Derek Johnson Muses

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The Rise: Does the Big 10 Need Nebraska to Whip Everyone?

Looking in…

Steve Spurrier’s success at Florida in the 1990’s had an impact that went beyond the Gators. Yes, the fun-and-gun was one of the first passing offenses that began to take football by storm in the late 1990’s, but Spurrier’s penchant for running up the score began to raise the standards of many of the schools in the SEC, getting good coaches fired and raising the level of play in the conference to where it is today.

Yesterday in East Lansing, Husker fans saw a piece of how they may just shape the Big 10 going forward. While it wasn’t a huge win, going on the road and beating a consistent Michigan State team they hadn’t lead all day was again a sign of how Nebraska’s basketball-on-grass offense is pushing them to the front of the pack.

There haven’t been that many times  in the past ten years when Nebraska fans have been overtly optimistic. At points in 2003, fans saw the potential if they could only get better players, but that staff was soon scrapped to satisfy Steve Pedersen’s ego. Then there was the 2006 off-season, post-Alamo Bowl win over Michigan, where Husker fans hoped Zac Taylor could get them a conference title, and of course, the glow of the 33-0 Holiday bowl shutout of Arizona. The Pelini years have been good, don’t get me wrong, but now that Pelini’s gone 4-1 in a huge stretch in the Big 10, fans have reason to believe the team can be viable for years to come.

To his credit, Pelini hasn’t rested on his defensive laurels, and instead, has innovated offensively. When the Huskers moved to the Big 1o, Pelini could have justified keeping a grind-it-out, milk-the-clock offense. Instead, he brought in the spread, and now, a fan base that used to go cold at the first sign of trouble begins to believe their team can comeback when they are down two score with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. That wrinkle is how a coach buys multiple years in a place.

But the Huskers remain a paradox in and off themselves. While they deliver in the clutch, they wouldn’t even be in that position if not for penalties and turnovers getting the better of them. Yesterday, starting field position was again an issue, with only Nebraska drives starting past their own 31, and their own 42 and 45 respectively. But the bottom line is, the team doesn’t give up. They are built to come back in games, and if they are this good, imagine how good they could be if they actually got some turnovers in their favor.

Saturday was a good-to-great moment for Nebraska football. They came in off a big win, primed for an upset against a so-so team that was better than their record. There’s no question that Nebraska could have squashed Sparty in Lincoln. But the game was in East Lansing, and the Spartans got the game they needed from Le’veon Bell and their defense to stay in it. Nebraska just had a little more.

It maybe a bit premature to say that Bo Pelini is going to get coaches fired in the Big 10. Really, Urban Meyer is more likely to get coaches fired in the Big 10, with his aggressive recruitership alongside his offense. But both Meyer and Pelini bringing this exciting offense to the Big 10 is a good thing, and if they keep coming back or blowing out good teams, it’s going to be a rough go for the rest of the league.

Bo Pelini and crew are one step closer to their goal of a Big 10 crow, and the schedule is softening slightly. Penn State is a better team now than was expected, but Nebraska gets them at home. Fans should still be concerned about Pelini throwing in a charity loss to Minnesota or Iowa, but as we saw on Saturday, this crew can match anyone, and pretty soon, they’re going to get their best player back. Yes, Burkhead the Beast may return soon, but it says a lot to the leadership of this team that they’ve won all these games without him. That’s something to believe in.

Comebacks on my Birthday: Reflections on this Past Years’ Nebraska-Ohio State game

On my birthday this year, I was sitting out in the rain and feeling miserable. Well, at least I was for a while. After a bit, I went home happy and dried off, but for a while, I was just wet and miserable.

My birthday is October 8. Nebraska was hosting Ohio State, in a game that I had looked forward to for over a year. Nebraska would have played Kansas State, had the Big 12 stayed as it was, but now, they were playing one of the big boys. My dad had gotten the two of us tickets to the game, aisle seats about forty rows up in south endzone, a section west of the student section. What was as bad as the first half was that there were a bunch of guys who were sitting in the row adjacent to our seats. They were told to move by one of the security guys in orange vests, then by an uniformed cop. Thankfully, they left at halftime.

