputation had already taken a serious hit earlier in the day with some high-profile losses (Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue) and close calls (Michigan). Instead, the Huskers slid back into the muck with everyone else. That’s been the bigger recurring story of Nebraska football the past five years.

Husker fans view Nebraska football as something that’s singular. Football is the greatest cultural connector in America these days, but the people of Nebraska expect it to set them apart. Having that expectation is part of what sets them apart. It’s why being the head football coach at a remote school on the prairie – far from the natural resources that typically lead to success in the game – is an appealing job.

But it’s not enough on its own.

There’s still time for Nebraska to set itself apart this season. After being close for nearly five years now, it’s time for Nebraska to set itself apart.

That’s going to mean doing some things differently. It’s not a new opportunity — Nebraska has had it before under Pelini – but it is becoming more urgent with each loss, close or otherwise.