Husker Football And “Moral Victories”
We are now suffering through the second longest era of futility in Nebraska football history. The Huskers haven’t won a conference title since 1999. During this period, the Huskers have had three losing seasons and failed to qualify for a bowl game in 2004 and 2007. (Nebraska qualified for a bowl game in 2015 despite having a 5–7 regular season record.)
The lengthiest era of failure in Nebraska football was between 1941–61. This period of failure followed the era of success between 1890 and 1940 when the Huskers won 73% of their games and defeated Red Grange’s Illinois team and the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.
The current era of futility has been marked by a rapid turnover in head coaches. Nebraska has now had four different head coaches in the last 14 years. Before Solich was fired in 2003, Nebraska hadn’t fired a head coach since Bill Jennings in 1961.
One of the hallmarks of the present era is that we are in a constant re-building mode. The team never seems to stop re-building and return to its former glory.
During this constant re-building process, Nebraska football has lost a number of games that were perceived by many as “moral victories” and were seen as a sign that the team was on the verge of becoming a contender again. Unfortunately, all of these “moral victories” proved to be a false dawn.
The first “moral victory” was a 34–31 loss to Texas Tech in 2005. The Huskers actually had the game won when LeKevin Smith picked off a Red Raider pass late in the ball game but instead of taking a knee to preserve the victory, he attempted a return. Unfortunately, Smith fumbled the ball back to the Red Raiders and they scored the winning touchdown with 12 seconds left on the clock.
The 2005 Texas Tech game was seen as a positive sign since the Red Raiders had annihilated the Huskers 70–10 in 2004 in Lubbock. The 2005 Huskers finished the season strong by crushing eventual Big 12 North Division Champion Colorado 30–3 in Boulder and defeating Michigan in the Alamo Bowl.
In 2006, Nebraska got off to a good start — going 6–1 and setting up a showdown with Texas. The Huskers actually had the Longhorns beat when Zac Taylor completed a pass to Terrance Nunn on third down only to see Nunn cough up the ball. If Nunn had hung on to the pig, the Huskers could have run out the clock. Instead, Texas kicked a winning field goal on the last play of the game.
Once again, a narrow (and fluky) loss was spun as a moral victory and a good sign of things to come. In 2006, Nebraska won the Big 12 North title but the season ended on a sour note with back to back losses to Oklahoma and Auburn.
Despite that poor ending to the previous season, the 2007 season was widely predicted to be a breakout season in which Nebraska would return to it’s former place in the college football pantheon. Instead, the season became a nightmare when USC crushed Nebraska in Lincoln. After that, the Huskers went into a tailspin and ended up going 5–7. Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan were fired and the re-building process began all over again.
Bo Pelini was hired with high hopes and he took the Huskers to the Big 12 title game in his second year as coach in 2009. The Huskers had the game won until the referees put an extra second on the clock and allowed Texas to kick the “winning” field goal. This close call was seen as a very positive sign since the Longhorns played in the national title game that season. After the Husker 33–0 victory in the 2009 Holiday Bowl over Arizona, Pelini proclaimed: “Nebraska is back and here to stay.” Nobody doubted him.
Pelini was ultimately fired in 2014 and was replaced by Mike Riley. The never ending re-building process began all over again with the fourth head coach in eleven years.
In 2016, the Huskers had another “moral victory” when they lost to Wisconsin in overtime 23–17 in Madison. Once again, it proved to be a false dawn because the Huskers were crushed the next week 62–3 by Ohio State. The season ended very badly with back to back embarrassing losses to Iowa and Tennessee.
Despite the poor ending to the 2016 season, the Huskers took the field again with high hopes in 2017 with a new look offense and defense. After struggling to defeat Arkansas Sate at home, Nebraska went to Eugene for their first real test of the season.
The Oregon game began very badly for the Big Red and they trailed 42–14 at halftime. A furious second half comeback fell short and the Huskers lost 42–35 but nobody perceived the near miss at Oregon to be a “moral victory.” Fans and the media alike took the position that the Huskers had to begin winning these kinds of games. Narrow losses weren’t enough.
Nebraska has three very winnable games before they face Wisconsin at home on October 7. Will the Huskers finally get over the hump and win a game that matters or will the era of futility continue? Only time will tell.
Go Big Red!