When Nebraska was down 27-6 in that game, all I could think of was that Kirk Bohl of the Austin-American Statesman would be writing a column talking about how the Huskers were in over their heads in the Big 10. Here was the dilemma of being a Nebraska die-hard the past ten years-taking the scorn of not living up to the expectations was next to impossible. The first people had begun to leave the game when Ohio State got the ball for the second time in the third quarter. In my head, I had myself begun to calculate mentally when exactly I would want to leave stadium sure that the game was out of reach; thankfully, I never picked the time.

Same day two years earlier, I had been sitting in the Joyo Theater contemplating the exact same thing on a third down play early in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was down 12-0. As that game worn on, I was almost gleeful. While Nebraska was down 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, I comforted myself with the notion that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Nebraska’s last two losses to Missouri. The defense had manhandled Missouri upfront; the only points Missouri had managed were hard earned. I thought well, we won’t win the Big 12 North this year, but hey, Missouri’s defense is tough. But as Nebraska’s defense began dropping interception, I started to think that Missouri had just been lucky up to that point.

So as I was thinking about leaving, Zac Lee’s threw one up to Niles Paul, shocking me that he actually got the ball more than fifteen yards from line of scrimmage. When Paul caught the ball and stumbled into the end zone, the theater erupted. It had felt as if the Huskers were down by four touchdowns, but after that touchdown, it felt like they were ahead. As it felt like they could literally do no wrong, they stormed back to win 27-12, and as Roy Helu scored the games’ final touchdown, I turned to my Dad and whispered, “Best birthday ever”.

Two years later, as Ohio State took the ball again in the third quarter, the feeling that Nebraska would once again be the sorry program who lived in the nineties took over, and in this game, Nebraska looked even more over matched on the lines. And to think that this could be the weakest Ohio State team Nebraska played in the next ten years, who could steal Nebraska’s coach at the end of the season? The results when I walked out of the gate would be unbearable.

The third down where LaVonte David stripped Braxton Miller felt so surreal; I wasn’t celebrating it at first, because I thought they might rule Miller down on replay because David came away with the ball after the fact. But seeing it again, I could tell that David had wrestled the ball away, like an unwilling hand-off. I didn’t feel that sensation of an instant turnaround, but when Taylor Martinez scored a touchdown on the second play after the fumble, having set up the Buckeyes perfectly for the middle keeper, I felt Nebraska had a chance.

In retrospect, many of the similarities between the Missouri comeback and the Ohio State comeback exist, although I didn’t think of them during the game. I didn’t see it until I watched the game again, but it was when Joe Bauserman came into the game on third down that the crowd really came back to life. When Bauserman threw a pass ten yards out of bounds on third down, I began to think Nebraska had a realistic chance to comeback, a thought that I finished when Quincy Enumwa caught the long touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez with 2:21 left in the third, cutting the deficit to a touchdown. That series of plays was two plays in the Missouri game-Ndamukong Suh’s interception of Blaine Gabbert, followed by Niles Pauls’ second touchdown pass two plays later. The longer gap in the Ohio State game really had be holding my breath and thinking maybe.

Obviously, more fortuitous things came up in the Ohio State game, given that Nebraska was down three touchdowns. If Braxton Miller doesn’t get injury, it severally hurts Nebraska’s chances, and if Ohio State doesn’t have an interim coach, they could have had the leadership to withstand the bleeding. But both games signified the making of Nebraska’s season that year: the win at Missouri was Nebraska’s ticket to the Big 12 title game (and their first win in Columbia in eight years), and the win against Ohio State was Nebraska’s first Big 10 win, a win that kept Nebraska among the top 25 for the year, and most importantly, the biggest comeback in school history. If Nebraska had lost the Ohio State game, they would have gone done in the bowl pecking order, and this off-season would be even worse.  After ten years of watching Nebraska fail to come back after several things didn’t go their way in a game, it was rewarding to see them come back, especially against one of the nation’s elite programs.

At the end of the game, the rain was over and my dad and I went to the car, stopping by The Mill for a smoothie and tea. I was still wet, but it was a night that you could believe in magic, if you really wanted to. I can’t wait to see who Nebraska is playing Saturday, October 8, 2016. Or if they get a Thursday night game on October 8, 2015.

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