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October 11, 2008


It's Columbus Day weekend, and Nebraska is 3-3.On September 18, I predicted that Nebraska would be 4-2 right now, having just finished a tough three-game stretch by winning one and losing two against Virginia Tech, Missouri and Texas Tech. This is not a Top 25 team, nor will it get much attention from the national media anytime soon.

But I was right about one thing back in September. The Cornhuskers are set up now to finish this season on a strong note after their gutsy 37-31 overtime loss at Lubbock, Texas.

This was something that Nebraska football fans were looking for from Bo Pelini – an inspired, overachieving performance against a team with superior talent. This played out like a Nebraska-Oklahoma game between 1974 and 1980, with the Cornhuskers usually coming up a little short after playing their guts out. Undersized walk-on players like freshman linebacker Matt Holt of Lee's Summit, Mo. (eight tackles) and redshirt freshman defensive back Lance Thorell of Loomis (five tackles) battled hard all day, keeping NU within striking distance.

The Huskers did it without their defensive leader, senior linebacker Cody Glenn, who saw very little playing time due to injury. They also suffered injuries – hopefully minor ones – to Philip Dillard, Rickey Thenarse and Prince Amukamara.

The Red Raiders (6-0) were rated No. 7 in the nation coming into the game, and were 20½-point favorites. Their offense is among the most potent in college football, featuring quarterback Graham Harrell and All-American wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who became Tech's all-time touchdown reception leader in his sophomore season. Harrell and Crabtree have more touchdown combinations than any other duo in Big 12 history.

But from the opening series of the game – an impressive stop by the beleaguered Nebraska defense – it was evident that the Big Red would keep the Raiders off balance.

Who would have predicted that Texas Tech would punt more times (twice) than Nebraska (once) in this game? The Huskers outgained Tech 471-421 and had 29 first down to Tech's 16, and went 7-for-12 on third-down conversions. Nebraska blocked Tech's extra-point kick in overtime to set up a possible win. There was a lot to like about this game.

It was a game that featured a decent effort by the Husker offensive line – 114 yards rushing is not impressive, but it's an improvement. It was a game where Pelini gambled on a fake field goal and won, setting up a touchdown.

I would have preferred to see the Huskers try to continue to run the ball in overtime, but there's no chance to replay Nebraska first-ever overtime loss after five consecutive wins.

So now the question is this: is this a Nebraska team that's on the way up? Or is it the team that we saw last year that came close to springing an upset against Texas in Austin, but came out flat against beatable teams like Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Colorado?

The next two weeks – a road game at Iowa State and a home game against Baylor – will supply more answers. They are two must-win games for Pelini if he is to get Nebraska into a bowl this fall.

It appears that this team is going in the right direction. Saturday, it looked like a resilient bunch. It is becoming mentally tougher. It is learning how to finish drives; now it needs to learn how to finish games against good teams. This is a team in rebuilding mode. There's no denying Pelini and his staff need to recruit more talent in the coming years. But the Huskers are rebuilding their confidence right now, which is just as important.

Pelini and Watson's strategy – keep the explosive Raider offense on the sideline with time-consuming Husker drives – worked well. You have to give the coaching staff an A in clock management – Nebraska had 40 minutes of possession time, and finished most of its drives with points. The most disappointing aspect of the game was the continued problem with penalties.

The Big Red was flagged eight times for 55 yards, and none were more important than the two holding calls against left tackle Mike Smith that took the Huskers out of field goal range in the final moments of the first half, after Niles Paul put them in scoring position with a spectacular 69-yard kickoff return. Alex Henery's 53-yard attempt against the wind fell just short, and against a team with superior talent, mistakes like that cost ballgames.

So do missed opportunities. Junior safety Larry Asante let a tipped ball slip through his fingertips in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 24. If Asante holds onto the ball, Harrell doesn't have a chance to make a dramatic 47-yard pass to Crabtree on fourth-and-four and set up a go-ahead touchdown.

The Huskers have not forced a turnover for three games. They got no sacks against Tech. They need to force multiple turnovers and sacks against Iowa State and Baylor.

Best news of the day: Nebraska has a coaching staff that has enough humility of spirit and flexibility of mind to admit that it needed to change its strategy. Pelini decided that the Huskers should scale back on their playbook and tailor the offensive and defensive schemes to better fit his players' abilities. Can you imagine that happening under Bill Callahan? Neither can I.

Pelini will overcome the Callahan hangover and will pull Nebraska out of its long slide into mediocrity. It's just a matter of time. Whether it's sooner or later depends on how the Huskers handle games like the next two and a pivotal one against Kansas coming up on Nov. 8.

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