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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
January 1, 2009

When Bo Pelini was hired as head coach, Cornhusker fans around the nation hoped that he would bring back the Blackshirts.

He did. And he brought back much more. He restored the identity of a football program.

Somewhere along the way, the Huskers assumed the personality of their head coach. So is it a real surprise that less than a week after the death of his father, a coach with passion and guts presided over one of the gutsiest, most magnificent victories in Nebraska bowl history?

Pelini and a cast of overachieving players took just one season to restore the pride in the Nebraska football program. He became the fourth head coach at NU to win nine games in his first season. You may recognize the other three: Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne and Frank Solich.

Pelini squeezed about as much as anyone could have gotten out of a team that was dispirited and directionless after it finished the 2007 campaign, finishing with a vintage Nebraska win over a preseason top-10 team that has several NFL-caliber athletes

They did it by doing exactly what Cornhusker football teams need to do year-in and year-out to compete nationally – get major contributions from little-known Nebraska players to beat a team with better overall talent.

The most resilient Nebraska football team in recent memory could not have defeated Clemson without major contributions from walk-ons and scholarship players alike. Todd Peterson of Grand Island Central Catholic pulled in a 19-yard touchdown pass. Omaha Burke's Alex Henery kicked four field goals. Lincoln Southwest's Ty Steinkuhler had six tackles, including two for losses and one sack.

Bellevue East's Matt O'Hanlon had six tackles, and broke up a potential game-winning pass in the end zone on Clemson's final drive. Creighton Prep's Zach Potter had four tackles and broke up a pass, and Tyler Wortman of GI Central Catholic made four tackles and Harvard's Colton Koehler helped hold the Husker defense together in the absence of starting middle linebacker Phillip Dillard.

Pride oozed from the Nebraskans on the field in the spirit of the NU Band Song: "Sons of Old Nebraska / If someone should ask ya, we're the Scarlet and the Cream."

It turns out that a Big 12 defense really can play, after all. Especially if it has junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who made eight tackles, including two sacks and two others for loss, and blocked a field goal.

Sure, it helps to have a little help from outside the state, too. An extremely athletic 6-foot-4, 300-pound product of Oregon, Suh raised his NFL stock tremendously with this nationally televised performance. He has said he plans to remain in Lincoln for his senior year to get his degree, but millions of Nebraska fans won't rest easy until the deadline to declare for the NFL draft has come and gone.

Nate Swift, a Minnesota native, caught the final touchdown pass of a memorable Husker career and Californian Rickey Thenarse blocked a punt to set up a field goal.

And then there's Joe Ganz, whom the phrase "erratic but gritty" was invented for. The senior quarterback from the suburbs of Chicago personally handed Clemson its first 14 points with two devastating turnovers after he was rattled by the pressure he got from the speedy, athletic Tiger defensive front.

Ganz did what he has done all season – he got up, put his mistakes in the past, and kept his focus after the Huskers went to the locker room trailing 14-3. In the second half, Ganz threw two TD passes and had several other key completions to keep the Husker offense moving forward. Nebraska scored the game's final 16 points and Ganz, who was knocked out of the game by a vicious hit but came back to finish it, was named Gator Bowl MVP.

"He epitomizes what this team is," said Pelini. "He had some bad things happen to him in the first half. A lot of kids who aren't as strong and don't have as much character would have wilted in that kind of circumstance, but Joe just kept going, the same way the rest of the team did. They don't panic. They don't point fingers or feel sorry for themselves. They just keep playing."

On defense, Nebraska held Clemson to only 4 yards rushing – thanks to five sacks of quarterback Cullen Harper – and 210 total yards. The highly touted "Thunder-and-Lightning" running back tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for just 49 yards of total offense.

Clemson converted only four of 19 times on third and fourth down, and seemed out of sync for most of the second half.

The NU defense, which struggled with inconsistency all season, had only one major bust. Clemson receiver Jacoby Ford split Husker defensive backs Armando Murrillo and Larry Asante and scored on a 41-yard touchdown play to give the Tigers a 21-10 lead with 10:06 left in the third quarter. It was the only touchdown the Clemson offense earned all day.

Clemson had one final shot to win the game, and moved to the Husker 10-yard line with less than two minutes to play, but Bo and Carl Pelini dialed up a trifecta of blitzes, and the pressure kept the Tigers out of the end zone. Nebraska got it done when it counted in a state filled with top-notch high school football talent.

"We're going to have high, high standards in this program," said Pelini, who improved his record as a head coach to 10-4 (2-0 in bowls) with the 26-21 win.

The departing seniors of 2008 helped build a strong foundation for the future of Nebraska football. But more importantly, they teamed up with their new coach to give it back its soul.

 

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 tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive

 
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