LINCOLN — The dream got adjusted somewhere along the way this fall, and you could pick any number of places where it might have happened.
The Nebraska offense came into this football season with promise and prediction of video-game numbers. And even some bravado.
It limped — perhaps literally, because of injuries — to the finish line of the regular season last Friday settling for doing the best it could with what it had left in a 38-17 loss to Iowa.
“It's been one of the most frustrating years,” NU offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said, “but it's also been one of the most humbling years.”
Barring some kind of bowl game blowup, Nebraska will finish 2013 with lower scoring, rushing, passing and total offense averages than a year ago. It never reached 30 points in any of its last six games and only hung 40 on two 1-11 teams (Southern Mississippi, Purdue) and an FCS opponent (South Dakota State).
Because the setbacks were sprinkled in at different times, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where things went off the tracks:
» It might have happened right away, when quarterback Taylor Martinez injured his foot against Wyoming. The fourth-year starter and holder of multiple school records would play only three more games.
» After scoring 21 points before halftime against UCLA, the Huskers' confidence took a huge hit when their seven second-half possessions were all fruitless and they couldn't help match the Bruins' rally.
» The parade of other injuries started at Purdue with one of the most costly as the Husker offensive line lost second-team All-American Spencer Long for the season.
» After playing turnover-free games in his first two starts, redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong had six interceptions in his next two, and later had three costly turnovers in the loss to Michigan State.
» Any thought that Martinez would maybe fuel a late-season run quickly evaporated when his comeback lasted just one game (a 34-23 loss at Minnesota) and the fifth-year senior went back on the shelf.
» Nebraska basically pieced together offensive lines from week to week as Long, Sirles, Jake Cotton, Mike Moudy, Cole Pensick and Brent Qvale all were injured. The Huskers used different starting fives each of their last five games.
» The situation at quarterback led to fifth-year senior and former walk-on Ron Kellogg playing almost as much as Armstrong down the stretch, and Kellogg made his first career start against Iowa.
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“We had all these high hopes and then it seemed like one after another: Taylor goes down, Spencer goes down, I go down … ,” Sirles said. “The great thing was that a lot of guys showed how tough they were and how they were able to step up. I think Ron Kellogg would have told me I was crazy if I told him he was going to be starting the senior game his senior year.”
Sirles went down the list of others who were left to try and make things work: Armstrong, Ryne Reeves, Sam Burtch, Brandon Reilly, etc. — “guys who just stood up and fought.”
Redshirt freshmen Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore joined Burtch and Reilly as receivers who played more than expected because of injuries or times that starters Jamal Turner, Kenny Bell or Quincy Enunwa were simply banged up. Cethan Carter and Sam Cotton had to be ready right away when Jake Long was out at tight end.
It should turn out to be one of the up sides, Westerkamp said, to a tough situation.
“That was good, having some guys get their feet wet and gain some experience,” said Westerkamp, whose 20 receptions included the game-winning Hail Mary against Northwestern. “Experience is always huge. And all those guys stepped up.”
Nebraska finished the regular season averaging 32.6 points and 421.2 total yards a game, both dropoffs from the Huskers' numbers a year ago (34.8, 460.8) when they made the Big Ten championship game and played in the Capital One Bowl.
The number of returnees from that unit led to the high expectations that Nebraska carried into preseason camp back in August. Third-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck just never got to use them as planned — or when they were all at 100 percent.
“Even (against Iowa) we had some of those guys back, but they're a shell of themselves,” Beck said. “You love them to death because they are battling their butts off out there, but they still are a shell of themselves.”
I-back Ameer Abdullah on Monday was named All-Big Ten after leading the league with 1,568 yards rushing. But the Huskers went from ranking No. 9 nationally in rushing offense after the Illinois game to No. 19 after last weekend.
Bell managed 51 receptions for his second straight 50-catch season, joining Johnny Rodgers as the only Huskers to do so. Enunwa had 10 touchdowns among his 47 receptions.
Nebraska just had trouble generating its production on a consistent basis. Its hurry-up offense then was never quite as effective because of it.
“Nothing's been pretty,” Sirles said. “We didn't have the games like last year where we put up 60-some points. We had to fight for every point we earned and every yard we carried. We found a way to have Ameer have a great season, and it's just a testament to who we are. That's another part of our culture here.”
The Huskers will get one more crack at it after learning their bowl assignment on Sunday. Westerkamp said the NU offense would like to go out on a positive note after all it's been through.
“We faced a lot of adversity throughout the entire season with injuries and what not, but I feel like our seniors led us through the season,” Westerkamp said. “We had some big games, some big wins, and we just kept fighting. That's all we could ask for.”