Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#5 UNO vs. #1 North Dakota: The Biggest Regular Season Weekend in UNO Hockey History?

UNO has played teams ranked #1 before...but never, ever when UNO has also been ranked anywhere near this high.  UNO sits in first place in the NCHC standings, just one point ahead of second place North Dakota.  The difference?  A shootout win by the Mavs when the teams played in Grand Forks on Thanksgiving weekend.

Now the scene shifts to Omaha, and it's not only the biggest regular season series in UNO hockey history, it's also the biggest series in the nation this weekend. CBS Sports Network is televising the Friday night game, and NET is televising the Saturday night game.  (Fox College Sports will be simulcasting the NET coverage nationwide on Saturday night, meaning that's two nationally televised games for the Mavs this weekend.)

Last weekend, North Dakota swept Colorado College at home, but both games were a lot closer than the teams' respective records would indicate.  The Tigers have been playing a lot better as of late, as indicated the week prior, when UNO and CC split the weekend series. At that time, it looked like UNO might have been playing down to their competition, but in hindsight, it's probably more to Colorado College turning their season around.

Looks like there will be big crowds this weekend as well; a quick check of Ticketmaster shows that the lower bowl is just about sold out both nights.  I wouldn't be surprised if both night's crowds approach 9,000 or more fans.  (And hopefully it's not all green Sioux fans, as the local beer distributors hope.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DaiShon Neal Says Something About Husker Fans They Won't Admit

I don't follow recruiting, but an early morning meeting found me in the car at the moment Omaha Central's DaiShon Neal reaffirmed his commitment to play football for Nebraska.  And, of course, I was listening to KOZN-1620 AM radio's "Sharp and Benning in the Morning" as I do pretty much every morning (except probably next week during the Worst Week of the Year. But that's another topic - for next week.)

Most Husker fans hit on the following quote from Abe Hoskins, Neal's father:
“Michigan was a powerhouse, they came in and they stormed us. … They made one bad statement and ruined it,” Hoskins said during the “Sharp and Benning Show” in-studio visit. “They said without football DaiShon wouldn’t be able to go to Michigan, like we couldn’t afford to send him there or we couldn’t get him (in) academically.”
Neal interjected: “They basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face.”
Hoskins continued: “Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house.”
Make fun of Michigan?  Hey, that's always lots of fun for Husker fans.  It's easy to hate on the Weasels in Maize and Blue.

What I found much more interesting is the following quote, which fans are ignoring.
“The reason everything started is because I had a good relationship with the old coaching staff,” he said. “I really committed to Coach Kaczenski. He was a great coach and I loved what he said to me. Then the fan base got rid of the entire coaching staff. So, I mean, you can’t be mad at me just for looking around.”
Neal said the same thing later in the interview, so it's not like it was a misquote.  I highlighted the entire quote to give you context. And I understand why Husker fans would ignore those statements; it's uncomfortable to admit their own role in the end of the previous coaching regime.  Point the thumb?  That was supposed to be for Bo Pelini, not us.  You heard Bo's blasphemy.  How can he say that the fans were against him, when we have sold out Memorial Stadium for 51 years?

It's not all fans, of course.  But a large group of fans, former players, and media played a definite role in creating the toxic environment that resulted in Bo Pelini's dismissal. That's not to say that Bo Pelini didn't have anything to do with it either.  He did.

Just don't deny the reality that many Husker fans turned on Pelini. Pelini wasn't wrong when he said that in that team meeting.  DaiShon Neal saw it firsthand.

It's too late to do anything about that now. But it's something to think about how we respond when Mike Riley loses a big game.  It doesn't mean we can't be critical.  It just means that we have to be a little more fair and make sure our criticism isn't just venomous anger.

We saw where that got us.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Your HOTTAKE on Ron Brown's Move to Youngstown State Likely Depends on your HOTTAKE on Bo Pelini

Today's news that former Nebraska running backs assistant coach Ron Brown is following Bo Pelini to Youngstown State is eliciting strong reactions from folks at both extremes of the opinions regarding Pelini.

Folks who still believe in Bo bemoan that Brown not only wasn't retained, he wasn't really even considered.

Folks who want Bo buried in the past bemoan that the topic even came up.

Both are wrong.

Ron Brown's legacy with Nebraska football makes this newsworthy. We had stories about Urban Meyer hiring Tim Beck, so why not stories about Ron Brown, who was hired in 1987 by Tom Osborne?

So should Brown have been retained by Mike Riley?

My answer is: not unless Mike Riley really wanted to.

Coaches should build their staffs with the people they want to work with. There shouldn't be any restrictions from outsiders (fans, former players, or administrators) as to who they hire. If Mike Riley wants his first hire to be a guy he promoted from being a graduate assistant barely one year earlier, that's his call. (It did make it fun to watch the people who criticized the experience level on Bo Pelini's staff squirm when that happened.)

Mike Riley wants to go a different direction? Let's go then.  Ron Brown is owed our thanks for his longevity and his contributions to championships over the years.  He's not owed another job in Lincoln.  He's been compensated very fairly for his contributions to Nebraska football, and he isn't owed anything other than what is spelled out by the terms of his contract.

