LINCOLN — Two scouts wearing yellow Fiesta Bowl jackets stood in the back of Bo Pelini’s postgame press conference Saturday. They loomed like specters from the past.
Don’t get excited. They were here on behalf of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the Fiesta’s little brother, played on Dec. 28 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
The last time Nebraska played in that stadium? You might recall it as the 1999 season, also the last time the Big Red won a conference championship.
The Huskers’ 2013 fate was sealed Saturday, sealed by their own bumbling, fumbling hands.
There will be no return to Indy, no chance to wash away the stain from last year, no chase of a championship. The season will end the day after Thanksgiving.
No pumpkin pie this year. Instead, they’ll be eating turnovers.
Maybe you didn’t expect Nebraska to win the Big Ten this year. And that’s understandable. Lot of injuries, lot of youth. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez out. Urban Meyer being Urban Meyer. Only the sunniest of lollipop people would expect that.
But this was a Legends Division that was there for the taking. Michigan and Northwestern didn’t get the wake-up call this season. Minnesota’s playing well, but it’s not a great team. And even with the loss to Goldy, NU still had the division lead on a tee.
So that left Michigan State to tangle with, and while the Spartans are good and solid and tough, their defense is not the 1985 Bears and the Huskers had them in their downtown Lincoln crib.
What happened was an overdose of Nebraska hospitality, and the Huskers had to punch in a late score to avoid being lit up by 20 points on their own field.
Say what you want about youth and injuries, but this was a missed opportunity. A disappointment. You don’t win this division, with this setup, it’s disappointing. There’s no way around it.
This was just maddening, because even with youth and injuries, they could have won this one.
The Blackshirt defense doesn’t play like it needs its hand to be held. The pass rush is ferocious. Mr. Randy Gregory and Co. sacked Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook twice and smashed his fender at least a half-dozen other times.
Was it youth that caused those fumbles? Tommy Armstrong’s pitch hit Terrell Newby in the hands on the third play of the game; he dropped it. Armstrong fumbled while being tackled before the half. He fumbled near his own goal line in the third quarter on a mix-up from center.
You can second-guess the play-calling on the Newby play and having Armstrong handle the ball on the fumble before the half. Head coach Bo Pelini was going conservative at that point, just wanted to go into the half down 13-7. Why not just take a knee or let Ameer Abdullah run up the middle?
Coordinator Tim Beck said he’d run the play again, because MSU’s pass rush opened running lanes and he thought Armstrong could go for a big one. He thought wrong, because Armstrong met resistance almost immediately and fumbled.
Second-guess all you want. You still have to hold onto the ball.
Beck did chalk up Armstrong’s interception to inexperience. The defender was sitting on the inside route. Beck said Armstrong should have thrown to the outside receiver. He said he chose wrong.
This was a Husker team with some mojo coming in. Oh sure, the Northwestern game looked like fool’s gold. And Michigan isn’t Michigan. But football is a confidence game, and Nebraska had some confidence.
Magic and mojo, however, don’t win a fistfight with a good, physical team like Michigan State, a team that doesn’t blink often and rarely beats itself. Consistency does. Playmaking does.
The Spartans’ quarterback, sophomore Connor Cook, threw 17 passes in three games last year. He’s basically a first-year starter. Cook kept getting set up near the Nebraska goal line. But he played like a veteran, threading impressive throws to convert third downs in a hostile stadium.
Armstrong’s a young lion. He’s made some big plays in tough situations and looked like cool hand Luke. Beck hugged him afterward and everyone encouraged him and said he’ll learn from this.
The other side to it is that Armstrong has nine turnovers in four games — three each in three games. That’s either nerves that will eventually calm or a turnover issue, one that needs to be corrected. There will be a lot of excitement about Armstrong going into next season. There will also be a kid named Johnny Stanton wanting the ball.
The elephant in the room here is the other quarterback, the guy named Taylor Martinez. There’s certainly a fair line of thinking that Martinez would have had the experience in this kind of game — he led the comeback just last year in East Lansing — and that turnovers wouldn’t have been the issue.
But the old gunslinger has his own turnover issues. He’s forced interceptions and lost a fumble or two trying to make an extra yard.
Then there are the not-so-special teams. Jordan Westerkamp will always be the Hail Mary hero, but Saturday he misjudged a punt from MSU’s Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy Award candidate with a 42.8 average who had the wind at his back. Westerkamp hurriedly retreated to catch a punt that he eventually fumbled.
The bottom line, again, is that Nebraska football can’t get out of its own way.
And that was a maddening thing, because when the Huskers weren’t tripping over their feet, they were running through Michigan State’s defense. Abdullah gashed the Spartans for 123 yards on 22 carries. At times NU looked like the better team.
Looks can be deceiving. The scoreboard is not.
There wasn’t a lot to say afterward, other than the line of the day from receiver Kenny Bell, who said, “Guys played hard, we just didn’t play smart.”
The coaches and players said it was a lesson to learn, a tough education. This was one that got away. The frustration will be tempered by the thought of all the young guys coming back next year, but one nagging question will always follow.
When is the education around here over?
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Michigan State game:
Video: NU receiver Kenny Bell after the Michigan State game:
Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis: