In the trophy presentation after a 33-0 Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona, Bo Pelini proclaimed "Nebraska is back and we're here to stay." With all due respect, Nebraska isn't back ... but making a very strong push in that direction. Remember "Restore the Order"? It only took two years for Bill Callahan to drive the Huskers into the ground.
But make no bones about it, Nebraska is closer to where they want to be than at any time since 2001. Nebraska football is all about championships, and Nebraska came up 1 second short this season. (There's also a little matter of 8 fumbles against Iowa State and failure to find the end zone against Iowa State.)
But tonight, we saw what Nebraska football can be and should be. The first bowl game shutout in Nebraska, Holiday Bowl, and Big XII history. Holding Arizona to 108 yards (72 on the final drive) and just 5 first downs puts an explanation point on this season, and this comeback. In the month of November, 2007, Nebraska gave up 172 points in three games. In 14 games in 2009, Nebraska gave up a total of only 146 points.
Arizona never really got their offense out of neutral, and it was a team effort across the board. The defensive line applied the pressure, and the secondary blanketed the Wildcat receivers. We missed Matt O'Hanlon's interception thanks to the long-running Blue Turf Bowl, but he did exactly what he's been doing all season. Bo Pelini said in the postgame that he'll likely play on Sunday, which should be a tough pill for the haters that bagged on him over the last couple of years. (The latest in a long line of under-appreciated Huskers on defense, starting with Scott Shanle and Barrett Ruud...)
And what a way for Ndamukong Suh to finish his career. He didn't put up the numbers, but he was as dominant as ever tonight on the line in ensuring the shutout. We're going to miss the big guy, but I have this sneaking suspicion that in another couple of year, we're going to be calling Jared Crick the next Suh.
Offensively, Zac Lee took over and staked his claim as Nebraska's starting quarterback in 2010. Overly maligned offensive coordinator Shawn Watson made a point to have Lee run the ball, and Lee did just that. He's not Tommie Frazier or Eric Crouch, but he showed tougher running and better decision making on the run than he had all season. It's going to be a learning process for Lee, but he's showing signs of getting it. Cody Green is a fine runner, but his arm continues to scare me. The young man has a lot of work to do as Lee separated himself from Green tonight.
Not sure what happened to Roy Helu, but I assume he injured himself on the slick field. Didn't matter because Rex Burkhead answered the bell. GFW called for Burkhead in the "Wildcat" formation, and Watson responded. I also loved the double I-back set where Burkhead motions into a quasi Pistol/Wishbone formation. Certainly this offensive staff went back and looked for ways to open up the offense.
I still would like to see fewer 2 yard routes, and more intermediate throws to the receivers. But I liked what I saw from Brandon Kinnie and, of course, Niles Paul. Currenski Gillyelen got back on the field...usually on his rear end by not keeping his feet. Opening up the offense also allowed Mike McNeill to be free to be a part of the passing game rather than blocking.
The offensive line continues to be a concern, but I think that might change next season with redshirted freshmen and junior college transfers. Only Jacob Hickman graduates, so there's quite a bit of experience returning.
In his post game radio interview, Bo Pelini stepped back from the "Nebraska is back" talk, pointing out that "back" means winning championships. Holiday Bowl trophies are nice, but Nebraska won't be back until they are back playing in BCS bowl games and hoisting conference championship trophies. We'll know when Nebraska's back when nobody asks or mentions it anymore.
In the month of December, Nebraska proved they almost there. Steve Sipple suggests even without Suh, the defense could be even better next season. The offense looks like it will be better. The schedule sets up nicely as well. Next year could finally quiet the naysayers and doubters. How long until the spring game? How long until the season opener? I think we all can hardly wait.