Should Brown's fervent religious beliefs be an issue? Absolutely not. In this country, we have the freedom to believe what we want to believe, and as long as Brown is simply sharing, not enforcing, his beliefs on others, that should never be an issue.  From my perspective, Ron Brown's relationship with Ameer Abdullah, a devout Muslim, is proof enough to me that Brown knows - and practices - the distinction.

In fact, telling Brown that he can't share his beliefs is more offensive than Brown's proselytizing. It's freedom "of" religion that is protected, not freedom "from" religion. Ron Brown is welcome to share his beliefs, and we're all better for him doing that.  We learned that in the wake of the revelation of the horrors that Jerry Sandusky inflicted on young kids at Penn State in 2011.  That doesn't mean that Brown has always toed that line properly.  He admits as such; he knows he's sinner.

So why did he decide to work again for Bo Pelini, especially after the release of that secretly taped final meeting with his players? Critics point to the negative things he said: the vulgarities and the claims that many people around Nebraska wanted him to fail.

But that's only part of the story.  National media types picked up on a theme in that meeting that the local media pretty much missed, and that is how much Pelini cares for his players.  And his coaches as well. The local media missed it because, well, the World-Herald released the juiciest quotes first (tainting the discussion without context), then falling back on the prickly relationship many have with Pelini.

So Ron Brown is off to Youngstown State.  I hope it all works out for Youngstown State, just like I hope this all works out for Nebraska.

Ron Brown is a good man, just like Bo Pelini is and I hope Mike Riley is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

UNO Hockey Ranked Eighth Nationally After Sweeping Denver

On the heels of UNO hockey's sweep of now-#13 Denver this past weekend, the Mavericks jumped to #8 in this week's USCHO rankings.  Minnesota State is ranked #1, while North Dakota is ranked #3 and Minnesota-Duluth is ranked #5.  Those are teams UNO has played this season, and the Mavs split series with those teams.

Friday night, UNO got off to yet another slow start, trailing 3-0 midway through the second period before erupting for three goals in four minutes near the end of the second period.  Midway through the third, Denver took a 4-3 lead sending goalie Kirk Thompson to the bench. Thompson has been pressed into service as top goalie Ryan Massa has been out since Christmas with the flu followed by a concussion suffered in practice.  But with three minutes to go, David Pope scored despite a Denver player's illegal hit to tie the game at four.  On the ensuing power play, senior Dominic Zombo crashed the net and pushed a rebound for the game winner in a 5-4 victory.

Saturday night, UNO started hot by dominating Denver in the first period.  Sophomore sensation Austin Ortega scored on a breakaway just three minutes into the game. Denver cranked up the pressure in the second period, dominating the play down the stretch, but Kirk Thompson played his best game ever in a UNO jersey.  Thompson's 39 save perfomance might have been one of the best goaltending performances ever by a UNO Maverick, as Thompson had to make a number of frantic saves to hold the lead.

The sweep moved UNO into the first place in the conference, passing Miami and Minnesota-Duluth at the half-way point in the season. This weekend, UNO goes on the road to play last place Colorado College before returning at the end of the month to play North Dakota.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Separating Fantasy From Reality With Mike Riley's New Nebraska Staff

It became blatantly obvious to me that a lot of Husker fans took a lot more out of the announcement of Mike Riley's Nebraska football staff than I did. I take most of it as being hopeful about the future, because there certainly are far more concerns about this staff than fans are acknowledging.

I also note that it's probably an overreaction to the "meh" reaction the Riley hire has made from national pundits. Grantland's Matt Hinton earlier this week called Riley the "lowest ceiling hire that the Cornhuskers could have reasonably made." That's led to even more snipes at Bo Pelini from people who previously wanted to "move on" and "leave it in 2014."  It's rather akin to bashing the ex-flame, if only to make your new romantic interest that much better looking in comparison.

Make no bones about it, Riley's new staff is much more experienced overall than Pelini's last staff. But for all the talk of hiring the "best people" out there, Riley went with buddy hires almost across the board: six of the eight announced assistants coached with Riley at Oregon State.  Only two are new to Mike Riley: defensive line coach Hank Hughes and secondary coach Charleton Warren.  Hughes went to college with defensive coordinator Mark Banker, making Hughes really another "buddy" hire, leaving only Warren as a true newcomer.  And I'm still not convinced that Riley made the decision to retain Warren, as Warren was the only assistant coach that Shawn Eichorst allowed to be on the road recruiting during NU's brief coaching search. (An awfully convenient coincidence, if it were.)

The size of the support staff raised a lot of eyebrows, as it's significantly bigger than previously. Some see that as proof of Eichorst's support of the program, but is that the same freedom that Pelini was given? We all know Pelini's private rant about not being supported. We don't know what Pelini exactly meant by that, but just because Riley is hiring a huge staff doesn't mean that Pelini was allowed to do the same.

