When trying to wrap my arms around what’s happened to Bo Pelini’s program — how he let the indisputable progress in 2008-10 recede in 2011-13 — I always think of that ’09 defense.
I loved watching that D. I’d put those Blackshirts up against any group in school history. Not just because of Suh or the hybrid DBs. It’s because they played alongside one of the worst Nebraska offenses ever. Time after time after time, they faced extraordinary pressure to get a stop.
Remember the Oklahoma game? Remember Missouri? And Texas? Those performances were nothing short of inspiring. Those performances are Bo’s crowning achievements as a coordinator. Nebraska’s D was so dang defiant. It refused to give in, no matter the circumstances. The tougher the situation, the better the defense played.
Just before the 2009 Big 12 championship game, in search of a way to put it all in perspective, I manufactured a stat that illustrated what made that defense so great. Last night, I read that column again and couldn’t believe it was the same coach.
If Bo Pelini’s program in 2013 came delivered in a cardboard box, it’d be packed with bubble-wrap and stamped “Fragile.”
I wasn’t in Memorial Stadium Saturday. But what I saw from afar, on a little TV in the Texas A&M pressbox, fit the pattern. We can pin a lot of different adjectives on Husker football right now. The one I come back to is this:
Nebraska used to stand for strength. It intimidated. It commanded respect. You might outrun the Huskers occasionally. You might outsmart the Huskers once in a blue moon. But for 40 years, they were never soft, especially mentally. (Maybe at the end of the 1990 season. That’s it.)
Look, every team in the country endures momentum swings. Alabama looked terrible in Saturday’s first 5 minutes. It happens. But how many programs — even the bad ones — fall apart faster than Nebraska? That’s mental. That’s leadership. That’s coaching.
You could illustrate that point in several ways. Let me try one you haven’t thought of: consecutive touchdown drives allowed.
In ‘09, Nebraska’s defense did not allow consecutive TDs the entire season. Not once! Can you believe that? In fact, only two teams put together consecutive SCORING drives (Texas Tech and Kansas). Let that soak in.
In 2010, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Colorado managed consecutive touchdown drives (the ‘Clones only traveled 13 yards for the second one, thanks to a Niles Paul fumble). Nobody strung together three straight TDs.
What’s it mean? It’s not just good defense, it’s mental fortitude. It’s responding to adversity. Give up a score, don’t let it happen again.
Well, in Saturday’s third quarter, UCLA scored touchdowns on four straight possessions. The Blackshirts were totally incapable of halting the momentum (I’m not letting the offense off the hook, but I’ll omit them from this exercise.)
How many times in Husker history has its defense given up four straight TD drives?
From 1962-89, I couldn’t find one. (Maybe in the ’68 and ’75 Oklahoma losses, but it was unclear). It did happen in ’90 in the fourth-quarter collapse against Colorado. Then not again until 2003 when Missouri did it to Pelini’s defense, scoring 27 in the fourth quarter (just like the ’90 Buffs).
In ’04, Texas Tech scored seven straight TDs (four drives of less than 15 yards!)
In ’07, USC scored five straight touchdowns, Oklahoma State four straight, Kansas seven straight. In ’08, Oklahoma scored four straight on Bo’s defense.
We mentioned the stalwart defenses of ’09 and ’10. Now look at the trend since. These are opponents’ consecutive touchdown drives:
In 2011, the first avalanche hit at Wisconsin. After the Huskers forced a punt with 5:37 in the second quarter, they didn’t even force a field goal the rest of the game. The Badgers scored five straight touchdowns, the last two consuming 7:06 and 8:15 off the clock.
Also that fall, Washington scored three straight TDs; Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan and South Carolina two straight.
In 2012, Ohio State’s offense scored five straight touchdowns (that’s not counting a punt return TD). UCLA, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Georgia had two consecutive TDs — the Bulldogs got theirs in the decisive fourth quarter. But the worst collapses came in Indianapolis, where the Badgers had a stretch of three straight TDs, then four straight later in the game.
This year, Wyoming scored on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter. And the Bruins, as mentioned earlier, had four straight.
Back-to-back-to-back-to-back TD drives — something that happened only four times in four years to Kevin Cosgrove — has hit Bo’s defense three times in the past 12 games. The tougher the situation, the worse they play.
Is “consecutive touchdown drives” a stat the NCAA tracks? Of course not. Is it something coaches pay attention to? Probably not. But I think it reveals something about a team’s toughness — physical and mental. I think it shows how a program with so much promise lost its way.
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>> Just a devastating paragraph from Sam McKewon’s Rewind this morning:
“Since 2011, when the Huskers moved to the Big Ten, they’ve played 22 games against BCS conference opponents. Their record: 13-9. Despite having four more wins than losses, they’ve been outscored in those 22 games 641-603. The defense gave up 45 points per game in the nine losses. The offense is scoring 24.8 points per game in those nine losses. That’s nearly three touchdowns per loss in three years.”
>> Hard to believe that Bo Pelini and Mack Brown, four years after their Big 12 championship game duel, might both lose their jobs this fall. Nebraska was rebuilding fast in 2009, thanks to Pelini’s astounding defensive reconstruction. Texas had so much talent, it seemed impossible Brown would ever produce a losing team, let alone fail to reach 10 wins again. He’s as good as gone.
The powerhouse job openings might not stop there. Lane Kiffin is likely gone at USC. I think you’ll see Brian Kelly or Bill O’Brien (or both) leave for the NFL, which would create openings at Notre Dame or Penn State. And Frank Beamer, who will be 67 in October, has to retire one of these years.
It could be a wild offseason with dominoes falling all over the place.
>> Hope you got a chance to read my dispatch from Kyle Field, where Johnny Football and AJ McCarron delivered a shootout. Bruce Feldman, who was also on the sideline in College Station, starts his weekend wrap-up with Manziel.
>> According to Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports, in the past three NFL seasons there have been 21 teams that started 0-2. Not one of them made the playoffs and not one had a winning record at the end of the season. In other news, the Redskins stink.
>> Rany Jazayerli exposes the flawed logic of Ned Yost. If the Royals miss the playoffs, which they will, Yost will be one major reason why.
>> After a long weekend on the road, I finally get to come home today and dedicate more time to the blog. I’ll have a special Tuesday edition with more thoughts on the Huskers, the Big Ten, Alabama and the NFL. Thanks for reading.