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TIME OUT by Joe Flanagan

College Football Twists & Turns Impossible To Predict

If anyone can figure out the wacky world of college football, let me know. Even professional oddsmakers have to be pretty baffled by what we’ve seen in 2009.
The wild, wonderful and unpredictable has been as evident here in Nebraska as anywhere. Lose at home to Iowa State? Then defeat Oklahoma? Who’da thunk it?
Another question. Has a more pedestrian offensive performance ever produced a more pivotal victory? I term it pedestrian only in deference to Roy Helu, Jr. Without the splendid junior, Nebraska’s offense Saturday could only be described as woeful. Again.
Seriously. Oklahoma has a tremendous defense. Easily one of the five best in college football. But 180 total yards? Just 57 plays? A measly seven 1st downs? And a grand total of 39 passing yards?
It’s almost enough to evoke memories of the ‘ol Single Wing and leather helmets.
But, man, how ‘bout that Blackshirt defense!  Talk about saving the day!
It’s always said defense wins championships. Bo Pelini’s first priority, when hired as Husker head coach, was to fix the broken Blackshirt tradition.
Mission accomplished!
No, Saturday’s contest was not for a championship, but it was a key victory that keeps the Huskers’ season from potentially sliding off the cliff.
In reality, there could also be a legitimate argument as to which defensive unit in Memorial Stadium this past weekend was actually the better. After all, OU had a 325-180 total yardage edge and 23 1st downs to NU’s seven. Take away three Helu runs of 63, 25 and 13 yards and Nebraska’s other 54 offensive plays netted all of 79 yards (1.4 yards per play).
There is little doubt, however,  about which defense made the big plays Saturday. Or, at least, took full advantage of opposition misfires (11 OU penalties for 104 yards, two missed field goals, five Sooner turnovers).
This game was, actually, eerily similar to Nebraska’s earlier loss to Iowa State, when the Huskers could do nothing but trip over themselves. OU looked nearly as baffled offensively as NU’s own embattled unit.
There’s a root cause for this similarity. Probably no NCAA team has been as catastrophically decimated by injury as Oklahoma this season, starting with season-ending blows to Heisman Trophy QB Sam Bradford and All-American TE Jermaine Gresham, plus numerous ailments amongst a young, inexperienced offensive line. Nebraska is right behind, what with Helu severely hampered the previous three weeks, back-up Rex Burkhead sidelined and its own woes along the offensive front.
In this day of scholarship limits and overall parity in college football, even storied programs like OU and NU can’t easily absorb those types of hits.
Which brings us back to the Husker defense and yet another question – can the Blackshirts continue to carry Nebraska to a Big 12 North title?
We all witnessed the Huskers’ yeoman effort Saturday, never mind OU QB Landry Jones gift-wrapping three of his five interceptions and punter-turned-kicker Tress Way spraying field goal attempts left and right. The Nebraska defense was on the field for 87 plays – 87 plays! – and never blinked, meeting every challenge into the final seconds and giving up a meager three points.
Whew!
But therein lies the dilemma. Can the Blackshirts continue to shoulder this heavy load for three more games? Will fatigue and injuries eventually catch up to the defense as well?
The key to this final stretch run likely lies under the shoulder pads of #10. If Roy Helu, Jr. is healthy enough vs. Kansas, K State and Colorado to carry 20 times per game – as he did Saturday – the Husker offense can likely contribute just enough to secure the Big 12 North crown and a trip to the conference championship game.
However, if Helu’s balky shoulders give out again, the onus falls back on Husker QBs Zac Lee and Cody Green to be playmakers. Uh oh.
In the end, I think the character of this Husker team, from Coach Bo Pelini down through the ranks, wins out. I foresee a gritty Helu gutting it out. I believe the indomitable Ndamukong Suh will determinedly defy his defensive mates wilting. Yes, I see three hard-fought “ugly” victories.
Still, the vision is kinda hazy. In the crazy world of college football, crystal balls are anything but crystal clear.