Steven M. Sipple: All considered, Pelini earns benefit of doubt

2012-12-02T23:45:00Z 2012-12-08T02:27:06Z Steven M. Sipple: All considered, Pelini earns benefit of doubt JournalStar.com

INDIANAPOLIS — He is a complex individual — among the most complex I've met.

So, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Bo Pelini's teams can completely befuddle us.

Start with what I like to call the "wild mood swings." Nebraska football under Pelini has been a wild ride. It can be exhilarating. It can be exhausting. It can be maddeningly frustrating.

You've seen wild comebacks this season. You saw a six-game winning streak and a division championship that perhaps made you feel the program is on solid ground.

Then the ground shattered beneath Nebraska's feet.

Wisconsin averaged 10.7 yards per play — 10.8 yards per rush! — in a 70-31 dismantling so thorough it appeared at times Saturday night that the five-loss Badgers were battering a Football Championship Subdivision program, as opposed to the Big Ten Legends Division king.

Pelini, the fifth-year Nebraska coach, was his usual brutally honest self in the postgame news conference. He said his defense came unglued.

Why?

"Wish I had the answer," he said. "I don't."

If Pelini can't explain it, how can anybody else?

Actually, Pelini came up with an explanation that made some sense. He said Nebraska defenders too often failed to fill the right gaps and make tackles. The Huskers broke down fundamentally. Execution was lacking.

Still, the result made little sense to me.

Oh, it did make a bit of sense in the context of a program that under Pelini has experienced extreme ups and downs. You know, dominate ninth-ranked Michigan State one week, and lose to unranked Northwestern the next (2011).

Lose to unranked Texas one week, then defeat No. 17 Oklahoma State on the road (2010).

Beat 24th-ranked Missouri on the road one week, then lose back-to-back home games to unranked Texas Tech and Iowa State (2009).

You get the idea.

You wonder if Pelini can push the program to the point where it generally avoids such debilitating swings. Plenty of folks are wondering if Pelini is the right man for the Nebraska job. It's only natural to wonder after the latest debacle. The detractors are loaded with ammunition.

I think Pelini, 49-19 at NU, has earned the benefit of the doubt. I still think he is a good head coach. Stay with me, though. It can be a complex discussion.

Pelini is in many ways a strict disciplinarian. He's old-school to his core. His players mostly avoid off-the-field trouble. To be sure, Nebraska is cleaner than most programs in that regard. The team GPA remains excellent. He demands that his players go to class and finish assignments.

Yet they fail to complete on-field assignments and suffer massive breakdowns in the biggest game of the season? It makes no sense.

Pelini demands that his defenders pay attention to detail in practice. He says he needs a rubber room after subpar practices. Then, on the big stage, details fly out the window and Wisconsin's running backs run up and down the field like it's a flag-football game? It makes no sense.

So why does Pelini deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Because of the obvious discipline in the program.

Because of the wealth of high-character athletes and coaches.

Because Nebraska is among only four programs that have won at least nine games per season since 2008. The others are Boise State, Alabama and Oregon.

Because Pelini guided Nebraska to Big 12 North Division championships in 2009 and 2010 before NU captured the Big Ten Legends Division this season with a 7-1 record.

Because, entering Saturday's game, Nebraska — when you combine statistics from the past four seasons — ranked second in pass-efficiency defense, third in pass defense, eighth in scoring defense and ninth in total defense.

Nebraska entered Saturday 15th this season in total defense.

There is ample evidence that indicates Pelini knows what he is doing and is a good head coach with the potential for greatness.

Of course, you saw none of that potential against Wisconsin.

Pelini shouldered the blame. But senior safety P.J. Smith had Bo's back.

"It was a great gameplan," Smith said. "We didn't finish the plays. Everything they did, we practiced."

Although his players likely will continue to have his back, Pelini will feel heat from the fan base as the Huskers prepare to play another immensely difficult game against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. He will tell you he doesn't much care about the criticism, but it's been my experience that he does care.

He is indeed a complex individual. And his team can be even harder to figure out.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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