LINCOLN – Walk-on defensive tackle Brodrick Nickens carried the ball on the play that all but sealed Nebraska’s fate in Saturday’s 41-21 loss to UCLA.
Let’s talk about that. It was either a completely questionable choice, one of a couple on Saturday, or the only fitting one.
It wasn’t like Nebraska’s vaunted offense was moving the ball at that point. The defense was reeling from a 21-point barrage by UCLA to start the second half. So why not let a defensive tackle try to pick up two yards on a fake punt?
Nickens didn’t make it, coming up a couple inches short. The Bruins went on to score a touchdown, their fourth of the third quarter, and take a 17-point lead. Just 15 minutes of game clock earlier, the Huskers had an 18-point lead.
It was a remarkable swing but symbolic of these schizophrenic Nebraska teams of a recent vintage. What went wrong? The usual things – missed tackles, a really brutal turnover, lack of execution, players not making plays. It’s becoming a familiar list.
“We got beat in every phase of the game in the second half,” head coach Bo Pelini said. “We showed a little bit of what we’re capable of as a football team in the first half, but in the second half we got away from fundamentals. It’s nothing magical.”
That’s a true statement. There is nothing magical about football fundamentals.
But there is a certain magic to coaching. To coaxing maximum effort out of players. To helping them perform way beyond any reasonable expectation for a 19-year-old. To limiting mistakes. To recognizing them. To fixing them.
It’s not an easy job. That’s why the best coaches get their own statues outside of stadiums and the less-than-best end up sitting in broadcast booths on Saturdays. And on that scale, going nowhere – being average — is a lot closer to the latter than the former. It’s getting harder and harder to argue that’s not where Nebraska’s at right now.
Pick a loss over the past five years, any loss really, and you’ll see a lot of the same things. Those losses aren’t magical either – the Huskers just got beat — but it would be better for Nebraska fans if a few of them were. A little bad luck, maybe a different problem in year two from a problem in year six.
But no, it’s the sameness of these losses that’s shocking. Sure, maybe this one felt different for a bit. There was the first quarter where Twitter was buzzing with comments, both local and national, of Nebraska’s dominance. It got familiar really quick.
Over the final three quarters of Saturday’s game, Nebraska had 213 total yards. That’s 26 less than UCLA had during its four-touchdown barrage in the third quarter. The mistakes multiplied for Nebraska, desperate decisions became more and more apparent, the Huskers fell further and further behind. Familiar story, familiar results.
And familiar post game answers too.
“When things started going the other way on us we lost a sense of what our job was,” Pelini said. “Some of the basic things that we were doing through one quarter, two quarters, two-and-a-half quarters, we stopped doing. You have to able to refocus and keep your composure to do your job and execute your football.”
So where’s the environment that makes that sort of composure and execution compulsory? That’s not the environment at Nebraska now and hasn’t been for a while. And that’s what coaching is — creating the environment that produces the results you want to see on the field.
A lot of different coaches have done it a lot of different ways. It’s not sorcery but it’s not science either. Creating that specific blend of recruiting, scheme, skill and craft is hard. It’s a little magical when you think about it.
And as Saturday revealed, there was nothing magical about Nebraska. Again.