One concern I have is how Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will mesh their "pro-style" background with Nebraska's "spread" personnel. While Langsdorf and Riley are quick to point out that they'll adapt things to their personnel, I'm also reminded that Bill Callahan also talked about how "flexible" his system could be.  This is one of those things I'll be watching very intently this spring and fall to see how this actually works out.  I suspect this is going to be one of those trial-and-error things; I have no doubt that Riley will be better than Callahan in that respect...but that bar is set awfully, awfully low.

And let's be honest, Riley's offense wasn't very good in recent years at Oregon State.  At the same time Eichorst was making the decision to fire Pelini, Riley was telling folks in Oregon that his offense had to change.  But Riley isn't really changing his staff...he's just changing his personnel by adopting a more potent Nebraska roster.  Langsdorf fills a definite void at Nebraska in quarterback coaching, but overall, I do think skepticism about where this offense is headed is warranted.

This isn't to condemn Riley's staff as a failure; they haven't lost a single game yet.  We don't know how this is going to play out, and that's the fascinating thing we're going to watch over the next eight months. My point is simply that just because you want really, really hard for this to succeed, we don't really know if it will or not.

That's the reality of Nebraska football in 2015.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Huskers Come Up Just Short Against Southern Cal

One of my takeaways from the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska is how they battled back when the chips were down. It wasn't always pretty, and it didn't always work out, but the Huskers battled.

People will point out the yards and points that the Blackshirts gave up. That's fair. But the counter is how future NFL quarterback Cody Kessler had his worst game of the season. Might be his last game for Southern Cal, as he's expected to declare for the draft.

Javorius Allen gouged Nebraska at times, and could have done worse if the SC game plan would have allowed it. That's surprising, considering Nebraska's injury situation at linebacker. Safety play didn't help there either.

Offensively, many onlookers online hated the lack of carries for Ameer Abdullah, but they really weren't noticing how the Trojans were keying on Abdullah all game. What I didn't like were the lack of quarterback runs in the first half, especially considering what Boston College's Tyler Murphy did against SC in September.

It didn't help that the Huskers were getting dominated up front. Dylan Utter was the surprise starter at center, but looked more like a speed bump against the Trojans defensive line.

No doubt in my mind that Husker fans may never truly appreciate Ameer Abdullah for what he meant to this team both on and off the field. Both he and Kenny Bell deserved better endings to their NU careers.

I also don't know if Husker fans will appreciate the outgoing coaching staff. Two guys that deserve better exits are recievers coach Rich Fisher and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. Fisher turned around a sorry group of receivers that couldn't catch a cold, while Kaz turned defensive line into a strength. I don't know who will replace them, but I suspect we'll miss these guys.

By the end of next week, I suspect we'll know who Mike Riley's assistants will be. And for as much negativity that resulted from Bo Pelini's private comments to his team, I hope now the focus turns to his comments about his successor, where he advises his team to give these new coaches a chance. 

We all would be well advised to do that, even if we aren't impressed or overwhelmed with them initially.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bo Pelini Rips Shawn Eichorst and Harvey Perlman - And Everybody Loses

Twice on the day he was named head coach of Youngstown State, the words of Bo Pelini came back to criticize Nebraska officials: one publicly and veiled, the other was intended to be private and were vulgar and offensive. First the public comments:
Pelini's last comment likely was targeted at Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, which drew a lot of comments that Pelini didn't even know Perlman's title. Problem with those statements that the "president" label was clearly tied to Tressel.  Was he pointing at former NU president J. B. Millikin? Probably not.  But differentiating between the different job titles of Jim Tressel and Perlman was something that's way too nuanced to elaborate on at a press conference.

Should Pelini have even brought up the past at Nebraska? Probably not, but it's clear to me that the friction between Pelini and Perlman date back to 2003 when Frank Solich was fired. If it wasn't for the fact that Perlman was essentially neutered with respect to athletic department concerns in the wake of the Steve Pederson debacle in 2007, I doubt Perlman would have ever approved Bo Pelini.

Of course, when Dirk Chatelain published a transcript of Pelini's meeting with the team two days after his dismissal, all that became moot.  Most of the initial reaction online focused on Pelini's deplorable language and the decision to air his grievances with his players.  I have a mixed reaction; it's clear the Pelini didn't pull any punches behind the scenes, and he put his players squarely in the middle of this now-messy divorce.  That's not good.  It makes Mike Riley's job that much tougher, and in the aftermath, I'm starting to feel that from a non-football perspective, Riley might be the best man for the job after all to soothe the transition for players that were clearly hurt.

One reaction that I simply don't understand and therefore cannot accept is that Pelini, by his actions, doesn't care about the Nebraska program. I believe people are mistakenly using Perlman and athletic director Shawn Eichorst as the program.  One thing I learned during the Steve Pederson/Bill Callahan program is that you can love the program and despise the people who are currently in charge.  (A "Vichy Nebraska", as I once referenced it at that time.) Pelini's reactions clearly were pointed at those two gentlemen - and not the program.

