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October 4, 2008


Nebraska doesn't have Bill Callahan to kick around anymore. Not for this loss, this second consecutive one-sided Homecoming loss. Not for a second embarrassing defeat at home on national television in as many years. But the reminders of last season's meltdown were everywhere, unwelcome guests in a season that was supposed to start the road to recovery after Bo Pelini replaced Callahan at the helm of a Cornhusker program that finished 2007 in utter disarray.

Now we'll see if the new superstructure that Pelini is building can withstand the catastrophic storm that just blew through Lincoln. After falling short in a winnable game against Virginia Tech last week, Nebraska was blown out of the water in its Big 12 opener. Missouri gave Pelini and his team a thorough butt-kicking in a 52-17 decision that could have been worse had the Tigers not taken out their Heisman Trophy candidate, Chase Daniel, and the rest of their top offensive players in the fourth quarter.

The Huskers are 3-2 and seemingly in a very vulnerable frame of mind as they head to Lubbock, Texas, for their next game against undefeated Texas Tech, a team that has every bit as good a passing game as Missouri. With a respectable effort in Lubbock, Nebraska could set itself up for a strong finish to the season. But if it falls apart like it did against Missouri, it's hard to tell what will happen.

The Huskers are taking on water and listing badly to starboard. Can Pelini and his staff repair enough of the leaks in time to salvage a winning season? Will some seniors emerge and lead Nebraska to a strong finish?

Missouri proved it is a bona fide top 10 team, and convinced me that it will win the Big 12 North again. Meanwhile, the only encouraging thing that happened for Nebraska was the way Pelini responded to the loss after the game.

He faced a roomful of reporters and took responsibility for the fiasco. He shouldered all the blame. He apologized to his team, and to Nebraska fans.

"It all starts with me," he said. "We got out-coached tonight. We weren't well enough prepared. We got beat and we got beat soundly. I'm the head of this ship and I take full responsibility for it. I have to do a better job. Our staff needs to do a better job to give this team a better opportunity to win. We're making too many mistakes and that's coaching. Once again, it's my fault. If you want to point a finger at somebody, point it at me because I'm not getting the job done."

The man is refreshingly blunt, isn't he? The Callahan era is definitely over.

You can't blame Callahan for the Huskers' inability to mount a pass rush Saturday night, or for their failure to finish offensive drives, or their mind-numbing lack of execution and poise. Fourteen penalties and two turnovers drove most Husker fans out of the stadium by early in the fourth quarter, and caused the Husker fans at home to either fall asleep in boredom or curse at their television sets as their team found new ways to embarrass itself on national television. And to his credit, Pelini is taking responsibility for it.

"I'm not used to losing," he said. "I'm not used to getting beat soundly. Once again, that's my fault. Yes, damn right, yes, I am embarrassed."

Whether Pelini's candor will produce better results on the field in the coming week remains to be seen. This is the type of man that Nebraskans can support, and I trust that they will stay behind Pelini and his team all year.

But you have to admit, the man has not yet proven that he can handle the spread offense, at least not with the level of talent that he inherited this season. And the most distressing trend we're seeing on the defensive side of the ball is this: zero turnovers forced in the last two games. Pelini-coached defenses have always gotten a lot of takeaways.

And here's more bad news: the defense was no worse than the Nebraska offense, which proved it is still a team which has no idea how to run the football against a good team with any consistency. Missouri has a serviceable defense, but not a good one, and yet the Huskers had only 79 yards on the ground in 35 carries, and scored just 10 points until getting a meaningless touchdown on the game's final play. This team will not improve until it figures how to block up front. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and offensive line coach Barney Cotton have a lot of work to do balance out an offense that is completely relying on Joe Ganz's arm to move the team downfield.

If Watson and Cotton are not feeling the heat yet, they soon will. The Huskers will not finish above .500 unless they produce a dramatic improvement in their running game.

The Cornhusker state doesn't have Callahan to blame for NU's utter inability to run the football, although some would point to a Callahan-induced hangover in the scarred psyche of an offensive line that can't understand how to fire out and win battles at the line of scrimmage. The o-line is very experienced on the right side, with center Jacob Hickman, guard Matt Slauson and tackle Lydon Murtha, but the experience doesn't seem to be doing Nebraska much good at the point of attack. Those three need to assert themselves in the locker room and on the field, and the sooner, the better.

The new coach has set the example. We'll see if the players follow him and turn their season around.

"I've never quit anything in my life," said Pelini. "I'm a fighter. We're going to come out fighting. I think that we have character in our locker room. We have to get better as a football team and that's the only way I know how to go about it."

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]. | Archive