Published Monday, September 16, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:45 am
Nyatawa: NU pays price for pursuit of perfection

LINCOLN — Junior Jamal Turner clutched the football with both hands and slammed it into the turf before picking himself off the ground early in the second quarter Saturday.

He'd just misjudged a punt.

He didn't catch it on the fly and he panicked. He chased after the football and unsuccessfully reached down to pick it up. He fell on it 3 yards short of the end zone.

It was a mistake. An obvious one. And Turner was upset.

He handed the football to the referee and took a few steps. Then he put both palms on his helmet and bent over, too consumed with frustration to keep walking toward the sideline. He took a few more steps and dropped his head again. Eventually, sophomore Sam Burtch trotted out to Turner and put his arm around his teammate as the two made their way off the field.

Credit Turner for his passion, yes, but what stood out were the circumstances. By no means, in the moment, could it be theorized that Nebraska's chances of winning were in jeopardy just because Turner misplayed a punt. The Huskers actually extended their lead a few minutes later.

Yet Turner reacted as if he'd cost the team a championship. So why so much shame?

Coach Bo Pelini perhaps revealed the answer to that question Monday, saying that his strict demand for perfection might be limiting the players' ability to respond in the face of adversity. The guys spent so much time trying to meet his unattainable standard that they weren't prepared for a crippling onslaught of doubt that surfaced when they did fail.

But Pelini wants to change that now. He said Monday that the players need to have fun again.

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“That's the only way you are going to be able to reach your potential as a football player, as a football team,” he said.

How Pelini goes about reconfiguring his players' approach remains to be seen. He chose not to reveal the specifics of his plans Monday.

It's quite a midseason project, though. His be-perfect-or-else culture is rooted deeply into the fabric of this program after five seasons.

Unintended consequences have been revealed in the form of team-wide mental meltdowns since 2011 — Saturday's game against UCLA being the most recent case.

The players tried so hard to be flawless, they started focusing on avoiding errors they hadn't even made yet. They forgot how much easier the game gets when they're thinking only about showcasing their skills and enjoying the moment.

That's the way Ameer Abdullah says he plays. “I am the starting (running) back at Nebraska,” he said. “I don't have time to really dwell on mistakes. I have to take it in stride and just continue to play at a high level.”

Even for Abdullah, he said his mentality was built over time.

Senior Cole Pensick's the same way. He's unshakable now.

But when Pensick first moved to the center spot three years ago and “had snaps all over the place” during practice, he couldn't stop thinking about his flaws. It got to a point where he'd line up for the next rep without paying enough attention to his pre-snap reads or concentrating fully on his blocking duties and technique.

It appears that not enough Huskers can truthfully admit they've moved past similar fixations.

Redshirt freshman defensive end Avery Moss admitted he had trouble shaking the images of his missed sack on UCLA's Brett Hundley during Saturday's game. Even two days later, he was tormented. “It hurts too bad,” he said.

Senior Ciante Evans tapped his helmet and swung his fist through air after he missed a tackle that led to a 36-yard pass play in the third quarter. He was mesmerized by a run fake two snaps later, allowing a UCLA player to catch a short touchdown behind him. Evans snapped off his chinstraps in disgust.

And then there's Turner, who wasn't the same after he misplayed the punt Saturday. Where did his mind go after the mistake? Hard to tell. Turner did not speak to reporters after the game or Monday afternoon.

But his three most prominent moments on ABC's broadcast after that: getting an earful from Pelini after an illegal formation penalty, injuring his foot and dropping a pass in the third quarter.

Turner can still bounce back — and he most certainly will. Same goes for the rest of the Huskers who had nightmare games Saturday.

Getting them to recover in the heat of the moment is the next step for Pelini. It just doesn't exactly seem like an overnight fix.

* * *

Video: Pelini's Monday press conference

Video: Ameer Abdullah

Video: Avery Moss

Video: Jeremiah Sirles

Video: Randy Gregory

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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