A Look into the Past: the Bo Pelini Era at Nebraska

It’s November of 2007; Interim athletic director Tom Osborne just fired head coach Bill Callahan after a disappointing 5-7 season after starting ranked top-20 in the Preseason AP Poll. Fast forward only a week later, and Osborne hired former Nebraska defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who had just come off a National Championship with the LSU Tigers. Pelini had been a head coach before for the Huskers. As an interim head coach, he led Nebraska to a 17-3 win in the 2003 Alamo Bowl against the Michigan State Spartans after former head coach Frank Solich was fired.

Pelini was the head coach for Nebraska for seven seasons (2008-2014), and there were many things that went well, but there were things that didn’t go well. Let’s go back into the past and look at the Pelini era at Nebraska.

A Look into the Past: the Bo Pelini Era at Nebraska

2008

Record: 9-4 (5-3 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP: NR

Final Ranking (AP): NR

The 2008 season was a roller-coaster for Pelini’s first season in Lincoln. The Huskers started off the season 3-0 with wins over the Western Michigan Broncos, San Jose State Spartans and New Mexico State Aggies. Winning all three convincingly gave some hope that Pelini would bring Nebraska back to the “Promised Land” of competing at the top of college football. Those hopes would quickly disappear when the Huskers dropped three straight against the Virginia Tech Hokies, No. 4 Missouri Tigers, and No. 7 Texas Tech Red Raiders. After that rough stretch, Pelini and the Huskers would rattle off a couple of wins over the lowly Iowa State Cyclones and Baylor Bears before going on the road to Norman against the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners.

In his first game against the Bob Stoops and the rival Sooners, Oklahoma dropped 62 points against Nebraska after the Sooners scored 35 unanswered points. It was a rough go at it for Pelini, but the Huskers rebounded from the loss by finishing the season with four straight wins, including a 26-21 Gator Bowl win over the Clemson Tigers.

The Huskers finished with the No. 17 overall scoring offense, scoring 35.4 points per game, while ranking No. 80 overall in scoring defense, allowing 28.5 points per game. The average seems much higher, as they allowed 30 or more points to five opponents that season.

Senior quarterback Joe Ganz led the Nebraska passing offense, completing 285 passes on 420 passes for 3,568 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Sophomore running back Roy Helu Jr. led the Huskers’ two-headed rushing attack with 125 carries for 803 yards and 7 touchdowns, while senior Marlon Lucky rushed 125 times for 517 yards and 7 touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Nate Swift led all receivers with 63 catches for 941 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Despite an overall disappointing season, the Blackshirts had few future standouts, including Ndamukong Suh. Suh finished the 2008 season with 76 tackles, 16 for loss, and 7.5 sacks. He would also have two interceptions, taking both to the end zone, with one coming against the Colorado Buffaloes, sealing up their rivalry win. 2008 would be his second-best season based on production. Senior defensive lineman Zach Potter also finished with two interceptions. Junior defensive back Larry Asante was second in tackles with 67 total and had one interception.

Finishing 9-4 made Pelini have the best record among all 28 FBS first-year head coaches and staff, granting him a pay raise heading into the 2009 season.

2009

Record: 10-4 (6-2 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 24

Final Ranking (AP): 14

The 2009 season had much more success, building off of the season prior. Pelini would have a new quarterback with junior Zac Lee. The offense would be the lowlight of the season, especially with how much success the other side of the ball had in 2009. The Huskers would start ranked No. 24 in the country, dominating the Florida Atlantic Owls and Arkansas State Red Wolves in the first two weeks. Nebraska went on the road to Blacksburg, Virginia, and fell short to Tyrod Taylor and the No. 13 Hokies 15-16 after a last-second touchdown. The Huskers returned home and dominated the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns 55-0 before taking down the No. 24 Missouri Tigers 27-24 in Columbia, Missouri.

Pelini and the Huskers were now ranked No. 15 in the country, heading into a date with the Red Raiders in Lubbock, Texas. However, Texas Tech would put up the most points Nebraska allowed in 2009 with 31 and defeated the Huskers 31-10. The lack of offensive production was hurting Nebraska and it showed even more against the Cyclones the next week. Iowa State went into Memorial Stadium and defeated the Huskers 9-7 despite not scoring in the second half. The season seemingly turned around, winning the next five games to end the regular season, including upsetting the No. 20 Sooners and clinching the Big 12 West division against the Buffaloes in Boulder, Colorado.

