Hope, optimism and “Bo Knows Football” t-shirts were in abundance Saturday in Lincoln as the Nebraska football team began a new chapter with Coach Bo Pelini.
More than 80,000 fans -- the best crowd in the nation this year for a spring football game -- showed up on a near-perfect spring day to create a festive atmosphere. They came ready to tailgate and to forget the turbulence of two losing seasons under Bill Callahan. Peace and unity have come to the Cornhusker State (at least until NU suffers a two-game losing streak this fall.)
Neither Democrats nor the Republicans seem likely to forge a consensus by November in a nation that is split down the middle politically, but there is harmony in Nebraska now that favorite son Tom Osborne back as athletic director. Everyone seems to be rallying around the new coach and staff, who already have proven that they understand the Nebraska culture better than former coach Bill Callahan ever did in his four years at the helm.
Pelini has endeared himself to the Husker Nation by making appearances around the state and saying all the right things, much the way Bob Devaney did when he arrived in 1962.
Now, if he can just win football games the way the Bobfather used to.
The Youngstown, Ohio, native was a central figure Saturday. He thanked the near-sellout crowd for their attendance, just before participating in the “drug-free pledge” with thousands of children and adults at halftime.
On the field, there was little to dampen the mood of the crowd. The scrimmage ran without any noticeable mishap. There were no serious injuries, and it appears that a running attack will be evident at Memorial Stadium once again this fall.
After linebacker Tyler Wortman forced a fumble on the first play of the game, the Red team got the ball at the 8-yard line and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson ran Marlon Lucky at the White defense three times, resulting in a touchdown. That alone was proof that things have changed in a big way since the departure of Callahan, who never would have called three consecutive running plays inside the 10.
Sophomores Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille both looked impressive at times behind an offensive line that showed promise of becoming a solid unit. Joe Ganz looked confident at quarterback and Patrick Witt and Zac Lee each led a touchdown drive for the White team as they battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot.
But Nebraska fans will measure this season by how much improvement they see in the Husker defense. A strong season from Wortman, a senior from Grand Island, would give a real boost to a unit that languished near the bottom of Division I-A ratings last year and has no returning starters at linebacker.
There is talent in the defensive line and secondary, and on Saturday there was evidence that Pelini is re-installing passion and pursuit into the Blackshirts.
If Bo really knows how to turn the remnants of a shellshocked, dispirited defense into a top-25 caliber unit, it will go a long way toward making him a household word, not just in Nebraska, but around the nation.
Tad Stryker is the former sports editor of the North Platte Bulletin.