LINCOLN, Neb. – The context on Monday included no mention of Michigan State, as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini referenced a quote by John Wooden on the fine line between winning and losing.
Said the famous former UCLA basketball coach:
The close games are usually lost, rather than won. What I mean by that is most games are won because of the opponent making mistakes during crucial moments."
Imply as you wish.
Last November in Lincoln, Michigan State beat the Cornhuskers 41-28 as the Pelini’s team committed five turnovers, all in Nebraska territory, including three that were essentially unforced. The Spartans beat Nebraska for the first time in eight tries en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory.
“What happened, happened,” Pelini said. “You can look at it two ways. You can look at it and say we gave it to them. (Or) you can look at it from their standpoint that they took it.”
Pelini chooses the latter. To suggest otherwise, he said, is “kind of a cop out to a certain extent.”
“That’s not giving Michigan State credit," he said. "They won the football game and we lost, no matter how it happened.”
Turnovers stung Nebraska throughout the 2013 season. It committed 29 in 13 games and finished minus-11 for the season, No. 119 nationally. Things are better this season. The Huskers are plus-1 through five games, all victories; they’ve lost the football six times and taken it away seven times.
Clearly, then, doesn't ball security loom large in 19th-ranked Nebraska’s plan for success on Saturday night as it visits No. 10 MSU? Simply holding on to the football?
Or, as Wooden would have advised, don’t lose the game while trying to win it.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck echoed such thoughts in talking to his players about Nebraska’s 45-14 win on Saturday over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. mentioned that the Huskers committed turnovers the only times they didn't score against the Fighting Illini.
That's not entirely accurate. The Huskers, in fact, punted three times in the second half. But you get the point.
“When we take care of the of the football,” Armstrong said, “we can do anything.”
Nebraska’s turnovers last season against Michigan State led to 24 Spartans points. All five were committed by freshmen handled the football -- including Armstrong, who fumbled a snap and threw an interception. That game remains as Nebraska’s only defeat in Armstrong's 13 career starts.
Expect the game plan for Saturday to include a heavy dose of senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who leads the nation with 833 rushing yards. Armstrong is also more seasoned this time around. He leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in yards per completion, and his 420 rushing yards are fourth nationally among quarterbacks.
Nebraska can live with adversity on Saturday, as long as it’s not self-inflicted.
“If somebody makes a play on you, they make a play,” Pelini said. “You’ve got to make them earn it. That’s what you’ve got to constantly fight against, is being your own worst enemy.”