LINCOLN — We owe them one.
Memorial Stadium hadn't fully cleared Saturday night when coach Bo Pelini said those words to his team in the locker room, wasting no time to redirect its focus after a blowout win. And several players repeated it during interviews Monday.
We owe them one.
Consider it the team rallying cry for the week as Nebraska prepares for a Saturday rematch against UCLA, the then-underrated squad that spoiled the Huskers' early petition for national credibility with a 36-30 win in Pasadena last year.
“It was a loss out there that we feel like we shouldn't have lost,” senior Jason Ankrah said. “It was one of the losses that we took into our offseason program and provided motivation in our work habits.”
The sting of that night still lingers. Clearly. Don't let any coachspeak or cliche-based sound bite this week persuade you to think differently.
UCLA piled up 653 yards on a veteran defense, and in the second half abruptly shut down a potent NU offense.
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The Huskers weren't expecting that harsh of a reality check that early. It still haunts.
Senior Taylor Martinez, a California kid, grew up rooting for UCLA. He wanted to play there, but didn't get recruited as a quarterback. His family and friends were at the Rose Bowl last year, too, watching Nebraska fade away after halftime, ceding control to the Bruins.
“I don't think I've ever felt so bad after a loss before,” he said Monday.
Senior Quincy Enunwa was one of the players who didn't sleep on the flight home after that game. He watched the film. Many of the other sleepless Huskers got off the plane around 4 a.m. and started texting plans for improvement to their coaches.
Senior Ciante Evans said Monday that they've had the game “on their minds” ever since.
Junior cornerback Josh Mitchell heard about it all summer long in friendly conversations with the Bruin players he grew up with in the Los Angeles area. He knows “95 percent” of the roster — from high school games, camps or other sporting events.
“I'm not going to lie, those guys, they've been keeping me motivated with the trash talk,” Mitchell said.
Nothing against UCLA, though. It's not about revenge — the players would probably say that word is too harsh.
More like redemption.
Nebraska, once again, has a chance to measure itself against top-tier talent. The nation will be watching — but more than that, the Huskers get to see if all those offseason workouts made a difference. Competitors don't train to test their skills against the inferior. They want the best.
But that's where it gets tricky.
The Nebraska players know the dangers of walking an emotional tight-rope, where too much hype and enthusiasm end up distracting them from making each meticulous step toward their final goal. They're aware that when dates of the calendar start getting circled, the subconscious byproduct is the accidental disregard for the games not highlighted.
That's why Pelini downplayed the motivational tactic at his press conference Monday, retreating back to the refrain repeated by every coach in America. In his mind, treating every opponent the same eliminates the likelihood of a letdown later on.
“Hopefully that motivation will come in the form of great preparation because that's how you win a football game,” Pelini said. “It's not about wanting to. It's about wanting to do the things that get you prepared to play great.”
He's right. But then again, nothing seems to heighten the sense of urgency in practice like heartbreak.
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Video: See Nebraska's Monday press conference: