LINCOLN, Neb. -- As UCLA continued its unrelenting assault on Nebraska in Saturday's second half, Bo Pelini saw a disconcerting expression on the faces of his players. They looked as if "they saw a ghost," the Cornhuskers coach said.
Whether you believe in spirits, it's not hard to imagine what specter those players were witnessing: The Ghost of Nebraska Collapses Past.
There wasn't anything terribly new or surprising about the No. 23 Huskers' latest debacle, in which they surrendered 38 unanswered points in a 41-21 loss to the No. 16 Bruins. The only real difference is that this demoralizing defeat happened at home, where the Huskers had been more immune to such demons.
The constants, though, still haunted Saturday's result: missed tackles and busted assignments by the defense, an offense that can look so good one minute before self-destructing the next and, mostly, a team that lets adversity mushroom into an unstoppable mudslide of momentum for the other side.
All of those things came to a head in the third quarter. Leading 21-10 to open the half, Nebraska drove to the UCLA 41-yard line before punting. That would be the final time the Huskers appeared to control their fate. The Bruins, who started the game sluggishly, perhaps due to the 9 a.m. PT kickoff, would roll up 28 points in the third quarter while gaining 236 yards, 36 more than they had in the entire first half.
"The pendulum started going the other way," Pelini said, "and we needed to make a play."
Instead, the Huskers offered little to no response. We expected a shootout, but the Nebraska offense laid down its arms in the second half. It mustered just 135 yards after intermission, going three-and-out three times. The most promising second-half drive ended when Ameer Abdullah lost a fumble inside the UCLA 6-yard line, checking yet another box in the Huskers' Bad Loss Handbook: the head-slapping turnover.
Nebraska got so desperate for anything positive that it faked a punt from its own 42, for some reason asking 305-pound shield blocker Brodrick Nickens to rumble three yards for a first down. He got two.
Did the Bruins make major defensive adjustments?
"Not really," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "They were just lining up and playing. We just didn't execute."
The Bruins loaded the box and dared quarterback Taylor Martinez to throw Saturday. Martinez appeared unwilling or unable to run the ball, finishing with minus-13 yards on 10 carries, most of them scrambling away from or into pressure.
Martinez wore a boot on his left ankle in the postgame news conference and said it was from "something previous," though he insisted he was fine. Beck said the unspecified injury didn't affect his play calling. Still, Nebraska is far less dangerous when the run threat of Martinez disappears, and UCLA knew it.
Pelini's young defense actually played much better than expected early on. It had held UCLA to three points and forced quarterback Brett Hundley into trouble on third-and-long with about two minutes left in the half. But defensive end Avery Moss whiffed on a sack attempt, and Hundley wiggled out of another potential tackle before sprinting 13 yards for a first down. The Bruins would go on to score the first of five touchdowns in a little more than 15 minutes of action.
"We've got to make that play," defensive back Ciante Evans said. "We talked about it all week, containing the quarterback. When that happened, it was kind of like everybody said, 'What's going on?'"
What went on was another performance like last year's disaster against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Or like last year's grease fire at Ohio State. Or at UCLA last year, or at Michigan and at Wisconsin the year before. When things go bad for Nebraska, they too often spin out of control.
"Somebody's got to step up and be a leader, make plays," defensive end Randy Gregory said. "Whether that's me, a DB, a quarterback, it doesn't matter. Somebody's got to step up and say something."
Gregory has played three games in a Nebraska uniform. Ultimately, the blame must land at Pelini's feet. He talked after the game about his offense "reading their press clippings too much" and the team playing not to lose instead of to win. Pelini said he wants the Huskers to "just turn it loose and have fun." But the next several days in Lincoln won't be fun for anyone in red, as the debate over whether Pelini will ever get this program over the hump will rage on.
He continues to insist his defensive scheme works while opponents exploit it with increasing success. Why can't Pelini steer his team out of these in-game tailspins? Pelini and his players were short on answers Saturday afternoon, and the local media seemed fatigued by asking the same old questions.
Nebraska fans are as loyal as any in sports, and families still lined the tunnel walk area after the game to offer encouragement to their heroes. But as the team trudged off the field, the UCLA eight-clap echoed through Memorial Stadium, drowning out what had been a school-record crowd.
"In times like these, we have to stick together," Pelini said. "The only people that can fix it is us."
After yet another ghastly performance, Big Red Nation might be too spooked to believe that is true.