Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, 12.1.2012

The Huskers prepare to take the field before the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

He had to know it was coming.

Even two weeks after the fact, Bo Pelini had to know folks would continue to try to make sense of the unthinkable — Nebraska's 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Dec. 1 Big Ten Championship Game.

Has Pelini suffered through enough video to uncover hidden clues to what caused the devastation?

"I already know what happened," the fifth-year Husker coach said Friday. "We got beat. We didn't play well. We didn't execute. That's it."

That's not it, though. Pelini knows that. He knows the questions will keep coming. They should keep coming. The Nebraska athletic department pours too much money and energy into the football program to settle for such outcomes. Husker fans' emotional investment is much too significant to casually dismiss embarrassing losses. Yes, the discussion will continue.

Bo has talked to his players about it.

"What I told our guys is, you don't have to apologize to anybody for winning 10 games. Period. End of story," he said.

This story is interesting and complex. Pelini's teams tend to keep the discussion lively, especially this season's edition.

We've reached the part of the story where we try to reconcile three exceptionally ugly losses — to Wisconsin, Ohio State and UCLA — with a 10-3 overall record and 7-1 regular-season finish in the rugged Big Ten.

Pelini is dead-on when he says his players should never apologize to anyone for winning 10 games. The Big Ten is indeed rugged. Seven league wins is a significant achievement. Those who say otherwise evidently didn't watch the games.

Whatever happened to the narrative that occurred two years ago when the Big Ten announced Nebraska's 2011-12 schedules? You know, the narrative about what a raw deal the Huskers were handed — that the initial schedules were "brutal." I never heard "brutal" used more often in my life.

Now, many of those same folks claim Nebraska's schedule is "soft." Which is it?

Pelini the psychologist will earn his salary this month. It is human nature to slide toward the negative. Bo's job is to push his team past the 70-31 discussion and somehow build back players' confidence. Focus on the 10 wins, not the losses. Let the rest of the world mull how it wants to regard Nebraska's season; the 23rd-ranked Huskers must figure out how to beat No. 6 Georgia in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl.

Of course, with a bowl win, Nebraska's story could change dramatically.

"You have to be a man and accept responsibility," Pelini said of the loss to Wisconsin. "And then do everything in your power to see that it doesn't happen again."

Pelini feels he did everything in his power to prepare his team for the Big Ten Championship Game. Even so, mistakes and deficiencies that cropped up against Wisconsin also plagued the Husker defense against UCLA and Ohio State.

"I'm not going to get into that," Pelini said. "I have to move on. I have to try to help our football team."

Period. End of story.

If only that were the case. Pelini knows better.

Against Wisconsin, he said, Nebraska at times looked a step slow. He's right. He said the last half of the season may have taken a physical and mental toll on his players. Husker coaches tried to take the taxing schedule into account in late-season practices, he said, though he didn't want to make excuses.

Say what you want about teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Those teams are flawed (who isn't?) but they are anything but soft. Ex-Huskers — ones I talk to regularly — recognize the league's strength is its brute strength. The Big Ten generally is wicked in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Linebacker play is for the most part exceptional.

What does Pelini think of claims that Nebraska's schedule is soft?

"Let those people line up against the physical teams we've played week after week after week," he said. "People are going to say what they're going to say, one way or the other. …

"But damn right it was a physical grind. And a mental grind. There wasn't any room for error."

Nebraska's defense often has had little room for error. We should've known that would be the case. The unit is short on explosive playmakers and overall speed. We knew that. If a couple of defenders have a particularly bad game (as was the case against Ohio State), or even one guy really melts down, the whole engine can go kaput. The Huskers no longer have a human eraser — a Lavonte David type — to clean up mistakes.

The defense will look much different next season. Eight of the current top 10 tacklers are seniors. The front seven will look dramatically different. Coaches have high praise for young linemen in the system — Avery Moss, Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen, Aaron Curry, to name a few. The Huskers are hoping to land at least one junior college interior lineman, if not two.

Perhaps speed and athleticism at the linebacker spots will improve markedly, as David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Thomas Brown likely will move into prominent roles. Anderson has recovered nicely from September knee surgery and will be ready for spring practice, Pelini said. Brown, who redshirted this season as a true freshman, could be an immediate impact player, according to frequent practice observers. Perhaps there will be more room for error.

There likely won't be much room against Georgia's offense, which causes headaches with its athleticism and run-pass balance. Alas, the Bulldogs pose a more daunting challenge than the Badgers, who were 84th nationally in total offense entering the Dec. 1 game. That's right, 84th.

"I thought we were ready going in," Pelini said. "I mean, I've thought a lot about the game. Like I said, unfortunately, I've been through games like that before. I really don't have an answer."

That's not exactly what Nebraska fans want to hear. In that regard, it's difficult to blame them.

"I don't know whether the kids wanted it too bad," Pelini said. "I just don't know. But you can't dial it back. You can't have a do-over. All you can control is what you can do going forward. That's all we're concerned about."

If only that were the case in the outside world.

"We all have to live with it," Pelini said. "I guarantee one thing: It hurts us more than it hurts anybody else."

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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