Dienhart: 'This was a big step back' for Nebraska

Dienhart: 'This was a big step back' for Nebraska

UCLA made it look easy. Too easy. And that’s not a good thing for Nebraska. This was supposed to be the Cornhuskers’ chance to show the world that the 2013 team was different from last year’s squad.

After all, this year’s team had a standout offense led by a Heisman-contending quarterback in Taylor Martinez who was pacing a veteran attack that teemed with talent. But most importantly, this team had a re-made defense that was faster and more athletic, that was going to make up for last year’s horrid effort at UCLA—and disappointing finish to 2012 that saw the Huskers drop their last two games in a 10-4 season.

Instead, a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Lincoln that began with the promise of a 21-3 lead and looked like it would result in an all-night party in Lincoln melted into a horrific 41-21 loss to the Bruins.

”I felt at times I was looking at our guys on the sideline and it was like they saw a ghost,” Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. ”Someone has to step up and make a play. We needed to get the momentum turned back the other way, and it didn’t happen.”

There was restlessness. There was discontent. And there were boos along with lots of empty seats as the fourth quarter wound down.

The final numbers were as ugly as the final score. UCLA notched 504 yards, showing some symmetry with 208 yards coming on the ground and 295 coming through the air.

”We came in at halftime and there weren’t a lot of adjustments that needed to be made,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. ”It was more of an adjustment in our mindset.

”There were no mystical, magical X’s and O’s. It was just our players doing what they’re supposed to do and really just loving what they do, and that’s playing football.”

Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley was on his game, hitting 16-of-25 passes with three touchdowns and a pick. Jordan James ran for 106 yards and a score, as UCLA also was fueled by the memory of teammate Nick Pasquale, who was hit by a car and killed last week.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

For a year, Nebraska was haunted by last year’s UCLA game. The Bruins took a 36-30 victory, making it look easy en route to steamrolling to 653 yards. That was the first of three disastrous efforts for the Huskers’ defense in 2012, serving as a portend of things to come.

Nebraska was embarrassed after getting ripped for 63 points and 498 yards at Ohio State. And the nadir came in the Big Ten championship game loss to Wisconsin, when the Badgers dropped a stupefying 70 points and 640 yards on the Cornhuskers. Georgia delivered one last kick to the gut in a 45-31 win in the Capital One Bowl.

The calendar has flipped to 2013, but the act hasn’t changed.

I guess we should have seen this coming, right? I mean, it was all right there in a bumpy season opener, when Nebraska yielded 602 yards in a 37-34 too-close-for-comfort win over Wyoming that in many respects felt like a loss. That caused some to say: “Here we go again.”

But hope was renewed the next week, when Nebraska responded with a 56-13 win over Southern Miss, limiting the Golden Eagles to 284 yards.

Truth be told: Southern Miss isn’t just bad. It’s gawd awful, bringing a national-worst 13-game losing skid to Lincoln. So, beating the Golden Eagles—and looking good doing it—didn’t really amount to a hill of beans. It just gave everyone a false sense that this Nebraska defense was ready for UCLA.

Well, that hope was shattered into a million pieces on the Memorial Stadium turf by UCLA.

Let’s not let the offense off the hook. The Huskers mustered just 326 yards. Nebraska notched more than 19 yards on just two of its last 10 possessions and had only 130 of its 326 yards after halftime. The biggest issue was an anemic rushing game that netted only 123 yards and a 2.9-yards-per-carry average. Taylor Martinez ran 10 times for minus 13 yards. This was a day Nebraska needed to run to control the clock, wear down UCLA and keep the ball away from the dynamic Bruins offense.

It didn’t happen.

Oh, there is still promise for this Nebraska team—and defense, in particular. First off, this is a very good UCLA team that’s gonna win a lot of games and make a lot of defenses look bad. And, this is young Huskers defense filled with some talent that will continue to mature.

There are not two more talented youngsters on this defense than linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. The true freshmen were all over the field today. They are gonna be special—in time. But now isn’t the time.

Up front, JC transfer Randy Gregory is a force off the edge. Redshirt freshmen Greg McMullen and Avery Moss are coming on off the edge, too. Redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine and true freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice drip with possibilities on the interior.

Add it up, and this is all very exciting for defensive coordinator John Papuchis and Bo Pelini. But, the unit has a ways to go when facing upper-crust teams.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Think about this: How many teams will Nebraska see like UCLA the rest of the season? Probably none. In fact, I think the Bruins may be the best team on the Huskers’ schedule.

There is time to regroup, time to refocus, time to get on track. Now is when teams want to iron out rough spots. And this is a big one to iron out. Still, there are big possibilities before Nebraska: The Legends Division title, the Big Ten title. They hang for the taking. How good are Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State?

Up next for Nebraska is a visit from FCS South Dakota State followed by a bye week. Then, Illinois comes to Lincoln followed by trips to Purdue and Minnesota. So, it’s not inconceivable to think the Cornhuskers will be 6-1 when they open November with a visit from Northwestern in a huge Legends Division clash. The last time the Wildcats visited Lincoln, they won.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What happened today for Nebraska was significant. This was a big step back vs. UCLA. But the Huskers have to turn it into a big step forward.

The UCLA demon wasn’t exorcized. This Huskers defense must tighten. And the offense also has to get back to running the ball.

There’s still time. And hope.

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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