There are two sides to every record-setting performance.
On one side, there is the beauty: Melvin Gordon rushing for 408 yards in three quarters, breaking LaDainian Tomlinson's FBS single-game record. He's one of the best players in college football, and now he's prepared to go down as one of the most accomplished running backs in the history of the sport after a breathtaking display of athletic talent. Obviously, a lot of credit goes to Gordon, his outstanding offensive line and the Wisconsin team as a whole.
On the other side is the pain of the team that let it happen. On the other side is the blame that goes to Nebraska -- Nebraska! -- the proud national power that now goes down in history as the defense that gave up more rushing yards to one player in a single game in the long history of this sport, and even worse for allowing it to happen in only three quarters of a game. Congratulations to the 1999 UTEP defense, which was previously on the hook for allowing the record to happen. That's where Nebraska is right now: getting mentioned in the same conversation as a 5-7 UTEP team from 1999.
While Nebraska is 8-2, this season isn't far away from being a disaster, if you recall what happened on Sept. 6, when Nebraska came very, very close to losing at home to McNeese State, a middle-of-the-road FCS Southland Conference team. The Cornhuskers have a solid home win over Miami, a fourth-quarter comeback attempt at Michigan State after getting dominated for three quarters and not much else on their resume, which is why with one loss to a good team, before getting trampled by Wisconsin, they were ranked 16th in the selection committee's top 25 last week, behind seven two-loss teams. The only other Power Five team with one loss that was ranked behind teams with multiple losses at the time was Duke.
Again, this is Nebraska.
Pelini on moments like Saturday: "It's not like it only happens to us. Look across the country. It happens."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) November 17, 2014
He's right, in some respects. Texas A&M lost, 59-0, to Alabama. California gave up the most passing yards in a game in NCAA Division I history just a few weeks ago against Washington State, although it won that game. Still, "it's not like it only happens to us" is also false: Literally nobody at the highest level of college football has ever allowed 408 rushing yards to one player in one game, let alone in 45 minutes of a game. This has happened only to Nebraska. Nebraska. Nebraska was never supposed to have been like everyone else, but it is now.
It's not like these types of blowouts are rare for Nebraska either. Since the turn of the century, many of the most memorable Nebraska games have gone this way: 62-36 vs. Colorado to end the 2001 regular season, followed by a 37-14 loss to Miami in the national title game. A 40-7 loss at Penn State early the next season. A 49-13 loss to Kansas State later that season. A 70-10 loss to Texas Tech in 2004. A 76-39 loss to Kansas in 2007. Bo Pelini is a defensive-minded coach who represented a necessary shift away from the disastrous Bill Callahan era, and yet the trend has continued since he took over in 2008:
- Missouri 52, Nebraska 17; Oct. 4, 2008
- Oklahoma 62, Nebraska 28; Nov. 1, 2008
- *Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17; Oct. 1, 2011
- *Michigan 45, Nebraska 17; Nov. 19, 2011
- *Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38; Oct. 6, 2012
- *Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31; Dec. 1, 2012
- *UCLA 41, Nebraska 21; Sept. 14, 2013
- Iowa 38, Nebraska 17; Nov. 29, 2013
- *Wisconsin 59, Nebraska 24; Nov. 15, 2014
Making things feel worse is the fact that the games marked with a * represent those in which Nebraska entered the game as a ranked team. Sure, being ranked at the time is a lot better than being under .500, but that means these were performances in high-profile games in which the Huskers had some national credibility attached to them. That means that Nebraska has repeatedly lost big games, and also lost them in humiliating fashion. Since Pelini took over, Nebraska has eight wins over teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the time of the game. Since joining the Big Ten, it has three: Georgia, with its backup quarterback, in last year's Gator Bowl; Penn State in 2011, in the Nittany Lions' first game after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and Joe Paterno was fired; and Michigan State in 2011, an impressive 24-3 win over a team that finished 11-3.
Of special note is the Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31 game, because that happened two years ago in the Big Ten title game. Taylor Martinez's running saved some dignity for the Huskers, and they were division champions, but Nebraska allowed 640 total yards, 539 of which came from the running game. That's only 42 fewer yards than what Wisconsin did on Saturday. In that 2012 game, Montee Ball rushed for 202 and three TDs, James White rushed for 109 and four TDs and a freshman by the name of Melvin Gordon rushed nine times for 216 yards, with a 56-yard TD to kick off the game's scoring. That's right. We've seen this before, only with the workload spread between three backs, including a breakout player who would go on to register one of the greatest embarrassments in Nebraska history on Saturday. Same Nebraska head coach, same Nebraska defensive coordinator (John Papuchis).
It continues to be a strange dynamic at Nebraska. It's not like the Huskers have been terrible, or like they've fallen anywhere close to the rock bottom that other high-profile programs like Michigan, Florida and Tennessee have hit in recent years. Perhaps the most repeated stat in college football is that Nebraska has lost exactly four games in each of Pelini's six seasons, and the majority of the country would kill to win nine games every year. That's consistently winning a lot of games, and consistently going to decent bowl games. Things could be so much worse, and if nothing else Pelini has kept things stable despite all the drama. The situation has never spiraled out of control to the point where a change absolutely has to be made.
Right now, the Huskers are 8-2, which means they could finally break the streak by winning two of their last three games, against Minnesota, Iowa and a bowl opponent. In other words, the team that took the field on Saturday in Madison could still have a better record than any other team in the Pelini era, that is if it can win two of these last three games (remember, Nebraska ended last November losing, 38-17, at home to Iowa).
"What we came here to do was win a conference championship and a national championship, and we're going to fight tooth and nail to keep trying to get that done," Pelini told reporters on Monday. "But I'm not going to sit here and apologize. The time I'll start apologizing is when I stop working. I believe that the program is on a good track, the right track."
Expectations can be dangerously out of whack at a place like Nebraska, which has had so much success historically but remains at a natural disadvantage because of the small recruiting base in the state itself and the surrounding Great Plains region. Despite the passionate fan base, the history and the resources, sustaining success in Lincoln is harder than at just about any other historic power. Nebraska has to recruit nationally to succeed, and that's no easy task.
Still, if Oklahoma is stuck in a bit of a rut, what do we call what's happening at Nebraska? Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since the Big 12 in 1999; Oklahoma has won eight conference championships since then. Nebraska hasn't played in a BCS bowl since the 2001 season, when it was blown out by Miami in the national title game. Oklahoma has played in eight since then.
The mistakes keep repeating themselves: The defense gives up a ton of points in big games, quarterbacks struggle to improve over the course of their careers and the offense becomes too reliant on one running back. We've seen this before, and it appears we're going to keep seeing it. What Gordon did to Nebraska, in a big game with division title implications, in which the Cornhuskers offense finished with 180 total yards, six pass completions and five turnovers, is just the latest, greatest example of the problems.
Remember, Nebraska was the team that used to do what Wisconsin did to everyone else. It just feels like ancient history now.