Winning Out? We’ll Find Out
There wasn't much that Bo Pelini could say in the aftermath of the loss at Ohio State that was going to appease NU fans. But saying that he told his team they needed to win out, didn't sound too bad. That would put the Huskers at 10-2 and in Indianapolis playing for the Big Ten title against either a Wisconsin team they already beat or an underwhelming Illinois, Purdue, or Indiana team. You like your chances of going to Pasadena in that scenario. But is that truly the right thing to say to a team?
It's hard to think of a precedent for such a public declaration. When Tom Osborne took over as Athletic Director following Nebraska's loss to Oklahoma State (which left the Huskers 4-3), he privately told the coaches that if they won out, they'd be retained. He also gave them some hope that at 4-1 they could remain and perhaps even 3-2. That message obviously didn't carry over to the field as the team would finish 1-4, including a near-miss loss at Texas.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow famously vowed after a bitter home loss early in the 2008 season that "a lot of good will come out of this" and "you'll never see a team play harder than we will the rest of this season." That wasn't a statement about wins and losses specifically, but the team did then follow-up those remarks by going undefeated and winning the national championship. The difference, of course, is that the statement came from a player rather than a coach. It also came after a one-point loss rather than a twenty-five point one.
There are certainly cases where a team has rebounded from a bad loss and won their remaining games. Pelini's team did it in 2008 after losing 28-62 at Oklahoma. The Huskers won the next four games, including the Gator Bowl matchup with Clemson. Some more painful examples for Husker fans would be the 1983 Miami Hurricanes that lost 3-28 at Florida to open the season before going on to beat NU in the Orange Bowl for the national championship and the 1982 Penn State team that lost 21-42 at Alabama the week after their controversial home victory over Nebraska only to win seven straight and the national championship.
Still, I don't expect that you'll find that Howard Schnellenberger nor Joe Paterno had publicly said they told their teams that they needed to "win out". Pelini didn't say that in 2008 either. So is it the right message? On the one hand, it was accurate as it pertained to a major goal. Where things stand today, the only way to guarantee a trip to Indianapolis, is for Nebraska to win their next six games. It's another way of pointing out that the Huskers still control their own Big Ten destiny, but that their margin for error is gone. On the other hand, you constantly hear coaches talking about taking things one game at a time and not looking ahead. Saying you need to win six straight sounds contrary to that message. It also would seem to add pressure to a team that's already been prone to mistakes in pressure situations.
If you're going to make a statement like that, heading into a bye week might be the time. The team can reflect on their commitment for the remainder of the season, and still have time to focus specifically on a big game at Northwestern. It's a pivotal game for a number of reasons. First, the Huskers are 0-2 on the road so far this season. That needs to change to avoid going 7-5 or worse. Second, it's a divisional opponent which makes it important in the standings. Third, it's a team that upset Nebraska in Lincoln and features the kind of dual-threat quarterback that has killed Pelini's teams (most recently Ohio State's Braxton Miller). A win in Evanston does a lot to change the tone of the season and keeps Rose Bowl dreams alive for at least another week.
We'll find out whether Pelini was right in telling his team (and the media) that they need to win out. Hopefully, that answer won't come until six games from now.