Monday, February 01, 2016

National Signing Day - or more accurately - The Worst Week Of The Year

It's coming. Neither rain, snow (#snOMAhog), sleet or hail can stop it. (Let alone my complaints...)  National Signing Day is Wednesday.  Which makes this week THE WORST WEEK OF THE YEAR.

It's not that recruiting isn't important.  It is ... though it's not as important as the recruitniks will tell you. For every Alabama, there's a Texas.  Some teams recruit well, and win big.  Other teams recruit well, and don't win.  Other teams don't recruit as well, and still win anyway.

But the bigger issue is the attention this process gets. It warps kids opinions and perspectives as they go to school; it creates the equivalent of divas. It almost sets some players up to fail when they don't live up to the star expectations that the so-called experts throw on them.

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen is that the worse your coaching staff coaches, the more publicity the school throws towards recruiting. It's how Bill Callahan survived initially, and now we're seeing it with Mike Riley.  Is this a sign that Riley is going be another "all hat, no cattle" coach?    Perhaps.  At least with Bill Callahan, he had a top-five class in his first full signing.  Mike Riley is going to have a top-25 or top-30 class (about the same as his predecessor, it would appear) this season, but suddenly, the coach's defenders are going to talk about how great it was this year.

Sigh. It's just too much to I tune out.  I have every year, and have no plans to change this year.  I'll make my own opinions about these players when I see them take the field in a year or two.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Will President Obama Wear a UNO Hockey Jersey?

On Wednesday, President Obama will speak at UNO's new Baxter Arena. I'm kind of surprised that the President chose UNO's new arena over the CenturyLink Center, but the downtown arena may not have been available. After Creighton plays Providence on Tuesday, Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath are taking over the Clink for a week.  Omaha is the first stop on Black Sabbath's farewell tour, and Ozzy's band has the arena booked to prepare for the tour.

Needless to say, this Presidential visit is the biggest event to ever occur on UNO's campus. Today, a commemorative hockey jersey was embroidered with the name Obama and number 44.

This wouldn't be the first time that a national politician has been presented a UNO hockey jersey; during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was presented with a pair of UNO sweaters at a campaign stop in Omaha. Palin was the Republican vice-presidential candidate for Senator John McCain (R-AZ), whom Palin repeatedly called "Maverick" during the Vice Presidential debate a few weeks earlier.

Interesting to note that Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has declined an invitation to welcome the President to Omaha.  Politics, I assume.  Ricketts is a Republican, and Obama is a Democrat, of course.

That's a sad sign of the divisiveness and pettiness that passes for politics in America today. It's a bad look for Nebraska's governor.  Contrast Ricketts actions with the actions of former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, a Democrat, when former President George W. Bush visited Omaha during his eight year term:
To protest or not to protest: When Bush touched down in Omaha, Neb., in early June, he was met by a smattering of protesters, some of them anti-war, some against a constitutional amendment on marriage and some against amnesty for undocumented workers.

But the city's mayor, Mike Fahey, a Democrat in a nonpartisan office, wasn't among the demonstrators.

"The mayor always welcomes the president when he chooses to visit our city no matter what the topic or if he agrees or disagrees with the topic," says mayoral spokesman Joe Gudenrath. Fahey has attended two of Bush's events held in Omaha since he took office.
Sad.  Just sad.  But not surprised.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Backyard Ice Rink: Year 4 is Bigger & Better

While football is my favorite sport, hockey has become my second favorite. It's been a family favorite activity to watch, and evolving into something more. My wife and kids love to skate, which led me four years ago to experiment with backyard ice.  The first year was a simple trial, but year two became much more involved.  So much so that now, the rink is now four times as big as it was two years ago. A new home with a flatter backyard made a rink 40 feet long and almost 24 feet wide possible.  This is year two in this new configuration, and I think I've got some of the logistics figured out.

Two years ago, I used some foot-wide shelving to create end boards, but I realized too late that was way underestimating the depth needed at the "low end of the slope."  So last year, I decided to go big, with 4 foot by 8 foot sheets of construction plywood for the boards.  Seemed like a good idea at the time: a little more size to hold in pucks and shade a little more of the rink.  But there was another problem: the larger size boards were more unstable and had issues with the wind.  Before the ground froze, I had multiple occurances where the boards collapsed, flooding the yard and forcing me to rebuild the rink.  Several late nights were spent with my circular saw, cutting the collapsed boards in half to a 2 foot height and rebuilding those sections.

This year, I set the rink up on Thanksgiving weekend, with the expectation that an early snowstorm would flood and fill the rink.  I cut all of the remaining boards to a 2 foot height to hold off any additional problems, and put down another white tarp from Blue Lake Plastics in Minnesota.  After the debacles of the first attempt, I went ahead and used staples to ensure that the tarp stays in place in the wind prior to freezing.  I've tried alternatives, such as white duct tape, but everything else was a miserable failure.

