Sobering Start

Huskers hold on in season-opener

To quote legendary television sportscaster Keith Jackson: “Whoa, Nellie!” The Nebraska football team’s season-opener against Wyoming wasn’t supposed to go quite like that.

Yes, the Huskers won. Yes, they scored 37 points and rolled up 530 yards of offense. And yes, a record crowd of 91,185 was on-hand to watch.

But the fourth quarter, in particular, didn’t make for good viewing from a Nebraska fan’s point of view. And because of the game’s statistics, many among those 91,185 left wondering what the future holds for coach Bo Pelini’s sixth team. 

“Whoa, Nellie!”

The skepticism couldn’t be avoided.

The final score was 37-34, much closer than expected, certainly, but not really cause for concern on the face of it. After all, Wyoming’s junior quarterback Brett Smith is both talented and experienced. And Nebraska does have to rely on young and inexperienced players this season.

In fact, seven of the Huskers who played were true freshmen, including four on a defense that must replace all three linebackers, a tackle, an end and a safety.

However, “we went into this season saying that’s never going to be an excuse,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said of Nebraska’s youth and inexperience.

The game was a “good learning experience,” he said. And “you’re learning off a win.

“That’s one positive.”

As for the “whoa, Nellie” aspect, well, the negatives were many.

To begin with, Nebraska led the scrappy Cowboys 31-14 late in the third quarter and 37-21 with 11:38 remaining in the game, a seemingly comfortable margin on a hot and humid night.

Just over 10 minutes later, however, the 16-point led had been reduced to three and Wyoming had the ball with an opportunity to tie or win. Granted, the Cowboys were pinned at their 6-yard line. But the way Smith was playing, there were no guarantees.

Smith completed 29-of-43 passes for 383 yards and four touchdowns. Nebraska intercepted one of his passes, but never sacked him.

“Wyoming is good enough that if you don’t play well, you’re going to get exposed,” Husker defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “That’s just the reality.”

Reality also was reflected in Wyoming’s 35 first downs, accomplished despite converting on only one-of-eight third downs, and 602 total yards. The last time an opponent picked up as many as 35 first downs against the Huskers was, well, never. And the last time an opponent gained more than 600 yards against them was 2007, when Ball State amassed 610 yards in a 41-40 loss.

That was back when Bill Callahan was coach, a time many Nebraska fans have tried to forget.

In any case, the uncomfortable truth is, only three other teams besides Ball State have managed 600 or more yards against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

And Wyoming is now among only eight that have done it anywhere.

Here’s some statistical trivia: In the last three games going back to 2012, the Huskers have given up 1,831 yards, or just over a mile’s worth of offense.

“Whoa, Nellie!”

Last season doesn’t apply, however. What matters is the here and now. And Pelini remained optimistic that Nebraska could be, or become, the Top-20 team folks expected it to be. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said following the Wyoming game. “I just said to our team, ‘Whether you win by three or you win 65-0, it’s never as good as  you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is.’

“There are some good things that will come in this game. There are a lot of things we need to get fixed. I told our team, ‘I hope this serves as an example for you that what I’m saying is true, that every single day is important for this football team.’”

During his weekly news conference on the Monday before the Wyoming game, Pelini said as he went into his sixth season as head coach, he had “become a little more comfortable . . . as far as what I want to accomplish, what we want to get done.

“I like our schedule,” he said. “I like the way things set up.”

The schedule seemed conducive to a return trip to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, and still does, despite the fourth-quarter drama of the Wyoming victory. The Huskers have eight home games, including their first five, and two bye-weeks in the first month and a half.

They don’t go on the road until mid-October, after five home games and one of the bye weeks.

The toughest non-conference game is against UCLA on Sept. 14, and that’s not opinion; its fact. Though the Bruins have questions of their own, they opened with a 58-20 victory against Nevada, a score more in line with what Husker fans expected against Wyoming.

Nebraska’s optimism is based on an explosive offense directed by senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has started all but one game during his Husker career, 40 total; I-backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross; and a talented group of receivers led by Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner.

Martinez completed 17-of-22 passes for 155 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, and rushed for 80 yards on 16 carries against Wyoming.

Abdullah and Cross both rushed for more than 100 yards, and Terrell Newby, one of the seven true freshmen who saw action, rushed 76 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Newby “got a hot hand there in the fourth quarter, and they (coaches) stayed with him,” said Pelini. “I’ll look at how the backs played, but I think we need to get a better rhythm going as far as subbing those guys out.”

Enunwa, who caught a pair of touchdown passes, said the players weren’t “very excited” in the locker room following the game. “We got a win, and that’s always a great feeling.

“But it wasn’t exactly how we wanted it to happen.”

The offense had its problems. Martinez lost a fumble in addition to the interception. “We were very inefficient on offense,” Pelini said. “We didn’t get a rhythm going all game.

“We didn’t play well in any phase of the game.”

In addition to the turnovers, an area of emphasis during fall camp as well as in the spring, the Huskers were penalized 10 times for 84 yards. “That’s been a point of emphasis,” said Pelini. “That’s been something that we’ve been very good about during the preseason. The lack of focus, lack of concentration, especially when it’s happening on third down, that hurts you.”

Not much needs to be said about the defense beyond the 602 yards and 34 points allowed.

“The back half of the fourth quarter was atrocious,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I don’t know what else to say.

“We have a long, long, long way to go.”

The sobering reality of 37-34 was in marked contrast to fall camp, during which Pelini pulled a prank on his team near the end, a prank filmed by Huskers.com and posted on YouTube. By the weekend of the Wyoming game, the video had attracted nearly 800,000 views.

The 4-minute clip shows Pelini meeting with the players before what was to be the second of two practices that day. Pelini’s words are interrupted by the ring of a cell phone.

“Coach Bo, he hates cell phones,” said senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale.

Pelini’s rule is cell phones must be turned off during meetings.

“I don’t even bring it,” Qvale said. “I’m never going to be that guy . . .”

In this case, “that” guy was Thad Randle, a senior defensive tackle who was in on the prank.

Pelini takes a cell phone from Randle, leaves the room, returns with a hammer and smashes the cell phone on the floor as surprised players look on.

That a hammer was handy might have given away the prank except that “they’re doing construction out in his (Pelini’s) office,” said Qvale. “So I knew that there’s power tools laying around out there.”

After Pelini smashes the cell phone, Randle gets up and leaves. Pelini goes after him, and the sounds of what might be a scuffle between Pelini and Randle follow.

“You see me on the tape, I’m sweating,” Jeremiah Sirles, also a senior offensive tackle, said. “It was absolutely terrifying.”

Then a message on the board at the front of the meeting room says: “Got ya.”

“It was an awesome prank,” said Martinez.

Pelini was relaxed enough to allow the video clip on Huskers.com, another sign of the comfort to which he referred in the Monday news conference. Late in the summer, he named all-season captains for the first time and on the Wednesday before the Wyoming game, he handed out Blackshirts to seven defenders – the first time for that prior to the season.

“I just thought it was the right thing for our football team, for the kids right now and for the guys that have earned it up to this point,” he said on his weekly radio call-in show that night.

After the Wyoming game, Husker fans were wondering if the Blackshirt distribution was ill-timed considering the numbers, anyway.

Nebraska won. But, again, to quote Jackson: “Whoa, Nellie!”

posted at 09:22 pm
on Monday, September 02nd, 2013

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