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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

TD Ameritrade Park's B1G Win Offset by Loss of FXFL

This week brought both good news and some not-so-good news for TD Ameritrade Park. After the overwhelming success of the Big Ten Baseball Tournament in May, you knew it was only a matter of time before it returned to Omaha. So the Big Ten signed up to return in 2016 and 2018.  Why not 2017?  Some speculate that Jim Delany wants the Big Ten tournament at Yankee Stadium, but the real reason is that Creighton already reserved the ballpark for the 2017 Big East Tournament. Creighton has first dibs on the ballpark since it's their home field, so if Creighton wants to rent the place, it's theirs.

That's unfortunate for Omaha and TD Ameritrade Park, as the Big Ten tournament will be far bigger than the Big East tournament.  Creighton might want to pretend that they are "Omaha's Team", but that really only applies to men's basketball. (UNO's Trev Alberts would even take offense to that claim...) If you've been to any Nebraska/Creighton baseball game in Omaha, you know that Husker fans take over the ballpark like they took over Kansas State's football stadium before Bill Snyder turned things around in the Little Apple.

All hope is not lost on 2017, though.  Unless the Big Ten can work out a deal for Yankee Stadium, I suspect they'll wait until after the 2015 Big East tournament finishes in Omaha to see whether the Big East is going to re-up for 2017 or not. In the meantime, the businesses around the ballpark need to plan for a double CWS in 2015.  This year, they were not, and that left money on the table. Heck, prior to the event, most media members thought that the 6k-capacity Trailer Park in Sarpy County was a better choice.  That talk was over after the first day when over 10,000 showed up.  The Big Ten pretty much indicated that the only reason 2017 wasn't part of the deal was that those dates weren't available to the Big Ten.

So what's the no-so-good news?  The FXFL cancelled this week's season finale between the Omaha Mammoths and Brooklyn Bolts.  Supposedly the game is now being rescheduled in New York as an "FXFL Championship Game"...except there isn't a date or time for it. The players on the Omaha roster are already leaving town, meaning that it may be difficult to reassemble a team in a couple of weeks should a final game actually materialize.

But the real problem of this move by the FXFL is that cancelling a game is the type of stunt that the now-defunct UFL pulled over and over. I do believe that a league like the FXFL could work in Omaha, but only if they convinced the fans that it was viable.

Cancelling games does just the opposite.

I'd love to see the FXFL return in 2015. But they've got a lot of work to do in proving that the league is viable.  Now it's more work than it was going to be.  The first step is to establish some sort of formal relationship with the NFL; it's the one thing that will convince people that the league is viable. Schedule games on Friday nights instead of Wednesdays.  Make it enticing for fans to attend.  Heck, last week's game should have been scheduled for Saturday night, since the Huskers were on a bye.  Start ticket sales as soon as the NFL arrangement is finalized.  And promote the heck out of the fact that no matter what fans thought of the 2014 season, the NFL pursued these players.

Monday, November 03, 2014

UNO Hockey Starts Season Strong

Four weeks ago, UNO lost an exhibition game to Canada's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology 4-0, which might have been the Mavericks worst hockey game ever.  I wasn't there, so I really couldn't say if it was or not, but losing to a Canadian team is bad enough, but getting shut out is far worse. Of course, UNO didn't play most of their upperclassmen and chose instead to give most of the ice time to UNO's 11 freshmen, so it wasn't exactly a preview of what UNO hockey was going to be in 2014-15.

Since then, UNO has gone 4-1-1, with the only loss being to Mankato, an NCAA tournament team last season in the opening weekend of the season. This past weekend against Cornell, the Mavs tied 1-1 on Friday and won 2-1 on Saturday night.  Cornell started the season ranked 18th, but now it's the Mavs who are ranked 19th nationally.

This is a pretty fantastic start for UNO hockey, considering that they won't have another home game until November 21st with one of the weirder schedules I can remember.  Six straight road games with two bye weeks followed by eight straight home games during the Christmas season is not common.  This weekend, they travel to Columbus to face Ohio State, with the Saturday night game running concurrent with the Buckeyes' football game against Michigan State.  (That'll draw quite a crowd in Columbus; "Oooh! Ahhh! Not bigger than a Knights crowd!")

The biggest deal about this UNO team is that it's ridiculously young; the top scorers are sophomores Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega.  Six of the top eight scorers are freshman and sophomores. Forward Dominic Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa are providing plenty of leadership; Zombo is third on the team in scoring. And Ryan Massa has been sparkling in net, with a 1.38 goals against average and a .952 save percentage.

