TIME OUT by Joe Flanagan

Questions? Answers? Tough Decisions Loom

What was that? A sack of coal dropping from the chimney Saturday night? Or just the remains of a big Red & White bundle of Husker championship hopes that would have capped a tumultuous season in sensational fashion?
What are Nebraskans getting for the holidays? Say what? The Holiday Bowl? Again? Vs. daunting 6-6 Washington, a team NU dispatched by 35 points in September?
I’ll take the sack of coal, thank you.
Sigh. Has there ever been a more disappointing 10 win season in Nebraska football history?
I know, I know, we should never scoff at double-digit victories, many of them hard-earned. We’ve seen the flip side of such success as recently as three short years ago.
Also, Husker fans can look back to some very thrilling moments during the 2010 season, including victories over 10-win Missouri and Oklahoma State squads, both ranked in the Top 10 at the time.

Not Enough

However, 10 wins and a Holiday Bowl vacation were not what anyone Husker was shooting for this season. From coaches to players to fans, 2010 was about beating Texas, winning a final Big 12 championship and breaking through to Top 10 BCS relevance again.
Whoops, 0-3. Yes, that’s disappointing.
If anything, Nebraska’s Big 12 farewell tour will be remembered as the ultimate roller-coaster ride. Dominant wins over Washington and Kansas State delivered on the breathtaking legs of freshman QB Taylor Martinez. The Memorial Stadium meltdown vs. the hated ‘Horns of Texas. Roy Helu’s record-setting romps to leave Mizzou gasping. Martinez winging a wild-west shootout win in Stillwater. The A&M “whack job”. The chance to bow out of the conference against respected rival Oklahoma. Gift-wrapping a Big 12 championship for Bob Stoops, as if he needed another one.

Saturday Questions

Saturday night left me just as puzzled as exasperated. Four turnovers and still a legitimate chance to win the championship in the 4th quarter? A game effort by the Huskers for sure, but, oh, some of those final period decisions!
Bo Pelini was asked post-game if he considered letting kicker supreme Alex Henery try a 62-yard field goal for the tie late in the contest. In retrospect, a subdued Pelini said he maybe should have.
But the real question was, what in the name of Shawn Watson was Taylor Martinez doing dropping back to pass on the previous 3rd-and-8 play? T Mart, limited physically, had become more and more shellshocked by a furious Sooner pass rush throughout the game. NU was at the Sooner 39-yard line and had just churned out 17 yards in four plays using Rex Burkhead and the ‘Wildcat’ formation. Just a couple more yards – and not another damaging QB sack – would have given Henery a mid-50-yard attempt, which seemed practically a chip shot the way he had struck two previous kicks (one a 53-yarder that nearly cleared the top of the goalposts).
On the opposite side of the ball, there was a decision that seemed very tentative by Bo and brother Carl Pelini. The Huskers had great second-half success blitzing OU QB Landry Jones in third-down situations, forcing quick completions short of needed yardage. But on a 3rd-and-forever (actually 24 yards), NU laid back, let Jones bide his time and complete a 23-yard pass that ultimately set up the winning field goal.
While the Blackshirts were again plenty stout enough to deliver a victory Saturday, holding OU to just six points following intermission, that lack of aggressiveness was, to me, puzzling.
Of course, it’s easy to make calls from the living room couch and even more convenient to judge in hindsight, but that’s the nature of coaching at a school like Nebraska. There will be second-guessing. Questions, sometimes without easy answers.

Where To From Here?

If there’s one thing to take from Saturday’s defeat and the ultimate disappointment of 2010, it’s that some offensive changes need to be considered in Lincoln. Scheme, personnel, coaches. Something. Everything.
It’s one thing to rack up gaudy statistics against pedestrian opponents. Another to continually struggle vs. quality competition. You can count the offensive touchdowns scored by Nebraska in its last seven losses, spanning the past two seasons, on one hand. Four. That’s right, four. Total.
Sorry, that can’t all be laid on a bad Taylor Martinez ankle.
Bo Pelini has done a phenomenal coaching job in his first three years at the helm of the Husker ship. The Blackshirts are again the pride of the state and maybe, just maybe, the best defense in college football for a second straight season.
But Bo didn’t sign up for Holiday Bowls. Nebraskans don’t pine for annual trips to San Diego.
There’s more out there waiting for the Husker program. More consistency. More points. More clutch performances in key games. To heck with etiquette, it’s time Nebraska got “offensive”.
At some schools, 10 wins and a Holiday Bowl berth would be cause for euphoria. In Nebraska, it’s enjoyable, yet disappointing.
This off-season, as the Huskers prepare for new adventures in the Big Ten, Bo needs to search for the elusive key that unlocks that final door blocking Nebraska’s return to championship status.
It may take tough decisions. It may mean saying goodbye to some familiar faces and hello to new ones. That’s part of the price to transform from the nation’s best defensive coordinator to one of its best head coaches.
Make a list Bo, check it twice.
No more sacks of coal for Christmas.

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