Published Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:34 pm
HUSKER REWIND
McKewon: Time for Bo, Huskers to battle devil in the details

LINCOLN — However many conference or national titles Bo Pelini wins at Nebraska, the signature line for his era has already been spoken. And fittingly for Pelini, he's not the one who said it.

In the wake of the Huskers' 38-17 loss to Iowa, wide receiver Kenny Bell did.

“I would play for Bo Pelini against Satan himself and a team of demons at the gates of the underworld,” Bell said.

There it is. Bell's line is canonical for the Book of Bo. I've heard various other analogies to describe the coach's leadership — bunker, alley fight — but Pelini as a crusader in Hades best fits what he means to his players, assistants and most ardent defenders. They'll laugh about that line for years, at the sheer hyperbole of it, take a pull of a beer, pause and then say, “you know, it's true.”

Coaches and players and select pundits keep talking about a larger battle — beyond wins and losses into right and wrong, into the ink that writes the story of their manhood. There Pelini acquits himself so vigorously that Bell can say — without irony and in the charged air of Friday's press conference, when Pelini's time seemed over — that he'd follow Bo to hell for third-and-long against the devil. It wasn't a joke. That loyalty for Pelini is real. He inspires that kind of rugged romanticism in his players, which probably accounts for the many wins against long-to-ludicrous odds created by Nebraska's current state of inconsistent, chaotic play.

But as the Book of Job tells us, the adversary roams throughout the earth. Football men will tell you he often walks among the details. Nebraska has switched its primary focus — now — away from a larger battle it won to this smaller one that chips away at NU's ultimate goal.

This smaller battle is eliminating two losses per year.

Not winning two more games. The Huskers make so many gaffes they have to win some games three times. NU has to eliminate the big losses and let whatever fire Pelini instilled in them reach the fourth quarter without needing a mad scramble around a messy house.

Nebraska has the stuff for winning. A 10-1 record in Big Ten games decided by 10 or fewer points suggests that. It has to limit losing.

And it's a different kind of devil to slay, because it takes analysis, reflection and control. In lieu of the usual three concerns section, I'll list them here. They'll stand for 13 months. That's a bowl game and all of next season. After 2014 is over, we'll review. These flaws are that ingrained.

» The turnover margin — minus-32 in six years — is a big deal even when it isn't a big deal. For Pelini, it'll have to be a perpetually big deal. No coach with this rate of success in recent years has been so stung by an aspect of the game that — coaches agree — most affects the outcome.

Your best player, a great college football player by nearly every standard, should not lose a fumble in three of your four losses. Your fifth-year senior quarterback who knows the playbook inside-out should not throw the two interceptions he did against Iowa. Whatever staffers NU has in the North Stadium have to plunge headfirst into analyzing every last angle of why the Huskers turn the ball over so often. Does playcalling lend itself to interceptions? Is there a practice drill that needs to be used on game day? Do the Huskers know a first-quarter punt is better than forcing a ball into traffic?

» Special teams have been previously buoyed by great individual talent named Alex Henery, Niles Paul and Brett Maher — and even Paul and Maher had struggles. In their absence, NU's middling at best. And middling execution, at a program that lacks five-star athletes to throw out there at gunner or punt returner, won't do on special teams. It has to be a calling, a passion, a source of intense pride that bleeds into precision. It's not.

Pelini will examine this, I suspect, in the offseason. I'll call now for him to oversee it, to pore over the best fake punts, to find a balance between all-out punt block and allowing opposing punters to make a five-course meal before they kick the ball. Ross Els gets a bad rap right now. He coordinates those units, but the duties are shared among several position coaches.

Pelini should take it, and in turn relieve himself of defensive functions that, if his culture is what he says it is, can be handled by his assistants. Pelini's reputation as a defensive coach is sterling. You'll see why next year, when the defense — presuming Randy Gregory's return — is a nasty piece of business. Nebraska's special teams aren't.

Another thought is to put current coordinator John Papuchis on special teams coordination while Pelini does more of the defense. But I prefer a head coach's firm imprint on the third phase. It's on special teams where the young studs and the old walk-ons fight for a single snap. It'd mean something for Pelini to personally oversee it.

» Four quarters of good football. Not two from the 1999 Huskers and two from the 2007 Huskers. Sustainability. Nebraska needs more games to look like the 17-13 win at Michigan. That was NU's best performance this year by far — and don't let the margin of victory fool you. The Huskers played with a steady confidence, surpassed the Wolverines' physicality and delivered on a clutch, game-winning drive.