No. 21 Nebraska made their first Big XII championship since 2006, but it will come against the No. 3 Texas Longhorns led by Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterback Colt McCoy. The matchup had little offense and the Blackshirts shut down the Longhorn offense. The Blackshirts’ dominating effort was led by Suh, who had 4.5 sacks with 12 total tackles, with 7 tackles for loss. Suh and the defense’s effort shut down McCoy’s Heisman chances, but it wasn’t enough. The Huskers fell to Texas 12-13 despite its effort. Nebraska ended the season on a high note, dominating Arizona in the Holiday Bowl 33-0. At the end of the game, Pelini had something to say to the Husker faithful.

“Nebraska is back and we’re here to stay,” he said.

Suh won almost every award a defensive lineman could win, which included the Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, and Bill Willis Trophy. He also finished fourth in the 2009 Heisman final voting with his outstanding performance in 2009. Suh finished the season with 85 total tackles, 12 sacks, and 20.5 tackles for loss. The Blackshirts finished No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, only allowing 10.4 points per game. 

2010

Final Record: 10-4 (6-2 XII)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 8

Final Ranking (AP): 20

Pelini and Nebraska opened the 2010 season ranked in the top-10 and the hype was real for the Huskers to possibly make a run at the national title in their final season in the Big 12. They would have to do with a true freshman starting quarterback named Taylor Martinez. Nebraska opened the season 5-0 going into a big game against the unranked Longhorns at Memorial Stadium. Despite being ranked No. 5 in the country, Texas upset the Cornhuskers 20-13, led by sophomore Garrett Gilbert.

Nebraska fell to No. 14 in the country and now had to go on the road to the No. 17 Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Huskers left Stillwater victorious, defeating the Cowboys 51-41 and returned home and defeated No. 7 Missouri by 14. Nebraska was 9-1 heading into a showdown with the No. 18 Texas A&M Aggies in College Station, Texas and fell just short 6-9, losing for the second time on the season. 

The Huskers closed out the season 10-2 after dismantling the Buffaloes 45-17 and would represent the West division in the Big 12 Championship game for the final time. Despite having a 17-point lead in the first half, the Huskers fell short of a Big 12 title, losing 20-23 to No. 10 Oklahoma. 2010 ended on a sour note as Nebraska would go on and lose in the Holiday Bowl against the Washington Huskies, the same team that the Huskers defeated earlier in the season, 7-19.

Martinez finished his first season at Nebraska completing 116 of 196 passes for 1,631 yards with 10 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also rushed 162 times for 965 yards and 12 touchdowns. In his first season of starting, Martinez was able to showcase how explosive of a player he was, especially running the ball.

Overall, it was a disappointing end for Nebraska in the Big 12, but exciting things were coming with joining the Big Ten Conference.

2011

Record: 9-4 (5-3 B1G)

Preseason Ranking: 10

Final Ranking: 24

The 2011 season was a roller coaster for Pelini and the Huskers, as it was their first season in the Big Ten Conference. It was a change of scenery as Nebraska had been a member of the Big 12 since 1996. The Huskers opened the season on a high note, winning their first four games before going to Madison, Wisconsin, to take on the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers were the Husker’s first official opponent as a member of the Big Ten, and Wisconsin gave them a warm welcome with a dominating 48-17 outing against Nebraska.

Things wouldn’t get any easier as it took a 21-point comeback to defeat the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Huskers were down 27-6 at the half against the Buckeyes, and many of the students and fans had left the stadium early. However, Nebraska completed the largest comeback in the school’s history, winning 34-27. The Huskers rattled off two more wins, dominating the Minnesota Golden Gophers 41-14 and the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans 24-3. Nebraska had a rough November, going 2-2 that month, with a tough upset loss to the unranked Northwestern Wildcats at home.

The Huskers fell short of the Spartans and Michigan Wolverines for the Legends division and would miss a conference title game for the first time since 2008. Nebraska made the Capital One Bowl and played the No. 10 South Carolina Gamecocks, who had multiple future NFL draftees. The Gamecocks handed the Huskers their fourth loss of the season.

Martinez had a down year for the Nebraska offense, only throwing for 2,089 yards on 162/288 passes with 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. However, most of the offense’s success came from the rushing attack. Martinez had 188 carries for 874 yards and 9 touchdowns, while junior running back Rex Burkhead rushed 284 times for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. Defensively, senior linebacker Lavonte David, a future second-round pick, led the Huskers with 133 total tackles, 12 for loss, and 5.5 sacks. David also had 2 interceptions, which tied for the most on the team.

2012

Record: 10-4 (7-1 B1G)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 17

Final Ranking (AP): 25

The 2012 season was successful but disappointing at the same time. Nebraska started the season with a 29-point win over the Southern Miss Golden Eagles before losing to the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. 

The Huskers then won their next nine of 10 games, with their only loss to the No. 12 Buckeyes. Nebraska’s 7-1 conference record allowed it to reach its first Big Ten Conference Championship game. The Huskers faced the Badgers, who technically finished third in the Leaders Division. Still, Wisconsin made the conference title game due to the postseason bans for Ohio State and the Penn State Nittany Lions. The game couldn’t have gone worse for Nebraska, as the Badgers put up 70 points on the Huskers in a 70-31 victory. Nebraska returned to the Capital One Bowl for the second consecutive season, once again to a higher-ranked SEC school. It lost to the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs 31-45 this time.

Martinez had a better season passing the ball, completing 228 of 368 passes for 2,871 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for over 1,000 yards on 195 rushes and 10 yards. Injuries for Burkhead allowed sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah to step into the spotlight. Abdullah rushed 226 times for 1,137 yards and 8 touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell had his best season statistically, catching 50 passes for 863 yards and 8 touchdowns. Senior linebacker Will Compton led the Husker’s defense with 110 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 3 sacks.

There was hope in 2012, with the Huskers getting their first conference championship since 1999, but once again, they fell short. Thoughts were brewing in Lincoln of it seeming that Pelini couldn’t win the big games. This would become more prevalent in the next two seasons.

2013

Record: 9-4 (5-3 B1G)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 18

Final Ranking (AP): NR

After falling short the previous season, there were expectations of making another conference championship in 2013. However, things just didn’t work out. After a close call with the Wyoming Cowboys and dismantling the Golden Eagles, Nebraska was set to face off with the Bruins again, this time in Lincoln. No. 16 UCLA came into Memorial Stadium and blew out the Huskers 41-21. Things would get worse, but not on the field.

After the loss to the Bruins, an audio clip was leaked to Deadspin, which was recorded after Nebraska’s comeback win over Ohio State in 2011. The clip was a profane tirade by Pelini, complaining about how most of the crowd left the stadium after the Huskers were down by 21 points going into halftime. After the clip was leaked, he apologized for his actions in a statement.

“I want to sincerely apologize for my comments from two years ago, which became public today,” Pelini said in a statement. “They were spoken in a private room after the Ohio State game. I was venting following a series of emotional events which led to this moment.”

He also expressed that his comments were not his true feelings and that he loves being at Nebraska. Despite the audio clip leak, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst and UNL Chancellor kept Pelini as the head coach and he continued to lead the program. This wouldn’t be the only time a controversy would happen during 2013.

Nebraska finished 6-3 in the final nine games, with a couple of tough losses to Minnesota, No. 14 Michigan State, and the Iowa Hawkeyes. Pelini and the Huskers fell short of the conference title game and he made a few comments on keeping his job after the 17-38 loss to the Hawkeyes.

“I don’t coach to make a case. You guys have chosen to make a story of it all year,” Pelini said to the media. “If they want to fire me, go ahead. I believe in what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for what I’ve done.”

Despite his comments, he was not fired and Pelini and his staff prepared for the Taxslayer Gator Bowl against the No. 23 Bulldogs. After a good performance by former backup and now-starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., the Huskers defeated Georgia 24-19.

Armstrong took over for the injured Martinez, playing in nine games, completing 68/131 passes for 966 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Senior Ron Kellogg III also got snaps at quarterback, completing 80/134 passes for 919 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Kellogg was a hero for the Huskers as he completed a hail mary to freshman Jordan Westerkamp to win the game against Northwestern.

Abdullah, now a junior, had a breakout season, rushing 281 times for 1,690 yards and 9 touchdowns. This season would lead to him becoming a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014.

2014

Record: 9-4 (5-3 B1G)

Preseason Ranking (AP): 22

Final Ranking (AP): NR

The 2014 season would be defined as a “what if” season. It would also be the final season of the Pelini Era at Nebraska. As previously mentioned, Abdullah was a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Huskers were looking to make a Big Ten title in the first season of East/West divisions. 

Nebraska had a good start to the season, dismantling the Florida Atlantic Owls 55-7. The Huskers thought to have a low-stress game against the McNeese State Cowboys. This wasn’t the case, as the game was tied with four minutes left in the game. However, Abdullah came to the rescue, scoring on a 58-yard reception where he broke multiple tackles and took it to the end zone. The close call dropped Nebraska out of the top 25 but got back into it after a dominating effort on the road against the Fresno State Bulldogs, winning 55-19.

