- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our delivery of the regular-season report cards with Nebraska.
It was an odd year in Lincoln, shaped by injuries and controversy but growth and promise, and it ended with a fan base largely divided. For every member of Husker Nation ready to hand out passing grades, there’s another who saw it in just the opposite way.
So at the risk of just adding to the confusion, here it goes:
Considering the bevy of injuries on the offensive line and the loss of quarterback Taylor Martinez for all but one game in Big Ten play, Nebraska gets the benefit of the doubt. Its replacements played well enough to keep the Huskers in every game -- if not for the turnovers.
Oh, the turnovers. Nebraska lost the football 28 times, most in the Big Ten, and often turnovers came at the worst times. There’s likely not a team in the country that could have handled four fumbles and an interception against Michigan State better than the Huskers did on Nov. 16. But it was still a 13-point loss.
Before the injuries hit, the Huskers’ running game was a force. And I-back Ameer Abdullah still finished with 1,568 yards, arguably the best season by a Huskers back since 1997. Freshman QB Tommy Armstrong enjoyed some nice moments. Receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa did their jobs well.
Nebraska badly missed a playmaker at tight end. But no one will soon forget the Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary that beat Northwestern, a play that single-handedly nudges this grade upward.
Remember the fourth quarter against Wyoming and the first 15 minutes against South Dakota State? Too much bad stuff happened to bump this grade past the point of average.
Sure, the Huskers were young. They needed time to grow into their roles. Why is that, though? How did Nebraska find itself, six years into the coach Bo Pelini regime, in a spot that required a rebuilding job? In year two or three, we’d understand more easily.
There was also debacle in Minneapolis as Minnesota rushed for 271 yards and basically punched the Blackshirts in the face.
Nebraska responded well late. It played a great defensive game in the win at Michigan and a good one to win at Penn State. Even against Iowa, despite losing 38-17, the defensive play was decent.
Special teams C-minus
Bell on kickoff returns and place-kicker Pat Smith, who was solid all year and hit a game-winning field goal in overtime at Penn State, prevented a failing grade here.
Just too many mistakes and lack of adjustments.
Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return -- better nationally than only Mississippi State and 1-11 Cal. More than that, the Huskers fumbled a pair of punt returns and erred too often on decisions in the return game.
Additionally, Michigan State converted a key fake field goal against the Huskers, and Pelini’s ill-advised decision to fake a punt against Iowa proved costly.
Nebraska sits 8-4 as it prepares for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Georgia, leaving it with a chance to again reach nine wins. A loss on New Year’s Day would mark Pelini’s first season with five defeats and make this the second Nebraska team not coached by Bill Callahan since 1968 to miss the nine-win benchmark. The absence of key players, youth on defense, turnovers and other mistakes factor in the Huskers’ overall grade. None of it weighs heavily enough to sink this team to great depths, yet Nebraska hasn’t done enough, either, to get far above the industry average.