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November 20, 2010

Plenty of embarrassment and incompetence to go around

In the middle of a pressure-cooker environment at College Station, Texas, with the Twelfth Man closing in all around him, with the Big 12 officiating staff working overtime against his team, Bo Pelini couldn’t handle the pressure.

Pelini came unglued on the sideline, and he took his team down with him. This was boilover, and it happened multiple times. Finally, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, but by that time, his undisciplined behavior filtered down to his players. Nebraska, with a chance to clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game, did not give up a touchdown, but had nearly three times more penalties than points and lost 9-6 to Texas A&M.

It was a bad night for the Cornhusker players. They played hard, but were let down by their head coach and jobbed by the officials. A 16-2 disparity in penalties is inexcusable, especially when Texas A&M came into the game as a more penalized team than the Huskers.

It was ridiculous – 16 penalties for 145 yards. Both are school records for the Huskers. Don’t get me wrong. Nebraska deserved a lot of those yellow flags. But in the second half, the officials took over and they decided the game’s outcome.

Here’s where it gets a little murky. Did Pelini crack because of the officials’ bad calls? Or did the officials make bad calls because Pelini cracked, and they got a bellyful of his sideline antics? Hard to tell, but one thing’s for sure: Pelini lost control of himself.

It was a tough enough night for the Huskers without suffering an extra helping of adversity from the 40- and 50-year-olds on the field. NU center Mike Caputo got manhandled by A&M defensive tackle Eddie Jones, who threw him back five yards behind the line of scrimmage. An off-balance Caputo stepped on Taylor Martinez’s tender right leg, and re-aggravated his injury. The redshirt freshman was simply not himself the rest of the way, and Cody Green was ineffective filling in for him during the second quarter. Without good quarterbacking, the Husker offense looked lost at times.

The good thing is that everyone kept fighting through the adversity, and that’s a credit to the fighting spirit that Pelini has built into this team. In fact, with the exception of the offensive line, which self-destructed time and time again with critical penalties and was outplayed by the Aggie defensive front, it was a courageous performance by the Huskers. But unfortunately, the worst in Pelini came out on this night in front of the Saturday prime-time television cameras. The Huskers had a lot of adversity to overcome – and a lot of it was caused by their head coach.

It was an embarrassing night for the Big 12, which provided evidence that it is trying to keep Nebraska from leaving with a conference title. It was a disgraceful performance by Pelini. It was a disgraceful performance by the conference officiating crew, which looked to be dead set on making it a miserable game for the Nebraska defense. Let’s just say I’m skeptical that the Aggies never held the Blackshirts all night long.

The Aggies, who had been averaging nearly nine penalties a game, suddenly became choirboys. A&M was penalized twice for 10 yards.

A laughable roughing-the-passer call against NU safety Courtney Osborne was the difference in the game. It came after an incomplete third-down pass and extended the drive that gave A&M the winning points with three minutes left. The officials called the penalty because they were ticked off at Pelini and decided to give him the shaft. Either that, or they just made an incompetent call.

Nebraska had not had a good year with penalties, and Pelini’s main shortcoming has been his failure to get this problem corrected. But Saturday night, he became the problem. He’s always fiery and emotional, but usually he has been able to keep it under control. Not since the first loss of his career – against Virginia Tech in 2008 – has he been flagged for his sideline behavior.

Pelini has done great things with the Nebraska football program, but now he has made a lot of trouble the Huskers by establishing a reputation as a loose cannon on the sideline. It’ll take a long time to change it.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson did not have a good night. He couldn’t figure out a way to speed up Nebraska’s offensive pace, and in fact, seemed slow getting the plays called. Green was having enough problems of his own without having to wait for plays to be sent in.

Possibly Watson’s worst moment was in the fourth quarter, when Nebraska could only manage a game-tying field goal after penetrating the red zone. If you are ever going to have former high school quarterback Rex Burkhead throw a pass out of the Wildcat formation, it should have been on third-and-seven from the Aggie 12-yard line and the Huskers trailing 6-3 midway through the fourth quarter, and Martinez hobbling with an injured ankle. The amateurs conducted themselves a lot better than the professionals on this night.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker has covered University of Nebraska and state 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