That Thanksgiving snowstorm never really materialized, and much of December was actually pretty warm, and so the rink was pretty much just water when Christmas week approached.  Then the surprise Christmas Eve storm hit...and that did wonders to get to start freezing... except that it was a mix of snow, ice and slush.  The ice became thick enough to support the snow on top, but not thick enough to support someone walking to shovel it off.

Plus, enough water had evaporated over time that the high end was snow only.  So the solution was fairly simple:  add more water and try to melt the sitting snow and build up the ice on top.  Which is a bit of a challenge, because you once you have ice, you can't just set your hose down and let it run for a few hours.  That 45-50 degree city water starts melting the ice you already have, thus sending the water under the ice instead of on top.

No, you have to add the water on top.  Just like a firefighter trying to put out the blaze downtown, you are pouring water all over the ice to build thickness and to smooth it out.  At the high end, you can stand on the thinner sections of ice because there isn't any open water underneath, and pour the water on the other ends to build up the ice on top.

Depending on the temperature, these sessions last anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes.  When temperatures are in the mid to upper 20s, they have to be shorter because the weather won't freeze as much ice.  And when it gets colder, you can stay out longer...even though you'd rather not be out there.

I've learned some lessons the hard way: the ice shifts a bit until it completely freezes, so I've got a bit of a slope on the ice.  That's something that's difficult to fix, because if you add too much water, the water starts melting the ice, and finds a way down the edge and underneath the ice...forcing the high end up (because ice floats), and then creating shell ice on the low end.

Fortunately for skating, it's been really cold since Christmas, and over the last week, the rink appears to be completely frozen.  (At least it is on the edges, and with it below zero this past weekend, I assume it's the case throughout.)   New Years' Day, we opened the rink for some light skating and this past weekend, it was all open.  The slush that fell Thursday and Friday had to be manually shoveled off, because you can't have that unevenness left on the ice.  Last year, a rain-to-heavy snow event at the start of February took two weeks to clear because the slushy snow froze unevenly, leading to ruts and a mess.

But after an overnight flooding Friday night, the rink is pretty much in tip-top shape, and the seal of approval from the kids.  They couldn't be happier to be outside in the sub-zero wind chills.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Does Marlin Briscoe's Hall Of Fame Induction Open A Window To Heal at UNO?

The National Football Foundation has announced that former UNO quarterback Marlin Briscoe will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

The former Omaha South quarterback was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1968, with the intent of turning him into a defensive back. But after a wave of injuries his rookie season, Briscoe was pressed into service at quarterback, and became the first black starting quarterback in modern NFL history. Briscoe went on to play nine seasons in the NFL, and eventually settled in at wide receiver for two Miami Super Bowl winning teams.

This is a bit awkward for UNO, though, because UNO disbanded their football program in 2011.  It's a contentious issue to this day for backers of both football and wrestling, and understandably so. Accepting the demise of those programs is a bitter pill to swallow; there's no reason why they should like it.

The fact that it was the correct decision for UNO to make doesn't make it any easier. Football was going to be a budget drain, especially if it went to division 1-AA.  The idea of playing "money games" against power competition is going away, now that the big schools are being restricted from scheduling lower division foes. (In fact, many schools are abandoning 1-AA and jumping up to 1-A to keep their programs afloat.)  And staying in division II wasn't a solution either.  In fact, the progress of UNO men's soccer and basketball at the division 1 level is proving that the move is working.  Right now, UNO basketball has a better chance of making the NCAA tournament than any other school in the state of Nebraska.  UNO's RPI is significantly higher than Tim Miles' program, and not that far behind Creighton.  The only way a school from Nebraska is getting into the NCAA tournament is to win their conference tournament, and first place UNO stands a better chance than either Nebraska or Creighton to do that.

At some point in the next year, UNO needs to honor Briscoe, and that opens a window to offer an olive branch to the alums of the football program. Can a statue of Marlin Briscoe be erected either on-campus outside of Al Caniglia Field or Baxter Arena to honor Briscoe?  (And while UNO is at it, can a concourse wall at Baxter Arena be dedicated and decorated to honor and remember Mike Denney's wrestling program and it's legacy of success?)

Football and wrestling are gone from UNO; they aren't coming back unless someone is willing to donate tens of millions of dollars to endow those sports.  But they shouldn't be forgotten either. Marlin Briscoe's induction into the College Football Hall of Fame should give UNO the opportunity to do right with the legacy of those programs.  They may be gone, but they shouldn't be forgotten.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nebraska Runs The Dadgummed Ball All Over UCLA

As Nebraska's 2015 football season spun down the drain, it became clear that the coaches philosophies and the players talents were not a good match. We saw the players do their best to adapt, but the coaches really struggled.

Square peg. Round hole. Seven losses.

