Published Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:55 pm
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Bo's boys show guts, and they might be building something

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If someone with a big title were to evaluate the Nebraska football program based on what unfolded Saturday, in the snow globe that was Beaver Stadium, the first thing he or she would need to do is put down the pen and paper.

And applaud.

If you appreciate the purity of character in sport, if you see the honor in honest effort, there was a lot to like about Bo Pelini's team here.

Nebraska beat Penn State — a hearty group that will likely finish 6-6 — by a field goal in overtime. But as usual with these Huskers, it wasn't so much how they won as it was how they refused to lose.

They won with their third-team quarterback, Mr. Hail Mary, trying to make plays behind the patchwork offensive line and handing off to the hobbled running back, who gutted out a 147-yard effort.

They won despite this year's ESPY award-winner for worst call of the year, a personal foul on NU wide receiver Sam Burtch that brought back Ameer Abdullah's touchdown run that could have won it in regulation.

Burtch was one of a handful of Huskers escorting Abdullah to the end zone and decided to throw a block on a Penn State defender who was trailing the play.

The call? Unnecessary block.

Unnecessary call is more like it.

It's always something when these two get together, isn't it? A sideline catch or a fumble at the goal line. The “unnecessary block” looked to fit right in, especially when the Huskers were held to three points after being denied six.

They survived that punch to the gut. They then backed themselves up against the ropes, committing an illegal procedure to nullify Pat Smith's field goal that would have won it in overtime.

They backed up five yards and Smith made it again, from 42 yards.

Then the coolest thing happened, and you had to appreciate it, even if you don't appreciate this 8-3 season that seems destined for an Outback or Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Smith sprinted toward the other end of the field in celebration while his teammates followed him, then mobbed him and lifted him up. They hooted and hollered and hugged like they had won the Big Ten, like someone was about to start putting roses in their teeth.

Not exactly. The Huskers are headed for Tampa or Tempe, other-bowl status again.

They've got people dogging them again, the program that can't figure it out, the coaches under fire, the rumors that won't go away.

And yet they dragged themselves out there in the open-air freezer that was central Pennsylvania, with a frosty wind that whipped in all directions and hit like a sledgehammer. And they played their guts out.

For their coaches. For themselves.

Yes, it's the same season over and over. The same bowl trip, over and over. And yes, Pelini's teams are known for being tough and resilient, never giving up. We know that after six years.

You might even shrug this one off as a pillow fight filled with ice cubes, a Big Ten slogfest, between teams going nowhere this season. Just playing for pride, playing for the right to walk off the field victorious, being able to look yourself in the mirror.

I think that's the Nebraska football you want, along with the roses and oranges and fiesta chips.

These Huskers give you half of that and have done it with people writing them off, writing off their coaching staff. They've done it with thrills and spills. It's not orthodox. It's never dull.

But they're going for nine wins Friday and they can hit 10 again this season, and that was the number everyone expected, but no way they expected it like this.

What they look like is a lot of fun to coach.

“I told them I'm proud of them,” Pelini said, his voice cracking. “I told them last night it is an honor for me to coach this group of guys.

“It's a special group of kids. There's something special going on here with these kids.”

Ron Brown, the longtime assistant coach, has seen a lot of something special in his time in Lincoln.

“This is a family,” Brown said. “This is the culture Bo has created. They're very tight. We yell and scream and cry and hug together and then we start back at ground zero. It's taken six years, but we've learned to get over the emotions and get back to ground zero.”

What makes a guy like big No. 71, Jeremiah Sirles, put himself back in the lineup a second straight game with a bum knee? It's not the Outback Bowl watch that's coming his way.

“We do it because we are playing for each other,” Sirles said. “You play for legacy. You play because you want to be remembered like this for a long time.”

Maybe, just maybe, there's a member of the 1992 or 1993 Nebraska team who just nodded his head.

“Championship teams get all the credit,” Brown said. “But if you ask them, they'll tell you that it was the guys on the teams before, in 1992 and 1993, who built it. They set up the culture that turned into a championship.

“We are not going to win the Big Ten championship. But this team is building something. This team has a lot of young guys who are maturing into a team right before our eyes.

“I think we're setting the stage for something special, to be honest with you.”

That sounds like a sales pitch directed to the ears of an athletic director. But Brown, who has worn championship rings and was also fired on Frank Solich's staff 10 years ago, speaks from the heart. He says what he believes.

The Huskers turned it over five times to Michigan State. They were listless at Minnesota. It's not all youth. When NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst makes his evaluation after the season, there's a big picture to consider, and that means the good, bad and ugly.

But if you're Eichorst, and you see a team that refuses to fold, a team with every reason to not show up for this one but showed up big, you have to ask yourself one question.

What if Brown is right?

There's another game on Friday. A whole other week to talk about what's necessary and where it's all going. But as endorsements go, what happened here Saturday was clearly a team stumping for its exhausted and proud coach.

“Crazy profession,” Pelini said. “You just got to keep coaching, keep playing.

“I'm looking forward to going home and getting some rest.”

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Penn State game:



Video: NU kicker Pat Smith after the Penn State game:



Video: NU quarterback Ron Kellogg after the Penn State 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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