Published Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 5:29 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: NU stubs its toe again; sounds like a broken record

MINNEAPOLIS — It's time to point the finger, not the thumb.

There aren't enough fingers in the good state of Nebraska to single out the culprits in an unthinkable 34-23 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Only one finger will be necessary, however.

This is Bo Pelini's program. This is his team. This was his brutal loss.

So many will blame this on quarterback Taylor Martinez, a handy scapegoat. But that's misguided.

As if Tommy Armstrong would have had a chance against that pass rush. Or the countless dropped passes. Or the play-calling. Or what passed for Blackshirt defense on a hide-your-eyes Saturday.

Or the general malaise with which the Huskers approached the Big Ten homestretch, off a bye week, no less.

We can have a nice, spirited debate on the reasons for this loss. But first let's give credit to where it's due: Minnesota outplayed, out-toughed and outcoached Nebraska.

Yes, the Gophers, whose head coach watched from the press box.

Nebraska's head coach looked on, helplessly, from the sideline.

At face value, it looked like Nebraska's soft-serve schedule caught up to it Saturday. That's a legit issue. But let's be honest, this wasn't Ohio State or Wisconsin or UCLA that flattened the Big Red here.

Minnesota pushed the Huskers all over the field, and that's going to sting a while.

There weren't a lot of answers afterward down the Husker tunnel. But the head coach laid out all you needed to know, quote by quote, in his press conference.

“I'm disappointed how this football team took the field today,” Pelini said. “It's a team loss. We need to do some soul-searching. We didn't have the type of approach we needed to have.”

In the sixth season of a program. In a conference game. Why in the world would Nebraska not show up for this game? Why would this program, with its history, take anyone lightly?

“We're talking basic football,” Pelini said. “Basic football. We didn't execute.”

Heard that one before, have you?

“You have to have respect for this game. We talked about it last night.”

It's happened before. It's a product of the culture.

“They out-physicaled us. That's the most disappointing thing that I saw. ... You can't hit a guy at the line of scrimmage, and, the next you know, it's second-and-5.”

It's time to stop talking about youth on defense. Sure, Minnesota shaked and baked with a couple of passes to the tight end and some shifting before the snap. But, at its core, this was about mano a mano. And Minnesota, down 10-0, fought back. Nebraska didn't.

“We didn't play smart football at times,” Pelini said. “We didn't react well during a game.”

This is the most maddening thing of all for those of us who thought Pelini was hired to instill a spirit of physical and tough football. Smart football. Resilient football. Soulful football.

But teams are often a reflection of their head coach. And while Pelini has always talked a tough game, his teams don't play one when they need it.

This game was Pelini's Huskers to the core. This is an inconsistent program, one that gets in its way too frequently. Not showing up? Not playing smart? Wasting timeouts to get organized so you avoid delay of game? Six years later?

This staff has been outcoached before, but typically when it's an underdog or overmatched, by the likes of Ohio State or UCLA. Now you can add Matt Limegrover to the list.

Minnesota's offensive coordinator pushed all of the right buttons on Saturday, from faking a Wildcat on the goal line to throwing three passes to wide-open tight end Drew Goodger for 68 yards, including a gutsy one on a third-and-long.

But Limegrover wasn't just on a roll. Minnesota players weren't bashful afterward about saying they had studied up on the film of how Wisconsin had gashed NU's defense in the Big Ten championship game last year.

So Pelini and Co. still haven't fixed those leaks?

A word about Martinez: He played well at times, especially throwing the ball on the first touchdown drive. He had a 35-yard run when he looked like the old Taylor. He wasn't sharp at other times.

But he wasn't himself. And if you want to question playing Martinez, do it because Martinez afterward admitted he wasn't 100 percent. Wasn't he going to sit out until his turf toe was healed?

It's actually two toes, Martinez said afterward. He didn't say which ones. He wouldn't answer when asked if the toes were sprained.

He said he hurt them back in the Wyoming opener, along with his left shoulder. Martinez gave the impression that the injuries might linger a little longer, possibly all season.

Maybe you try Armstrong or senior Ron Kellogg to shake things up, to light a spark, any spark. But it seemed like a moot point.

Both quarterbacks would have had to deal with a Minnesota defensive line that was consistently pushing NU's line back. Or the drops of catchable balls from receivers.

Or the unwillingness to stay with the run game when Ameer Abdullah (8.7 yards per carry) was gashing the Gophers.

Or a defense that allowed Minnesota a 35:37 to 24:23 advantage in time of possession.

You can say this: The big edge Martinez has on Armstrong is the ability to read defenses and recognize a defense's bluff. Late in the game, with Nebraska badly needing a first down, a quarterback draw on third down bogged down.

Pelini said it was not a Martinez audible. He said the play was called from the sideline. He said Minnesota bluffed the Huskers into it.

So now what?

This one will be hard to overcome. This was tantamount to the first Bill Callahan loss to Kansas in 2005. This had a turning-point feel to it. The fan base has certain expectations. Losing to Minnesota — getting outslugged and outcoached by Minnesota — is not among them.

Today those fans are upset. They should be.

There are five games left in a division that's up for grabs. But I don't see Pelini washing the stink off from this one, unless he beats Ohio State and goes to the Rose Bowl.

Did I just write that?

The sound you heard is the clock starting on Pelini's time in Lincoln. There's a new athletic director, and though Shawn Eichorst doesn't show his cards, you can be sure this is not what he has in mind for Nebraska football.

Pelini was hired to prevent exactly this kind of thing from ever happening again, when he was hired, back in 2007, back when he was the hot defensive coordinator who had all of the answers. That seems like a really long time ago.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:



Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez after the game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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