No where was this more obvious than on offense, where Mike Riley tried to force feed a pro-style offensive attack on a team that didn't have a pro-style quarterback. An obsession with passing lead to inexplicable losses to Illinois and Northwestern. (Let's not mention an epic disaster of coaching malfeasance in West Lafayette.)

Intermixed with those debacles was Nebraska's most dominating performance of the year at Minnesota. Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time in that game-a ratio that Mike Riley called optimal. Yet the coaches didn't try to replicate it in subsequent games. To conclude the season, Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes on a cold, blustery day with wind chills in the teens. Armstrong took a lions share of the criticism-and rather unfairly in my opinion. Yes, Armstrong threw four interceptions...but asking Tommy Armstrong to throw 45 passes is like asking Dan Marino to run the triple option. 

This week, I heard a different tone from Mike Riley. He talked about being one of the top three rushing teams in the Big Ten as a goal for the direction of the Husker offense moving forward. Was this just more empty talk from a coach who was in danger of being fired by Oregon State at the end of last season?

Nope. Riley walked the walk against UCLA. They opened the game by running on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game, and more importantly, they kept running all night long. 62 runs and 19 passes on the game.

They ran the dadgummed ball. And ran it successfully. Earlier this season, Mike Riley suggested that some of Nebraska's struggles rubbing the ball were because of a lack of "want to." 

I don't think it was a lack of "want" by the players, for what it's worth. That is, until the bowl game. Perhaps the realization that Nebraska had lost four or five very winnable games caused the coaching staff to finally jettison their failing offensive philosophies. Maybe it was the realization that Southern Cal and Stanford had gashed UCLA on the ground that caused the coaches to rethink things.

Either way, it doesn't matter. The point is that the coaches changed, and Nebraska won the Foster Farns Bowl.

The so-proclaimed goat from the day after Thanksgiving became the MVP the day after Christmas. Yes, Tommy Armstrong played better because he was given a gameplan that gave him and his teammates a chance to succeed.

Now Nebraska can head into the offseason feeling good about the end of the season. It doesn't erase the bad taste of seven losses, but if Mike Riley and his coaches have really changed their direction and are committed to run the ball as the first priority on offense, then perhaps there is a reason to believe that Mike Riley can actually succeed as Nebraska's head football coach.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

One Week After Kicking Me Out of My Parking Spot, the World-Herald Asks If Downtown Omaha Needs More Parking

My commute to work downtown just got five minutes longer this week, thanks to the Omaha World-Herald. A week before Thanksgiving, I received the following letter, informing me that the World-Herald was kicking me out of the parking garage (where I had been a customer for over 12 years) for good. Two years ago, they bumped me to a non-reserved spot, but starting this week, I was out - period.

And scrambling for a parking spot.  I started calling around to find alternatives, and frankly, didn't find much availability.  My choices came down to two lots:  one in the Old Market and one under the Interstate 480 bridge north of the old Civic Auditorium.  I took the spot under the I-480 bridge because it was $26 cheaper than the other and some spots would be covered from hail.

And now it's a 9 minute walk from my car to work (and as my wife can attest, I'm not a slow walker) each way.  But it's really my only option at this point.

But when I saw the front page of Wednesday's Omaha World-Herald, I could have sworn that I was being trolled by Omaha's daily newspaper:
What I found incredulous are some of the comments from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and others:
Mayor Jean Stothert and city planners say they want to radically change how Omahans see parking. Garages that might appear necessary now, they say, will seem redundant in the future.
 “We do have enough parking stalls,” Stothert said. “It’s a matter of where those parking stalls are.”
 Wait, what? I guess you can argue that since there are plenty of parking spaces on the fringes of the business district, that downtown Omaha needs less parking.  Of course, I bet the mayor doesn't have any issue with parking; she surely has a covered, secured (and probably heated) spot at City Hall; she probably doesn't even need to wear a coat to get to the office.

I did see this little lulu of an idea from the Mayor's office:
For the long term, officials say the city will need to find ways to make it easier for people to come downtown without parking there.

That vision includes an urban circulator — a modern streetcar — to get people around downtown without driving. A new bus rapid transit system, a quick and convenient bus running from Westroads to downtown, could spur more people to hang up their keys and take public transit to work downtown.
Here's the problem with that idea: it doesn't exist today, and it's never going to exist in Omaha unless the city builds it like Sarpy County built a unnecessary, duplicate ballpark.  I'm not sure that I've ever seen a "convenient" bus in Omaha; in fact, with my work hours, I've learned that I really can't depend on Omaha's bus system for my job. A streetcar? I've heard it discussed more than once, but frankly, I don't know how that works unless it's (a) free to ride and (b) as reliable as the car.  That's going to take one heck of an investment by the city of Omaha, and I fail to see how Omaha taxpayers will ever agree to fund this.

