“Sorry for your loss.”
Officer Brown, a security guard at the Columbus International Airport, said it multiple times Sunday morning. To a man from Albion, Neb. To a woman from Stanton. To a father and son from Austin, Texas. Everybody wearing an “N”.
Say what you want about fanatical Husker fans, they aren’t fair-weather fans. They don’t shed their red the morning after a 63-38 loss. Their passion and loyalty is simply remarkable — even to a native son like myself who spent childhood Saturdays in Memorial Stadium.
Bo Pelini occasionally takes subtle digs at his followers, especially the message-board crowd. He references the challenges of his job, the microscope he’s under, the expectations he faces. At times, I wonder if he’d be happier coaching someplace where nobody knew his name.
But here’s the thing about those fans and their expectations: Almost all of them will support him through thick and thin, as long he puts out a respectable product.
Pelini coaches at the fifth-winningest program in the country — no school has even come close to Nebraska’s win percentage the past 50 years. He hasn’t won anything of substance in four years. And yet his approval rating — even after the UCLA loss — was 78 percent, according to a World-Herald poll. Every politician in America would kill for that number.
Husker fans don’t demand that Pelini wins national championships every year. There aren’t 150,000 people within six blocks of Memorial Stadium on Saturdays — and 30,000 on the road every week — because they need Nebraska to win. They’re there for the experience of Husker football. They can handle frustration, even a little heartbreak.
Just don’t embarrass them. Don’t embarrass the thing they love.
That’s what happened Saturday night at the Horseshoe. That’s what has happened far too often the past five years. If Pelini isn’t getting blown out on the road, he’s losing his cool.
Once you start embarrassing the program — especially on national TV — that’s when Nebraska fans back away. That’s when it gets serious. That means throwing a tantrum on the sideline at Texas A&M. That means blowing off a sideline reporter at the Capital One Bowl. That means giving up 48 points at Wisconsin and 45 at Michigan and 63 at Ohio State.
Nebraska wants this man to win. Badly. But sometimes he and his team make it hard for people to invest the time and energy.
Boarding the plane Sunday morning in Columbus, I talked to a gentleman from Lincoln who invested hundreds of dollars and three days of his life to follow the Huskers. Here’s how he summed up Saturday night:
“It makes it hard to want to do this again.”
62 more random thoughts on Nebraska-Ohio State:
2 — What are the statistical odds of Ohio State failing to record a single first down in the opening quarter, then scoring touchdowns on six consecutive possessions? That may be unprecedented in football history.
3 — The Buckeyes’ 8.0 yards per play is the most against Nebraska since Texas Tech in 2008. After the first quarter, Ohio State gained 481 total yards on 49 plays. That’s an average of 9.8 yards per play. Let that sink in.
4 — The 8 yards per play is worse than UCLA’s average of 6.9. The Bruins ran 32 more plays.
5 — Asking a Pelini defense to stop a mobile quarterback is like asking a 2-year-old to keep his ice cream cone off the floor. The trend continues. The Blackshirts could not tackle Braxton Miller.
6 — Ohio State’s offense wasn’t exactly a juggernaut entering Saturday’s game. It ranked 55th nationally in total yards and 43rd in scoring. It managed just 29 points against UAB. Just 17 against Michigan State. This was not West Virginia.
7 — The boom-or-bust inconsistency, sometimes all within 60 minutes, is the most head-scratching component of this team. For 40 years, what defined this program was consistency. You knew what you were gonna get. These Huskers are the antithesis of consistency.
8 — Great teams build on big wins. They build on a 17-7 lead. Nebraska, it seems, starts looking around, waiting for something bad to happen.
9 — Taylor Martinez personifies that volatility. His good plays were very good Saturday. His bad plays were back-breaking.
10 — I’ve been saying for weeks that Martinez was due for a four- or five-turnover game. When he gets in a bind, he tries to do too much.
11 — The best example came midway through the third quarter. Nebraska trailed 42-31. First down at its 21-yard line. First play of the drive. Martinez rolls out and has a receiver open for a 7-yard gain. He doesn’t throw it. He circles back left and gets sacked for a 12-yard loss. A critical play in the game.
12 — Martinez’s comment after the game about how the offense played — “Well, we scored 38 points. So I think that’s pretty good” — is not exactly the message you want from your three-year starting quarterback. If you don’t think the offense, including four turnovers from the quarterback, contributed to Ohio State scoring 63 points, then you weren’t watching.
13 — Say what you want about Martinez’s decision-making — on the field or in press conferences. But don’t question his toughness. Martinez’s frame isn’t much bigger than Kenny Bell’s or Jamal Turner’s, yet he absorbs big hits and always gets up. He’s Crouch-like in that way.
14 — I don’t know what new athletic director Shawn Eichorst will say Tuesday morning at his introductory press conference. But I guarantee he’ll have a carefully prepared answer for his assessment of the football program.
15 — No matter how bad Nebraska football looks right now, it’s a better situation than Miami.
16 — You can envision a scenario in which Bo Pelini gets fired this season. But it’s very unlikely. More likely is that Bo — frustrated by his lack of progress and concerned about a new athletic director — looks for a new job.