Step back from the awful language and take another look at Pelini's comments about Eichorst:
You don't spend any time with us, our players don't even know who you are. And I said, 'that isn't leadership.'
Unfair?  The words of a bitter man?  Perhaps.  But here's the thing.  Bo Pelini isn't the first to feel that way about Eichorst.  Eichorst has left this impression everywhere he has been.  From the Miami Herald in September 2012:
 At UM -- bracing for NCAA sanctions in the case involving former UM booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro -- Eichorst has been one of the most low-profile athletic directors in school history. He was not at UM during Shapiro's wrongdoings, but except for once or twice, has declined to speak to the media since coming to Miami -- and has mostly kept his distance from UM fans and donors.    Among the media, Eichorst was known as the invisible athletic director.
Last month, noted Pelini critic Lee Barfknecht checked in on Eichorst's history and found the same thing:.
Regarding Eichorst, we’re forced to say “I hear” a lot because of his ultra-guarded management style, and the layer of old chums he has hired — also not available for interviews — to insulate him.
When he was the A.D. at Miami, his nickname was “The Invisible Man.” The past three weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time around Wisconsin, which is where Eichorst grew up and used to work under Barry Alvarez. Folks there wryly ask how we get along with “Silent Shawn.”
But wait, there's more:
That said, I’ve never seen effective leadership from someone who burrows into his office and sets up policies that almost banish communication — especially in running a high-profile athletic department, and even more so at straight-shooting Nebraska.
You can’t lead from behind or the dark.
Eichorst told us in August that he has strong relationships with his head coaches. That is counter to what coaches have told me and many others. Some say they can’t directly get a meeting with him. One said the number of books Eichorst has assigned coaches to read has outnumbered his in-person visits to that sport.
Basically, the exact same thing Pelini is being lambasted for saying. Did he err by ranting to the team?  I'd tend to agree.  But it doesn't change that Pelini is simply telling us the truth.

Isn't it ironic that on the day that Steve Pederson was yet again fired that a picture of an athletic department in Lincoln under siege from an athletic director who seems to be focusing more on empire building than team building is emerging.

You can't dismiss this talk as being Pelini's sour grapes when one of Pelini's biggest critics is corroborating him.  This isn't to say Pelini's critics are all wrong for calling for his ouster; there are plenty of reasons that a coaching change was warranted.  (/wisconsinScoredAgain) And the fact that he brought his players into this mess doesn't help either.

But it's starting to look like 2004 all over again around Nebraska athletics.  Firing Pelini may have simply been shooting the messenger.

And that's downright frightening.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So Why Is Bo Pelini Taking the Youngstown State Job?

It turns out was on the right track when they reported last week that Bo Pelini was headed to division 1-AA Youngstown State.  Last week's "complete fabrication of the truth" is now reality. But why Youngstown State? What does that say about Bo Pelini?

The step-down to 1-AA has certainly empowered Pelini critics to use the coaching market as justification for Nebraska's coaching change.
Comments like that, though, only reinforce in my mind that Pelini's detractors aren't terribly confident in their position.  The "nine wins for seven straight years"  line is one of those facts that's constantly misunderstood by his critics.  Let's make things exactly clear: nobody has ever... EVER ... suggested that Bo Pelini's record at Nebraska is exactly like Alabama's or Oregon's over the last seven years.  Those two teams are the exception.  The comparison is to the OTHER 120+ division 1-A football programs:  the ones that haven't won 9 or more games every year starting in 2008.

We also have the snide statements that this was the highest profile job Bo Pelini could find.  That may ... or may not be true.  I suspect it's not.  I think Bo was considered for the Wisconsin job, but the last two NU/Wisconsin games would have made Pelini a hard sell in Madison.  I'm sure there are plenty of other jobs Pelini would have been a candidate for, and may have been, in fact.

So why Youngstown State?  Everybody knows that Youngstown, Ohio is Bo's home town.  And that's the clincher for Pelini in my opinion.  It is home.  Nebraska is going to pay him nearly $8 million over the next five years, so barring a Power Five conference job coming open, he's not going to make more money elsewhere.  Every dime Pelini makes at another school is a dime that Nebraska doesn't have to pay, so there simply aren't going to be many opportunities to make more money at another school.

I think the biggest deal for Bo Pelini is bringing his family back to Youngstown, Ohio.  His kids can attend Cardinal Mooney, and family is a big deal to Bo Pelini.  A really big deal.  Back in 2007, Yahoo! Sports interviewed then-LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini and highlighted the man inside the gray sweatshirt.  This quote stands out to me today:

Across town, many of the 92,000 fans who will attend LSU's showdown against defending national champion Florida are already stirring gumbo and guzzling Miller Lite in the parking lot at Tiger Stadium.

But to Bo Pelini, that game is no more important than the one he's at now – mainly because his son, Patrick, is among the players trying to kick the ball into the net.
"It's fun watching your kids grow up," Pelini, who also has two daughters, says later. "Baseball, t-ball, gymnastics, ballet. I try not to miss anything."
LSU's defensive coordinator pauses for a moment and grins.
"But," Pelini says, "I do think a few people get freaked out when they see me standing on the soccer field the morning of such a big game."
Pelini's kids are now eight years older now, and last summer, he talked about driving his kids to summer camps across the state of Nebraska.  That's something most people wouldn't expect most coaches to do.  But that's not Bo Pelini.  Remember a couple of years ago when Pelini raised a stir by taking his son to a North Carolina/Duke basketball game?
That's Bo Pelini to me.  I think this is a family move for Bo Pelini, pure and simple. It's not so much that he's returning home as much as his family is.  And frankly, I'd actually be surprised if Pelini didn't spend a few years at Youngstown State.  At this point, it's not about the money.  Nebraska will be paying Pelini for the next five years, and he'll earn the same thing whether he's coaching at Youngstown State, Colorado State, Houston, or Memphis.  Only place he earns more money is if a Power Five job opens up.

