Somewhere along the way, Nebraska lost its confidence, coach Bo Pelini said following Saturday’s 59-24 setback in Madison, Wis.
Nebraska built a 17-3 lead on the road against a good Wisconsin team — and then fell apart, giving up 56 consecutive points and disappearing on offense.
The big letdown at Camp Randall Stadium pushed the Cornhuskers out of consideration for the College Football Playoff and made them a long shot for a Big Ten West Division title. They play host on Saturday to the Gophers, another team clinging to its midseason promise and West title hopes.
“Obviously upset. In some cases embarrassed. Mad,” Pelini said of his reaction to the blowout. “Especially after you look at the film. Disappointing. You put as much work into it as you do, players and coaches alike, and obviously you don’t like a result like that.”
This is not the first time Pelini’s Cornhuskers have flopped late in the season. Wisconsin scored 70 points for a lopsided victory against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. Last year, the Huskers lost two of their final three conference games by giving up a total of 79 points in the defeats.
Fans in Lincoln, Neb., don’t easily forget those collapses, and certainly not last Saturday’s disaster. It’s one Pelini will remember as well.
“Some of our guys put so much pressure on themselves to win that they’re not going to play to win, they’re playing not to lose,” he said. “And that’s a bad recipe. Sometimes these kids want to win in the worst way. … You try not to put pressure on them and make sure they go out there and have fun in the game. I don’t know if that was the case.”
A lot will be revealed about this 21st-ranked Nebraska team Saturday against the Gophers, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. Both teams sit at 4-2 in conference play and still are alive in the West race. If Wisconsin wins at Iowa on Saturday, Nebraska is eliminated from title contention regardless of the Gophers-Huskers result. A Gophers victory Saturday would set up a Minnesota-Wisconsin showdown for the West title the following Saturday in Madison.
Nebraska’s defense will be under the spotlight again Saturday against another top running back in Gophers senior David Cobb. The Huskers defense gave up 581 rushing yards against Wisconsin while Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon set an NCAA single-game record with 408 yards. On his 25 carries, Gordon averaged 16.3 yards a pop and scored four touchdowns.
“We have a bitter taste in our mouth,” Nebraska senior defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “But we have two more games to play and two more games to prove to ourselves what kind of team we really are.
“[The Gophers] run the ball a lot, and Wisconsin ran the ball a lot. After watching that film, I would imagine that they’re going to try and duplicate some of the things that Wisconsin did. For them, it looks like a recipe for success. So we need to fix the little things that need to be fixed.”
The Gophers had the right ingredients last fall when they beat Nebraska 34-23 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Huskers, ranked 21st that day as well, couldn’t slow a Gophers offense that outscored Nebraska 28-3 in the heart of that game. The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, a total that Wisconsin more than doubled last weekend.
The tradition at Nebraska is for first-string defensive players to wear black practice jerseys. It’s become an honor over the past several decades to wear the “Blackshirts,” but after Saturday’s effort Mitchell doesn’t think his fellow teammates deserve the distinction.
Only eight of the 15 Blackshirts players wore theirs to practice on Tuesday, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
“Personally, no, I don’t think we should [wear them],” Mitchell said. “I think they stand for something better than what we put out there on film. I think it would be a disgrace to the former players who earned a right to wear them.”