Evenings and weekends aren't an issue for parking, and it's not an issue for the CenturyLink Center; there's plenty of parking there for events.  Same thing with the Holland Center; the symphony could hold a concert during the College World Series, and parking wouldn't be an issue downtown.  In fact, Omaha has hosted the Olympic Swim Trials and the CWS on the same evening.

But on a workday, parking is in short supply, and with HDR building a new headquarters downtown, it's going to get worse. Frankly, at this point, it's too late at this point to implement a streetcar to be ready when HDR employees join the crush downtown. And no, bikes are not an option for someone who lives in West Omaha.  Not in a city with this many hills and weather extremes like Omaha has.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Nebraska Throws Away It's Chance to Upset Iowa

At his Monday press conference, Mike Riley talked about how his team needed to run the ball this week against Iowa. The importance of running the ball grew as the weather forecast grew colder and colder.

So if you had told me that, despite all that, Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes against Iowa, I would have asked how badly Iowa had boat-raced the Huskers.

You can blame Tommy Armstrong for throwing four interceptions. I'll blame the play calling that asked Armstrong to throw the ball that much today. Take that 4th and 1 fade route. Or throwing 3 straight incompletions after getting gaining 8 yards on first down.

The Huskers defense played well enough to win, save for two busted assignments on Jordan Canzeri in the third quarter. But asking them to overcome a minus three turnover margin was asking too much.

Some will say that Nebraska threw out of necessity because the ground game wasn't working. It wasn't terribly effective, but I saw flashes of shotgun runs to the edge with Terrell Newby in the first half. They didn't try it in the second half.

That's the story of Nebraska football in 2015: Mike Riley trying to jam a square peg into his round hole offense. Some fans will eagerly await Patrick O'Brien's arrival as the round prg that will match better with his offense. Maybe that might work, but that's an awful lot of hope and pressure being placed on a true freshman who is still in high school.

Now the question is whether Nebraska can somehow get to a bowl game despite having a losing record in 2015. Not accepting a bowl bid if offered is not an option to me for two reasons: First, the Huskers could use the extra practice time to better learn these new systems. Second, the players deserve the bowl trip, especially the seniors. It won't be a great bowl, but it's better than no bowl.

In fact, I'd argue that the bigger question that needs to be asked is whether Mike Riley should return in 2016. I don't seriously think that Riley is going to be fired after just one awful season, but it's a more valid question than whether or not  NU should accept a bowl bid, if offered.

Especially when you consider Riley's record in recent years at Oregon State. Going into this season, I was the pessimist in predicting 7-5. Most others thought this was a nine or ten win team. Well, Nebraska won exactly half that. Despite what Shawn Eichorst. May claim, this wasn't a rebuilding effort in 2015.

It is in 2016. How does Mike Riley do that? Or can he?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Huskers Flirt With Disaster Against Rutgers

All season long, you've heard a common refrain from Husker fans:  "Run the ball."  It hit a fever pitch against Illinois, became viral against Northwestern, and became epidemic against Purdue.  Last week against Michigan State, fans started chanting "Run. The. Ball." in Memorial Stadium one series after the Huskers turned the ball over in the Red Zone with two ill-conceived pass calls.
After Nebraska beat Minnesota handily a month ago, Mike Riley said afterwards that Nebraska's 60/40 split was optimal for this team. Yet Nebraska has hardly tried to emulate it - though last week, they came closer.

Against Rutgers, Nebraska once again played with fire with a 20 mph wind, with a near 50/50 split. And it was working early, as the Huskers broke out to a 21-0 lead with Tommy Armstrong completing all seven of his first quarter passes.   It worked for the first 20 minutes of the game...or did it?  Take Jordan Westerkamp's first quarter touchdown catch...looks good on the stat sheet, but look again: it's thrown into triple coverage.

The next 20 minutes gave us the downside of YOLO ball; Armstrong went 3 for 7 with two interceptions, a sack, and a fumble (recovered by Alex Lewis).  And the blowout was over; Nebraska's lead was down to 21-14.

Fortunately, Nebraska returned to what they did best:  running the ball in the final 20 minutes.  17 runs, three passes. It wasn't particularly effective, but it controlled clock and more importantly, kept the ball away from Rutgers.  And Nebraska got the win.

After the loss to Purdue, Mike Riley remarked that some of Nebraska's struggles in running the ball were a lack of "want to." As we see this situation repeat itself week after week after week, I've become convinced that it's all a lack of "want to" by the coaches.  I get why the coaches like to throw the ball, especially against a team like Rutgers, who's secondary was decimated by injury.

But it's not what Nebraska does best.  Tim Miles has a saying that has turned into a hashtag for Nebraska basketball:  "It's about us."  #usAlways.

