Tracking Bo Pelini's wild season at Nebraska; more Walkthrough

Thursday November 14th, 2013

After a tumultuous early stretch, Bo Pelini and Nebraska are 7-2 entering a game against Michigan State.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Coaches have their verbal tics. Steve Spurrier often begins orations with "Ooooo-kay." Urban Meyer often recalls that "somebody made the comment" before relaying exactly what that comment was. Nick Saban punctuates points with "aight," which is a shortened form of "all right" commonly used by rappers and, presumably, football coaches from West Virginia.

For Nebraska's Bo Pelini, the go-to phrase is "at the end of the day." He peppers his press conferences with it, usually in the process of explaining some decision he has made. For Pelini, who is not prone to sugarcoating, the most literal translation of the phrase is "when you cut through all the BS." So let's cut through it now.

Pelini's job has appeared to be in jeopardy all season. The Cornhuskers are happy after last week's 17-13 win at Michigan in which the maligned Blackshirts' defense held the Wolverines to -21 rushing yards. But with Michigan State coming to Lincoln this Saturday for a game that should decide the winner of the Big Ten Legends Division, fear lingers that Pelini's Huskers -- now 7-2 -- will finish with four losses for the sixth consecutive season. Pelini has only coached Nebraska for six seasons.

But should Pelini's status be in question? Mack Brown could get pushed out at Texas if he posts a third consecutive season similar to the ones Pelini has posted. But that's Texas. Brown can't swing a Franklin Barbecue brisket without hitting at least 10 blue-chip recruits. The degree of difficulty at Nebraska, as those of us who study the geography of recruiting have said for years, is far higher. Huskers fans may vividly remember winning three national titles in four years in the 1990s, but none of the prospects Nebraska is currently pursuing remembers them. Many of those players do know that Nebraska is far from home and a whole lot colder than the place they live now. Back in the glory days, Tom Osborne could tell recruits from other parts of the country that, unlike at their nearby university, they could play on television regularly at Nebraska. Now, every power-conference team plays every game on television. Being college football royalty only goes so far. As Nebraska, Michigan and Tennessee have learned, the name means nothing without the talent.

That's a hard fact to swallow for fan bases accustomed to decades of winning, and it explains why nine and 10 wins a year aren't considered good enough in Lincoln. Pelini (record at Nebraska: 56-22) is fighting for his job when, in fact, he may be doing the best job anyone can do given the circumstances. That's the risk in making a change. Maybe someone else can do better, but that's exactly what the Nebraska administration reasoned before it fired Frank Solich (record at Nebraska: 58-19) in 2003 and hired Bill Callahan (record at Nebraska: 27-22).

Despite all the drama, Pelini might be able to snuff the torches by beating Michigan State and its ferocious defense on Saturday. For Pelini, this season has featured more twists than a Breaking Bad binge-watching session. It began with some genuine hope that the Huskers would break the 10-win ceiling, or at least raise the four-loss floor. They would shrug off a 70-31 defeat to five-loss Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten title game that raised serious questions about their defense. Maybe they would win the Legends Division again and clash with Ohio State for the Big Ten championship.

STAPLES: Michigan State climbs to No. 13 in latest college football Power Rankings

But a lot of that hope was of the "look at how easy the schedule is" variety, as angry Nebraska fans regularly pointed out to me when the Cornhuskers were left out of SI's preseason Top 25. Rarely did anyone write "look at how good that defense is." In the following three months, Pelini has hopped on and off the hot seat, but the Huskers have never quite played well enough to extinguish the flames. In the process, they have lost quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot injury and three-fifths of their offensive line -- including All-America guard Spencer Long -- to knee injuries.

Here is a snapshot of Pelini's wild season as viewed through his favorite phrase:

• He used it to explain the second-half thrashing by UCLA on Sept. 14, when Nebraska's 21-3 second-quarter lead turned into a 41-21 defeat. "Have I pushed to the extent where they're not having fun any more? Or are they playing not to lose? Trust me, they want to play great," Pelini said at his press conference the following Monday. "A lot of things that happened in the game weren't necessarily physical but at times mental. At the end of the day, that comes back on me. Have I been doing the right things?"

