- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. – The lows were low, and the highs, well, they were nice.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many observers of the past season in Nebraska football relish a November that featured road wins at Michigan and Penn State after a miraculous finish at Memorial Stadium to beat Northwestern.
Others dwell on the reality that 14 years have passed since the Huskers’ last conference title and 12 since Nebraska played in a BCS bowl game. More so than any time in the past decade, the feelings about Nebraska football range from hope to despair.
Here’s a sampling of both as we review 2013.
Three reasons for concern
Is this Groundhog Day? A sense exists that Nebraska is living the same season on repeat. Bo Pelini inserts new characters and varies the schedule, but the results look the same. Here are Nebraska’s final records since 2008: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4 and 10-4. This year, with a win, the Huskers can reach 9-4. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, some Nebraska fans grow more frustrated with each cycle, particularly as the Huskers’ relevance on a national level diminishes. Alongside those records, here are Nebraska’s final rankings in the AP poll since 2009: 14th, 20th, 24th and 25th. This year, the Huskers are unranked before the bowl game. Notice a trend?
Fundamental errors. The problems that plague Nebraska often come back to basics -- ball security, discipline, tackling. This year, Nebraska sits minus-12 in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Since 2008, the Huskers rank 109th at minus-32. And the timing of the turnovers couldn’t have been much worse this year. Nebraska lost the football five times in its own territory against Michigan State, handing 24 points to the Spartans. It was a similar story against Iowa. When the Huskers held on to the football, they couldn’t take it away. Generally, this team -- like others before it -- failed to get out of its own way.
Communication, or lack thereof. For all the sensationalism that accompanied the final weeks of the regular season, as media speculation turned rampant over Pelini’s job status, the problems began -- and could have ended -- within the athletic-department offices in the north wing of Memorial Stadium. The policy of first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to withhold comment during the season would have worked just fine if Pelini knew where he stood. No one need a weekly assurance of the boss’ stance on matters in the program, but some kind of internal communication could have served to prevent matters from reaching the boiling point they hit on the day after Thanksgiving. Clearly, Pelini and Eichorst must find a better way to understand each other.
Three reasons for optimism
An infusion of young talent. Even the most Scrooge-like among those who follow the Huskers must admit they made important strides on defense this year. It happened primarily because of the maturing group of youngsters that arrived at Nebraska after a refocused recruiting effort took shape two years ago. That’s when the Huskers signed linebacker Michael Rose and defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Avery Moss. The trio of redshirt freshman teamed with newcomer Randy Gregory to help form an imposing front seven that ought to have its moments of dominance next year. More than anything, they’re built for the Big Ten. Nebraska has appeared, in its 2013 and under-construction 2014 class, to further capitalize on that enhanced recruiting vision.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Johnny Stanton. In place of injured senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Armstrong made his share of mistakes this year, committing nine turnovers in seven starts. He also led a game-winning drive at the Big House to complete a 5-0 beginning to his career. He lost to Michigan State, then aggravated an ankle injury and sat for the final seven quarters of the regular season. But we saw enough to know Armstrong has got the moxie and a few other special qualities that could help push the Huskers over the hump. Stanton, who redshirted this fall, reputedly possesses many of the same traits. Their athletic strengths are different, but both QBs are proven winners and strong leaders. Ought to make for a fun spring.
Consistency. Say all you want about the stagnant nature of Nebraska under Pelini, but he has brought winning ways back to Lincoln. With a victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl over Georgia, Pelini would become the seventh coach of a BCS conference program ever to win nine games or more in each of his first six seasons -- and the first to do it after inheriting a team with a losing record. His staff has remained largely intact. The offensive system under coordinator Tim Beck has taken firm hold. With healthy players, it would likely flourish. Pelini is unwavering in his approach toward the game, on an off the field, and his players appreciate his straightforwardness. Now, with just a little more patience …
2dJosh Moyer and Tom VanHaaren