We’ve reached year five of the Bo Pelini era, featuring a head coach hired for his prowess as a defensive coordinator. That his Nebraska team surrendered both 63 and 70 points in their two biggest games of the year is beyond stunning.
The Huskers are lucky to be in the Big Ten. The Big XII would’ve exposed this unit for the impostor that it is. Certainly the Huskers aren’t as bad as they were on Saturday night, but the reality is that in three losses this year, the Huskers surrendered 1219 rushing yards, 1792 total yards and 169 points. That kind of performance would get a coach fired at most schools. The only other season Nebraska surrendered 60+ points twice was the 2007 season that ended Bill Callahan’s tenure at Nebraska.
That’s not to say this team is terrible. It won 10 games, and six straight in an impressive and thrilling ride. The defensive stats slowly crept up, creating an impression of improvement. While Nebraska isn’t as bad as it was during the championship game, the fact that this broken defense has shown up in three games this year means something has gone terribly wrong.
Even Bo seems to be at a loss at how to fix it. These are all of his recruits, is his strength program, and to allow 60+ points in two losses, while also setting letting a five-loss Wisconsin set a school record for rushing yards allowed in a game (and letting that same five-loss school its first ever dual 200-yard rusher performance) is completely inexcusable.
It was the third worst loss in a conference championship game (all conferences), and the second worst loss in school history. The 2012 squad shows up twice on the all-time Top 5 most points allowed in a game, and Top 3 most yards surrendered in a game. It’s all alone in first place on the all-time most rushing yards surrendered in a game. This is so far below the standards of Nebraska football, it’s stunning that Bo still has defenders.
Yes, Nebraska ranks 1st in pass defense, and yes, it won the Legends division, went 7-1 in conference play, and won 10 games in the regular season for the first time under Pelini. But that’s all window dressing. Nebraska needed every break it could get to get to this point, squeaking past Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State in the regular season, and edging a Denard Robinson-less Michigan. In some ways, those breaks allowed Nebraska to get to Indy and its most embarrassing loss of the Pelini era.
There are some bright spots, the offensive line run blocked well this year, and the running backs and wideouts played well. Taylor Martinez took a step forward with his passing game, but still makes too many critical mistakes on the road and in big games. For example, the offense may have scored 31 points against the Badgers, but it gave them 14 off of its turnovers. This was a trend all season.
Special Teams were an adventure. Brett Maher displayed some of the same bi-polar behavior as was evident on the defense. Nebraska couldn’t set up a punt return, much less field a punt, as the season wore on.
The big problem though was clearly the Blackshirts. Where do you start?
The defense has regressed and collapsed in year five:
Average point differential in Nebraska losses / average points allowed in losses:
2008: 20 point differential / 46.5 points allowed
2009: 6.25 point differential / 17.5 points allowed
2010: 6.25 point differential / 17.75 points allowed
2011: 17.25 point differential / 37.75 points allowed
2012: 23.33 point differential / 56.33 points allowed
What’s remarkable is that Nebraska’s offense was terrible in 2009 and 2010, yet the point differential is much closer - when the Huskers lost, it was because the offense couldn’t score more than an average of 17 points. But 2012 has now clearly set a new low in terms of the worst point differential in losses (and this despite the offense being much better) and in points allowed.
Assuming Bo hasn’t forgotten how to coordinate a defense with excellent / NFL-caliber players (as he did in 2009 and 2010) then one must assume that something else has gone wrong.
Is it recruiting? That seems to be playing a part, as no one would mistake the 2012 roster for the Callahan recruited NFL-talent in 2009/2010.
What about player development and coaching? Clearly an issue as well, but it’s hard to know if that’s a current issue, or an issue from the past, thanks to new defensive line and secondary coaches for 2012. The effectiveness of Ross Els, Nebraska’s linebackers/special teams/recruiting coordinator, should certainly be examined though.
Has strength and conditioning played an issue? While Nebraska’s skill players look excellent, the offensive and defensive lines didn’t pass a look test when compared to those Wisconsin fielded in Indianapolis. The defensive line, a strength just a few years ago, is merely average now (at best).
I don’t believe Bo Pelini is a bad coach. He’s now been stung by having a championship caliber defense in years where his offense has been outright bad, and a championship caliber offense in years where his defense has not been able to keep the pace. But I do believe Nebraska has structural issues as a program that start and end with the head man.
The current batch of seniors reflects his early recruiting classes. The roster and players starting on defense reflects poorly on their development when they completely fold against a team that in all reality isn’t that much better than Nebraska. The domination by more physical programs at the point of attack signifies issues at the line of scrimmage.
If Pelini doesn’t have answers, why should any of us? He should be thankful for a weak Big Ten and the breaks his team received this season. The weak conference, 10 wins and a weak 2013 schedule buys him time to find and fix the problems inside his "process."
But for Nebraska to solve its road woes, challenge Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, win the B1G Championship, and restore the nation’s respect in the Huskers, he has no choice but to find the answers.