Stryker: Will Huskers learn from bowl loss to more talented Southern opponent?

Category: Football

For those of us who say we long for old-time Cornhusker football, at least this game had some familiar themes.

You had an academically high-achieving Nebraska team giving a good effort against a Southern team with more speed and athletic ability, but talent carried the day in Georgia’s 45-31 victory Tuesday in the Capital One Bowl. It reminded me of contests against Florida State and Miami during the 1980s and early 90s, during Nebraska’s seven-game bowl losing streak under Tom Osborne, where the good-citizen Huskers came up short because they were outmaneuvered on jailbreak screens and slant routes, beaten to the edge on running plays or just plain missed open-field tackles.

At the end of the 2012 season, we saw a lot of those themes repeat themselves against Georgia, although NU actually put in a better showing than some of those late 1980s Husker teams. Nebraska had more first downs, outrushed the Dawgs 239-162 and had eight more snaps from scrimmage and 32 minutes of possession, all of which should have kept down Georgia’s scoring. Rex Burkhead rushed for 140 yards and scored two touchdowns in his final game as a Husker, but three long-range scoring passes by Aaron Murray were the difference.

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In 2012, the Huskers made a lot of memories by overcoming their own sloppy play with fourth-quarter comebacks against Big Ten competition, but that type of thing just won’t fly against good teams from the SEC. Nebraska’s three turnovers, eight penalties and two major special-teams errors were very costly. Wouldn’t it have been great for Nebraska to send Tom Osborne out with a victory in his last game as athletic director, or to win a big bowl game for Burkhead? Unfortunately, good intentions usually come in a poor second to execution and talent on the field.

Taylor Martinez, who engineered double-digit comeback wins against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State this fall, couldn’t get the job done against Georgia despite completing 16 of 27 passes for two touchdowns. The Huskers simply couldn’t afford his two interceptions. Martinez, who became only the fourth Husker quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, has not yet produced a conference championship or bowl win. His high-risk, high-reward style is entertaining, but after 39 starts, he is a good – not great – quarterback. That’s partly because he is surrounded by good – not great – players on offense.

How will three consecutive bowl defeats affect Bo Pelini and his coaching staff? Will they learn as much as Osborne and his staff did from their experiences? That remains to be seen. But here’s how Osborne responded: he recruited more speed on defense, and it paid off in a big way.

One of my best friends, Mr. Glass-Is-Two-Thirds-Empty Husker Fan, quickly opined after the game that the Huskers were outcoached. I disagree. Nebraska had a decent plan; it just didn’t have enough good athletes to execute the plan.

Case in point: ineffective blitzes by the Huskers this season. More often than not, Nebraska was burned badly because the blitzes didn’t make it home. Dial back to the mid-1990s – which is the old-time Husker football most of us want to remember – and you’ll recall that about half the time the Huskers blitzed, the result was mayhem – sacks, fumbles, interceptions and bruises for the quarterback. Not so during the Bo Pelini years. Pelini’s blitzes worked when he was defensive coordinator at LSU and he had a wealth of speed on his roster, but generally not in Lincoln, even with an occasional Lavonte David or Prince Amukamara on the field.

Pelini is a fine defensive coach when he has the athletes to carry out his scheme. Right now, he doesn’t. For sure, he needs more speedy linebackers and defensive backs, but the most glaring problem is in the defensive line. He needs to recruit at least one, and probably two, space-eating, run-stuffing, quarterback-sacking linemen because he’s struck out on too many players like Joe Carter, Todd Peat Jr., Jay Guy and Donovan Vestal – players who have not become difference-makers.

In 2013, Pelini and Rick Kaczenski need to get about twice as much production out of Chase Rome and develop either Vincent Valentine, Kevin Williams or Aaron Curry into a solid defensive tackle.

Speaking of the mid-90s, Nebraska sure misses gutsy players like little Barron Miles, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound cornerback who knew how to make a play on the football. Several times against Georgia, Nebraska defensive backs (who have a lot more height than Miles did) were in position to knock down passes, but couldn’t get the job done. The result was a school-record five touchdown passes by Murray, who likely will see the field in the NFL within the next few years.

So it’s another four-loss season for the Huskers – the fifth consecutive time under Pelini. Did the 10-4 Huskers show improvement this year? You can make a good argument either way. I’ll give my take on that question later this month.

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 [email protected].