There seems to be some question regarding Nebraska's motivation heading into the Holiday Bowl against Arizona. The feeling is that the Huskers will be flat because they came so close to greatness (within a second) that their game against the Wildcats must be seen as nothing more than a let down.
For fans, perhaps, it may be nothing more than another bowl game, another blip in a long history of Nebraska bowl appearances. On top of that, it's against an opponent with which Nebraska has had little history. Nebraska and Arizona have played only twice in history, the first game in 1961 in which the two teams played to a 14-14 tie. The last game was in the 1998 Holiday Bowl, a 23-20 loss for Nebraska as the Wildcats had one of their best seasons ever, while Nebraska's season, by our standards, was pedestrian at best.
History does not matter to the team. Nor does the fact that Arizona doesn't have a marquee name. For the head coach and this team, things are very different.
Bo Pelini has screamed motivation since he first arrived at Nebraska. He's talked about consistently improving his team, refusing to issue depth charts so as to make it clear to his players that no job is safe. He's benched starters in the middle of games in which they weren't performing well, replacing them with younger players who deserved their chance.
To think that Pelini is taking a game off from his constant harping on improvement is to not understand his nature. This isn't a bowl game to him. A win isn't about bringing home another bowl trophy, it's another step towards the return to greatness. A loss would be as unacceptable as it was in the Big 12 championship game because it would be a step back heading into next season.
For the Husker seniors, it's the end of a long journey on which they've come so far it has to be inconceivable that they would let up now.
To recall that journey, take yourself back to September 15, 2007, to the USC game. It was supposed to be Bill Callahan's coming out party against the top-ranked Trojans, but instead ended as an embarrassment and a foreshadow to the worst season in Nebraska football history. The defensive line was shredded, with USC blowing holes open large enough to accommodate a truck. As the season progressed, fans wondered if things could get much worse, and with each game, they did.
It's hard to believe that Barry Turner and Ndamukong Suh were on that 2007 defensive line. One year later under a new set of coaches their unit became the backbone of the defense. Add another year and they've become the best in the nation. Suh will finish his college career as the most decorated Husker in school history, having won the Bronko Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardi, Outland, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy and was recently named the AP Player of the Year. To say that he's come a long way would be an understatement of preposterous proportions.
Turner had to fight back from a broken leg that occurred in September 2008 to just to be a part of this season. This season he's third on the team in sacks, and second in tackles for loss.
Consider Phillip Dillard's journey. He was the starting Mike linebacker in 2007. Entering 2009, Dillard was so far in the doghouse that he'd nearly dropped off the depth chart. He started the season on the scout team and didn't play until the third game against Virginia Tech. Since then, he's made the most of his opportunity, finishing the regular season third in tackles and playing well enough to earn second team All-Big 12 honors.
Jacob Hickman was the starting left guard in 2007. The Holiday Bowl will be his 37th start, and while the offense has been much aligned this season, Hickman has been an anchor and consistent throughout. Andy Christensen never returned to his 2006 form, but has still been a part of the team. Derek Meyer's journey took him first to Kansas State and then back again as he walked on at Nebraska in 2008. He had to sit out last year to realize his dream of playing for Nebraska this season.
Larry Asante will be making his 36th start, the veteran of a secondary that's been nothing less than stellar this season. Asante is second in tackles behind Suh and made first team All-Big 12 in his final season. Matt O'Hanlon has had some exceptional moments, including 12 tackles and three interceptions in this year's 10-3 win against Oklahoma.
Add to them Chris Brooks, Andy Christensen, Wes Cammack, Menelik Holt, David Harvey, and Colton Koehler. For some their Husker careers didn't turn out the way they might have planned, but they've still been part of an amazing turn around.
You think these guys are looking at this as just another bowl game? This is their last game as a Husker, the last time wearing the scarlet and cream. After all they've been through, is there any question that they don't want to go out with a loss?