(*Author’s note: I apologize for the delay but I’ve been gargling sulfuric acid for the last few weeks or so in an attempt to wash the Capital One Bowl taste out of my mouth. Actually, I had this post written twice and lost it both times due to a crashing computer and a phone malfunction. Fate? Karma? Appropriate metaphor for the season? You decide.)
At the beginning of this season Husker fans had a lot to be hopeful for. We were the new kids on the block in the Big Ten. By most people’s estimation, we appeared to have the right stuff and were a team that was hangin’ tough with most teams we faced under Bo Pelini. (*Author’s note: if you got those last two references, I’m sorry. If you didn’t. . .I’m sorry.)
Bo Pelini was entering into a pivotal year in his coaching career. Here he was, with a chance to leave an indelible mark on his first season against the once-vaunted Big Ten Conference, to blaze a trail so bright that Husker fans would have no choice other than to shield their eyes. Here he was, with a shot to lay waste the criticisms and debates that have marred his last few seasons and to put in place a foundation for winning that would garner unwavering support from the red-clad masses.
Taylor Martinez, the Huskers’ mercurial Sophomore QB, seemed ready to blast past the slow, heavy-footed Big Ten linemen. National analysts touted Martinez as an incredible weapon and the pressure for him to live up the hype that his redshirt freshman year — or at least the very early part of it — had started to build.
(*Author’s note: random tangent here. Has there ever been a QB that was a more perfect example of HFFA? An acronym used by my friends to describe a girl that’s “Hot From Far Away.” Martinez appears to national news analysts and other teams that are far away from him, to be a 10. To ESPN’s talking heads, Martinez is Heidi Klum but the closer you get the more he looks like Professor Klump. Beer goggled by, what?, the Kansas State game of 2010 or his impressive play against Oklahoma State last season, Martinez looked really good (if they squinted their eyes just right)
Now, Martinez progressed this year. He honestly did. He became the game manager that we wanted and improved his accuracy while reducing his turnovers. But the love-affair from afar is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
We had 3 pre-season All-Americans anchoring a defense that seemed poised to take a leap forward. Why, after all, we had not one Pelini, but two. Twice the Pelini? Surely our defense would be able to adjust to the Big Ten’s slower style of play.
All of these expectations crumbled; fell apart, really, collapsing like some ill-constructed suspension bridge or a beer can pyramid with just one too many Coors’ added to the pinnacle.
The early season games did little to quell the nerves of our now-notoriously jittery fan base. There was the game against the pesky Bulldogs of Fresno State that was closer than we would have liked. There was the matter of 38 points given up to Washington on our home field. The Huskers found themselves heading into Camp Randall stadium to take on the powerful Wisconsin Badgers. We got curbstomped on the national stage so brutally that even Quentin Tarantino would have edited the game for content. (*Author’s note: suffering from jetlag during the game I found myself dozing on and off during the second half of the game. I woke up. . .and watched Martinez throw an ugly pick. Then I woke up a little later and watched Martinez throw another pick. I didn’t know if somehow the TV had gotten stuck on Loop mode or if I had, indeed, expired in my hotel easy chair and was in some version of Cornhusker hell.)
After another meltdown on the big stage, a problem that has happened all too often during Bo’s tenure (Career win percentage against ranked opponents: .410) the Huskers rebounded with an astounding win against Ohio State. The win against Ohio State cannot be overlooked this year. In that game, down by 21 points — which when converted through a highly mathematical formula known as the Huskers’ Homefield Ineptitude Theory means they were down by the equivalent to the amount of people who live in China — the Huskers showed grit, resilience, and an amazing ability to injure the only good quarterback on an opposing team’s roster.
With Braxton Miller nursing a shot ankle on the sidelines, the Husker offense came alive (*Author’s note: right as OSU’s backup was busy throwing ducks into the student section and generally playing the position with all the nimbleness of a Leslie Nielsen character) and history was made. Nebraska improbably pulled a win from the ravenous jaws of defeat and I pulled the “Nicolas Cage Murder Face” a record 12 times.
The Huskers than followed up a dominating, potentially season-changing win against Michigan State with a brutal loss to a pedestrian Northwestern team. At home. (*Author’s note: cue the NCMF but for entirely different reasons than the aforementioned, record breaking performance.) This, too, is an unfortunate Pelini special. In 2009: losses to a bad Texas Tech squad and a jarring loss to a crappy-as-usual Iowa State squad. In 2010: a loss at home to a well-below-average Texas team.
The Huskers ended the season with a blowout loss at Michigan and a face-first crash landing into the Capital one bowl where they were pillaged by the Old Ball Coach’s smirking horde. The game was Medusa-level hideous. After watching the game I literally turned into stone and was unable to put together a coherent thought regarding the season that didn’t start off with the F-word until today.
After a good deal of group therapy, introspection, drinking, and aromatherapy I have finally come to terms with the season that was. It was a rough year for my fanhood. Coming in, we didn’t want to see the wheel reinvented. We just wanted four wheels all rolling in the same direction.
The 2011 season was a 15-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift for the first time. We got spastic, jumpy leaps in the right direction. We got a program that was lurching forward, then dying, then lurching, then slamming on the brakes. What was the most disappointing part of the 2011 season? The fact that it was more of the same.
More uninspired home losses to lesser opponents. More blowouts on big stages. More issues with Bo getting testier and testier to the point of detest. In a year we were looking to take a big step forward, instead we got on the treadmill. We ran. We jogged. We worked up a pretty good sweat and got in a decent workout. But when we stepped off? We were in exactly the same place.
After the Dark Ages (*Author’s note: 2004-2007, this was a period of tumult, unrest and Beau Davis) of Bill Callahan we found ourselves in desperate need of coaching Prozac. Bo Pelini seemed to be the answer. He preached discipline, defense, and physicality. The Huskers seemed to be ready to take a step in the right direction, to fulfill Bo Pelini’s bold prediction after the Holiday Bowl 2 years ago, “Nebraska’s back and we’re here to stay.”
As it turns out, that bold proclamation in that moment of programming growing triumph has become this school’s version of the ill-fated “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging from the flight deck at the very beginning of the conflict in Iraq.
I’m not calling for Bo’s job. I think that a coach should be given a solid five years to build a program with the proper financial, social, and institutional backing. Bo has that. He has legions of fans who would leap off Memorial Stadium’s nose-bleedingest peak for their team. He clearly has a brilliant defensive mind and an offense that returns a good deal of talent to the next season.
In year five, these pieces should come together. In year five these pieces must come together.