• Pelini used the phrase on his radio show later that week to explain why Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman and athletic director Shawn Eichorst hadn't issued any sort of statement of support following the release of a profanity-laced, two-year-old recording of Pelini ripping Nebraska fans. "I can say this: I have never gotten anything but full support from Shawn Eichorst and our administration," Pelini told listeners, according to the Omaha World-Herald. "But, at the end of the day, their job isn't to take care of Bo Pelini, it's to take care of the football program and do what they feel is in the best interest of the program."

• He used it again to explain getting manhandled at the line of scrimmage in a 34-23 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 26. "We've got to do some soul-searching," Pelini said in his postgame press conference. "I don't know whether we think we're better than we are or what it is, but at the end of the day, we didn't have the type of approach you have to take on the road to go win a football game."

• Pelini also used the phrase in happier times. After a deflected Hail Mary landed in the hands of wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp to give Nebraska a 27-24 win in a game it should have lost to Northwestern on Nov. 2, Pelini broke it out again. "Believe me, there were a lot of mistakes in there. But I thought that was a good team win for us," he said. "I'm proud of those kids and I'm happy for those kids. At the end of the day, that's all that matters. It isn't about me, it's about the kids in that locker room and they came to play."

• Pelini used the phrase six times in his press conference on Monday to review last week's win over Michigan and preview this week's game against Michigan State. He used it when he hinted that senior quarterback Martinez would never take another snap for Nebraska because his injury won't heal. He used it twice when he explained why Martinez didn't travel with the Cornhuskers to Ann Arbor. Later, he used it to explain how his team has persevered in spite of negativity and injuries. "The more we are together, the more we talk about team, team, team, team," Pelini said. "And picking each other up and doing what we have to do and fighting to the end no matter what happens. Believe me, that's what all of our kids are all about. At the end of the day, that's all that you can do is give yourself an opportunity to win."

Indeed, that is all Pelini and his team can do at this point. And if somehow the Huskers can create and seize an opportunity to beat a 6.5-point road favorite whose defense allows only 3.47 yards a play, then Pelini will probably win the division and give himself an opportunity to spend another year in Lincoln. If the Huskers sputter again, however, if they end the season with the kind of bittersweet record they've had every year of Pelini's tenure, then -- fairly or not, wisely or not -- Perlman and Eichorst may elect to make a change.

Because at the end of the day, the record is all that usually matters.

3:49 | College Football
Staples' Midweek Update: Week 12

Pregame adjustments

Ohio State at Illinois: Urban Meyer put a gag order on receiver Evan Spencer for suggesting the Buckeyes would "wipe the field" with other national title contenders. Video of Spencer's interview shows he was pretty clearly joking around, but Meyer overreacted anyway. Nothing anyone says will get Ohio State into or knock Ohio State out of the BCS title game. The Buckeyes just have to keep winning and hope Florida State or Alabama loses. (It also wouldn't hurt if Baylor lost.)

Iowa State at Oklahoma: The Sooners will try to establish an offensive identity against the Cyclones, who aren't nearly as talented on defense as Baylor was. Coach Bob Stoops would not admit play-calling was the offense's biggest issue, even though the play-calling against the Bears wasn't exactly imaginative. So if Stoops is thinking about any changes -- say, switching play-calling duties between co-coordinators Josh Heupel (the current play-caller) and Jay Norvell -- he isn't saying. "Whether it is or not, it isn't something I'm going to acknowledge publicly," Stoops told The Oklahoman this week. "That's something we'll work through in the office with coaches. It's always fair to say there's blame to go around for everybody, but also sometimes when you're getting beat up front it doesn't matter what you call."

Syracuse at Florida State: I was hesitant to write anything about the investigation involving Jameis Winston in this space because this column tends to live on the site through Saturday, and that story looks as if it might change drastically at a moment's notice. When it does, we'll handle it with a separate story. As for the game, Florida State released a statement on Wednesday saying Winston's status had not changed. So it appears he's playing. How the situation affects Winston is anyone's guess.

Georgia at Auburn: Bulldogs coach Mark Richt knows the Tigers haven't been one-dimensional on offense out of necessity. Auburn has attempted just 16 passes in its past two games by choice. If opponents can't stop the Tigers on the ground, they'll simply keep running. "I don't think they're throwing the ball because they don't have to throw the ball. I think they can throw the ball, and I think they can throw it well. We're preparing for that," Richt said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "We're preparing for play-action pass, we're preparing for them taking shots and those types of things that running teams will do to you, so we've got to be ready for that. But I think they'll go into this game like a lot of the other games -- they'll have a plan to do both, and if the team just cannot slow them down running the ball and they keep moving them chains and scoring points, I don't think they're necessarily going to throw it too much if they don't have to." It will be up to Georgia's defense to force Auburn's offense to throw.