We can talk elsewhere about why UNO shouldn't be building a new arena that can't hold an average Mav hockey crowd, but if you are looking to build a new arena and want to build some buzz around it, a young team like UNO is putting on the ice is just the way to do it.  It'll be interesting to see how this team continues to develop in the upcoming weeks.  What looked like it might be a lost season is starting to look rather intriguing.  Wins against east coast teams out-of-conference really help a hockey team's resume as the season unfolds, and an undefeated weekend against Cornell is definitely a positive sign.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Blackshirts Overcome Woeful Husker Offense Against Purdue

One e-mail kind of summed up the dichotomy of Nebraska's 35-14 victory over Purdue:  How can Husker fans be upset over a 21 point victory?  Nevermind the margin of victory, and focus instead on Nebraska's offensive production.  Nebraska totaled 297 yards against a Purdue defense that ranks 11th in the Big Ten prior to the game, giving up 429 yards a game.  They started slow, improved slightly, then regressed badly at the end.  Can you point to Ameer Abdullah's absence as a reason? Yes, but that doesn't explain this level of offensive ineptitude. Two weeks ago, Minnesota racked up 450 yards of offense on Purdue; are Husker fans thinking that without Abdullah, Nebraska's offense is worse than Minnesota's?

And the blame goes across the board on offense.  Let's start up front where the offensive line really hasn't played well in over a month.  Remember how impressed fans were with Nebraska's rushing attack against Miami? Now, this offense can't even run the ball consistently against the likes of Purdue. In recent weeks, it's become downright impossible to snap the ball consistently.  Ryne Reeves may be a little better blocking, but it seems that more of the bad snaps happen with him in the lineup. Not that Mark Pelini is much better snapping the ball.

Things weren't any better at the other end of the snap; Tommy Armstrong had another horrible game.  It started with a botched handoff on Nebraska's second drive of the game (resulting in Abdullah's sprained knee, I might add), and it was all downhill from there. Armstrong is running the ball better this season, but he's not throwing the ball better. The most frustrating part of Armstrong's game is how he consistently fails to check down from covered receivers. Armstrong may have a sweet and powerful arm, but it does Nebraska absolutely no good when he forces throws into coverage when other receivers are open. Taylor Martinez was excoriated for his passing during his Husker career, but the more I see Armstrong, the more I'm convinced that Taylor Martinez is a better quarterback than Tommy Armstrong.  Can Armstrong improve? One hopes, because his fundamentals are so much superior to Martinez...but you simply can't ignore the reality that Martinez completed throws as an inexperienced freshman that Armstrong consistently misses as a sophomore.

Is someone else the answer at quarterback? I have to assume that the coaches are playing the best quarterback. We haven't seen Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton in situations with the game on the line, so I'm not assuming that one of those men would be better. We have to trust that these coaches are putting the best quarterback on the field. The biggest nail in Bill Callahan's coffin as a head coach was when we realized that Joe Ganz was a better quarterback than Sam Keller in 2007, yet Callahan refused to make the change until Keller's collarbone snapped. Could Fyfe or Stanton provide the offense a Ganz-like spark?  Or would it only make Nebraska's offensive issues even worse?  We don't know now, but if the offensive struggles continue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Bo Pelini may not have any choice but to make the gamble.

Certainly Armstrong wasn't helped wasn't helped by his receivers today.  Pelini said after the game that on Armstrong's two interceptions, the receivers ran the wrong routes. The first interception was a tipped pass, so Armstrong deserves the benefit of the doubt.  The second one was thrown into coverage, so even if Jordan Westerkamp was running the wrong route, Armstrong still shouldn't have thrown the ball there.

If the offense was that bad, how did Nebraska manage to pull out the win? Simple: the Blackshirts were outstanding all day. With Austin Appleby starting at quarterback for Purdue, the Boilermakers had scored over 30 points against defenses like Michigan State and Minnesota.  But that wasn't going to happen today unless Armstrong started to repeatedly throw pick-six interceptions. Arguably, Nebraska might have been able to pitch a shutout if Corey Cooper didn't blow coverage on Cameron Posey in the second half, or Randy Gregory had stayed disciplined when Appleby scrambled in the first half.

Throw in some great first-half special teams play with two blocked punts and another long punt return on top of that, and that was enough for Nebraska to defeat Purdue, even with some absolutely dreadful offense.  That won't work in upcoming weeks though. Next up for Nebraska is Wisconsin, and we know what happened the last time Nebraska traveled to Madison. The Badgers WILL take advantage of Nebraska's offensive mistakes in ways that Rutgers, Northwestern, and Purdue couldn't. I'm cautiously optimistic that the Blackshirts can hold their own against Wisconsin, but not if the offense keeps trying to give the game away.