Somebody on Nebraska's crack digital media team tried to claim it for the football team today.
Mike Riley didn't get the message.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Let Me Clear My Throat: Huskers Get Upset Win Against Sparty

As Tommy Armstrong released the game winning touchdown pass, I saw that Brandon Reilly was out of bounds. So when he caught the ball, I held my celebration. And after the officials discussed whether or not Reilly was pushed out of bounds, I held my celebration. And knowing that it would be reviewed, I still held my celebration.

Too bad for me...I missed the first three opportunities to celebrated...but I didn't miss the fourth, once the review was over. (Turns out that this type of judgement call can't be reviewed anyway.) And I certainly didn't miss the fifth and final celebrating after Connor Cook forgot about the clock at the end of the game. Though I did wait to see if Mark Dantonio would get a Mack Brown extra second...

Did Nebraska get lucky? I didn't see a replay in the stadium that was conclusive enough to overrule the call. I understand people watching the ESPN replays Saw something different. Much like on that questionable pass interference call with Alonzo Moore...TV may have had a better look than I got. So i'll have to defer to folks at home...and it sure sounds the Huskers caught a huge break.

Michigan State fans will justifiably complain about it, but in a season like this, the Huskers desperately needed this one, When Chris Pankonin cranked up "Let Me Clear My Throat" for the post game celebration on the PA system, the cathartic release was on all over Tom Osborne Field.

For one night, we were reminded on how much fun Nebraska football can be. Fans, players, and yes, recruits. It was an absolute blast.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the game itself over at CornNation. Tonight, let's just enjoy a win. Winning never sucks...and in 2015, we appreciate it  a while lot more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Searching For Answers (Other Than the Obvious) After Huskers Get Boat-Raced by Purdue

After Kansas blew out Nebraska in that 2007 "Rout 76" game, I had a few thoughts about how Nebraska game planned with a first time starting quarterback:

Example in point: Joe Ganz making his first start since high school. Callahan hands him the ball and has him throw the ball on every down in the second quarter. Absolutely no running game in the 2nd quarter, save for a few scrambles. First start against a top ten opponent, and Callahan goes one-dimensional and puts it completely on the shoulders of a green quarterback. Ganz did pretty well for his first start, but it's completely shameful that his coach put the onus on him. But we've come to expect that of Bill Callahan.

Is that an unfair comparison to Mike Riley?  Let me give you the second quarter stats for the Huskers against Purdue:  6 rushes (three I-back runs that gained 25 yards, and three Ryker Fyfe scrambles and sacks) and eleven passes. Five passes completed, two intercepted.

Let's build on this a little more:  In the first quarter, Nebraska rushed the ball 13 times and threw the ball 7 times. Fyfe was 6-for-7 passing, and while Nebraska trailed 7-3 at the end of the quarter, Nebraska still led in most of the statistical comparisons.  It was just that 62 yard run by Purdue's David Blough, taking advantage of a Nebraska defensive alignment bust, that was the difference in the opening quarter.
(Look at all of that open space on the "P"... Pretty sure that was an audible...)

The first quarter was the balance that worked so well two weeks ago at Minnesota in a victory.   The second was just the opposite, and Nebraska was trending in the wrong direction.

Third quarter, you ask? Six runs, 16 passes.  Now trending even worse, and so did the score.  At that point, it was 42-16, and Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

Stop and repeat that again: Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

By Purdue.

I-backs had carried the ball 18 times; Ryker Fyfe had thrown 34 passes at that point, with three interceptions.  Yes, Terrell Newby left the game in the second quarter with an injury, but Imani Cross, the backup, was still averaging 4.9 yards per carry. If Nebraska didn't have faith in Cross, try Devine Ozigbo. He never carried the ball once, but did catch three passes.

Nebraska's I-backs rushed 18 times for 95 yards; that's 5.3 yards per carry. That average should win you some Big Ten football games.  But 18 carries by your I-backs won't.  Don't claim that the game got out of hand and Nebraska "had to throw" in the fourth quarter; while that's true, the stats were already completely out of whack before the game did.

Remember: this is a quarterback who not only was making his first start, he really was getting his first significant playing time.  He's going to make some mistakes, so help him out.

That happened in the first quarter:  a 65/35 run/pass ration, and Nebraska was in the game.

That changed in the second and third quarters: nine running plays called, and 29 pass plays.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sadly, Baxter Arena Gets More Attention than the #1 Ranked UNO Hockey Team That Plays There

Last Friday night, I attended UNO hockey's debut at the new Baxter Arena.  Afterwards, most of the buzz was about the new building.

I left more impressed with the product on the ice than the building that they play in.

There are a lot of things to like about the new building:  great sightlines and an environment optimized for a crowd of 7,000 fans.  You've got the modern amenities that an arena built today requires: suites for the people funding the building, press facilities to support television and radio, a high tech scoreboard and ribbon boards, and wireless internet access that worked really well (unlike the wifi at Memorial Stadium).  Nice touches, such as bench seating for the students (to squeeze a few more in and encourage them to stand and cheer) and UNO themed art in the concourses.  With the lower ceiling and the lack of sound baffling for concerts, it's louder than a similarly sized crowd at the CenturyLink Center.  Louder than most nights at the Civic as well, I might add.

But it's got it's issues.  There isn't enough parking (all full 45 minutes before faceoff) and the concourses are cramped (I missed the post-game celebration with the team since I couldn't get to the lobby in time). Leg room is lacking, and I spent more time letting people pass me in my aisle in one game than the last two seasons downtown. (That's a product of the cramped facilities in the concourses, as people end up having to miss the action.)

The parking situation might work itself out over time; I headed across the street and parked at Aksarben Village - and frankly, ended up closer to the arena than the far UNO lot. I didn't notice the environment before the game that much; I was in a rush to get to the game, but afterwards, I couldn't help but notice how cool it is to have bars and restaurants adjacent to the arena. It's similar to what I've noticed downtown at TD Ameritrade Park during the College World Series or Nebraska baseball games. (And reminds me of the opportunity missed to have minor league baseball downtown all summer long, but that's another story entirely.) Some people will start gravitating to the Village for the amenities and closer parking, which might solve this issue as people work into a routine.

But really, the new building almost seemed to be a distraction from the real story: UNO hockey looks pretty damn good and as deserving as any team at this point to be ranked #1 in the nation.  The biggest question going into this season was goaltending, and Kirk Thompson looked pretty darn solid Friday night. I missed Saturday night's game (a late scratch due to hyperactive kids), but by all accounds, true freshman Evan Weninger has been just as clutch.  UNO's top line combo of Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega is going to contend for national honors this season.  And freshman Steven Spinner delighted fans with a fantastic spin-move (pun intended) on a breakaway for UNO's final goal on Friday night.

UNO's 6-0 start is only the beginning of what could be a very special season for Maverick hockey. The November and December schedules are fairly light with home games, with the core of the home schedule coming after the holidays.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Nebraska's Fourth Quarter Struggles Continue in Northwestern Upset

Six hours later, I'm at a loss for words to really explain how Nebraska lost to Northwestern. More than one person has compared this to Iowa State's 19-10 upset of Nebraska in 1992. Both Tom Shatel and my old buddy AJ compared Northwestern's Clayton Thorson to Marv Seiler today, and that's saying something.
Granted, this Northwestern team is about 100 times better than that Iowa State squad, but even so, this game shouldn't have been this close.  And frankly, in that first half, except for one play, it wasn't that close. Just before halftime, I took this picture of the stats board on top of North Stadium:
And that's including a 68 yard run by Thorson...which means that Northwestern's offense was pretty much in neutral the whole first half. Yet Nebraska trailed because (a) Nebraska couldn't sustain any drive and (b) the defense gave up two big first half scrambles by Thorson.

Nebraska's offensive inconsistency started with playcalling:  nine rushes and 14 passes called. Last week, Mike Riley praised the 60/40 run/pass split as being optimal, but this week, Nebraska didn't even try to build off of what worked last week. Argue all you want about how Nebraska couldn't run the ball effectively, but don't forget the point that Nebraska never tried it in the first place.

Does Nebraska have issues on the offensive line? Clearly so.  Some want to point fingers at the previous staff, and they may have a point. But here's my question: what's this staff doing about it? With offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh's refusal to substitute, we don't really know that there aren't other bodies available on the offensive line who could help. We do know that he converted Givens Price from being a part-time starter last season to being a backup defensive tackle who doesn't play this season.

I'm not going to bury the defense much this week, though linebacker play was really shoddy late in the game when Northwestern took the lead. But I didn't expect Northwestern's offense to challenge Nebraska much, and they didn't most of the afternoon. Problem is, Nebraska's misplays on offense kept Northwestern not just in the game but actually in the lead, despite the clear lead on the stat sheets.  And when you let an inferior team hang around with you as long as Nebraska let Northwestern hang around, eventually something bad is going to happen.

And something bad did happen.  Can someone explain to me why Tommy Armstrong threw 48 passes today?  Can someone explain what Nebraska's kickoff strategy is with Jordan Stevenson? And when you've won the time of possession battle in the third quarter, how do you explain another fourth quarter meltdown?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Huskers Claim the Broken Chair With 48-25 Victory Over Minnesota

This week, Nebraska built up a big enough lead in the first three quarters that the Huskers couldn't blow it late. That's the glass half-full take on this game.

The fact that Nebraska tried to do just that is the glass half-empty take.

One difference between this game and the last two was the return of the intermediate passing game - and it started on Nebraska's second offensive play: an 11 yard completion to Jordan Westerkamp.  The third play was pretty good as well: a 69 yard Terrell Newby touchdown run.

