STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Nebraska's injury list has become ridiculously long, but Bo Pelini never uses it as an excuse. Never.

All that youth on defense. … He doesn't use that as a crutch, either.

All that criticism of Pelini and his staff, well, they're big boys, they can handle it, Bo says.

He says he's having fun. I sort of believe him. This much is certain: He likes this particular group of football players. Really likes it. That's what matters most.

Pelini told his players Friday night it was an honor to coach them. He told them the same thing Saturday after Nebraska's 23-20 overtime win against Penn State before 98,517 at Beaver Stadium.

"There's something special going on here with these kids," Pelini said.

Pelini says it's a tight-knit group.

He told me a few weeks ago his coaching staff "is the tightest staff in America."

Bottom line, it would be wrong to break up this staff. To break up this team. It would be dead wrong to pull the rug from underneath a program that shows so much promise — at least when it's not stubbing its toe with a turnover or mental mistake.

Granted, it's not exactly the Denver Broncos.

However, after this triumph — despite all of Nebraska's injuries and pervasive negativity swirling around the program — it would seem almost criminal to fire anybody associated with the program.

And no, I'm not swept up "in the moment."

I'm simply impressed by a Nebraska outfit that improved to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten despite shrill cries from an anti-Pelini crowd that seems to use every mistake as an indictment of the coaching staff.

No way a team prevails in the Big House and Beaver Stadium if it was lacking character, toughness, savvy, Grade-A athletes and competent coaching.

Nebraska defeated a rugged Penn State team. The Nittany Lions (6-5, 3-4) hammer teams with physical play. Their defensive line is the best NU's seen this season. And get this: The Huskers won with a patchwork offensive line.

A line that late in the game featured seldom-used sophomore guard Ryne Reeves, sophomore reserve tackle Zach Sterup and senior guard Andrew Rodriguez playing tackle because, well, nobody else was available.

When Pat Smith kicked the game-winning field goal, Nebraska's line included senior walk-on Brandon Chapek of Wahoo, who had been playing on the scout team until two weeks ago, according to NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

That field-goal unit also included redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine. No, not by design.

Beck was emotional. He was asked if the coaching staff's critics — especially those critical of Pelini and him — might think differently if they fully understood the dire nature of Nebraska's injury situation.

"It doesn't matter," Beck says. "They can say what they want. Do what they want. Write what they want. I'm proud of our guys.

"I go to work every day and work as hard as I can to put together the best game plan I can. That's all I can do. I really don't care about anybody else."

The frustration in his voice was palpable. It's easy to understand. The Husker coaches are operating under a cloud of uncertainty. Pelini told USA Today this week that as speculation swirls, "it's not healthy for our program." Pelini says publicly he gets support from athletic director Shawn Eichorst. But how much support does Pelini really get if he has to wonder whether he'll be back to coach next season?

And yes, he wonders. 

So do recruits. That part is really frustrating, Pelini says.

Eichorst says it's his policy not to comment on the state of a program during the season. But it may be time for a policy change.

Pelini and crew push on, garnering support from the majority of the fan base (I'm guessing). But as is the case in politics and other arenas, the vocal minority causes quite a ruckus.

"We hear it," says Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose. "Like I said earlier this week, every time we go out there and put that 'N' on, and Coach Bo is wearing that headset, we're playing for him."

Nebraska, however, continues to make costly mistakes. They give naysayers plenty of fuel. The maddening fumbles. The penalties. The mental blunders. Many of them are recurring.

But then you consider Ron Kellogg's moxie. Boy, is he a gamer. He was symbolic of the team. He made just enough plays, even after he got his bell rung at PSU's 1-yard line in the fourth quarter.

"He came up to the O-line and said, 'I can take the hits. I'm 230 pounds. I'm durable,'" said senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles. "I was like, 'OK, Ronnie, let's roll, big boy.'"

That's the sort of character that permeates Pelini's program.

Is it a perfect program? Nah. But send me your list of perfect programs.

Just don't tell me this group of Huskers should be broken up. It would be wrong. Dead wrong.

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


Husker columnist

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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