Published Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 9:46 pm / Updated at 8:27 pm
Chatelain: Gophers reverse roles on once-vaunted Nebraska

MINNEAPOLIS — Just because it was doesn't mean it will be.

Sounds like something Vince Lombardi or Knute Rockne would say from a dark and dungy locker room. They aren't the legends I was thinking of Saturday.

Ever heard of Henry Williams and Bernie Bierman? In the first half of the 20th century, they coached Minnesota football for 38 combined years. They won 75 percent of their games — and combined for six national championships.

In 1960, the Gophers beat Nebraska in Lincoln and went on to win another national championship, their seventh. Then the damnedest thing happened.

A new football king emerged on the Great Plains. Devaney and Osborne became the new Williams and Bierman.

And for 36 years — from Los Angeles to South Bend, Ind., from Norman, Okla., to the Canadian border — there wasn't a program that could hang with Nebraska. The Huskers built an empire, winning 83 percent of their games and five national titles.

That's the era in which I was born — maybe you, too. Had you told me growing up in the '80s and '90s that Minnesota dominated college football during my grandfather's time, I would've thought you were talking about Hayden Fox's Screaming Eagles.

After 1960, the Gophers lost their way, momentarily at first, then permanently. Coach after coach (including Lou Holtz) tried to find the path back to the glory years until everybody just kind of forgot about 'em.

Just because it was doesn't mean it will be.

Minnesota and Nebraska met again Saturday. And for the first time in 53 years, the Gophers prevailed. The last 3Ĺ quarters, they made NU look like the worst 5-2 team in the country. They stole Wisconsin's Big Ten championship game plan and pounded Nebraska's chin straps all day. NU looked like a program that believed it could show up, put on the uniform and win by default.

We can critique Tim Beck's play-calling* or Rick Kaczenski's defensive line. We can break down the offense's alarming lack of poise or the defense's stunning lack of backbone. We can study Taylor Martinez's tender toes and ask how a team coming off a bye week looked so embarrassingly underprepared. All are issues worthy of analysis.

(*The fact that Nebraska tailbacks had 21 carries versus Martinez's 30-plus dropbacks defies logic. Yes, Minnesota was playing NU receivers one-on-one, daring Beck to throw. But when Martinez is off target and Ameer Abdullah is averaging 8.7 yards per carry, give No. 8 the ball.)

But at the end of the day, I come back to this truth: If I had put Nebraska and Minnesota in shirts and skins, you wouldn't have known which one has decades of tradition and which one doesn't.

Match up the same teams next Saturday and there's no reason to think the same thing wouldn't happen. The Gophers were better. More intelligent. More disciplined. More focused. More intense. Better.

And you know what? It came as no surprise (after Wisconsin and UCLA, it's gonna take a lot to shock me). It felt normal. Way, way, way too normal.

The players' faces on the sideline looked the same. Bo Pelini's postgame press conference sounded the same.

“I thought they out-physicaled us,” Pelini said. “That's the most disappointing thing that I saw.”

Out-physicaled? By Minnesota. Let that sink in.

Just because it was doesn't mean it will be.

Let's play a little game called “Name that Program.” These are notable accomplishments for three programs from August 2002 to present:


Program A: 94-53
Program B: 93-55
Program C: 97-54

BCS bowls:

Program A: 2
Program B: 0
Program C: 0

Top-10 finishes:

Program A: 4
Program B: 1
Program C: 0

If you were going to rank those three, you'd probably say A, then B, then C, right?

Program A is Iowa. Program B is Missouri, which is likely headed for another Top-10 finish. Program C is Nebraska.

This isn't the '80s and '90s. There is no rule saying Nebraska will be Nebraska again. The pendulum doesn't always swing back.

You know how old Ameer Abdullah was in 1994? One. Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry weren't even born.

Now Oregon and Baylor are the coolest programs in college football. Now the Huskers are closer to Minnesota than Alabama. At least on the field.

What's it mean?

Shawn Eichorst had better be ready for big decisions. Because the stakes couldn't be higher for his football program, for his university, for the identity of his state.

Big Red can endure one wrong turn, maybe two. But if Pelini fails, too? Suddenly the road back to the glory years feels like a corn maze.

This is not Texas or USC. This is not Ohio State or Florida.

At Nebraska, you have to earn your empire. You have to find coaches who not only recruit with vigor and draw up solid schemes, but teach the fundamentals better than their competitors. You have to find visionaries who can step back, recognize a problem and identify an answer.

You have to recruit prospects who possess not only talent, but passion. You have to develop leaders who don't let a day like Saturday happen.

Just because it was doesn't mean it will be.

After the Gophers had clinched victory and celebrated at midfield with their fans, Minnesota acting coach Tracy Claeys addressed his team's confidence level. How do you upset an opponent that you haven't beaten since 1960?

“The past,” Claeys said, “has nothing to do with how we play today.”

In Nebraska, that's a hard lesson to learn.

* * *

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: Dirk Chatelain    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.



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