17 — Eventually, whether it’s two months from now or 10 years from now, Pelini and Nebraska will part ways. Who could be the next head coach at Nebraska? I know Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson would be nice, but remember, the Huskers aren’t one of the top 15-20 jobs in America right now. So who could NU get? First on my list would be Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. And I’m intrigued by Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads.
18 — Fitzgerald, of course, just happens to be the next opposing coach on the schedule. Talk about a must-win for NU — the NU in red, I mean.
19 — It’s very possible that when we look back someday, the Pelini era will be remembered not for failures, but for missed opportunities. How many chances has Bo missed to break through and change the status of this program? Texas 2009 and Oklahoma 2010 are at the top of the list.
20 — Pelini didn’t get hired because he was a great CEO — he’d never even been a head coach. He was hired because he was a defensive mastermind. If he can’t figure out this defense, how is he better-suited for the job than several other guys out there?
21 — Pelini must prove — now more than ever — he can evaluate his program on the fly and make the right adjustments. This month will test his progression as a head coach.
22 — What’s more representative of a coach’s ability — What he does in years one and two with his predecessor’s recruits, or what he does in years three, four and five? Pelini’s culture is established. His recruits and assistants are in place. And this team is arguably his worst.
23 — Sam McKewon listed eight potential moves Pelini can make right now to help fix this team. I suggest you check ‘em out in his Husker Rewind column.
24 — One of Sam’s most interesting ideas was handing out the blackshirts. “Give the defense an identity it’s not required to earn,” Sam wrote. I don’t know if I would do it now, but I have always felt that Pelini was missing an opportunity here. When you make those blackshirts about merit, you open a can of worms. Because performance changes week to week. Give those shirts out in August — as Charlie McBride did. They might just help your defense establish some confidence before the season starts.
25 — Pelini has now lost 17 games at Nebraska. Seven of those losses have been by 17 points or more.
26 — In Nebraska’s three biggest Big Ten road games the past two seasons, it has given up 156 total points. Wisconsin scored 48, Michigan 45 and Ohio State 63.
27 — Remember when Nebraska actually played better on the road? Those were the days when NU had a great defense, though. When momentum starts slipping away from home, you need a defense to get a stop. That’s the tourniquet. Nebraska doesn’t have it.
28 — Something hasn’t been right with this program since the end of 2010. It’s like all progress suddenly stopped that night at Texas A&M — and Nebraska has been struggling to stop from falling backward.
29 — Since College Station, the Huskers are 8-9 against BCS-conference opponents.
30 — How is this team mentally fragile during high-pressure games? The depth chart is stocked with fourth and fifth-year players who have been in those situations over and over and over. This, more than anything else, is an indictment of the coaching staff.
31 — I mentioned the fans’ embarrassment, but can you imagine a worse place in the world for Bo Pelini to give up 63 points? At the Horseshoe, in front of family and friends and the whole state of Ohio, on national TV. I can’t imagine he’ll sleep well this week.
32 — It reminded me of another reunion four years ago — Pelini’s first meeting with Bob Stoops. The Sooners put up 62 on Bo’s defense that night, including 35 in the first quarter.
33 — What are people outside the Nebraska fan base thinking of Husker football? It seems almost every time NU goes on national TV, it looks bad. How does that affect Nebraska’s national reputation? That’s a big deal.
34 — An email I received from a reader this morning: “Bo, surround yourself with some peers – Enough of surrounding yourself with underlings. Find some guys that have different takes, that have done it different ways in other places. Every time I look at Bo yelling at Papuchis, all I can think is, ‘Well, you promoted him, that’s your fault.’ When it comes to getting his opinion on something, if Bo doesn’t know, how the heck is Papuchis supposed to know? Get some guys that can help you evaluate talent, go close the deal with some recruits, do more game planning during the week. Find guys that Bo can actually have conversations where the other opinion might not match his. There’s got to be some talent somewhere on the defense. Maybe a seasoned coordinator would have some ideas on how to tweak scheme or personnel to help out the D.”
35 — Bo is incredibly loyal to his assistants, so it’s hard to expect changes. Think what it took for Pelini to finally replace Shawn Watson. And Pelini didn’t even hire Watson — he just kept him after Bill Callahan’s termination.
36 — If you want to identify the absolute No. 1 worry with Nebraska football, it’s talent development. No, Pelini isn’t landing five-star talent. But why aren’t players, especially on defense, getting better from one year to the next?
37 — One common criticism, especially from former players, is that Pelini needs to change the way his team practices. Get young guys more repetitions. And get more physical. Reporters don’t get to watch practice, so it’s hard for me to comment. But the Huskers certainly possess the symptoms of a team that isn’t maximizing practice time.
38 — Here’s an example: A guy like David Santos, if he’s as good as everybody said he was coming out of high school, should be able to get on the field by his second year.
39 — What people want from Pelini are answers. What they need to understand is he won’t — and can’t — tell you one of the big reasons for Nebraska’s problems. He doesn’t have the players, on defense or on the offensive line. That puts him in an awkward position when hard questions are asked.