That being said, Nebraska still shows a disturbing obsession for throwing the ball deep, and in this game, at inopportune times.  Take the fourth quarter: Minnesota has just scored to pull to within two scores at 38-22. Terrell Newby starts the drive with a 16 yard run, which is exactly what Nebraska needs to do in this situation. As the clock nears the eleven minute mark, Tommy Armstrong drops back to pass, and you can hear the collective groans across the state of Nebraska.  Which only get louder when the pass falls incomplete, because you know what is happening next.  A second down pass play. Also incomplete.  Which, of course, means a third down pass play.

Also incomplete.  Nebraska punts, and only runs a minute off the clock. And Minnesota promptly moves the ball downfield and scores. Week after week we see Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf fail miserably at clock management; it's simply something that Nebraska fans are going to have to get accustomed to. This coaching staff thinks nothing of throwing the ball on three straight plays, but running the ball three plays seems to be an anathema to them.  They only ran the ball three plays in a row twice in this game, and the string of consecutive running plays ended with points on the scoreboard. But throwing the ball up for grabs into double coverage? YOLO! De'Mornay Pierson-El somehow tipped the ball back to himself for a touchdown, but don't expect that to happen again.

On my CornNation report card last week, some thought I was too hard on the secondary, saying that the pass defense was better last week. Well, it wasn't better this week.  Minnesota's Mitch Leidner threw for 301 yards; he threw for 59 and 72 yards the last two weeks.

And that fourth quarter? Leidner racked up 132 yards through the air, continuing the pattern of fourth quarter defensive breakdowns.   So yeah, if Mitch Leidner can do it, anybody can. And will.  It's happened over and over and over again.

But it is a win, and Husker fans should celebrate every win. Maybe that's the lesson we need to take from this season. Another lesson that fans - and former players - need to take is to quick knocking the players for this supposed "lack of buy-in" or "needing a culture change."  The players don't need Jason Peter pouting about the previous staff and trying to throw players under the bus. Simply stop manufacturing ridiculous opinions about the mentality of this team. Maybe take the lead of Alex Lewis instead, who pumped up his teammates this week with a positive talk about how to play.

Yes, that's right. I said Alex Lewis.  Some Husker fans are upset with Lewis' actions off the field, but the rality is that he was simply reacting (and reacting badly) to the garbage being thrown his way. Wisely, he shut his Twitter account down and is learning to turn a deaf ear towards the numbnuts out there who have no probably with trash-talking a 300 pound offensive lineman.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day", Huskers Lose Again At The End

"Nebraska is just a few seconds shy of being 5-0 this season!"

"Nebraska is just one play away from winning each of their games this season!"

Those are the excuses I'm sure some people will point out to justify Nebraska's latest loss - but in the end, they are just that: excuses. Nebraska is 2-4 on the season, and it's not a fluke. Nebraska's not a really bad team - they just aren't a very good team. They don't run the ball well, and they simply cannot defend the pass.

Some people gave the defense a pass (pun intended) because sacrificing the pass to stop the run seemed like a good way to win the Big Ten West. Especially Wisconsin, right?

Except this is not a classic Wisconsin rushing team: prior to today, Wisconsin ranked 74th in rushing offense...and Nebraska still let the Badgers rush for 147 yards with their second string and fourth string backs. Taiwan Deal, perhaps their best back, left the game after just four carries with an injury.

So what happens? Wisconsin's Joel Stave throws for 322 yards.  Stop and reflect on that for a moment: 322 yards passing by Wisconsin.  322 yards passing.  It'll be one more week for Nebraska with the nation's worst pass defense, and that is why Nebraska keeps losing these games.

Stop the excuses about "forgetting how to win" or the conspiracy theories about this team being sabotaged. Nebraska is losing games because of their ineffective pass defense: it's why Nebraska lost to BYU. It's why Nebraska lost to Miami. It's why Nebraska lost to Illinois. And it's why Nebraska lost to Wisconsin.

And most importantly: it's not a talent issue. It's just fundamentally broken; corners are playing soft and safeties are playing to stop the run (and not nearly as effective as some Husker fans wanted to believe). Against Wisconsin, they were vulnerable time and time again to the comeback route. The defensive line (banged up as it was), didn't get much pressure against an equally banged up Wisconsin offensive line.

Nebraska's porous pass defense isn't helped at all by Nebraska's awful ground attack. If anybody has identified any rhyme or reason in how Nebraska runs the ball, I'd like to know. Frankly, it's almost like they don't want to do, but they feel they have to in Lincoln.  Last week, true freshman Devine Ozigbo looked like he might be the answer. Against Wisconsin, he got three carries.


Nebraska didn't even start an I-back in the game; it was Andy Janovich as the lone back on the first series. Terrell Newby played the most with 15 carries - but when it was crunch time, he was nowhere to be seen. On that key third and one late in the fourth quarter, it was Imani Cross in the game - but it was Janovich that got the ball.  Great call to use the fullback in that situation, mind you, but Janovich isn't a solution to Nebraska's rushing issues.  Especially when you rush up the middle three straight times when Nebraska was in position to salt the game away.

