Steven Sipple: Pelini makes his pitch. Do you still Bo-lieve?

2013-01-01T23:55:00Z 2013-04-03T21:46:03Z Steven Sipple: Pelini makes his pitch. Do you still Bo-lieve? JournalStar.com

ORLANDO, Fla. — Bo Pelini was in salesman mode Tuesday afternoon.

He told us the future was bright for the Nebraska football program.

He sold fans hope. Many a man has built riches selling hope.

"I think we're going to be a force to be reckoned with," the fifth-year Husker coach said.

Pelini said his team was in better physical condition than sixth-ranked Georgia, a team that came five points from reaching the BCS Championship Game.

Speaking of national title-caliber teams. …

"I don't think we're far away," Pelini said. "We'll be a better football team next year — I believe that."

Do you Bo-lieve that?

Do you Bo-lieve what the irascible head coach was selling in the wake of Georgia's 45-31 victory against his team in the Capital One Bowl.

Pelini was surprisingly upbeat considering his defense allowed 589 yards, and Georgia was 12-for-17 on third-down conversions.

Nebraska's pass defense, ranked fourth nationally entering the game, was beaten repeatedly for big plays while surrendering 427 yards and five touchdowns.

This after Wisconsin battered Nebraska to the tune of 539 rushing yards in a 70-31 dismantling Dec. 1.

Georgia did most of its damage via the air.

By land, by air. In the last two games, Nebraska defenders' heads were spinning.

After Tuesday's loss, Pelini put a positive spin on the big picture.

Are you buying it? Are you still a Bo-liever?

If you're a Nebraska fan, you have ample reason to be pessimistic.

You also have reason for optimism.

So, let the debate begin.

Let's not make this overly complicated. It's easy to see where Bo's spin is taking us. Seven of Nebraska's top nine tacklers are seniors. They're a tough, hard-working bunch. They're high-character guys who seem to care deeply about the program.

But let's go back to what we've said all along, to what we've said since last spring. Nebraska's defense lacks big-time playmakers. It lacks eye-popping talent. All-America talent. Difference-makers. Someone who could bat down those long passes that rocked the Huskers on Tuesday. Someone who could continually get in Aaron Murray's face on pass plays.

Nobody stepped up. Not to the level needed, anyway. Does Nebraska have young players ready to step up?

Pelini insists Nebraska does have those players. He says NU is close to breaking through as a program.

Husker secondary coach Terry Joseph may need some convincing.

"We have a ways to go as a program," Joseph said. "When you play against a team like (Georgia), and play to win at a real high level, you've got to have depth, and you have to have some guys who can finish.

"We didn't do a good job of finishing. We need to do a better job in practice. But when you're going against great players, your margin for error is not that big. You get exposed when you're not perfect. And we were not perfect today."

It appears Pelini is banking on young defensive talent in the system. He's counting on guys such as Vincent Valentine, Aaron Curry, Greg McMullen and Avery Moss up front. On Thomas Brown, David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson at linebacker.

Charles Jackson and transfer Jonathan Rose will bolster the secondary, though the secondary doesn't need as much help — Tuesday's loss notwithstanding.

Pardon me if I missed any young stallions. Bottom line, Pelini feels good about the mix of returning veterans and youth on defense. Maybe he's right. After all, his defense played well much of the season — well enough to be ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed per game before the bowl game.

But Wisconsin averaged 10.7 yards per play, and Georgia 8.3. If you're believing Bo, you're taking a bit of a leap of faith.

If you're a Nebraska fan, you hope he's right, because the Huskers' offense shows great promise. NU put up 443 yards against an athletic Georgia defense that ranked 27th nationally.

You also hope Pelini's right about his defense, because the 2013 schedule is favorable, to say the least. Put it this way, the young defenders will have some time to develop before the critical late-season Big Ten tests begin in earnest.

Like the Nebraska defense Tuesday, the Husker offense didn't finish.

The killer, of course, was running back Ameer Abdullah's third-quarter fumble (which he insists wasn't a fumble; his knee was down before the ball popped out, he said).

The fumble didn't lead to a Georgia score, but it took the steam out of Nebraska. And NU's offense had some steam. It had Georgia's defenders gassed, holding their hips. Then, on third-and-1, Rex Burkhead took the snap and flipped the ball to Abdullah, who roared through traffic for what appeared to be a first down, until the zebras ruled otherwise.

"Why the play didn't get reviewed is beyond me," said Pelini, who made no bones about his misgivings concerning the officiating by the Big 12 crew.

Nebraska's offense, after the fumble, started to press. You saw a couple of false starts. A holding penalty. Momentum swung Georgia's way.

Then came the knockout punch.

On third-and-12, Nebraska's defense brought the house — "total pressure" on Murray, Joseph said. Murray, though, found Chris Conley on a quick screen right down the middle of the field. Conley sprinted to paydirt — an 87-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 45-31.

"In zero coverage, you're vulnerable in the middle of the field," Joseph said. "Good call. Perfect call against the call we had."

Pelini shouldered the blame for making the defensive call. He tried to be aggressive. Maybe if he had an explosive edge rusher, or a raging bull in the middle such as Ndamukong Suh, he wouldn't have to call for an all-out blitz in that situation.

Let's not make excuses, though. After all, Pelini's job is to recruit such talent. Perhaps he's about ready to unleash that type of talent. Maybe, in his sixth year in charge, it will all come together.

He sounds confident.

"There's no question we can play with any team in the country," he said.

He knows that's not enough at Nebraska. He knows it's time for his program to take the proverbial next step. Some would suggest it's past time for that. Is it ready to go where Pelini seems to think it's headed? Do you believe in Bo's sales pitch?

Let the debate begin.

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

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