Five years from now, the situation may be different.  His youngest daughter will be finishing up at Cardinal Mooney in all likelihood, and Pelini should have a solid resume at Youngstown State that would be enticing to other big name programs. In the meantime, Pelini will have had a chance to refine his coaching prowess.  He might be ready to jump back into the rat race of big-time football then.

But for now, Youngstown isn't the biggest place Bo Pelini could find.  For Bo Pelini, it's just the best place.

Friday, December 12, 2014

UNO Hockey Returns Home For Eight Straight Games

After spending most of the last two months on the road (10 out of 12 games on the road), UNO hockey returns to Omaha for eight straight games over the holidays.  This weekend, it's sixth place St. Cloud State in for games at 7:37 pm tonight and 8:07 pm Saturday night.  UNO has been fairly successful on the road until the last couple of weekends.  Thanksgiving weekend, UNO won an overtime shootout on Friday, but lost 3-2 on Saturday night at #1 North Dakota.  Last weekend, UNO stunk it up on Friday night, losing 8-2 in a game televised on Fox College Sports, only to rebound strong with a 5-2 victory over #6 Miami.

Hockey pollsters have the Mavs ranked twelfth in the country.  The early simulations of the Pairwise rankings have UNO third in the nation, trailing only Mankato and Minnesota-Duluth.  Very impressive considering this is a team that arguably is in a rebuilding season with 11 freshman, 7 sophomores, 3 juniors, and 5 seniors.  And a completely different vibe after getting shut out in an exhibition game against a Canadian team.

With a run of home games, this should be an opportunity for UNO to make a move in the conference standings. A sweep this weekend against St. Cloud moves UNO within one point of conference leaders Miami and Minnesota-Duluth, who aren't playing conference games this weekend.  I suspect North Dakota will be in first place by Sunday, though.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

So About Mike Riley as the Huskers New Head Coach

Like nearly everybody else, I was expecting somebody else to be named the next head coach of the Huskers. Earlier this week, I suggested Baylor's Art Briles was my top choice in a discussion with Omaha weekly newspaper "The Reader". Why? After Sunday's news conference, I felt that Shawn Eichorst was going to "go big" and get a huge name.  I didn't think they would pursue the hot assistant (i.e. Scott Frost) or the up-and-coming mid-major coach (i.e. Jim McElwain).  I thought they'd probably hire an established coach from a Power-5 conference, and if nothing else, pick someone like Minnesota's Jerry Kill.  I think Mike Riley's name may have briefly passed through my head, but I never gave him much of a second thought.

Of course, I panicked like most Husker fans when the Bret Bielema rumor hit.  Not so much because Bielema is a bad coach, but rather because of the bad taste he left in both Nebraska AND Wisconsin in 2012. I thought it was an unlikely rumor because Bielema's negativity would seem to run counter to Eichorst's "Energy Bus" philosophy, and sure enough, it was quickly debunked.

I probably would not have believed the Mike Riley report either if I hadn't seen it on the @Huskers Twitter feed, and that sent me into a mad scramble to figure out the hire.  And that scramble resulted in a maddening manic-depressive swing of emotions. At first, I was feeling OK about the hire as I recalled that he was moderately successful at Oregon State and even spent time in the NFL.  Then I looked at the record and saw way-more losing than I had remembered; that made me question the hire and doubt.  Then I read his resume and saw that he turned down offers from Southern Cal (TWICE) and Alabama.

So what's up with the guy?

That's the question.  The best analogy I can come up with is that Oregon State is historically much like Iowa State, Kansas State, or Vanderbilt; historically awful programs that don't attract much talent.  So it takes incredible coaching to get an Oregon State to be a nine or ten win program, which he's done at times.

Fan reaction locally was swift - and negative. "We fired a nine win coach for a guy who's lost six or more games four out of the last five years?"  That's not a championship coach.  But contrast that with the reports from the national media that he does more with less, and you want to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Reporters that cover recruiting praise him for seeking out underrated talent out of Texas and turning them into good, solid players.  They see him as a guy who can now approach four and five star players when he's wearing the "N" on his shirt.

Well, we'll see about that.

Bottom line is that, like him or not, he's Nebraska's coach now.  While I'm not sure he's an upgrade over Bo Pelini, I don't think he's a downgrade. He'll clearly upgrade Nebraska's quarterback play, which has been an issue the last couple of years.  His background was as Southern Cal's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.  What about the defense?  That remains to be seen.

Where I think Riley will be different is in media relations.  Bo Pelini was a no-nonsense guy who didn't appreciate some of the nonsense that the Omaha World-Herald published in recent years. Riley's reputation is that he's much more affable and media-friendly, which means that it's less likely that the World-Herald will quote him out of context in an attempt to misrepresent his thoughts.

That, and the honeymoon period that each new coach gets, should make for a more pleasant environment around Nebraska football. The players seem on board initially with their new coach; now the only question is whether the fans will come on board.

I'm willing to give the new guy a chance.  How about you?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

So What's Next After Nebraska Fires Pelini

Count me as disappointed over Bo Pelini's dismissal at Nebraska. I still think he's an excellent coach, even if he didn't get Nebraska where Husker fans want the program to be. And I think we're more likely to be disappointed by what's next than we are to be pleased.

But right or wrong, the decision has been made. 

I'm not worried about Bo. He's am excellent coach and will have success elsewhere.

I am worried about the players. You can tell from the initial reactions that the team loved their coach by their shock and disappointment. The next Nebraska coach has HUGE shoes to fill. Bill Callahan couldn't match Frank Solich or Pelini in terms of dealing with college athletes both on and off the field, and the next coach will have to deal with a very disappointed team.

So who is the next coach? I have a few names I'd consider and who shouldn't. Let's start with the NOT's:

Scott Frost (lack of experience), Jim McElwain (nowhere enough experience), Jim Tressel (legacy of NCAA violations everywhere he's been).

So who to consider? Start with Minnesota's Jerry Kill. Proven winner everywhere who could be huge at a school with Nebraska's prestige and resources. Maybe take  flier on Art Briles or Gary Patterson, though it's unlikely that they'd leave the state of Texas.

If Bo Pelini's nine wins aren't good enough, Nebraska must think big. That means Nebraska must be prepared to spend big money on the next coach. A proven winner might cost $6 million a year or more. Treat this hire like Alabama did when they hired Nick Saban. Make big names say no, and make it very difficult to say no.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nebraska Guts Out a Black Friday Victory Over Iowa

It looked ugly at times. It look downright absurd at other times. But somehow, in some way, Nebraska found a way to beat Iowa 37-31 in overtime.  Is it a case where Iowa sucks more than Nebraska?  You could certainly make that case. Is this a case where Nebraska's character persevered?  You could certainly say that as well.

Bottom line is that both sides of the "Bo Should Stay"/"Bo Should Go" debate found evidence to support their case. Nebraska got nine wins, and that's a decent season.  There is no quit in a Bo Pelini team.  Even though many people probably gave up when Iowa went up 24-7 on the punt into the butt.

Not me. I could see the defense was playing better, and Iowa almost certainly had another turnover in them. (What, you guys didn't think Bo Pelini could make an adjustment?) And sure enough, Ameer Abdullah sparked an offensive comeback.

Only to have the field goal blocked and Andy Janovich inexplicably stand there and not attempt to advance the ball. Would he have scored? Probably not. But he should have tried, and why he didn't is one of those mental mistakes that makes Husker fans pull their head out.

But since Iowa wasn't doing anything on offense anymore, you knew Nebraska would get the ball back, and the next time, Tommy Armstrong found Taariq Allen in the back of the endzone. Armstrong's stats weren't great on the day, but he certainly improvised when he had to.  And he had to because Nebraska was playing two third-teamers on the offensive line. Paul Thurston and Matt Finnin were thrown into the fire, and while they weren't terribly effective, Nebraska still managed to move the ball.

Another Iowa three-and-out, and then De'Mornay Pierson-El redeemed himself from last week's errors.  First a 41 yard punt return to set up a deep pass to Kenny Bell to cut Iowa's lead to 24-21. That throw was your typical Tommy Armstrong pass thrown into coverage, but Bell somehow made the catch.  Then Pierson-El went 80 to put the Huskers in the lead somehow.

Iowa wasn't done, and chewed clock to regain the lead with under two minutes to go.  Only to have Armstrong lead the team down the field again to allow Nebraska to send the game into overtime.

And frankly, wasn't it awesome to have Kenny Bell make two catches in overtime to get the Huskers the win. Bell had his senior day cut short with a concussion, but played huge today.  And in so doing, cooled down a bit of the "Bo Pelini is going to be fired rhetoric" that has been growing since the Wisconsin debacle. Not that a win over Iowa necessarily is anything that should save a guy's job, but rather that by not losing to Iowa, the detractors have one less reason to call for a coaching change.

This isn't to say that changes aren't needed in Lincoln; I do believe that something needs to change. But I want Bo Pelini making the changes, not Shawn Eichorst.  I still "Bo-lieve", even if many people don't.  I'm sorry, but nine wins a season is a pretty good thing.  No other program (except one in the south and one on the west coast) has done it over the last seven years, and that counts for something.

But the four losses are a problem.  Even worse are losses like the one at Wisconsin.   I think Bo Pelini knows better than anybody else where those games broke down, and is now able to start addressing those issues now that the regular season is over.  I expect that there will be assistant coaches looking for new jobs, though we may not realize it immediately.  Bo isn't going to fire somebody to save his job (he said so himself), and he isn't going to fire people  to hand fans a scapegoat.  He will, however, work with his departing assistants to find them their next assignment.  He's loyal to his assistants, and he's done it before in jettisoning Shawn Watson, Ted Gilmore, and Corey Raymond.   By spring practice, there will be new faces on this coaching staff.