40 — Speaking of answers, I wrote my Sunday column about Bo’s postgame comments. “We need to win out,” he said. I thought it was extremely out of character and, thus, signaled a hint of desperation.
41 — Nebraska is 101st nationally in turnover margin. These are the Huskers’ turnover margins since 2008: 107th, 33rd, 62nd and 67th. That’s not gonna cut it.
42 — When Taylor Martinez commits at least 1 turnover away from home, Nebraska is 2-8.
43 — Nebraska’s goal-line gimmick Saturday — splitting Martinez and moving Rex Burkhead under center — worked great, producing two touchdowns. I still don’t like it. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Putting a running back under center and asking him to pitch the ball is just asking for a turnover.
44 — Kenny Bell is an all-Big Ten receiver. Wow, what a player. And he’s only a sophomore. These receivers and tight ends continue to be a bright spot. Tim Beck must find ways to get Bell and Jamal Turner more touches.
45 — Nebraska’s most impressive drive of the night was the first one of the third quarter. Much, much better than opening drives of the second half at Wisconsin, Michigan and UCLA, when the Huskers immediately turned the ball over.
46 — It’s really, really too bad Nebraska will only visit Ohio State twice every decade. I loved the Big House in Ann Arbor last year, but the Horseshoe is a better atmosphere. More menacing. And those two uniforms — Ohio State’s and Nebraska’s — look fantastic on the same field.
47 — If there were any questions before Saturday, there aren’t now. Urban Meyer is building a powerhouse. He had a bevy of big-time recruits on the sideline Saturday night. That’s why if Nebraska wants to win a Big Ten championship, now is the best time. The schedule gets easier in 2013 with Wisconsin and Ohio State dropping off. But you don’t want to face Meyer in Indianapolis next year.
48 — You can bet Meyer’s decision NOT to take a knee with a minute left ticked off the Husker coaching staff. It should. It reminded me of a Bill Snyder move.
49 — Nebraska’s safeties have struggled all season. And Meyer exposed them on multiple big plays. Daimion Stafford, in particular, had a rough night.
50 — Pelini spent the break between the third and fourth quarters talking to the refs, leaving the coaching to his assistants. That’s happened far too often the past few years. Pelini needs to stop chirping at officials and devote more energy to communicating with his players.
51 — The Huskers got whipped up front. In this league, especially, most games are won at the line of scrimmage. Nebraska’s offensive line struggled against the Ohio State pass rush. And the defensive line wilted in the final three quarters.
52 — You don’t want to throw around the word “quit.” But it sure looked like Nebraska’s defense wanted to go home early.
53 — How did Meyer explain it? “They came out and they hit us in the mouth. We had to get going. But our offensive line eventually took over that game.”
54 — Rough nights? Add Brent Qvale to the list. Offensive tackle continues to be a problem position, especially on the road.
55 — It wasn’t just Qvale. The Huskers struggled to communicate, it seemed. On second-and-22 in the third quarter, for example, John Simon burst through the line untouched and sacked Martinez. Spencer Long double-teamed the defensive tackle, Andrew Rodriguez blocked the blitzing linebacker. Nobody touched Simon.
56 — You saw the risk and reward of the new kickoff rule Saturday night. Ameer Abdullah repeatedly brought the ball out of the end zone. And repeatedly got tackled deep in Husker territory, including once at the 8-yard line. He could’ve taken a knee and had the ball at the 25.
57 — What would Nebraska’s record be in the Big 12 this year? I’d guess 7-5 at best. There’s a lot of good football in that league in 2012 and the spread offenses would give Nebraska’s defense fits.
58 — Southern Miss is 0-5. UCLA lost to Oregon State and Cal. Wisconsin struggled Saturday against Illinois. Nebraska’s strength of schedule is going to end up looking really, really bad.
59 — In that sense, it feels a bit like 2003. That year, the Huskers faced only two ranked teams: No. 24 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Texas. They took advantage and won 10 games.
60 — Despite its problems, if the Husker defense can get through the Michigan game, it should have a solid month of November. Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa are not exactly prolific offenses.
61 — Pelini has endured his struggles. He’s made his mistakes. But give him credit: When his back is against the wall, he usually wins. Look at 2008, when the Huskers were 5-4 coming home from a humiliating night at Oklahoma. They rallied together and beat a pretty good Kansas team. In 2009, they were 4-3 after losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State. What did they do? Won five straight, including an upset of Oklahoma. Even in 2011. Things would’ve been ugly in Lincoln had NU lost to Ohio State. They didn’t.
62 — In other words, I expect Nebraska to show heart at Northwestern. Play with passion. But if the Huskers don’t win two of the next three, you can kiss the Rose Bowl goodbye. In that case, it would be a very long November.
63 — As my plane descended the clouds into Omaha Sunday morning, the pilot prepared us for the weather — “a little chilly, 39 degrees” — and thanked us for flying Southwest Airlines.
“Come back and see us real soon,” he said. “Go Big Red.”
Toward the back of the plane, a single voice responded: “Go Big Red.”
Still a believer.