Five of NU's last seven losses — and far too many of its wins — have been a roller coaster Pelini wants to avoid. Nebraska needs more consistency, and it may mean changes to Pelini's process.

What kinds of changes? A longer look at the practice regimen and strength and conditioning, for starters. Nebraska guards that stuff fiercely, and if you've seen me in the flesh, hey, I'm no expert. But NU doesn't look dominant. It doesn't appear to have a major physical edge. The Huskers have this fabulous, expensive performance lab in East Stadium. No other Big Ten program has something that elaborate or cool. Time to see what, if anything, it can do.

Iowa's offensive line, healthy though it may be, had a different kind of push to it. Wisconsin, which becomes NU's annual foe starting next year, is boring but bullish. Neither team has the offensive and defensive skill Nebraska does. Iowa's not even close; the Huskers have four running backs who'd start over Mark Weisman. And yet the Hawkeyes won Friday and played NU pretty evenly last year.

Nebraska's struggled with injuries this year, but too many Huskers seemed slow off the turf, too. Perhaps those were young players adjusting to the weekly grind.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck — who got dealt the worst hand of cards you could imagine — still has to pare down his broad, versatile vision a little for an offense that doesn't implode at the same rate it explodes. Spread offenses are more prone to complete meltdowns — see Oregon in losses to Stanford and Arizona — and Big Ten teams seem more opportunistic in the face of those meltdowns. Rich Rodriguez, a great offensive mind, never could make his spread attack work at Michigan. It racked up yards and points, but the Wolverines turned the ball over and exposed the defense in awful ways.

In RichRod's three years at Michigan, the Wolverines were minus-32 in turnover margin.

I've seen that devil of a number somewhere before.

On with the Rewind.

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» Bell: He's caught 22 passes for 225 yards in the last four games. Probably not the average Bell would prefer, but he's had some pretty key grabs in that stretch. His 51 receptions have already surpassed last year's total of 50. He also led the Big Ten in kickoff return average at 28.3 yards per runback.

» Gregory: Another sack Friday leaves him with 9˝ for the season, 17 tackles for loss and 17 hurries. If this were college basketball, we'd be talking about his status as an NBA lottery pick. Since it's football, and the NFL likes to see more than one year of great production, Gregory could return as a junior and play himself into a top-10 pick for the 2015 draft.

» Quarterback Ron Kellogg: Shook off two early interceptions and kept Nebraska in the game until Ameer Abdullah's fourth-quarter fumble. For the year, Kellogg is averaging 5.85 yards per total attempt. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong averaged 5.62 yards per total attempt. Armstrong's the guy for the bowl game if he's healthy, but Kellogg was no also-ran this year. He was every bit as effective as Armstrong.

» Quarterback Taylor Martinez: Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst hasn't been the only quiet one. In hindsight, Martinez's toe injury made a bigger impact on this offense than certainly fans and perhaps even coaches might have predicted.

» Linebacker Michael Rose: With 16 tackles and four tackles for loss, that's your middle linebacker for years to come. Nebraska targeted Rose years before he graduated from high school, and he played into his potential in the last five games. He's a vocal and physical leader, and here's the fact: More linebackers are coming. Wait until redshirts Courtney Love and Marcus Newby are added to the mix.

» Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine: His bull-rush sack is a glimpse into what he can do in 2014.

» Iowa linebackers: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens — all seniors — had a whale of a final Big Ten game, combining for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. And it's possible all three will be shut out of first-team All-Big Ten.

» Iowa safety Tanner Miller: Were it not for a late scholarship offer from Iowa, Miller likely walks on at Nebraska. The senior had 10 tackles Friday.

Five stats

» 66-66: The regular-season record of Nebraska's FBS opponents this year. The four teams that beat NU — UCLA, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa — finished 36-12. The eight teams NU beat finished 30-54. The Huskers' best wins: Michigan (7-5) and Penn State (7-5). The record of Nebraska's 11 FBS opponents at this same stage last year: 78-54. The Huskers' best wins in 2012: Arkansas State (9-3), Northwestern (9-3), Michigan (8-4) and Penn State (8-4). I include Arkansas State because NU lost Pelini at halftime to illness, and ASU's one-year coach, Gus Malzahn, is a frontrunner to win coach of the year at Auburn this season.

» 36th: Nebraska's national rank in total defense at 366.9 yards per game. Want to see the effect of turnovers? NU's scoring defense ranks 55th at 25.3.

Want to see something eerie? Nebraska's defense ranked 35th in total defense 58th in scoring defense at the end of 2012.