The now No. 24 ranked Huskers returned home for a matchup against old bowl rival, the Miami Hurricanes. It was an emotional game, but Nebraska persevered and won 41-31. The Huskers started off conference play 1-0 with a big win over the Illinois Fighting Illini and now had to face No. 10 Michigan State. Despite going down 27-3 to the Spartans, the Huskers fought back and got it to a one-score game. Unfortunately, Michigan State ended Nebraska’s hopes, intercepting Armstrong’s pass on a potential game-winning drive.

Pelini and the Huskers lost another big game but rebounded, winning three straight against Big Ten opponents. Now ranked No. 11 and sitting with an 8-1 record, they had a big matchup against No. 22 Wisconsin. With a win, Nebraska is in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West division. However, the Badgers had other thoughts. Pelini and the Huskers got hammered by Wisconsin’s offense. Despite having a 17-3 lead early, the Badgers scored 56 unanswered points, winning 59-24. Nebraska allowed 627 total yards, with 408 of those going to senior running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed 25 times and had 4 touchdowns. To make things worse, the Huskers fell short to Minnesota the week after, losing 28-24. Nebraska had lost their chances at making the conference title game but had a chance to get a win over their main rival.

Despite going down 24-7 to the Hawkeyes in the third quarter, the Huskers fought back. Nebraska scored 21 unanswered points and took a 28-24 lead. Iowa drove down the field and took a 31-28 lead with 1:49 left, but a 20-yard Drew Brown field goal with 8 seconds left would send the game into overtime. In overtime, the Huskers forced the Hawkeyes to kick a field goal. Despite being down 34-31, Armstrong found Bell in the endzone for a walk-off touchdown to win the Hero’s Game.

Even with a 9-3 record and an overall 67-27 record at Nebraska, Eichorst fired Pelini on November 30 at the conclusion of the 2014 season. At a press conference, he said that Pelini was fired due to the inability to win the games that mattered most against top-tier opponents. Offensive line coach Barney Cotton was announced as the interim head coach and would coach in the bowl game. Cotton got the team ready and they gave their all against the No. 24 USC Trojans in the Holiday Bowl. They fell short to the Trojans 42-45 and finished 9-4 in the second straight season.

Despite not winning the Heisman, Abdullah rushed 264 times for 1,611 yards for 19 touchdowns. Abdullah would leave the Huskers as the all-time leading rusher in school history and was drafted in the second round in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. Armstrong had a better sophomore season, completing 184/345 passes for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Aftermath

The Pelini era at Nebraska will be remembered for winning at least nine games every season, but couldn’t make the next step up at making noise nationally. He finished 9-17 against AP Top 25 opponents. Pelini will also be remembered for being very vocal when things didn’t go right. If you look him up on Google, one of the first photos is of him yelling at a referee.

After being fired, the Omaha World-Herald obtained an audio clip where Pelini was vocally attacking Eichorst while addressing the team following being fired. He questioned Eichorst’s integrity. After the clip was published, Nebraska released a statement. 

“If these comments were, indeed, spoken by Mr. Pelini, we are extremely disappointed, but it reaffirms the decision that he should no longer be a leader of young men at Nebraska,” the University of Nebraska said in a statement. “His habitual use of inappropriate language and his personal and professional attacks on administrators are antithetical to the values of our university.”  

After Pelini was fired, Eichorst brought in long-time Oregon State Beavers head coach Mike Riley to take over the program. We all know that story, as Riley was only the head coach for three seasons before being fired. Eichorst was the athletic director for Nebraska until September 2017, when he was relieved from his duties after the Husker’s 21-17 loss to the Northern Illinois Huskies. 

Pelini would return home to Youngstown, Ohio, and take over the head coaching duties at his alma mater, Youngstown State. He coached the Penguins from 2014 to 2019 before returning to LSU to become head coach Ed Orgeron’s defensive coordinator. Pelini was fired after one season in Baton Rouge. 

The 2012 season still stands as the last time Nebraska made a conference championship and the last time they reached 10 wins. It’s 2024 and the Huskers haven’t made a bowl game since 2016. Despite that, hope for the program to return to national prominence has been higher than ever with head coach Matt Rhule’s history in the college game. With the ever-evolving college football game, Nebraska is doing its best not to be left behind, and Rhule is doing everything in his power to get the Huskers back to where they “should be”: competing for championships.

Main Image: © Dan Weaver – AP Photo

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