MANDEL: Where does surging Auburn land in this week's bowl projections?

Oklahoma State at Texas: Longhorns coach Mack Brown made an excellent point on Wednesday. There are quite a few similarities between the Texas defense and the Oklahoma State offense. Both units have recently changed coordinators -- Oklahoma State in the offseason, Texas in September -- and both struggled to find an identity before improving as the season progressed. In the Cowboys' case, returning to quarterback Clint Chelf after initially benching him in favor of J.W. Walsh was the catalyst for the offense. "Mike [Gundy] has done a really good job," Brown said. "It's become like us here on defense. He changed coordinators on offense but didn't change offenses. Early in the year, they were trying to figure out who they were. They were back and forth at quarterback, ran the option against Mississippi State, and then J.W. came out and Clint went in and then it changed a little bit more. [Texas] Tech is where they became who they are and got excited about it, and that's the type of effort we will see and hear Saturday."

Miami at Duke: If the Blue Devils beat Miami, they'll take control of the ACC Coastal race. If that happens, look up. It might also be raining frogs.

Michigan at Northwestern: Northwestern has lost five consecutive games, but Las Vegas has the Wildcats pegged as a 2.5-point favorite. That's how bad Michigan's offense has been in the past few weeks.

Utah at Oregon: The Ducks will try to recover from their loss last Thursday at Stanford, and they probably will against the Utes. But Stewart Mandel -- or rather one of his readers -- asked an interesting question this week: Has Oregon's brand suffered irreparable damage?

Texas Tech vs. Baylor (in Arlington, Texas): Here's a quote from Texas Tech defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt from the Red Raiders' weekly press conference: "There's been 22 explosive plays against us in the last three games for a lot of yards. That's over 23 yards per play. I can't remember the exact number, there's 600 and some odd yards on 22 snaps. You look at whatever the other number was of the other plays and we're giving up like 3.9 yards per play." Yes, Texas Tech has a giving-up-explosive-plays problem. Yes, Texas Tech is playing Baylor.

Florida at South Carolina: Gators coach Will Muschamp hasn't sounded optimistic about the prospect of quarterback Tyler Murphy playing this Saturday against the Gamecocks. That means redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg will likely make his first start against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. Fortunately for Muschamp, he's already received a vote of confidence from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

Alabama at Mississippi State: The C.J. Mosley-for-Heisman train will gather steam. Just watch.

Stanford at USC: The Trojans are the last real obstacle standing between the Cardinal and a Pac-12 North title. Meanwhile, USC will get a true test of its improvement under interim coach Ed Orgeron. If the Trojans can beat Stanford in spite of their depth issues, Coach O might just be a miracle worker.

Vintage video of the week

Long before Michigan State coordinator Pat Narduzzi's Spartan Dawgs terrorized Big Ten offenses, another great defender roamed East Lansing. His name? Charles Smith. But you'd know Smith better as Bubba, unless you're between 30 and 40. Then you probably know him as Sgt. Moses Hightower. But long before Hightower met Mahoney at the Police Academy, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Smith was virtually unblockable. Smith passed away in 2011, but he's still remembered as one of all-time greats at Michigan State.

Vintage story of the week

Sportswriting was a tad different before every game was broadcast on radio or television. The prose was as purple as a Prince album cover, and the writer typically was the reader's only window into the game. So it was in 1915 when the Atlanta Georgian dispatched O.B. Keeler to cover the Auburn-Georgia game in Athens. The War Eagle Reader, a fine compendium of all things Loveliest Village on the Plains, has collected Keeler's dispatch from the game and posted it for your enjoyment. If the Bulldogs and Tigers play a game on Saturday even half as exciting as the one Keeler described, your TV probably will melt.

Read the story here.

On the menu

Those headed to watch Michigan State play Nebraska can fill up at Phat Jack's BBQ in Lincoln. The brisket is great. So are the ribs. But everyone lines up for the burnt ends. Alas, the only time I visited, the burnt ends were gone. I had arrived at 12:30 p.m. Phat Jacks opens at 11 a.m. That's how fast those burnt ends go.

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