Pelini, Huskers eye first Big Ten football crown

The Journey 2012

Pelini, Huskers eye first Big Ten football crown

This Big Ten title game is about more than celebrating the culmination of the season and crowning a conference champ. This Big Ten title game is about validating a program—and validating a coach. I’m talking about Nebraska and Bo Pelini. That’s what’s at stake on Saturday night inside Lucas Oil Stadium—the “House the Peyton Manning Built.”

For Nebraska, it hasn’t won a conference championship since defeating Texas, 22-6, in the 1999 Big 12 title game in San Antonio, Texas. Each time I type that fact, I shake my head. But, it’s true.

The Cornhuskers played in the BCS title game in the Rose Bowl after the 2001 season, but they didn’t win the Big 12. In fact, Nebraska didn’t even play in the Big 12 title game that year after getting hammered 62-36 in the season finale at Colorado. It was one of those bizarre “BCS chaos” seasons. Despite getting belted, the Huskers still finished high enough for inclusion in the BCS championship game.

This trip to the Big Ten title game takes Nebraska and Pelini back to the precipice of big things. He has stood on this edge twice as Nebraska’s head coach, taking the Cornhuskers to the Big 12 title game in 2009 and 2010. But Pelini lost both games, falling to Texas and Oklahoma. Is this team any different than those two?

“I don’t know about that,” said Pelini. “We’ve come up short the last two times we’ve gone into the game. We’ve played two good football teams and lost two tough games. I don’t get into dissecting and the psychology. We’re either going to make enough plays to win or we’re not.”

For Pelini, this is a chance to put an indelible stamp on his coaching career. He has done a lot of good things since taking over Nebraska in 2008.

[RELTAED: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin: Unit matchups | Scouting Report: Strengths & weaknesses ]

But you could sense maybe the pressure of the job was starting to wear on Pelini. This is a high-profile position that comes with a lot of scrutiny. To wit: His sideline behavior was a major focus of discussion earlier this season—and throughout most of his Nebraska tenure. Everything about Nebraska football is hyper analyzed. And no move is too innocuous, sending local scribes to bang out a column while Internet message boards buzz with opinions transmitted from every basement from Scottsbluff to Omaha. A win here in Indy will make everyone smile—at least for a little while.

“It’s the next game, so it’s important,” says Pelini, refusing to play-up this game.

There was a time earlier this season when it looked like the Cornhuskers may not get here. Severe doubt was cast on the 2012 team after it gave up 653 yards in a 36-30 loss at UCLA in the second game of the season. A month later, Nebraska was ripped for 63 points in a loss at Ohio State. Full-on panic ensued in Husker Nation. But there would be no internal finger pointing.

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“It’s a team loss and we have to move on from here,” Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez said afterward. “We still have everything in front of us.”

But Pelini knew the losing and suffering had to end right here. And that’s when he said it while standing amid the rubble of the Ohio State loss:

“Like I just told the football team, we need to win out. We need to win out. We have six weeks. And we need to win the next six football games. Get to Indianapolis.”

It was a very un-Pelini thing to say. He almost never—no, he never—looked beyond the next play, the next game. But there was Pelini, staring at the media after of one of the ugliest losses in school annals, making a bold proclamation.

Well, Pelini and the Huskers have delivered. And they have done so in dramatic fashion during the “can’t-lose-a-game” stretch drive that has featured high drama.

  •   Trailing at Northwestern, 28-16, in the fourth quarter, the Huskers rallied for a 29-28 win.
  •   Trailing at Michigan State, 24-14, in the fourth quarter, the Huskers rallied for a 28-24 victory.
  •   Trailing vs. Penn State, 20-6, at halftime, the Huskers rallied for a 32-23 win.

“I wish we could make it easier on us,” said Pelini after the Michigan State win. “I’m aging quick.”

Just call them the “Cardiac Cornhuskers,” who also roared back from a 17-point deficit—the second-largest in school history—against Wisconsin to win 30-27 on Sept. 29.

“Something’s up,” linebacker Alonzo Whatley said after the MSU win. “This season is definitely meant to be.”

It sure looks that way.

“It would be special to present (coach Tom Osborne) with that trophy,” said Pelini. “He means a lot to me and to a lot of people.”

What a present it would be for the retiring legend. And what a step it would be for Pelini … and the Cornhusker program.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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