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TIME OUT with Joe Flanagan

November 20, 2013

Time to ask a question about Husker football

Who are we? As a Husker football program. As Husker football fans.

It’s a question in search of an answer.

I’ve actually been quiet on the subject of Nebraska football for quite some time. My family and some of my good friends know my feelings about the state of the Huskers, but I haven’t addressed it in this forum. In fact, I haven’t really engaged in much “Husker conversation” at all recently – something that was once as natural as breathing each fall.

However, in the wake of last Saturday’s loss to Michigan State in Lincoln, and what I considered some rather puzzling, even disturbing, comments following the game, I think it’s time to ask – who are we?

Consider this from Husker receiver Kenny Bell, when asked after Saturday’s game about bouncing back this week against Penn State – “Same way we always do. We’re used to it around here.”

Well, yes Kenny, unfortunately we have become much too used to ‘it’ around here – this situation, these types of losses. Nine double-digit losses since NU joined the Big 10 Conference. A 3-9 record in the most recent games vs. ranked opponents (1-4 in the last five).

Is this Nebraska football? Satisfactory Nebraska football?

Of course, almost all the talk following Saturday’s contest was about the turnovers. Five ugly turnovers. It was almost universally accepted that the Huskers could have prevailed without the turnover deficit. Well, yeah, sure. You know what, though? This marked the fifth straight game NU lost the turnover battle. The Huskers are -28 in turnover margin since Bo Pelini became head coach. Read that again – negative 28! That is not indicative of a sound, fundamentally-adept program. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Is this Nebraska football? Nebraska football we can be proud of?

Pelini, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and several Husker players were quoted after the game praising the team for “fighting through the miscues,” “playing hard,” and “not quitting, playing to the final whistle.”

Ooooookay. Were they expecting participation ribbons? Fighting against adversity and playing hard to the end are things I have long thought were taken for granted, not necessarily celebrated. At all levels. Shoot, that was drilled into me by my old junior high school coaches more than 40 years ago.

Is this Nebraska football? Pleased to play hard?

No, this isn’t about effort. But, it is a question that involves a pair of ‘E’ words. Expectations. Excuses.

Nebraska football was once about expecting to compete for – and win our share of – championships. Too often now, it seems Nebraska football has become a litany of excuses for repeated failure.

In defending the performance of Pelini, his staff and his teams, many fans still trumpet that Nebraska has won at least nine games each season of his tenure. True. But, truly admirable? What that fails to address is that Nebraska, in this era of expanded schedules, has lost four games in each of Pelini’s full seasons as head coach. That’s four losses each and every season!

You want numbers? Number of conference championships – zero. Number of BCS bowl berths – zero. Average final AP rank – 20. And, of course, the nightmare digits from one year ago – 63-38, 70-31.

Is this Nebraska football? Really?

If nine wins in 13 and 14-game seasons impresses you, seriously consider this question. Would Tom Osborne – certainly the gold standard for Husker football fans – have survived any five-year stretch in which his teams lost four games every season, won no conference championships, failed to appear in even one of the major bowl games, never cracked the final Top 10, and only once finished a season ranked as high as 15th?

Yet many seem all too eager to find excuses for this run of mediocrity. Location. Climate. Change of conference. Proliferation of television. Recruiting disadvantages. Injuries. Turnovers. On and on it goes.

A list of excuses once deemed anathema by a proud program and fan base that built its reputation on the backbone of expectations. A list of excuses not currently heard at a school such as, say, Wisconsin. Yes, Wisconsin. Located in balmy Madison. Where a coach/athletic director who once played for Nebraska admittedly copied the Husker blueprint to mold his program – right down to the uniform design.

So, is this Nebraska football? Not even located in Nebraska anymore?

The most shocking words I heard or read following Saturday’s loss might have been in an article by Steve Sipple in the Lincoln Journal-Star, who posited that the deluge of turnovers denied NU a “statement win” over Michigan State.

What? This is what Nebraska football has fallen to? A victory over a Spartan team whose overblown reputation was built against a schedule ranked 91st in strength nationally, for the lead in a division that is arguably – along with the ACC Coastal – the weakest in the five major BCS conferences, would be a statement? Oh my.

I remember when ‘statements’ decided conference championships. Delivered Orange Bowl trophies. Won National Championships. Victories over Sooners and ‘Canes and Gators. Those were statements.

The fact is, without an absolute miracle that saved the day against 4-6 Northwestern (0-6 in the Big 10), Nebraska would be 6-4 against a schedule with a strength ranking of 98. The truth is, Nebraska’s six victories vs. FBS competition this season have been over teams with a cumulative record of 19-43. The Huskers have beaten exactly one FBS opponent with a mark above .500.

One positive from Saturday, I suppose, is that NU avoids again suffering the likely ignominy of thrashings by Ohio State and a top-shelf SEC bowl opponent. Let the Spartans or Gophers play the foil this year, 70-31 is still too vivid in my memory.

Is this Nebraska football? Nine-win ‘respectability?’ Or titleless paper tiger?

One final quote from Saturday, by MSU LB Max Bullough – “Go in our locker room. There’s a lot of guys happy we won, but there’s lots of guys who aren’t necessarily pumped about our performance, especially on defense. We’re not going to ignore the elephant in the room. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to.”

Gee, sounds like something we used to hear from a Husker in the 90s – and 80s – and 70s.

So, expectations. What are those for Nebraska?

Every Husker fan must answer that for him or herself. Is this the ‘level’ of football you expect at the University of Nebraska? As Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald posed Sunday – “What do you want out of Saturday afternoons?” Are the numbers acceptable? Four. Zero. Zero. Nine. 3-9. 20. 70-31. 63-38.

If you answer yes, then the status quo at NU is probably sufficient for you. This is what Nebraska is. What Nebraska has been for a while now. At best, a program seemingly stuck in neutral (Although an argument could be made the Huskers have actually been creeping backwards, Pelini’s two best teams – certainly his two best defenses, by far – being in 2009-2010, coaching mostly Bill Callahan’s recruits).

However, if your ‘E’ word is expectations, and you long for those Husker expectations and aspirations of the past, your voice needs to be heard. After all, if Nebraska’s administration believes this is the standard acceptable to Husker Nation, what incentive is there to change? Why aspire for more?

I know my state of mind – my ‘E’ word.

What’s yours?