I had a nagging feeling that when Baker Steinkuhler went down to injury, Nebraska was going to find it hard to handle Wisconsin's rushing game. I never would have thought it have been impossible, but from my perspective, Bo Pelini and the Huskers tried to overcompensate for his loss. Add in a lapse in basic fundamentals - a problem that has hounded this team all season long - and Wisconsin was off to the races.
Then just before halftime, it got silly. Melvin Gordon runs yet another sweep, and Nebraska "Blackshirts" (and I use that term loosely) made bad decisions, bad tackles, and then tries to tackle the ball instead of the runner. Garbage touchdown at just before halftime I step away from the TV at the start of the third quarter for a couple of plays, and boom... now it's 49-10 and well on it's way to an epic beatdown.
In my book, this defeat started last week in Iowa City when Steinkuhler went out. It's a little too trite to blame what happened on the absence of one player, but credit Brett Bielema's staff for recognizing how Nebraska would try to compensate for his absence. Stack the middle, cheat to the inside to deal with that powerful Wisconsin offensive line. So what does Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada do? Take it wide; run sweeps. And nobody was home on the perimeter. All night long.
Wisconsin unloaded their playbook tonight...probably even added a few things to it. Adding shifts and motions so that Nebraska couldn't identify what was going on until it was running past them.
On defense, Wisconsin broke out a formation I've never seen before. A 2-4-5 where the two defensive linemen split out wide on the tackles, and nobody is on the guards and center. It exploited an inexperienced center in Cole Pensick, who was discombulated as to who to try to block. First play was the Taylor Martinez run of the year. It's a jailbreak, and Martinez is running for his life...nearly lost 20 yards but scrambled his way out of trouble and into the highlight reels.
Next time, Martinez did find Quincy Enunwa for a completion, but after that, the gig was up. The line was owned and owned badly. Once again, Brett Bielema's coaching staff recognized the inexperience at center and breaks out a gadget defense that foils the Big Red.
Was Bo Pelini completely outcoached today? Yep. But that's less on Bo Pelini than on Brett Bielema. It was a masterful coaching job, and you have to give Wisconsin credit for identifying and exploiting Nebraska's weaknesses. That's not the Wisconsin team we saw in September.
In the second half, it got chippy. Wisconsin took offense at that devastating block by Kenny Bell and took aim at Martinez. First it was a dive at his knees long after Martinez threw the ball, then Chris Borland pile-drived Martinez in a move only Hulk Hogan could approve of. How Borland wasn't ejected, let alone flagged is unclear, but you had to be relieved that it never got any worse than that.
In recent days, you've heard reports that schools like Auburn, Tennessee, and Arkansas were interested in talking to Bo Pelini. Well, this game will end that speculation right there. It would be impossible to sell a defensive-minded coach who just gave up 70 to your boosters.
Instead, the focus goes onto what needs to change at Nebraska. It'll start on the defensive line, where with the departure of Steinkuhler, Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith, and Joe Carter, it's got to be an all-out search for bodies in the juco ranks. Maybe Vincent Valentine is the next coming of Ndamukong Suh, but other than Chase Rome, there's little experience returning up front on the d-line. Linebacker isn't much better, with Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley gone. Perhaps Sean Fisher gets a 6th year of eligibility, and hopefully Zaire Anderson is ready next fall. David Santos needs to get the mental aspects of of his game fixed. Maybe Michael Rose is going to be ready to be the next Barrett Ruud next fall.
And will the coaching staff be back intact? Ross Els is getting kudos for his work as a recruiting coordinator, but special teams has been a disaster this season. Barney Cotton gets a lot of flak for the offensive line, but prior to tonight, they had been playing better.
What's most disappointing is that once again, Nebraska got embarrassed in primetime tonight. UCLA was bad, Ohio State was worse, and this was, well, Callahan/Cosgrove-esque. There's no doubt that Nebraska is in a better place now with Bo Pelini than it was from 2004-07, and anybody who calls for Pelini to be fired needs to have their head examined. That doesn't mean that there aren't questions that Pelini needs to answer, and Pelini is going to have to come up with a different answer than "process" and "execute". But that answer won't be revealed until 2013; Pelini believes in his coaches too much to do anything in November. Look for changes to be made gradually in January and February. Remember how Shawn Watson, Ted Gilmore, and Corey Raymond were carefully jettisoned? Expect the changes to be made much more gracefully than they were.
Those changes also won't be made rashly. In the pain of the Big Ten championship, it's too easy to reach for the panic button. And as easy as it is to want to panic, panic is not what you do with a ten win team.
Not even when someone hangs 70 on you.