If Ameer Abdullah's knee injury is truly just a minor sprain, that will help. But it'll take more than Abdullah to beat Wisconsin, and that's something that we haven't seen much of from Nebraska's offense for quite some time. Time is running out to fix these problems.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Congratulations to Kansas City Royals Fans

I'm not a Royals fan by any means; I'm a Cub fan.  But they are a regional team, so I've always kept an eye on them. Under the late Ewing Kauffman, the Royals were perennial contenders, but under David Glass, not so much. Glass, the former Wal-Mart executive, chose to run the organization the way he ran the discount store chain. It might have been profitable for him as an owner, but certainly not for Royals fans. "Always the low price" works when you are buying laundry detergent and toothpaste.

It doesn't really work that well in baseball.  Unless you have a really sharp baseball mind locating enough young talent to stock a major league team, cheap can't work in baseball.  And it didn't for most of the Glass era.  Oh sure, young players emerged from the Royals system...only to have the likes of Johnny Damon, Kevin Appier, and Carlos Beltran sold off to teams like the New York Yankees, for fear of having to pay them what they are deserved.

And Royals fans suffered.  And casual observers like me scoffed.  Said that the Royals would never be good as long as David Glass owned the franchise.

Sure, under Dayton Moore, the farm system has exploded with talent.  The former Omaha Royals AAA farm team have even won a couple of PCL league championships, but I've always been skeptical that it would ever translate to the major league level. Figured that the Royals would sell the talent off before they ever spent enough time in Kansas City to win.

Well, I was wrong.  They stormed through September then went on a rampage in October.  Made it to the World Series and nearly pulled the damn thing off. Royals fans are hurting now.  I know the feeling.  I felt it on January 2, 1984 after Nebraska's two-point conversion in the Orange Bowl came up short.  I really felt it on January 2, 1994 after Byron Bennett's field goal sailed wide left in that same Orange Bowl stadium.  It's a sucker punch to the gut like nothing you've ever felt when the team you love comes so close to the pinnacle, only to fail in the final moment.

Will the Royals bounce back next year?  I have no idea; I'm not sure how long Kansas City will keep this current pack of players around and whether they'll pay them to stay around.  It's not my call and not my area of expertise.

But at some point, Royals fans will grow to appreciate this magical run - even if it came up short.  Trust me, as a Cub fan who's felt the pain of missing out on the World Series in 1984, 1989, and 2003...it's better to lose the World Series than not make the World Series.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Abdullah & Blackshirts Are Enough for Huskers to Defeat Rutgers

A thing of beauty it was not, especially on offense. Nebraska's 42-28 victory over Rutgers probably created  more questions than it answered about the Huskers. What did we learn?

Well, Ameer Abdullah is good. Really good. But we already knew that.

The Nebraska defensive line is becoming dominant. Take that second quarter where Rutgers simply couldn't handle Maliek Collins and Kevin Williams.

What are we growing concerned about?

Start with the offensive line, which was inconsistent at best. And awful at times. Penalties, bad snaps, muddled blocking. Substitutions didn't help this week either.

Tommy Armstrong was off most of the day, and awful in the second half. Overthrowing open receivers, locking onto recievers that were covered. All the things we've worried about all year were there and not getting better. And that interception was simply horrible; Kenny Bell was out of bounds before the pass was even thrown. At times, Tommy Armstrong is more YOLO than Taylor Martinez ever was.

What was more concerning was the play calling late in the 2nd quarter, as Tim Beck took the ball out of Ameer Abdullah's hands and couldn't resist letting Armstrong throw the ball. And badly. 

Don't blame the receivers. Alonzo Moore had a couple of drops, but those were unnecessarily difficult catches. There's no need to have to leap and dive when the receiver is that open.

As for Rutgers, they were completely bambozzled. I have no idea what Kyle  Flood and Ralph Friedgen were thinking when they decided to go shotgun from their own 2 yard line with only a minute to go before halftime. That boneheaded decision resulted in Gary Nova, his quarterback, getting his knee brutally twisted. If we hear he's out for the year with a torn ACL, you shouldn't be surprised.

The Husker secondary was rather inconsistent, especially early on. That 71 yard touchdown catch by Leonte Carroo was a cluster by nearly everybody in the back seven. It's clear that David Santos isn't 100%, so that's part of it. But it was a keystone Kops/Yakety Sax moment out there.

After the game on his radio show, you could tell that Bo Pelini was not happy with his team's performance. I can see why. The Huskers could get away with this performance against Rutgers. They won't against Wisconsin. And maybe not against Minnesota and the improving Purdue Boilermakers.

Yes, Nebraska is 7-1 and that's a good thing. Problem is that Nebraska didn't play like a 7-1 team today. A critical November awaits, and today's game was no way to head into it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

So Doug McDermott Hates Nebraska

During last night's Nebraska game at Northwestern, former Creighton basketball star Doug McDermott appeared on the Ryan Field jumbotron wearing a Northwestern shirt.  And if any Jaysker was still confused about where McDermott's loyalties were, he answered them on Twitter shortly thereafter by posting a picture of former Jays goon Grant Gibbs tackling Terran Petteway at the end of last season's basketball game.
Was McDermott wrong to do so?  Not really.  He has no allegiance to the University of Nebraska; he was born and raised in Iowa, and attended Creighton.  And now, his NBA career is starting in the city of Chicago, which is where Northwestern is located.   And he's gone out of his way to align himself with the other sports franchises in the Windy City:


So now he's a fan of Northwestern as well. Fine for him.  That's where he's making his money now.  He owes absolutely nothing to the University of Nebraska.  Might be a little awkward for the 10,000+ Jaysker fans who pull out their blue sweatervests in December, but that's their problem.

But by that same argument, it also reinforces my dislike of Creighton.  I have no ties to the school; my dentist graduated from UNMC.  I'm a fan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an alum of the University of Nebraska-Omaha.  And just because I live in Omaha doesn't mean that I have to support Creighton.

After all, Doug McDermott made it perfectly clear that you don't have to be a fan of Nebraska just because you lived here.

In a Tale of Two Halves, Nebraska Dominates Northwestern in the 2nd Half

The first half of the 2014 Nebraska/Northwestern game was much like the previous three: a close game where Nebraska wasn't playing particularly well and Northwestern held a slim lead. Arguably, it was much like Nebraska's game against Michigan State two weeks' earlier.  The stat sheet told the story:

Ameer Abdullah: 9 carries, 39 yards
Tommy Armstrong: 8 for 16 passing for 132 yards and 6 carries for 34 yards
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson: 15 carries, 99 yards
Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian: 13 for 23 passing for 148 yards.

Stop me if you've heard this before: Abdullah couldn't get out of the backfield, thanks in large measure to some less-than-stellar offensive line blocking, while Armstrong was erratic with several of his throws. The defense was schizophrenic, it seemed.  Three drives where Northwestern went three-and-out, three more where they went eight or more plays and scored, and a fourth where it seemed the Wildcats were destined to score until Siemian decided to throw into triple coverage. Nebraska linebacker Trevor Roach was the poster boy for inconsistency: ten tackles to dominate the game in the first quarter, then finding himself out of position and missing tackles in the second before he was eventually benched in favor of Josh Banderas.

Just before halftime, we did get a nice outburst from De'Mornay Pierson-El as he caught a 46 yard pass in stride from Tommy Armstrong before Pierson-El and Armstrong switched roles.  Pierson-El, a former high school quarterback, took a reverse pitch from Abdullah and looped a pass to a wide open Armstrong to tie the game at 14.  But the quick strike left enough time for the Wildcats to drive the field and kick a field goal to give Northwestern a 17-14 halftime lead.

The second half was a completely different experience as Northwestern was held to just 28 yards of offense and three first downs.  Siemian completed just five of 19 passes for 25 yards while Jackson rushed seven times for 30 yards.  Siemian lost 37 yards on four sacks, so his net contribution in the second half was -12 yards.  All thanks to the Blackshirts, and specifically backup defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who replaced Vincent Valentine who left with an injured elbow.

The Husker offense also turned it around in the second half:  Armstrong completed 10 of 13 passes for 89 yards while Abdullah rushed 14 times for 107 yards. It all started up front, and specifically by calling on second stringers on the offensive line.  Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, and Givens Price all took over the right side of the line, with Mike Moudy sliding over to left guard to spell the suddenly ineffective Jake Cotton.  Nebraska took the lead in the third quarter and salted it away in the fourth.

The 38-17 victory probably doesn't reflect how close the game was most of the way; it was 21-17 at the start of the fourth.  But Abdullah finally got untracked in that final quarter, and Nebraska really coasted down the stretch.

What are our takeaways from this game? Nebraska's only as good as their offensive line plays. I suspect that when Rutgers comes in, you'll see some new starters on the line. Pierson-El is becoming an offensive weapon as well as Tim Beck keeps finding ways to get him the ball.  And we saw depth on the defensive line as Kevin Williams and Jack Gangwish made huge plays in the second half to take over the game.

But we also saw bad tackling on defense, Randy Gregory being helped off the field multiple times, and a revolving door at middle linebacker.  And an inconsistent offense.  The good Nebraska is good enough to get the Huskers back to Indianapolis; the bad Nebraska is bad enough to finish the season 0-5.  Even Purdue is a threat to win now that they've switched to Austin Appleby at quarterback.

Never a dull moment for the Huskers.  But that's the way college football is nowadays.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Real Question: Do Husker Fans Like or Dislike Bo Pelini's Policy on the Blackshirts?

This morning at CornNation, Derek Hernandez asked whether the Blackshirts are dead at Nebraska.

The quick answer is:  No. (shakes head) No.  (shakes head)  No. (shakes head)
 So far, most CornNation users are avoiding the Trollbait. Some, more strongly (NSFW language) than others.

Most Husker fans know by now that Bo Pelini doesn't view the Blackshirts as an entitlement, but rather as a reward:  they are something that the defense earns. If Nebraska had somehow won at Michigan State, we probably would have seen them awarded afterwards. The defense certainly played well enough, I believe, to earn them in that game.

That Bo Pelini is handling the Blackshirts differently does NOT mean that Bo Pelini is killing the Blackshirt tradition. He's changing it.  But he's not getting rid of it.  Last August, I toured the facilities as part of the Husker Football 202 program and I assure you, references to the Blackshirts are EVERYWHERE inside of North Stadium.  If Bo Pelini were trying to get rid of the Blackshirts, he certainly would not have Blackshirt mentions everywhere inside the complex.

There is a question here that's probably worth asking though.  It's not whether whether the Blackshirt tradition is dead or not.  (That's uninformed at best and pure trollbait at it's worst.)  Rather, it's whether Husker fans like Pelini's policy on the Blackshirts?

Yes, the past tradition was that the starters on defense got the Blackshirts before the season started. And that worked for the first 40 years or so.  Something changed though, and since Hernandez brought the subject up, I'll respond.
What if that devil Bill Callahan pulled something like this?
Well, gee... actually he did.  Didn't stop Kevin Cosgrove from sporting the black, even though the defense didn't in 2007.  (But hey, don't let actual facts get in the way of a good tirade against Bo Pelini. Oh wait, here comes another "four losses" debate in response. Nevermind.)

I think that is the source of why most Nebraska fans aren't up in arms over when the Blackshirts are awarded.  Hernandez even acknowledges it:
"Blackshirts are earned on the field," Pelini said.
Husker fans remember how bad the defense was under Callahan, and most don't mind that Pelini makes the players earn it each season. Not all fans, mind you. Deep down, it really comes down to your core feelings on Pelini.  If you like Pelini, you probably like Pelini's policy.  If you don't like Pelini, this is just one more thing that Pelini is doing to destroy Nebraska football.

Some members of the media used to always ask Pelini about the Blackshirts, though now, they've let up on the question.  I suspect they are tired of it as well.  Evidence shows that Pelini will hand them out at some point, and when it happens, we'll hear about it then.

And hopefully, it's next week. Because it would mean that Nebraska's defense treated the city of Chicago to an exhibition of great defense on Saturday night.

And isn't that what Husker fans REALLY want?



Friday, October 10, 2014

CenturyLink, Please Fix My Internet

I've been rather quiet this week, and it's not because I'm happy or even satisfied with Nebraska's game last weekend with Michigan State. (And don't get me started about UNO's exhibition hockey game against the Canadian NAIT team.)

My reason is more basic; I've spent the week moving into a new home. Just about everything has been moved.

Except for my internet service. CenturyLink moved the phone and Ptism TV service on Tuesday. But the internet didn't work. After fighting with it most of the afternoon, the CenturyLink technicians realized that the service had been disconnected from my account. So they told me that I had to add it back in with their customer support office. Which I did, and I was told it would be back on Wednesday.

But nothing happened all day. Wednesday evening, I called CenturyLink and was informed that the order was complete and if it wasn't working, it was something for tech support to resolve. Tech support identified an issue with how our service was provisioned and that he was forwarding it onto the team that configures that. After a lengthy wait for the other team without a response, we agreed that the tech could call me back once it was resolved.

No such call was relieved. Just before going to bed, I did notice that the internet light wasn't blinking red anymore.

It still didn't work Thursday morning, so I called CenturyLink again...and now was told that the install wasn't scheduled until Monday. And that I would have to wait.

Tried a couple of other CenturyLink phone numbers. Same response. I've even called CenturyLink's executive offices in Denver. No response.

So I called Cox, the other phone/internet/TV provider in Omaha out of desperation. My history with Cox isn't good: high prices that you are locked into after the initial period has expired. But I'm starting to get desperate.

And got what I expected. Higher prices for less service... And they'd be even slower to get me online.

So rather than risk the rest of my service getting screwed up, I'm sticking with CenturyLink.

Very grudgingly. And on a lot of faith that CenturyLink is actually going to fix things on Monday that were supposed to have been done three days ago.

Or really because I'm not able to spend a day to allow Cox to rewire my house next week. 

Frankly, I'm not sure either company really deserves my business. But it's kind of hard for me to go without these services.

So now it's back into my "come of silence"... Thanks to CenturyLink.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Huskers Miraculous Comeback Bounces Away at the End

Well, that got interesting all of a sudden.

Michigan State watched plenty of film of Nebraska and knew that to stop Nebraska, you had to stop Ameer Abdullah. But unlike Fresno State and McNeese State, the Spartans didn't need to stack the box. Just commit the linebackers, and more importantly, completely discombobulate the Nebraska offensive line.

How bad was it?
If it weren't so sad, it would be funny.  Certainly the rest of the college football world laughed at it.

And despite all that ineptitude, Nebraska somehow managed to get back into the game and nearly pull off the incredible comeback.

Tim Beck has taken a lot of criticism in the past for giving up on the run; tonight, he deserves criticism for sticking with the run as long as he did. It was clear that Nebraska wasn't going to be able to run the ball and that they needed to loosen up the defense deeper.  And when Nebraska did that in the second half, the offense started to move the ball a bit.  Screen passes weren't going to loosen things up.

Defensively, the Nebraska defense did what they could, save for two busted plays. Vincent Valentine gets his noggin' into Connor Cook's face on the second play of the game, with the ball deflecting to Randy Gregory.  You'd think that Nebraska would have the lead early, but Nebraska's offensive impotence scuttled that.

On Thursday in my preview, I worried the most about Cook, Tony Lippett, and Jeremy Langford. Nebraska did a decent job keeping Cook in check most of the night, as he only completed 38% of his passes...but when he did find Lippett early on, it was deadly after Daniel Davie had to leave the game. Out went Jonathan Rose after getting seared by Lippett, and in came true freshman Josh Kalu at corner who played really well.

So did Trevor Roach, in relief of Josh Banderas who continues to struggle.  When Michael Rose tore his ACL in August, I wasn't too concerned because I figured Banderas would be fine to cover for him. Well, he's not.  Zaire Anderson, David Santos, and Trevor Roach all have played better this season.  But that's a pretty good threesome to work with moving forward the rest of this season.

Want to take a moral victory over this game? I wouldn't. Nebraska nearly pulled it out of the fire, and while that speaks volumes about the moral fiber of the program, the scoreboard still reads 27-22.  The defense is progressing nicely, but the offense is simply too inconsistent.  It starts up front, and progresses to quarterback.  Tommy Armstrong was simply too erratic tonight; he doesn't look off his primary receiver, and when he's pressured, he throws off his back foot leading to underthrows.  And more than once, he overthrew a wide open Ameer Abdullah who could have made a huge gain.

It's a bad loss for Nebraska.  It doesn't eliminate them from the Big Ten race, and considering the number of upsets, it doesn't completely eliminate them from the college football playoff either.  Though as we learned today, it's rather silly to worry about the playoff two months ahead of time as we should realize that upsets are a given in college football.  So forget about that for the time being, and simply worry about beating the resurgent Northwestern Wildcats in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Does a Nebraska Win Mean the Huskers are Relevant Nationally? Or that Michigan State is Overrated?

A lot of people didn't think Nebraska would be 5-0 at this point in the season. I don't know if it's "most" or "some", but a sizable group of people had penciled in losses for the Huskers to either Miami or Fresno State. Not sure exactly why; I wasn't one of those people.  Frankly, I don't think there is a team on Nebraska's schedule they can't beat this season.

Including Michigan State.

No doubt in my mind that the Spartans are the best team Nebraska will face before the end of the regular season.  But I also harken back to last November, where five turnovers by freshmen - most, if not all, unforced by the vaunted Spartan defense -were the difference in the game. Nebraska outplayed Michigan State on offense and on defense.  Did Nebraska give the game away?  Bo Pelini won't say so, but when you go -5 on turnovers, you are going to lose. And lose badly on the scoreboard.  Certainly more than 13 points, if the two teams are otherwise even.
Now, Michigan State has been quite impressive offensively. But I have to take those numbers with a grain of salt; when you compare the opponents for both teams, I don't think Michigan State has defeated a team anywhere near as good as Miami.

Or McNeese State, for that matter.

There are elements of Oregon's offense in what Nebraska does, and that clearly gave the Spartans fits in Eugene last month.  But while Nebraska runs the ball MUCH better than Oregon, Marcus Mariota is in a completely different universe than Tommy Armstrong. Michigan State's defense isn't nearly as stout as they were last season, and Nebraska was able to run the ball effectively last year with a banged-up offensive line.

It's less of a question to me whether Nebraska can score on Michigan State than it is whether the Huskers can stop the Spartans on offense.  There are three players Nebraska must concentrate on:

Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford, and Tony Lippett.

Nebraska's defensive line has been pretty good this season, and the setup is perfect for Randy Gregory to have his Ndamukong Suh/Missouri moment.  We've got national television and rainy weather in the forecast. And if you've seen Gregory in action the last two weeks, you know just how dominant he can be.  (Check out some of the photos that CornNation's David McGee took of Gregory being mugged and held by Illinois last week.)

But can Cook get the ball out to Lippett before Gregory sends him to the turf? That's the question, and it'll be incumbent on Josh Mitchell to lock up Lippett to give Gregory time to pressure Cook. Safety help will be important, because I'm less concerned about the other receivers as I am about Lippett making a play.  Cook will force the ball to Lippett, and you want Mitchell to have the freedom to go for the interception.

Last season, Nebraska had problems throwing the ball in the direction of Darqueze Dennard, so Kenny Bell dropped into the slot and ate Kurtis Drummond's lunch the rest of the way.  Dennard is gone, but Drummond is back.  That's another matchup that Nebraska can exploit.

Nobody expects Nebraska to win, except possibly Husker fans. That's fine.  If Nebraska does come away with the win, what does that say?  Husker fans want to view it as win that allows Nebraska to be relevant in the national conversation.  My fear is that some national writers will view it as another failure by the Big Ten.  They are already convinced Nebraska isn't great, so clearly Michigan State was overrated, since they lost to Nebraska.

But it's premature to talk about that much. Doesn't matter what is being said or going to be said...it all comes down to the Huskers winning on Saturday night.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Illinois Has No Solution for Huskers' I-Backs as Abdullah Tops 200 Once Again

Saturday morning on KZOT radio (1180 AM in Omaha), I caught former Husker offensive lineman Matt Vrzal telling former Husker linebacker Jay Foreman that if Ameer Abdullah rushed for seven or more yards on his first carry, Nebraska would be fine against Illinois.

Abdullah rushed for 21.  And the track meet was on.  Illinois dropped nine men into the box...didn't matter. Abdullah ate the Illini alive.  It wasn't just Abdullah either... Imani Cross rushed for 109 as well.  It shouldn't have been a huge surprise as the Illini struggled in victories against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State.  So despite their 3-1 record, my only concern was whether Nebraska would suffer a post-Miami let down (or perhaps glancing ahead to next week's game against Michigan State)...and that didn't happen, for the most part.

The passing game wasn't very good today, though it didn't need to to either. Tommy Armstrong missed his first three passes of the game, including a very ugly interception off the scramble.  He still locks in on his primary target.  But I also see why some people love Armstrong...like that 63 yard perfectly thrown bomb to Kenny Bell midway through the second quarter.  Simply can't throw a football better.  He was fairly effective running the ball as well, though his best run came late in the fourth quarter on a scramble in garbage time.

Defensively, Nebraska had yet another slow start as the opponent drove the field and scored on their opening possession.  Blown assignments and sloppy tackling once again.  After that, the Husker defense was pretty much fine as Randy Gregory (3 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries) and Greg McMullen (1 sack, 3 hurries) were fairly dominant. (Or at least I thought they were... it was really tough to tell who was out there with the adidas Red Rising uniforms so my recollections could very much be wrong.)

Zaire Anderson was the surprise starter in the middle and had a whale of a game; he looked really comfortable at times out there. But for much of the game, Nebraska went with seven defensive backs and no linebackers on the field (unless you want to count Gregory as a 'backer).  But in retrospect, it's tough to take much out of this game.  Illinois was without their starting quarterback, as Wes Lunt sat (apparently due to an injury suffered last week).  But the bottom line is that I've seen nothing this season to suggest that even with Lunt, Illinois is very good in the first three quarters of any game.

Now it's onto East Lansing and Michigan State.  Last time we saw the Spartans, we watched Nebraska outplay Michigan State - if it weren't for five freshmen turnovers.  Michigan State went on to surprise folks by winning the Big Ten title game convincingly and then upset Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  Now the Spartans have been rolling this season against inferior competition, though they did scare Oregon on the road in the first half.

Can Nebraska win in East Lansing?  Well, they did two years ago.  They should have won in Lincoln last year as well.  But what Nebraska can't do is continue to make some of the same mistakes they have been making this season.  Tommy Armstrong must play like he did last week against Miami and less like today's first half or the McNeese State game.  Abdullah isn't likely to rush for 200 for a third straight week, and the Spartans will do a much better job of tackling than the Illini did.

