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C O M M E N T A R Y
T A D    S T R Y K E R
October 13, 2009

 
A team tends to become like its head coach, and Nebraska is starting to look more like Bo Pelini. It’s a good thing, because having tasted a small amount of success on a national stage with a come-from-behind 27-12 win in rain-soaked Columbia, Missouri, the Cornhuskers are ripe for that dreaded pitfall of sports — falling in love with themselves.

Just as no one thinks that he’ll go out and have an automobile accident today, no team thinks that self-infatuation will happen to it — but it often does. Luckily, Pelini seems to have been born to keep a team from doing that.

Pelini’s standard press conference line — “We’re not where we need to be yet” or some variation of it — will come in very handy if the team buys into it.

There is one puzzling thing about seeing the Huskers being remade into Pelini’s image. Which image will be the one that eventually becomes the face of this team? Will it be the resilient, mentally tough persona? Or will it be the penalty-prone profile?

These are somewhat contradictory lifestyles, and they cannot both exist together for long. One must eventually give way. That is, unless you want to live a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, which frankly has typified Missouri football for many years. The Tigers have a great recruiting base and often have enjoyed as much or more talent than Nebraska over the years, but they have problems with consistency.

On one hand, in 2008 we saw the Huskers fighting back from disappointing losses to play some of their best football we’ve seen out of them in years. For 45 minutes at Columbia last week, we saw Nebraska look terrible on offense and stink up the joint with its kicking game, but refuse to quit, and then take control of the game in the fourth quarter.

On the other hand, we saw the Huskers lose to Virginia Tech for two years in a row, largely because of some untimely penalties. There were episodes of the same bad medicine — usually in the form of personal fouls on defense or false starts by the offensive line — that showed up against Missouri. The Huskers committed 12 penalties for 108 yards, and were lucky that Missouri also had problems focusing in the downpour (eight penalties for 100 yards).

Back in late November 2007, just after Bill Callahan drove away from Memorial Stadium for the last time, one of the arguments against hiring Pelini was that he was too fiery and wouldn’t be able to control his temper on the sidelines. There was evidence of that last season, but it seems to be subsiding.

 
Will the team’s erratic behavior also subside? In Callahan’s last season, Nebraska was penalized an average of 6.4 times for 42 yards per game. In 2008, those numbers increased to 7.2 and 62 yards, and this year they are up to 7.8 penalties and almost 70 yards per game. Those figures are currently in the bottom 25 percent of all major-college teams.

One mitigating factor to consider: Big 12 teams seem especially penalty-prone this season. The four most penalized teams in the nation are all from Big 12: No. 117 is Colorado, No. 118 Texas A&M, No. 119 Oklahoma State and at the very bottom, No. 120 Texas Tech. Are Big 12 officials just more picky than their brethren from other conferences?

The Nebraska coaching staff seems to realize it still has work to do in this area.

“I think every position on the team has got to focus, got to do their job and got to focus,” said receivers coach Ted Gilmore said after practice Monday.

“Every position has had their share of stalling out and if we’re going to take the next step and do what we’ve got to do to become a good football team, that’s got to stop. That’s something that’s being preached and echoed every single day. But when they’re out there between the lines and we’re not there standing behind them, they’ve got to do it. We’ve got to continue to talk about the mental toughness, just focusing in and dialing in on what’s been asked of them to do.”

Will NU’s recent penalty binges at Blacksburg and Columbia prove to be valuable learning experiences, or just symptoms of an ongoing problem?

“Hopefully, they look at those things and when we’re talking to them, when we put those situations in front of them, that they listen, and they buy in,” said Gilmore. “And more importantly, it’s got to become a part of their bloodstream. Otherwise, every week, we’re talking about these things.”

A team that gets satisfied with itself soon becomes the Flavor of the Month, doomed to join the Louisvilles and Illinois and North Carolinas of the NCAA world. The answer to one of college football’s biggest questions — Is Nebraska really back? — hinges on whether or not the Huskers become infatuated with themselves.

That’s where Pelini comes in. I don’t think he’s a flavor-of-the-month type of coach. The man seemingly is never satisfied. That attitude should in handy during a week like this after what seems like a big win, but is actually only a fairly big win. A reality check — Mike Leach’s aerial circus — comes to town this Saturday.

 

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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