It's almost like last week's third and seven debacle scarred Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf to the point that they were afraid to do anything other than the most conservative play. Of course, with Wisconsin still having their three timeouts, Nebraska needed to do SOMETHING on the ground.

And they didn't.

And with that Nebraska is now 2-4.  Even worse, Nebraska has now lost seven of their last ten games. Not all of that is on Mike Riley, mind you.  But going back to last season, Mike Riley has lost seven of his last eight conference games; going back to 2013, Mike Riley has lost 14 of his last 16 conference games.

You read that right: Oregon State lost their last five conference games in 2013 and went 2-7 in the Pac-12 in 2014. Riley is right when he points out that he's never lost games like this; at Oregon State, his teams would have lost the game long before the final 15 seconds.

2-14 in conference games dating back to October 26, 2013. I know some fans like Riley's demeanor, and are very hopeful that he's the guy to take Nebraska to the next level.

2-14. Hope all you want - but the record makes it pretty clear where this is heading.

Friday, October 09, 2015

A Preview Look at UNO Hockey's New Baxter Arena

As a UNO alum (class of 1988), I got the chance tonight to take a look at UNO's new Baxter Arena for my very own eyes. I've long been a critic of the facility for several reasons: primarily, it's been built smaller than many UNO hockey crowds, plus the Omaha area really doesn't need four arenas.  (Especially when you consider the financial difficulties being faced by the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs and the Ralston Arena.)

But UNO built it anyway - and to be sure, there were good reasons why.  It's nice for UNO to not get bumped for other events (except, of course, the Aksarben Coronation this year) and it's closer to campus than the CenturyLink Center. (Please don't call it "on campus" when it's nearly a mile away from the Pacific Street campus and about three miles from the main campus.)

Probably the biggest reason UNO needed to build SOMETHING was the lack of practice ice. For the first 18 years of UNO hockey, the Mavs have bounced from rink to rink in search of a place to practice when the home rink wasn't available. A practice facility has been talked about for over ten years, but nothing was ever done - mostly because of the desire for the holy grail of a practice rink adjacent to the arena. And that UNO has done; literally, the "community ice" rink is across the hall from the arena.  The only thing separating the two is the Zamboni garage, which means that UNO will now keep all their stuff full time at the arena.  When basketball or a concert makes the arena unavailable, they just walk over to the other rink.

For fans, the arena reminds me of a larger Ralston Arena, with mostly open concourses and simply designed fan amenities. It's not nearly as grand as the CenturyLink Center - but it doesn't need to be either. Take the suites, which are relatively spartan compared to the suites downtown at the Clink or TD Ameritrade Park.
For most UNO hockey fans, that doesn't really matter because it's all about the game at UNO hockey games, and sightlines are pretty good wherever you go. I saw a  picture in the World-Herald that made it appear that there were blind spots, but that was a false alarm. I checked my seats in the upper deck and was pleased to see that I could see the dasherboards over the railing.  So the views should be excellent, and yes, a little closer than at the CenturyLink Center.
The seating, on the other hand, might be a bit of a concern. They look like they should be really comfortable, but I quickly discovered that they have much less of a recline than the seats downtown.  Is that a problem? Actually no. For sporting events, you don't want particularly comfortable seats; you want fans jumping up and being active. That's why it's great that UNO used my idea of using benches for the student section. I have no problem with the seating for hockey games.  If I attend a concert there, that might be a different matter entirely.
The pitch of the upper deck is somewhere between the CenturyLink Center and the old Civic, which was really vertical. Overall, it makes the building wider than the old Civic - but maybe not as tall.

Tonight was an open house and chance for skaters to try out the ice, and the rest of my family had a blast. I don't skate, so that left me free to wander the building. (On our backyard rink in the wintertime, I'm limited to being the human Zamboni.)  But for the most part, real impressions will have to wait two weeks for the opening game. There's no way to really gauge what the place will feel like during a game.  They did blow the train horn a few times, but it didn't sound any louder than it did at the CenturyLink Center.
One thing that was great during the open house was UNO's first honest hockey pep band. In the past, UNO has occasionally sent a jazz band with guitars and clarinets - which wasn't very good. A good college pep band does wonders for the ambiance, and this has been a sorely lacking feature at UNO games. I'd love to see them back in two weeks.

Bottom line to me is that whether I like it or not, this is going to be UNO's new home for hockey and despite being undersized for the Omaha area, it's what UNO has and where UNO is going to play. There are no opportunities to expand this building without major renovations; I did see a few spots where a seat or two could be added, but this building is going to be forever capped at under 8,000 fans.  For some UNO fans, that's more than enough, but for people like me that have dreamed of UNO being something even bigger, well, that dream is over. What UNO has is what UNO will have.