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December 30, 2010

Pelini has to decide if he can live with his offense

Last year, the Holiday Bowl showed that Nebraska was back.

This time, Nebraska just backpedaled.

The Cornhuskers left San Diego both times with a 10-4 record, but it’s amazing how much worse this one feels. A 19-7 loss to a mediocre Washington team was definitely not what the Nebraska football program needed.

When it led Oklahoma 17-0 in the second quarter of the Big 12 Championship, Nebraska had a great season in its grasp. But it could never subdue its old enemies – turnovers and penalties. After that point early in the second quarter at Dallas, the Huskers committed five turnovers while forcing none and committed 15 penalties compared to their opponents’ eight.

You could blame it on injuries, but you’d be kidding yourself. Nebraska’s lack of discipline and cohesiveness is what turned this season into a disappointment.

When the Cornhuskers left Qualcomm Stadium after being thoroughly beaten by 7-6 Washington, a much less talented team, thousands of Nebraska fans were wondering if the Huskers had made any progress at all since they walked off the same field following a 33-0 win over Arizona one year ago.

And now we’ll see how high Bo Pelini’s pain tolerance is. That overall lack of discipline is his responsibility, a problem that he’s never quite gotten a handle on.

Funny thing is, things definitely were headed in the right direction. The offensive problems that marked the 2009 campaign seemed to be behind the Huskers. Pelini seemed to have things in high gear after NU beat Missouri 31-17 on Oct. 30, largely on the strength of its running game. He was building the program around the offensive and defensive lines, and he had proven that he knew how to get a team to finish strong. In his first two years at NU, he had lost only one game after Halloween.

That has all fallen to pieces. After finally putting together a respectable October, Nebraska lost three of four games in November and December this season. The Husker offensive line disgraced itself against Washington, allowing a beat-up Husky d-line to completely control the line of scrimmage, and the Nebraska defensive line wasn’t much better, getting worn down and overpowered in the second half while giving up more than 250 yards on the ground.

Nebraska had more penalty yards (102) than rushing yards (91). And U-Dub, which finished in the middle of a mediocre Pac-10 this season, was much more physical than Nebraska, which looked for all the world like it was trying to play through a hangover.

Part of Nebraska’s offensive demise can be traced to the downward trend of Taylor Martinez, the result of his inexperience and his injuries. Frankly, the quarterback job looks as wide open this spring as it did last August. But the problem goes much deeper. Somehow, Nebraska degenerated from a vigorous thoroughbred of an offense to a bedraggled, run-down nag that produced only one touchdown its last six quarters on the field, and put together only one touchdown drive all season when it was tied or trailing in the second half – the overtime touchdown by Rex Burkhead at Ames, Iowa.

When Nebraska crushed Washington 56-21 in Seattle three months ago, Nebraska’s offense was in high gear. By the end of the year, however, Shawn Watson’s offense had regressed to where it was for most of the 2009 season.

Wasn’t this the point when having a cohesive coaching staff is supposed to pay off? Pelini has kept all his assistants for three seasons, so the Huskers had most stability of any staff in the Big 12. Yet on many occasions, Pelini, Watson and offensive line coach Barney Cotton seemed to be on three different pages. That’s likely the root of many of those costly pre-snap penalties that went on all season.

Seems to me that the Pelini-Watson-Cotton axis is where most of the pain originates. So what will Pelini do? Even though he’s a defensive specialist, he needs to take more ownership of the offense. Watson seems to be a much better theorist than he is a game coach, and Cotton don’t seem to be in sync with him much of the time.

My gut says if Watson is hired as head coach by Miami of Ohio, Cotton would mesh better with whoever replaces Watson at OC. On the other hand, if Watson stays, maybe it’s time to look for a new o-line coach.

In a few days, the pain of this loss will subside, and we’ll point to some recruiting triumphs as evidence that Nebraska football is moving ahead once again. But it won’t advance too far until it gets a cohesive offense put together.

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 tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive