Bo Pelini was driving into the office Monday, two days after his Nebraska football team escaped a major upset, pulling out a 31-24 over FCS opponent McNeese State.
Pondering how that scare may affect his players, and the remainder of the season, Pelini happened to think of when he was an assistant secondary coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 1995, the year they won Super Bowl XXIX.
"I don't remember if it was week 2 or week 3, but we got beat 40-7 at home by the Philadelphia Eagles," Pelini said. "I mean, it was as bad a performance as I've ever been around. Fortunately that year, it got their attention."
Yeah, wake-up calls are sometimes necessary, Pelini said. They happen.
"You want to guard their attention," he said, "but when it happens, you want a football team that's going to respond. I feel confident that we have a group that's going to respond."
Nebraska is 2-0 heading into Saturday's night game at Fresno State, where the Bulldogs are 0-2 but have won 13 straight home games. Yet the Huskers, even after a victory, dropped seven spots and out of the Associated Press Top 25, and are part of a Big Ten Conference that had a bad weekend on the big stage, already putting in jeopardy the leagues' chances of placing a team in the inaugural four-team playoff.
That doesn't concern Pelini. Not now. He's more concentrated on righting the wrongs that cropped up only a week after Nebraska looked rather impressive in defeating Florida Atlantic 55-7.
"Going forward, like I told our football team, I don't feel any different as far as what this football team is capable of today as I did a week ago," Pelini said. "We played at an extremely higher level in the first game. But some of the same things we did in the first game, we took turns, breakdown after breakdown. Basic things. It wasn't what we were doing, it was how we did it."
Players, Pelini said, were quieter in the locker room after a victory more than any game he can remember. That's partly because, especially for the 13 seniors, they don't want to start another roller-coaster path that's resulted in four-loss seasons in each of Pelini's six seasons.
"Just like the seniors in front of us, they didn't want to go 9-4," senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. "They didn't want to be that team that was just, what I would say, average. When you start to get that feeling 'here we go again,' you have to do something different."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--RB Ameer Abdullah had only two offensive touches in the fourth quarter of Saturday's close call with McNeese State. One of them, of course, was his amazing 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown that saved Nebraska in a 31-24 victory. Suffice to say -- and Bo Pelini already has -- that Abdullah needs to get more touches, especially in the fourth quarter of close games. It would behoove Nebraska coaches to get the ball to their playmaker in space against a McNeese State team that's struggled with tackling in the open field.
--DE Randy Gregory is set to return this week after missing most of the season's first two games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery the day after he played only one series in Nebraska's season opener. Last year's Big Ten sacks leader has looked good in his return, Bo Pelini said. He could also feast against a Fresno State offensive line that surrendered seven sacks last week.
--WR Demornay Pierson-El has clearly established himself as Nebraska's No. 1 punt returner. There's little debate after the true freshman averaged 10.4 yards on five returns last week, with a long return of 24. Last year, Nebraska averaged 3 yards, with no return longer than 19. Not only that, Pierson-El could work his way into the receiver rotation after the Huskers have suddenly been hit by injury there, with as many as four players either out or questionable for Fresno State.
SERIES HISTORY: Nebraska leads the series with Fresno State 1-0. The Huskers won the teams' only previous meeting in 2011 in Lincoln, 42-29.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It starts with me. It's all our faults. But at the end of the day, he's our best football player. We have to make sure to get the ball in his hands. I mean, he's our best football player." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on his Heisman Trophy candidate, senior RB Ameer Abdullah, having only three touches in the fourth quarter against McNeese State, including a kickoff return.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Nebraska couldn't run between the tackles against an FCS opponent. That's concerning. Had it not been for QB Tommy Armstrong effectively running the zone read and option for gains of 34 and 42 yards, the Huskers would've run for a mere 119 yards a week after rushing for more than 400.
Scouting the passing game: Fresno State has surely discovered the book on defending Nebraska is to crowd the box, stop RB Ameer Abdullah and play man coverage while forcing QB Tommy Armstrong to beat you with his arm. Of course, it's up to Armstrong to make better reads and decisions in the passing game, which he admits he didn't do against McNeese State. "Like I said, it starts with me. I'm the quarterback. I wear this shirt loud and proud," Armstrong said. "If I'm not playing my heart out in the game, we can't get wins." Bo Pelini will concur, but also points out Nebraska's receiving corps must do a better job in route definition. "Trust me when I tell you," Pelini said, "the problems in that passing game went well beyond that quarterback position."
Scouting the run defense: Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis lamented the number of "leaky yards" Nebraska allowed against McNeese State. While Nebraska didn't necessarily miss many tackles, it also didn't bring ball carriers to the ground immediately after contact, either. Coaches said what should've been second-and-9 or second-and-8 plays became second-and-6 or shorter, allowing the offense to open up the playbook. Nebraska also had problems with a running quarterback in Kansas State transfer Daniel Sams (10 carries, 75 yards). Meanwhile, Fresno State is considering starting Duke transfer Brandon Connette, who's more likely to run.
Scouting the pass defense: Nebraska needs to shore up its linebacker coverage of running backs and tight ends. McNeese State failed to capitalize five of seven opportunities when its running back escaped open, only to either drop a pass or not get a catchable pass. "I guess it was a little luck on our side," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "We're not going to count on that next time."
Scouting the special teams: A bright spot in Nebraska's close call with McNeese State: Improved special teams play. Punter Sam Foltz averaged 51.2 yards per punt and three times downed the Cowboys inside their 10-yard line. Meanwhile, freshman Demornay Pierson-El has finally given a pulse to Nebraska's long-dormant punt return game.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--DE Randy Gregory (No. 2 defensive end, fourth overall) -- Gregory is expected to return to play at Fresno State after recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery that forced him to sit out Nebraska's victory over McNeese State. Gregory played only seven snaps in Nebraska's first game before leaving in pain, then had surgery to clean up what Pelini said was an injury that's lingered from when Gregory played basketball.
--RB Ameer Abdullah (No. 7 running back, 64th overall) -- Can a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds to beat an FCS opponent be considered a Heisman Trophy moment? What Abdullah did against McNeese State -- when he either broke or bounced off five tacklers en route to a 58-yard catch-and-run -- seems worthy enough. Although it would behoove coaches to make sure their star player gets more than two offensive touches in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
--WR Kenny Bell (No. 27 wide receiver, 216th overall) -- Bell left Saturday's game against McNeese State in the first quarter with a groin injury after catching one pass for 14 yards and returning two kicks for 56 yards. Bo Pelini said Bell's status is day-to-day.
--DE Randy Gregory "looked great" when he ran on Sunday and is expected back to practice by Wednesday, coach Bo Pelini said. "But he'll be ready to go this weekend," Pelini said. Gregory had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 31 and sat out Nebraska's game Saturday against McNeese State.
--WR Kenny Bell left in the first quarter of Nebraska's game with McNeese State because of a groin injury and watched the second half in street clothes. His status is day-to-day, Pelini said.
--WR Jamal Turner suffered an Achilles tear against McNeese State and is out for the season. Turner, a senior who had an injury-plagued junior season, appears eligible for a medical redshirt, given he's not used his redshirt and he's played in only two game this season. "I've been wrong before, but I think it's going to be a slam dunk," Pelini said.
--WR Brandon Reilly and WR Sam Burtch have missed Nebraska first two games with hamstring injuries and remain day-to-day.