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December 6, 2008


Four months ago, the Nebraska football team started fall camp. It was hoping to get rid of the bad taste that a losing record and a last-place tie in the Big 12 North leave in your mouth.

So you could say that the 8-4 regular season that that Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers just finished was a much-needed dose of Listerine for the team and its fan base. Winning five of your last six games makes things taste a lot better than they did a year ago. Postseason bowl buffet, anyone?

There's nothing like suffering through bad times to make you appreciate the good times again. That's what is happening right now for the Nebraska fan base, which was spoiled by things like 35 consecutive bowl appearances, 33 consecutive nine-win seasons and a 60-3 record (including three national championships) during a five-year run.

Before Nebraska can get think about regaining those heights, it has to win back its honor as a program, and that project seems to be going well. In fact, things are running slightly ahead of schedule and coming in under budget. Four months ago, nobody expected to see the 2008 Nebraska team playing in a New Year's Day bowl. Not after a 5-7 finish and multiple systems failure on defense in 2007, and a mediocre 44-32 record during the six-year stretch from 2002-07.

A bit of caution is in order here. It looked like Bill Callahan had the Huskers headed in the right direction when he led them to a similar strong finish in 2005, followed by a 9-3 regular season and a Big 12 title game berth in 2006. Will Pelini's successful first season turn out to be the same kind of false positive? Or has Nebraska ended its dry spell?

From here, it looks like NU football is on the way up, with Pelini's team battling for the North division title next fall against Kansas and a much-improved Colorado team, with Missouri tailing off, assuming Jeremy Maclin jumps to the NFL. (Don't forget: all three of those games are on the road.) But that's a topic for another day.

In evaluating the 2008 season, I'm using five indicators that I emphasized in columns last summer: improvement of the defense, the physicality of the team, turnover margin, home-field performance and the ability to overachieve.

Defense: Nebraska's defense improved noticeably in 2008 after a pitiful disappearance the previous fall. Perhaps the biggest symbolic moment of the year came in practice the week after the Kansas game, when Pelini finally awarded Blackshirts to his defensive leaders. There were major breakdowns aplenty throughout the season as players struggled to learn the new system, and the collapses against Missouri and Oklahoma cannot be ignored. But after finishing in the bottom 10 in Division I-A in both total defense and scoring defense in 2007, the Huskers improved to 67th nationally in total defense (367.5 yards per game) and 82nd in scoring defense (29.2 points per game). Down the stretch, NU gave up only 320 yards per game against Kansas, Kansas State and Colorado.

Physicality: When Pelini was hired, he said one of his major goals was for Nebraska to reassert itself as a physical football team, and offensive line coach Barney Cotton has echoed that statement. It's starting to happen. The improved play of guys like Ndamukong Suh, Zach Potter, Matt Slauson, Lydon Murtha and Jacob Hickman sparked the re-emergence of the offensive and defensive lines, which had been NU's major weakness in 2007. Although offensive coordinator Shawn Watson abandoned most of the team's I-formation sets after the Missouri loss and used the short passing game heavily, Nebraska improved its rushing game from its spread formations. The Huskers improved from 144 yards rushing per game (66th nationally in 2007) to 173 per game (37th nationally) without weakening their passing attack. Again, the trend was up at the end of the season, with NU averaging 228 yards on the ground over its last three games, and sophomore Roy Helu shows tremendous promise. Defensively, NU showed dramatic improvement in stopping the run (allowed 125 rushing yards per game, down from 232 per game in 2007) and sacking the quarterback (30 sacks this season, compared to 13 in 2007).

Turnovers: Nebraska made very little progress in this category. The Huskers forced 15 turnovers in 2008, just four more than in 2007, and a far cry from the 47 takeaways Pelini's Blackshirts claimed in 2003. NU's turnover ratio was minus-10 (-0.83 per game) in 2008, compared to minus-17 in 2007, not even in the top 100 nationally either season.

Home field: There is some improvement here. Nebraska finished a respectable 6-2 at home, including a pivotal victory over Kansas and a dramatic win over Colorado, which produced some of the loudest crowd noise since Frank Solich's tenure as coach. Nebraska is definitely not an intimidating team at home yet, but trends indicate that Memorial Stadium will be a tougher place to visit than it was under Callahan.

Overachievment: Defensive backs Lance Thorell and Eric Haag and linebackers Tyler Wortman, Blake Lawrence and Colton Koehler are not physically imposing, but they showed steady improvement and helped the Blackshirts regain respectability. An 8-4 season is better than most observers predicted, considering the tattered condition of the 2007 defense and the Huskers' lack of speed on that side of the ball. The biggest achievement of all – a dramatic improvement in aggressiveness, resilience and mental toughness – falls within this category.

In the year since he was hired, Pelini and his staff have pulled the Huskers out of their tailspin while building for the future by holding back most of his first recruiting class as redshirts who should make a big difference next fall. A good showing against Clemson in the Gator Bowl may not ensure a Top 25 rating, but it would leave the Husker Nation licking its chops thinking about the future.

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