It's been a rough season and disappointing in they eyes of Husker fans.  We should remember that experts like Phil Steele picked them to finish 4th in the Big Ten west, and whether we like it or not, third is better than fourth.  And if Nebraska manages to get a favorable bowl bid, a ten win season is still possible.  That's not all bad.

Not at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gophers Stronger Than Huskers, Which Says a Lot

The old mantra that football games are won - and lost - in the trenches is still true today, even in this PlayStation era of spread offenses.  Nebraska's performance against Minnesota showed just that as the no-nonsense Gophers overwhelmed the Huskers at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  Is Minnesota more talented than Nebraska?  I don't think anybody would argue about that.  Did they outplay Nebraska? Absolutely.

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner was the difference maker in this game; not terribly effective in the passing game, but deadly on the ground.  When the Gophers needed yards, it was usually Leidner running the ball...and usually in the open after defensive misread after misread. Going into the game, Leidner didn't scare me that much as a mobile quarterback, but as the game went on, he frightened me more and more.  Although Leidner has rushed more often in recent weeks (84 yards against Purdue, 77 yards against Iowa, and 56 yards against Ohio State), he's not the type of quarterback that should put up huge numbers against the Huskers.

But he did.

And that's one of the key issues for Bo Pelini's program as right now, it's just not working right. It's not a talent problem, in my opinion.  And frankly, it's not a scheme issue either.  It's an execution issue.  And before you think I'm somehow absolving Pelini of this problem, I'm not.  I'm pointing the finger squarely at him because when execution problems keep plaguing his defense, it's a systemic issue that points back to how his coaches are implementing his scheme.  It just happens too often, and too consistently for it to be anything else.

Offensively, Nebraska's offense was ineffective much of the day, but I don't blame Tommy Armstrong that much. I think he had a decent game; he certainly didn't lose it.  No, the game was lost up front where Nebraska was mostly ineffective running the ball, except when loading up in an old-fashioned I-formation with double tight ends set. A 22 formation (two running backs and two tight ends) isn't seen much in college football anymore. But just before halftime, Nebraska broke out the fullback and mounted a drive just before halftime.  Minnesota certainly didn't think Nebraska could do it, as Jerry Kill called a timeout on 3rd and two, expecting Nebraska to come up short.  They didn't...and before too long, Nebraska was actually driving the field, only to have De'Mornay Pierson-El fumble the ball at the Minnesota 11.

Pierson-El dropped the ball after the catch three times against Minnesota; the first didn't count as it happened just after he stuck the ball over the goal line.  The next two ended Nebraska scoring drives. I can easily chalk that up to freshman mistakes and forgive him.  He'll get better. Much better.  The real issue was that Nebraska shouldn't have needed Pierson-El to make those plays against Minnesota.  Credit the Gophers for stopping Nebraska's ground game most of the day.  And it starts up front.  The offensive line was a sieve.  Take the broken play that led to Kenny Bell's 78 yard reception; Minnesota sent four and flushed Armstrong out of the pocket.  Same thing on the Pierson-El touchdown.

That 2nd and 1 play that everybody hated today?  I liked the call.  I hated the execution.  Take a shot downfield, but don't screw it up.  Screwing it up is what Nebraska did when Sam Cotton got beat badly on the edge. If the pass is incomplete, it's a very makeable 3rd and one.   So why not take a measured chance and throw the ball?  It's really a free play.  Nebraska just completely effed it up.

I'm frustrated as a Husker fan because I know this program is better than what we've seen on the field the last few weeks.  Both sides of the ball have issues, and I'm not sure how this improves without some sort of changes in Lincoln.

I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Bo Pelini, but the evidence is overwhelming that Bo's current program isn't working like it should. Ideally (in my opinion), Bo Pelini has already recognized it and is considering what needs to be revamped.

Some people will argue that after seven years, Pelini is what he is and won't ever get Nebraska further than a nine or ten win season, and if you want something different, you've got to get a different head coach.  That could change things in either direction, and frankly, I still believe Pelini is still too good of a coach to fire at this point.  Assistant coaches are another matter entirely.  I think Pelini hasn't done himself any favors by some of his past hires, picking youth and familiarity over ability.  The Charleton Warren hire broke the mold, and while the jury is out as to whether Warren was a good hire or not, at least we can drop the narrative that Pelini only hires buddies.

But if Shawn Eichorst does decide to clean house in Lincoln, he'd better have a good idea what direction to head.  Let's just stop with the Scott Frost talk.  One of the complaints about Pelini is that he wasn't experienced enough to take over Nebraska with his first job.  Frost has even less experience.  One guy I would strongly look at is Jerry Kill at Minnesota.  He's proven himself everywhere he's been and his teams don't beat themselves.