You're thinking: It's the same defense! No. Not really. One defense was stuffed to the brim with seniors who should have been impervious to mental errors. One is chock full of younger, more talented players still learning.

What's more: Last year, NU gave up 29 plays of 30 yards or longer, 16 plays of 40 yards or longer, 11 plays of 50 yards and longer and six plays of 60 yards or longer. This year, NU's given up 23 plays of 30 yards or longer, seven plays of 40 yards or longer, one play of 50 yards or longer — and that's it. Better talent and faster players have helped eliminate disasters. The defense has steadily improved throughout the year.

And I know the familiar refrain: Michigan and Penn State's offenses stink. Honestly, they don't. They're not great — but they don't stink. Michigan struggled four weeks in a row against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa. Most teams did. But the Wolverines dropped 41 points and more than 600 yards in a game that Ohio State wanted badly. Penn State racked up 465 yards against Wisconsin on the Badgers' Senior Day.

» 92.11 percent: Opponents' red-zone conversion rate against the Huskers' defense. That's 118th in the country. It's true that the defense has been put in awful spots for two months. Against Iowa, the Hawkeyes scored all five of their touchdowns on drives of 41 yards or shorter. Nebraska's given up touchdowns on 65.79 percent of opponents' red-zone trips. That ranks 96th nationally — tied with Ohio State.

» 39.88 percent: Nebraska's third-down conversion rate. It hasn't been that low since NU converted 38.31 percent of its third downs in 2009. Injuries and middling quarterback play turned that offense into a patchwork quilt. Ditto here.

» 3.04: NU's average yards per punt return.

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Facebook feedback

On my World-Herald Facebook page, I ask fans to submit comments after each game and post select responses here. This week, I asked them to weigh in on Pelini, too. Most comments were posted before Eichorst affirmed Pelini's return.

» “Wins and losses aside, I will always be a Husker fan. I don't have to be a Bo fan. A team will always reflect its coach's personality. Do we have passion? Yes. Do we play hard? Yes. Do we play with consistency? No. If the coach can't control his emotions, how can he teach the team to control theirs?” — Tom Ehly

» “The team is young, and the players and Coach Bo have delivered another winning season, and for some it is not enough. The glory days of the '70s still live on in many Husker hearts. Don't get me wrong, the frustration that we as the fans feel can only be a fraction of what our players and coaches feel as well. However, we have a young team riddled with injuries and every week they walk on the field and are dedicated to the program and even more so to Coach Bo. It is this type of talk of firing and making changes that pulls a team apart.” — Melanie Reichert

» “For Iowa, 281 yards and 14 first downs equals 38 points. Two weeks ago against Michigan State, 361 yards equaled 41 points. It cannot be debated: Teams in the B1G have figured out Pelini's Nebraska. Play it close to the vest, wait for NU's whirling dervish to whirl itself into mistakes, then go for kill shots.” — John Rino

» “Besides the piece in The World-Herald today, all the minions of this paper desire Camelot and the days of Osborne. (Tom) Shatel and the rest of you should know you can never go back. So please let us know when you are ready to support a coach and this program, and maybe then we can start rebuilding this program.” — Jim Phillips

» “Bo issues wouldn't be issues without people like you. YOU'RE the problem, YOU'RE the guy who pours salt in the wounds of this program. Bo has the program in a good position to succeed in the next two years. You have to give him a chance to put that group of Blackshirts through the weight room!” — Mitch Merz

» “This team could easily be 4-8 as much as it could be 10-2. How is that stable? I'm not even addressing Pelini's behavior that returned in the Iowa game. I'm tired of coaches learning on the job at the expense of being paid like top coordinators and coaches. And if they do keep him, we all know this A.D.'s policy of not speaking on the team until end of season is only going to continue all year next season. How is that going to bring stability when he faces tough games early against Fresno State and Miami? There's just too much dysfunction, and the writing is on the wall for next season. I'd hate to be Eichorst now.” — Jim Vance

Opponent watch

Nothing to see here. I still think Nebraska looks good for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., where Texas or perhaps Oklahoma State awaits. UT still has a shot to win the Big 12 title if Oklahoma beats OSU and the Horns beat Baylor. If Texas loses, though, look for the trip to Tempe.

Forecast

Quiet.

* * *

Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Jeremiah Sirles at the postgame press conference:



Video: NU's Kenny Bell at the postgame press conference:



Video: Husker seniors honored before the Nebraska-Iowa game:



Video: Sam McKewon's postgame analysis:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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