Arkansas State vs. Nebraska, 9.15.2012

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini works the officials during a 2012 contest at Memorial Stadium.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

One trait of Bo Pelini that I've long respected is his determination to maintain perspective while grappling the monster that is college football.

He is a family man to his core. It always will be family first.

As for many of the rest of us, well, our perspective goes a bit haywire when it comes to Nebraska football. Yeah, it's a monster. A year-round terror. I've witnessed the monster devour Husker coaches and players who didn't quite live up to media and fan standards. 

I've watched it devour Husker coaches and players who came up short in games like Saturday's at Memorial Stadium.

After Nebraska's historically inept defensive performance last Saturday night against UCLA, more than a few Husker-loving folks were poised to pounce on Pelini. One more slip-up, and boy, ol' Tom Osborne had better get that short list ready. Losing to Arkansas State would have represented more than a slip-up. It would have sent our state into a tailspin.

Yeah, Saturday's game felt extremely important.

Then, suddenly, it didn't feel important.

The game felt secondary, even mundane, when we learned the 44-year-old Pelini was taken to a Lincoln hospital at halftime. He was done coaching for the day.

Nebraska prevailed 42-13, and that will keep the wolves at bay for at least another week.

The best news, however, arrived during the postgame news conference, when Nebraska assistant athletic director Keith Mann read the following statement from Pelini:

"Everything is fine. They ran some precautionary tests and everything checked out just fine. I plan to be back at work (Sunday). I'm proud of our team and coaching staff for the way they responded this afternoon."

I talked to one of Pelini's friends a couple of hours after the game ended. He told me Bo looked terrible shortly before kickoff.

Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis noticed during the first half that Pelini wasn't as vocal as usual on the sideline.

It seems Pelini was regaining some of his typical fire as day turned to night.

"I know he was pissed and embarrassed more than anything," his friend said.

Anybody who really knows Pelini understands the last thing he would want is for any game to be about him.

He would want this game to be about his team rebounding admirably from an embarrassing (his word) night in the Rose Bowl. The offense, led by Taylor Martinez (13-for-14 passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns), was sharp most of the day, save for those four lost fumbles in the second half.

The defense swarmed to the ball and improved its tackling.

Pelini would want this game to be about his defense digging in hard in the third quarter after an alleged muffed punt — no way Ameer Abdullah touched that ball — gave Arkansas State (1-2) possession at Nebraska's 15-yard line, trailing 28-10. The Red Wolves, down 28-3 at halftime, suddenly were breathing down Big Red's neck.

Pelini is the team's emotional leader. The players and coaches feed off Bo during critical moments. Pelini, though, was in a hospital, pissed and embarrassed. He would've been peacock-proud of his defense in this instance, as Arkansas State settled for a field goal.

"We play our asses off for him," said redshirt freshman linebacker David Santos.

Pelini would've been equally proud of his offense, which responded to the defense's third-quarter stand with a 12-play, 57-yard touchdown drive during which the Huskers (2-1) pounded out 11 rushes. Abdullah, perhaps the smallest workhorse running back in the land, toted six of those carries for a twisting, turning, hard-fought 17 yards.

To be sure, Pelini would want this game to be about the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Abdullah, who darted and dashed and drilled defenders during a memorable performance (30 carries for 167 yards and two TDs).

Pelini would want this game to be about senior safety P.J. Smith, a member of the coach's first recruiting class at Nebraska. It's easy to recall the excitement in Bo's voice when he landed Smith out of River Ridge, La. Smith came up big, hustling for a team-high nine tackles, including a sack, while intercepting a pass to stop a scoring threat.

Pelini would want this game to be about Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who shared head-coaching duties in Pelini's absence. Because he was on the field, Papuchis had more on his shoulders. Nobody fully understands how it feels to be the boss until they're the boss.

The big boss, Pelini, was in a hospital, ticked off. It's very possible the monster that is Nebraska football took a chunk out of Bo this week.

"It's been a very trying and emotional week," Papuchis said.

But you can bet Pelini, as the angst and negativity threatened to permeate the program, maintained perspective. Or at least tried. And guess what? His absence Saturday provided many of us with a healthy dose of perspective.

At least I hope that's the case.

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

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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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