The proverbial egg shells were scattered on the floor at Bo Pelini's press conference on Monday. With columnists and fans speculating about the Nebraska football coach's future, the media attempted to cover that story while previewing this week's game at Iowa.
"Can we talk about Iowa, please?," Pelini snapped as a reporter broached the subject about the coach's future. He then reeled in his emotions.
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to cut you off but we've got a short week. We have a long time after Friday to go into the what-ifs and a lot of other things, but my focus right now is on Iowa and trying to go up to Iowa City and give this football team the best chance to win."
Whether or not it's talked about publicly by Pelini and his players doesn't matter. In a state where Husker football is religion, it's the elephant in the room.
Much of the same conversation swirled in the air at this time last year around Lincoln. Amid the controversy, the Hawkeyes slammed Nebraska, 38-17, in Memorial Stadium. After it, Pelini said "If they want to fire me, go ahead."
The school stuck with their coach and he led the program to an 8-1 start this fall. Then, the Huskers were embarrassed, 59-24, at Wisconsin two weeks ago. Last Saturday, Minnesota ended their dreams of a Big Ten West Division title with a 28-24 victory in Lincoln.
In a place where national championships are expected even though one hasn't been won in two decades, the sharks circled. The Omaha World Herald ran a column making it sound like Pelini's fate was sealed. The outlook wasn't much better in the Lincoln Journal Star.
After the direct approach didn't work with Pelini on Monday, another media member asked for specific ways the coach had adapted his program to change with the times. It didn't go well, either.
“I mean that discussion is for a different time and different place when the season is over," Pelini said. "Anyone who thinks that you just stay the same all the time and that there are no changes, that’s asinine. There are a lot of things we continue to do differently. Looking for new ways to do things, change practice schedules, change terminologies, different ways of doing things that if I’m being honest with you, would be over the heads of a lot of people."
To Pelini's credit, he accepted full responsibility for his team's performance.
"You know where I point the thumb. I don't point the finger at the players. I'm responsible for this thing. That's how I'm wired. When we don't play well, it's on me. That's my nature. That's how I look at it. I'm not going to feel sorry for myself. I'm not going to make excuses. I'm not going to do anything remotely like that. I'm here to serve these players in the best way I possibly can and I'm going to keep coaching them as hard as I can and do everything I can to make this the best football team I can make it. That's all I know how to do," he said.
It's been speculated that athletic director Shawn Eichorst might retain Pelini next season if he replaces some of his assistants. That question didn't go over well on Monday, either.
“I’m not going there. I’m not talking about that. Would I fire somebody to save my own job? No. Would I fire somebody who I thought deserved firing? Yes,” Pelini said.
These dramas often go two ways. We could see a team rally behind its coach Friday in Iowa City or one that implodes.
Adding to the intrigue is the uncertainty of star Wide Receiver Kenny Bell, who is questionable for the game after leaving the Minnesota contest with a head injury during the first drive.
"He felt pretty good (Sunday). So it’s hard to say. When somebody has a head injury, it’s difficult to say,” Pelini said.
All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah is less than 100 percent after suffering a knee injury against Purdue on Nov. 1. He has a combined 38 carries 167 yards (4.4 YPC) in the last two games after rolling up 1,249 on 180 totes (6.9 YPC) through the first eight contests.
“I think he is a warrior. I really do. He came back quickly off of an injury. He’s been less than 100 percent in the last couple weeks and hasn’t blinked an eye. I think it shows the character he has. To me, Ameer embodies everything you want a student-athlete to be. I believe that in every way. In his life, how he approaches every day, how he competes. He’s a pretty special guy,” Pelini said.
Nebraska's second leading rusher is quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (122-633, 5.2 YPC). He could play a huge role in this game considering the Hawkeyes' struggles against option signal callers this season.
Nebraska ranks 43rd nationally in scoring defense (24.0 PPG), 10 spots behind the Hawkeyes (22.8). The Huskers allow 179.6 rushing yards per game, which is 81st in the country, 24 positions behind Iowa (158.5).
Time, TV, Announcers: 11:05 a.m. CT on ABC with Bob Wischusen, Matt Millen and Quint Kessenich.
The Series: Nebraska leads a 28-13-3.
Betting Line: Vegas Insiders showed Nebraska opening as a 1.0-point favorite. As of Monday, the Hawkeyes moved to a 1.0-point pick at the Wynn Vegas. The total sat at 57.0.
-Nebraska is 6-1 Against The Spread in its last seven road games.
-Iowa is 6-2 ATS in its last eight conference games.
Match-up to Watch: The option game has troubled Iowa all season and Armstrong does a nice job with it. If he can get that going with even a less than 100 percent Abdullah, it could be another long day for the Hawkeye defense.
Nebraska is likely to chew up some yards on the ground. It's that good with its ground game.
The Hawkeyes can ease that blow by avoiding the big play, which it gave up to Wisconsin last week despite stopping a lot of runs really well. Abdullah and Armstrong both possess the speed to deliver knockout punches.
Iowa would be best served to make the Huskers plod up and down the field. Armstrong is an inconsistent passer which should allow the Hawkeye defensive backs to aid a developing linebacker corps in containing the edge.
Take Note: In seven conference games, the Hawkeyes rank No. 4 in total offense, averaging 423.7 yards per game.
Non-Sports Related: Nebraska is the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich.
Did You Know?: The University of Nebraska Cornhusker football team has produced more Academic All-Americans than any other Division I school.
Did You Also Know?: The largest porch swing in the world is located in Hebron, Nebraska and it can sit 25 adults.
Nebraska Wins If… it consistently pressures the Iowa QB.
Iowa Wins If… it can figure out how to stop the option.
Overview: The Hawkeyes plugged up Nebraska's rushing attack a year ago, holding Abdullah to 85 yards on 23 carries and quarterback Ron Kellogg to -1 on eight tries. They also had three standout linebackers at that time.
Iowa's linebackers played better against Wisconsin last week and the defense, as a whole, look better at swarming to the football. Again, it just relinquished too many big plays to the Badgers.
Abdullah also is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, something Iowa has been burned by before this season. Melvin Gordon and David Johnson serve as a blueprint for catching the Hawkeyes when they cheat up on the run.
Iowa will be able to score points on the Huskers if it can protect Jake Rudock. This game will come down to slowing the Nebraska option attack.
Prediction: IOWA 27, Nebraska 24.