In last year’s season finale against Iowa, Bo Pelini swiped his hat inches from an official’s faces, dropped a “chicken bleep” in the postgame news conference and generally coached like a doomed man.
It felt like the end, but it wasn’t.
This year, Pelini brings the Cornhuskers into Kinnick Stadium this Friday and again is either hot-seat sitting or plank-walking or something that characterizes a coaching regime in “hanging on for dear life” mode.
The Huskers coach sat patiently in his Monday news conference and answered questions in a relaxed, analytical manner.
“Can we talk about Iowa please?” Pelini asked in responding to a question on whether he’s had direct feedback from UNL athletics director Shawn Eichorst. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cut you off, but we have a short week and we have a long time after Friday to go into the what-ifs and other things. My focus right now is on Iowa. Trying to get up into Iowa City and give this football team this best chance to win.”
An even-keeled coach compared to wild man who prowled the Huskers sidelines last season is a great place to start to give his Huskers (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) their best chance against the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-3).
Pelini was exactly that Monday, coming off a 28-24 home loss to Minnesota, a game in which the Huskers squandered a 14-point second-half lead.
Friday’s loser faces a long, cold winter. If it’s Iowa, the Hawkeyes will finish 7-5 in a season that had a favorable schedule, closing with home games against Big Ten West Division challengers Wisconsin and Nebraska. Of course, Wisconsin tipped Iowa, 26-24, last weekend and the Badgers now play host to Minnesota, which crushed Iowa 51-14 in Minneapolis, for the West Division title Saturday in Madison.
If it’s Nebraska, the Huskers will have finished the season with losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
One more run on his situation at Nebraska, this time on if he agreed with feeling frustration on having a 9-4, 10-4 program.
“I never said that. I hope you know me better than that,” Pelini said. “I’ve never said anything like that. Give me a break.
“That’s somebody making a deduction. I get stuff all the time. National guys asking me this, asking me that. What are the challenges here?” he said. “You have to be really careful about what you say and how you say it. But a lot of times they are going to make their deductions about what they think. Bottom line is this program is about winning a national championship. Are there challenges here and there? Yeah. But there are different challenges no matter where you go. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know we can get it done here.”
The Huskers are dealing with some key injuries. Last weekend, wide receiver Kenny Bell left the game after suffering a head injury and didn’t return. “Where he is today I’m not sure,” Pelini said. “He felt pretty good yesterday. So it’s hard to say. When somebody has a head injury, it’s difficult to say.”
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp suffered a knee injury, but should be able to play against Iowa. Pelini said Monday that star defensive end Randy Gregory was ill going into last weekend’s game and that carried through the weekend and Monday.
Running back Ameer Abullah, who has 1,417 yards and 18 TDs, has been slowed with a knee injury since leaving the Purdue game on Nov. 1. He rebounded for 98 yards on 20 carries against the Gophers, but admitted Monday that he’s not 100 percent and likely won’t be until the bowl game.
“I just give it everything I have every Saturday,” Abdullah said Monday. “I’m getting better with each day. As long as I get to be on the field and get to play, I feel like nothing else is wrong. I haven’t had the proper time to give myself rest, but we don’t have time right now. We have to keep grinding.”
There were several more runs at Pelini’s situation and where Nebraska sits in the big picture scheme. Pelini stayed on message and made a lot of sense. Nebraska has demands and measures for success, and so does Pelini.
“I’m looking to get over the hump. I can tell you that,” Pelini said. “I turn over every stone and I’m looking to try to get over the proverbial hump.
“But I know this, and I think it’s one of the great things about being here, people aren’t going to be happy until you win them all. You know what? Neither am I. That’s how I’m wired, too. To think that I’m not working my butt off to make that happen, that’s what I want to happen. I want to win them all. And I want to win a national championship here.”
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