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Pelini: Huskers in Big 12 title game a year late
OMAHA, Neb. -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has led the No. 21 Cornhuskers to a second straight nine-win season and into Saturday's Big 12 championship game against No. 3 Texas.
An upset of the Longhorns at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, would put Nebraska in a BCS bowl just two years after the Huskers hit bottom in Bill Callahan's final year. Some might say reaching the Big 12 title game puts Pelini's rebuilding job right on schedule.
"Well," Pelini said Monday, "it's behind schedule as far as I'm concerned because I was hoping to get there last year and it just didn't happen."
The Huskers tied Missouri for first place in the North Division in 2008 but lost the head-to-head meeting. This year, Nebraska (9-3, 6-2) won the North by two games.
Since a two-week stretch in which the Huskers suffered shocking losses at home to Texas Tech and Iowa State, they've rolled off five straight wins. One of the nation's best defenses and strong special teams have covered for a scuffling offense that ranks 92nd in the nation.
"Our best football is still out there to be played," Pelini said. "At times we're playing really well, other times we're not as consistent. On any given day you have to be ready to do what's necessary to win a football game, depending on the circumstances. We've been able to rise up and get that done, and we need to continue to do that Saturday night."
The Huskers are two-touchdown underdogs. Regardless of the outcome, the 41-year-old Pelini has done what athletic director Tom Osborne asked of him.
Osborne wanted a coach with strong defensive credentials, one who could motivate and inspire confidence in the players and one who understands the tradition of the program and its importance to the state.
Pelini, the defensive coordinator at Nebraska in 2003 and later at Oklahoma and LSU, has overseen the transformation of the moribund 2007 defense into a unit that this year ranked in the top 10 most of the season and was led by Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award finalist Ndamukong Suh.
Practices are much more rigorous than they were under Callahan, who gave starters most of the work and emphasized repetition over teaching.
Pelini also has a grasp of the Nebraska tradition, which includes an NCAA-record 304 consecutive sellouts, an emphasis on winning without shortcuts and a reverence for the walk-on program developed by Bob Devaney and fostered by Osborne.
Texas coach Mack Brown said Nebraska's glorious past made it difficult for him to believe the Huskers would remain irrelevant for long on the national scene. And the coach said no one should forget that the Huskers went 9-5 in 2006 and played in the Big 12 championship game.
"Nebraska is one of those programs that's never going to be out of sight and mind long," Brown said. "It's one of those helmets -- when you see the 'N' or the Longhorn on it, everybody knows who they are. You don't have to ask who is playing this weekend."
Pelini said his job has been made easier by the quality of Nebraska's facilities and the administration's support. But he still had to repair the psychological damage from a steady diet of beatdowns in 2007 -- 41-6 to Missouri, 45-14 to Oklahoma State, 76-39 to Kansas.
The players began understanding and executing Pelini's defensive system by the middle of last season, and the Huskers won six of their last seven games, including an impressive win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
"I believe in culture and how you go about things -- not necessarily what you do but how you do it," Pelini said. "You have to build trust between players and coaches, build rapport and, beyond that, teach them well. We've been able to do that."
Now the Huskers are in position to win their first conference title since 1999.
And not a moment too soon, according to Pelini.
"I came in here wanting to win football games and compete for championships," Pelini said. "We have a chance to compete for one Saturday night."