Defensively, Nebraska must break their streak of coming out slow and depending on Pelini to make adjustments to resync the defense. It'll help if Josh Mitchell is able to go and isn't limited by the hip injury that he suffered late in the game.  It'll also help if Randy Gregory and his defensive linemates are able to continue to be as disruptive as they've been as of late.

But Michigan State has improved more than Nebraska has since last November.  The Spartans are a legitimate top ten team; Nebraska hasn't been able to crack the top twenty. But this game is Nebraska's chance to catch the nation's attention. Win, and the Huskers are 6-0 and in the driver's seat for the Big Ten's west division...and maybe more.

Maybe more... maybe much more.  But only if they can find a way to win.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Abdullah Overpowers Thug U

Going into the matchup between the Huskers and the Miami Hurricanes, the biggest questions many Husker fans had was whether Nebraska could run the ball effectively against a Miami team that had been fairly stout against the run...and whether Tim Beck could contain his impulse to turn to the passing game and lean on the ground game.

Well, mission accomplished on both fronts. Ameer Abdullah treated Husker fans to one of the most amazing performances in Nebraska football history. Roy Helu's 310 yard performance in 2010 is the school record, but featured three long runs where the offensive line (and the threat of Taylor Martinez) created a wide open field for Helu.

This game was all Abdullah.  The offensive line opened up some small holes, and Ameer did all the rest. Miami tried to arm tackle the Heisman candidate, only to have Ameer bounce off, change direction, and find more green space.  There were no big plays; Abdullah's long run of the night was just 26 yards.  It was simply a consistent pounding of the ball. Miami eventually could assume the ball was headed for Abdullah, but they were powerless to stop him.

That made it easy for Beck to ground the Nebraska offense, even though Tommy Armstrong was having a fine night throwing the ball. No 50% completion percentage for Armstrong; he completed 69% of his passes. There simply wasn't a need to throw when the offense was clicking on the ground.  Nebraska only needed to punt once all evening long, which tells you all you need to know about the potency of the Nebraska offense.

Defensively, it was a mixed bag.  Miami was able to exploit Bo Pelini's desire to customize his personnel on the field by keeping the 'Canes offense on the sideline until the last possible moment.  It worked early as Miami threw against Nebraska's three linebacker sets and ran against Pelini's nickel and dime defenses.  Then Miami couldn't get the play off and took two delay-of-game penalties to put the 'Canes in a hole.

We saw David Santos step up his game after his batted-punt-safety the week earlier. A key first half interception to thwart a Miami scoring threat and leading the team with 10 tackles. The other linebackers struggled, starting with Josh Banderas who consistently missed tackles plus committed a bad facemask penalty. In came senior Trevor Roach who didn't play much better until he forced a third quarter fumble that Josh Mitchell returned for a touchdown.

The defensive line didn't generate as much pressure as I'd like to have seen against a freshman quarterback. Some of that is because Miami spread the field much of the night. Some of that is because Miami took it upon themselves to try to get Randy Gregory out of the game. Miami has been known as Thug U for their on-and-off-the-field actions over the years, and cemented that reputation in the eyes of Husker fans with their tactics on the field.  Miami fans will respond by suggesting that Nebraska players started the shoving, but that's in reaction to the cheap shots Miami was taking.

Unfortunately, I haven't had an opportunity to see a replay of the roughing the passer penalty on Vincent Valentine that negated a Nathan Gerry interception.  I'll have to take the word of those who did get a chance to view the replay instead:
That's when emotions boiled over and the game started to get out of control.  I'm shocked that nobody was ejected from the game...including any from Nebraska.  The reality of football is while the officials may not see the instigators, they always see the retaliation.  But the chippiness was so bad that at some point, the referees needed to get control of the game...something they failed miserably to do.

Nebraska now enters Big Ten play 4-0.  Some fans didn't think that was possible, and had already penciled in a 3-1 or even 2-2 start for the Big Red. Instead, Nebraska seems to be headed for marquee prime-time performance against Michigan State...likely on ABC with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. But don't overlook Illinois next week in a way-too-late 8 pm kickoff.  Ignore the fact that Illinois has needed three fourth quarter comebacks against inferior foes to get to 3-1; Indiana embarrassed themselves by losing to Bowling Green last week only to bounce back and beat Missouri on the road.

After two horrible weeks previously, the Big Ten went 12-1 this weekend against other conferences, including 4-1 against Power-Five foes.  Nebraska's victory might have been against the biggest name, but Indiana's was against a ranked SEEEEEEEEEEEC opponent.
But hey...it's good to be 4-0.