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Steven M. Sipple: Now we know what mediocrity looks like

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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007 - 09:32:02 pm CDT

This is what mediocrity looks like.

This is what it feels and sounds like.

Nebraska football fans received a big slice of mediocrity Saturday.

Story Photo
Ball State quarterback Nate Davis (13) scrambles 14-yards to score a touchdown beating Nebraska defenders Andre Jones (25), Corey McKeon (13) and Larry Asante (4) to the goal line in the third quarter. (William Lauer)

Ball State’s offense moved up and down the field at will for much of the afternoon and lacked only a knockout punch. Yes, that Ball State, a middle-of-the-pack Mid-American Conference team that had lost its home opener to Miami (Ohio). Yes, that Ball State, which hasn’t finished higher than third in the MAC’s West Division in five years and last year finished 115th nationally in total defense.

Nebraska nearly surrendered its home field to the likes of Ball State. With due respect to the fighting Cardinals, this looked like mediocrity, Big Red style.

Make no mistake, Steve Pederson’s bold proclamations four years ago are haunting him now more than ever. Gravitating toward mediocrity? Scratch the “gravitating.” Nebraska just might be staring mediocrity squarely in the face. I’ve never heard boos ring so loudly at Memorial Stadium. It was the sound of mediocrity.

Weeks before Pederson hired Bill Callahan four years ago, the athletic director told us Nebraska should be playing for or gaining on the national championship on a consistent basis. At this point, the Huskers appear to be losing ground in the lackluster Big 12 North Division. Need any more examples of mediocrity?

Anybody dare to guess how many points Missouri’s high-octane spread offense might hang on Nebraska in two weeks? Bidding begins at 45.

Consider that Ball State racked up 610 yards of total offense before falling 41-40 before 84,294 sun-drenched and probably somewhat bewildered spectators. Nebraska escaped only after Jake Hogue’s 55-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide-left with 17 seconds left. It had the distance.

Knee-jerk reaction is to put Kevin Cosgrove on the hottest of hot seats. No question that’s where the Nebraska defensive coordinator belongs. But maybe that’s not going far enough. After this performance — given Pederson’s lofty expectations for the program — perhaps the entire program should be placed on red alert, starting with Pederson and Callahan.

I’m not saying anybody’s job hinges on the rest of the season (except for perhaps Cosgrove’s). The contract extensions are signed. But this result turns up the heat on the powers-that-be and turns off the Big Red masses to an alarming degree. Patience wears thin, hence the boo birds.

Yes, Nebraska deserves kudos for rallying and battling to the end Saturday. Callahan said it was “a step forward because it was a win.” Sam Keller threw for a ton of yards and delivered at crunch time. The Husker offense posted 552 yards — 438 through the air. But NU managed just 3.2 yards per carry compared with Ball State’s 5.2. Ouch. That’s not how Big 12 championships are won and defensive coordinators retained.

Bottom line: It was a nice comeback win by an apparently ordinary Nebraska team.

Yes, Nebraska looked average, at best. It hadn’t looked this ordinary since 2005 at Kansas. In fact, “average” is being kind to this Husker defense. NU looked like a team that will have to scrap with all of its might to win a bad division. Suddenly, Iowa State — next week’s opponent in Lincoln — doesn’t look like a gimme. Nobody looks like a gimme after this game.

In losing to top-ranked Southern California last week, Nebraska was exposed as a national top-15 pretender. Saturday, the Huskers looked nothing like a top-25 outfit. Maybe you just chalk it up to a bad day at the office — a letdown following a taxing loss to USC. Maybe this is a shining example of parity. Or maybe NU belongs in the pile of teams well outside the top 25.

Saturday, Nebraska found itself in a big pile of goo. The Husker defense looked soft and slow. It appears to lack chemistry. There’s no fire. Not last week. Not this week. Problem is, the Blackshirts’ struggles are now officially a trend. Wake Forest repeatedly ripped through the Blackshirts with end-around and misdirection plays. USC pulverized NU in the trenches. Ball State was 9-for-15 converting third downs and had receivers running open all day.

“I’m concerned because we’re yet to show what we can do,” Nebraska linebacker Bo Ruud said.

So, Callahan’s fourth year in charge isn’t exactly off to an inspiring start. Those boos will turn to awful howls if Nebraska doesn’t capture the North Division, and rightly so. Winning the North represents the bare minimum on the Big Red progress meter. Right now it’s hard to like the Huskers’ chances. But things can turn quickly. Keller has found a rhythm. It’s too early to push the Big Red panic button, but your finger ought to be on alert. Red alert.

Something just didn’t feel right Saturday. It was lifeless in downtown Lincoln. It was lifeless around the stadium before the game and after. It felt like a loss.

Somebody had better pump some life into this team, or Nebraska’s situation could go from mediocre to worse.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


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