LINCOLN — It’s the dog days of November in college football.
At least it was on a cool Saturday night in Lincoln when the Huskers were taking on a Kansas team that — with apologies to former Husker great Turner Gill — isn’t very good.
Gill’s return to Lincoln as head coach of Kansas is the only thing that was remotely exciting about this matchup. Sure, the Jayhawks had made a stirring comeback last week with 35 fourth-quarter points to beat Colorado — and in the process accelerated the firing of CU head coach Dan Hawkins.
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne gave a tribute to Gill, who was his quarterback in the early 1980s and part of the Nebraska “Scoring Explosion” in 1983. Then Dr. Tom watched Bo Pelini’s Blackshirts shut down — and nearly shut out — the Jayhawks in a 20-3 Nebraska victory that can best be described as, well, boring.
Nothing exploded in this one, but you might say the KU offense imploded — with a lot of help from the Husker defense.
Kansas could manage just 47 total yards in the first half, including 32 rushing on 20 attempts. It didn’t get much better in the second half, as the Blackshirts held the Jayhawks to just 87 total yards.
The Husker offense was adequate at best, but on this night that was enough.
It was obvious early on that freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, who missed the Iowa State game last week with an ankle injury, wasn’t going to run as much as usual. He had just three carries in the first half, but the Huskers turned him loose a little in the second and he finished with a respectable 76 yards on 11 carries.
Martinez wasn’t the only Husker banged up. Senior safety DeJon Gomes was too, but he said that just goes with the territory this time of year.
“It’s a long season, so you just have to make sure you’re ready to go on Saturday,” Gomes said.
Yes, the season can be a grind. But it’s a grind the Huskers have handled during Pelini’s two-plus seasons at the helm. His teams have now won nine straight November games dating back to a 62-28 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 1, 2008.
That grind is just something every team has to deal with.
“It’s part of the deal,” Pelini said earlier this week. “Everybody is tired this time of the year, the coaches, players. It’s a grind. When you get to this time of the year, you have to draw upon that we have a lot to play for.
“If we were 1-8 it would be a heck of a lot harder. My message to the football team is we’ll take our rest in four weeks. Until then you have to put the foot on the gas pedal and go. No one is going to give you anything. You have to go earn it. If it was easy, everybody would do it. That’s the message.”
It’s a message the Husker players seemed to have heard. Pelini was about as happy as he’s ever been after Thursday’s practice, and secondary coach Marvin Sanders saw the same things as his boss.
“I think we had a great week of practice,” Sanders said. “Coach Bo talked about mental toughness the entire week, and I think our kids understood during this time of the year, everybody is a little banged up, a little bruised up, and the teams that plays the best in November are the teams that have the most mental toughness.”
While the defense was grinding up the KU offense, the NU offense was just grinding. It wasn’t bad. The 397 total yards the Huskers put up is enough to win a lot of games, but they would like to get more points on the board.
“We could move the ball but we couldn’t score,” starting left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “That’s a problem because you can’t win a game with total yards. No need to panic. Nothing went terribly wrong. We just need to clean up the little things. Put everything into full drives and finish them off.”
There were just too many little things offensively for the Huskers to really get in a flow. Sometimes a back missed a hole, sometimes a block was missed, sometimes there was the kind of penalty that can kill a drive.
“Some of the things we did tonight we did ourselves,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “We had some foolish penalties. We put the ball on the ground. All those things you can control. It’s just focus and detail.”
But that game is over now. The players will return to practice on Monday and begin preparation for Texas A&M on Saturday.
It’s all just part of the culture that Pelini has established. You just keep working hard and trying to get better every day. One day is just like the next.
“Teams that start thinking about everything — they start thinking about bowl games, about the BCS and conference and all that — those are the teams that get nicked,” defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. “You have to keep your team focused.”
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.