Don't believe that?  Then what game were you watching.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Different Perspective on Bo Pelini's Sideline Demeanor

Many of the commenters here as well as on the CornNation Facebook page have been outraged over Bo Pelini's sideline demeanor during Wisconsin's 59-24 victory over Nebraska. They see Bo Pelini yelling at a player after a mistake is made, and attribute future mistakes to the yelling. (Of course, Nebraska made an awful lot more mistakes after Daniel Davie blocked Nate Gerry out of position on one of Melvin Gordon's long runs.)

Monday night, Davie's father Damon referenced this on Twitter.
Whenever this subject is brought up, the criticism focuses on Pelini's mannerisms. It certainly doesn't bring up what he's actually saying, because while ESPN's cameras can zoom into Pelini (and even dedicate a camera to focus on Pelini during a broadcast), their microphones can't pick up what he's saying.

So what is Pelini saying?  Good question.  I don't know.  But I do know what Pelini has said in the past about these sideline conversations.  This dates back to 2007 when he was still at LSU, talking to Louisiana high school coaches.
“I take this philosophy: There hasn’t been a player ever that has tried to make a mistake out on the field,” Pelini says. “If he made a mistake, he made it for a reason. Well, as a coach, you need to search for that reason — search for a way to get through to that kid. Ultimately, when you coach that way, the players are going to believe in you. And at the end of the day, they’re going to want to run through a wall for you.”

Pelini tells a story from 2003 when he served as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. A defender made a mistake in practice, and one of the Husker assistant coaches castigated the player. The assistant ranted and raved and even ran from the sideline into the defensive huddle to get in the player’s face.

“I called the assistant coach over to me and said, ‘All that stuff you just did: Was that for you or for the player? Because I heard you yelling at that kid and not one time did you tell him what he did wrong,’” Pelini says. “I told the coach, ‘So, the next time, it’s on you.’”

The key, Pelini says, is “getting kids to understand what they’re doing so they can do it fast.”

“If I get after a kid, (later) I’ll walk up and put my arm around him and say, ‘You’re better than that, right? You know you’re better than that, right?’”
We've heard Pelini's former players talk about being willing to "run through a wall" before, so I remain convinced that's what Pelini is doing in these sideline confrontations.  That being said, Pelini and his staff are still having difficulty "getting kids to understand what they're doing" because we see all of these mistakes manifest itself during games.  I don't believe it's the manner Pelini corrects people on the field or the sideline that's the issue.

And I don't believe that Damon Davie believes that either.

Oh, and for what it's worth, Pelini's not the only coach who yells at players.

Can you imagine the outrage if Pelini hit one of his players on the sideline?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Badgers Bludgeon Huskers, Raising Questions That Scream For Answers

I've been a huge Bo Pelini supporter over the years. I've accepted the excuses over the years.  I freely admit that nine wins - even with four losses - is a decent year in college football.

I still believe that.

But when Wisconsin guts, filets, and disembowels Nebraska yet again, it's past time for excuses. It demands questioning everything.  I'm not calling for Bo Pelini to resign or be fired.  But something has to change.

Thing is, this game didn't start that way.

The defense looked great in the first quarter in forcing three fumbles and locking down on Melvin Gordon.  Huskers led 17-3, and fans should have been feeling pretty good.  Wisconsin made a few adjustments to spring Gordon free, and Nebraska imploded.

Eight straight touchdowns.  Gordon sets an NCAA record with 408 yards.  And the Badgers leave the field with a 59-24 victory.

This was the worst game in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska.  The 2012 Big Ten Championship Game was really bad; this was worse.  At least in Indianapolis, you had an offense that at least tried.  And I also felt that the answers to the defensive issues were already underway.  Guys like Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen were redshirting.  Randy Gregory and Maliek Collins were being recruited.  And Zaire Anderson was recovering from ACL surgery.

Those guys weren't the answer today. And for all of Taylor Martinez's foibles, he's still ten times the quarterback that Tommy Armstrong has been in recent weeks.  Especially today.  6 for 18 passing for 62 yards. 17 yards rushing.  Add in bad offensive line play and a clearly not 100% Ameer Abdullah...and you've got a completely impotent offense.

Everybody other than Abdullah needs to be questioned.  Start with Tim Beck and not doing something - ANYTHING - to get the ball to playmakers not named Ameer. Where was De'Mornay Pierson-El?  Where was the diamond formation?

And frankly, when it was clear that Armstrong didn't have it, where was Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton? It's not like Armstrong's issues are a one-game thing.  He's struggled all season long for the most part. And if Armstrong is clearly the best we have at Nebraska, then the problem is even worse than we think it is.

Remember, Abdullah is a senior and won't be back next season.

Defensively, we saw the same thing we've experienced in past beat-downs.  Poor tackling, out of position, and nobody available to bail things out on the third level.  Is it scheme?  Nobody else has allowed Gordon to rush for more than 250 yards in a game. Is it coaching? Who's supposed to be teaching these guys fundamentals?

I don't know what the answers are, but it's pretty clear that something needs to change.  I don't know if it means that Pelini himself should be fired, but some changes have to be made on the staff on both sides of the ball.

It's time to question everything.