Saturday afternoon I watched the ugliest 45 minutes of football I think I've ever seen.
Granted, there have been games with far more ineptitude on both sides of the ball. I'm calling this one "ugly" because on the one side, the Iowa State Cyclones (remember, I'm a campus pastor at Iowa State University) were playing without their starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and conference-leading tailback Alexander Robinson, and on the other side, my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers scored seven points and had eight turnovers.
That's right. The final score was Iowa State 9, Nebraska Turnovers 8, Nebraska 7.
It was surreal at the end. The Nebraska defense, led by all-world and soon-to-be-1st-pick-in-the-NFL-draft Ndamukong Suh (pictured here making Todd Reesing make wee-wee in his pants a little - I mean, seriously, who wouldn't make wee-wee when that bad man comes running full speed at you?), would stop the Cyclones, getting Nebraska the ball for what would surely be the game-winning touchdown. Sooner or later, SOMEONE was going to hang on to the ball, weren't they? But, no, it was not to be. Four turnovers inside the five yard line. Two in the damn end zone, for Christian Peter's sake. One from a wide receiver who simply lost the ball while trying to stay in bounds for what would have likely been the touchdown that wrapped up the game. If this game were a painting, it would be The Persistence of Turnovers by Salvador Dali, with the Nebraska offense melting all over the place.
But in the aftermath, I'm not nearly as bothered by this loss as I was by blowout losses to Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Kansas in 2007. Why? Because for all the bad luck and simple stupidity that's happened in the Nebraska program this year, our boys have been and continue to be a group of fighters, with more resiliency in their pinkies than they showed under the former coaching staff.
Let's be honest: massive recruiting de-commits and the usual exodus of players that comes with any regime change have left this team with scant margin for error, even though it's year two of the Bo Pelini era in Lincoln. Graduation took a heavy toll on this year's program. For all his many injuries, Lydon Murtha is an NFL-caliber tackle, and Matt Slauson is good enough to hang on at that level, too. Joe Ganz, Nate Swift and Todd Petersen would be hard to replace by any means, much less a struggling Zac Lee and a revolving door of inconsistent receivers. Jaivorio Burkes was penciled in as a starter before health problems kept him off the playing roster. Roy Helu, Jr. is a gamer, but something's just not right at the moment, and losing Quentin Castille hurts a lot more than we all thought it would.
Taking all of this into account, Nebraska is still just a few plays away from being 6-1. Think about it for a little bit. Finish out the game against Virginia Tech, and find someone, ANYONE who can hold on to the ball against Iowa State, and in this year of inconsistent performances by teams and individual stars, Nebraska is at the very least a top 15 team, if not top 10.
What gives me the most hope is the players themselves. You get the sense they are hanging in there together, even in these incredibly frustrating times. There isn't any public finger-pointing, and the word from Lincoln is "we are in this as a team." I'll take that and the fight in these boys six days a week and twice on Sunday, thank you very much.
It was a great win for Iowa State on Saturday. They've struggled hard and come up short in some very winnable games this year, most notably against Kansas State and Kansas. I don't feel an ounce of conflict about congratulating Paul Rhoads and his team for playing well and getting the win - after all, the Cyclones are not Colorado or anything. As Coach Pelini said in a remarkably composed post-game presser, they made the plays and got the job done, and suggesting that Nebraska gave them the game takes away the credit they deserve for closing the deal. All the same, even with the good feeling I have about our boys in Scarlet and Cream, I'm sure ready for people to stop talking about what great losers Nebraska fans can be. We like being the classiest fans in college football - we'd just like to go back to the poster that used to hang in downtown bars in Lincoln. It had a picture of Tom Osborne in Memorial Stadium, with the words, "Welcome to Lincoln: You'll Never Lose In A Nicer Place."
Grace & peace,