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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tomahawk Nation is Wrong: Jameis Winston Was Offensive. Period.

Bud Elliott of SB Nation's Tomahawk Nation tried last night to paint a "sane and rational" perspective of the latest Jameis Winston incident.  Of course, he's writing for a Florida State fan site, which clearly slants his perspective.  But the following statement that he highlighted is so, so wrong, it needs to be called out.
Illegal? No. Wrong? Maybe. Offensive? To some. A bad decision? Absolutely.
He's right, in that it's not illegal and a bad decision by the Florida State quarterback.

But it was wrong to jump up on a table in the campus union and yell what he did.  (Warning, offensive language.)

Why?  Because it's patently offensive. Not to some... but to most people.

Was he likely just repeating an internet meme?  Clearly...but that still doesn't make it OK or make it any less offensive.

So let's stop with the "poor Jameis Winston" lament, Florida State fans. He's the one who made a spectacle of himself in public by jumping up on a table and yelling something that offensive.  Would we be talking about it if weren't Jameis Winston?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it's not like the Heisman winner doesn't have enough baggage. Crab legs.  Allegations of sexual assault.  Saying outrageous things at the Manning's passing camp this summer.  The list could go on and on.

Will Jameis Winston turn pro after this season?  Probably.  But don't think for a second that the NFL won't heavily scrutinize Winston after the way this season has started. The NFL is learning a very hard lesson that character counts.  It doesn't matter how talented you are on the field.  I don't see any NFL team being too eager to bring in a quarterback like Winston, barring some sort of sudden turnaround in his behavior. Someone might take a chance on him, and try to see if they can somehow reform him.

And that's something that Florida State should be trying to do.  But a "first half" suspension against Clemson isn't going to do that.  Not when the 'Noles will give Winston a chance to make up any ill-effects in the second half.

If anything, it might even enbolden Winston, as the likely consequence is that he'll learn that Florida State needs him more than they are concerned about his repeated transgressions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Huskers vs. 'Canes May Be a Must-Not-Lose Game for the Big Ten

Somehow, the Big Ten conference found a way in week three to actually do worse than the conference did in week 2.  In the second week, Michigan State losing to Oregon wasn't so bad, except how the Ducks boat-raced Sparty in the second half.   Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech was bad, and Michigan getting shut out by Notre Dame was awful.  But last week, TCU crushed Minnesota and Indiana somehow found a way to lose to Bowling Green.  Two weeks after losing badly to division 1-AA North Dakota State at home, Iowa State traveled to Iowa City to defeat the Hawkeyes.

How bad is the Big Ten this season?  1-10 in games against Power-5 conference teams.  The only victory is Rutgers beating Mike Leach's awful Washington State squad.  This weekend, there are a few more chances for the Big Ten to mitigate the damage a little.

Iowa travels to Pitt, and considering the Hawkeyes issues, it's tough to see Iowa winning unless they have a huge emotional rebound this week.  Michigan hosts Utah, and it's one of those games a Michigan loss hurts the conference more than a Michigan victory helps.  I suspect that Maryland will beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, but again, a victory won't mean much either.

But the big game of the weekend in the Big Ten is Miami finally coming to Lincoln to play the Huskers after so many Orange Bowl meetings in the 80's and 90's. Neither team is at the level they once were, which means that a Husker victory won't change anybody's opinions of the Big Ten.

But a Nebraska loss is just more evidence that the Big Ten isn't even remotely competitive with the rest of college football....and that makes this a huge game for the Big Ten.  If the Huskers win, they are 4-0 with a Power-5 victory and setting up some hope that if Nebraska can win in East Lansing two weeks later, the Big Ten might have a team that could be considered in the college football playoff discussion.  Sparty's loss to Oregon will no doubt hurt their ability to be selected, but an undefeated Big Ten team probably can't be ignored.

And right now, only Nebraska and Penn State are capable of doing that.  The Big Ten desperately needs to have somebody - ANYBODY - carry the big blue B1G banner this season.  Michigan State is that team currently, but that loss to Oregon makes Sparty an afterthought nationally.  Somebody new has to emerge, and Nebraska might be the Big Ten's best candidate to do it. People will eventually forget the McNeese State escape, because everybody is going to have to have an off week at some point.

But can Nebraska realistically go undefeated?  Yes, I hear you Pellllini haters.  We haven't forgotten about the four losses each season, but that's the past.  Look at the schedule which sets up nicely for the Huskers. Nebraska has shown they can win in East Lansing, and also showed they were better than Sparty last year in Lincoln, except for freshmen holding onto the football.  Iowa has serious issues, meaning that it's likely that the Big Ten west comes down to Nebraska and Wisconsin in Madison.

Yes, Nebraska can easily lose this Saturday to the 'Canes...then to Sparty and Wisconsin.  Or they could win.  And that hope that Nebraska can somehow manage to run the table and win some games has to give Jim Delaney hope that the Big Ten might be able to have one relevant team in January.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UNO Hockey Gets One Game Televised on CBS Sports Network

Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald has learned that the CBS Sports Network will televise eleven NCHC hockey games this upcoming season.  (h/t: Eric Burton)

Only one UNO game is included...and it's a home game against North Dakota, who will be televised six times.  (That's over half of the CBS schedule...)

The CBS schedule:

Jan. 9 — Notre Dame at Western Michigan
Jan. 10 — Minnesota Duluth at North Dakota
Jan. 23 — Colorado College at North Dakota
Jan. 30 — North Dakota at UNOFeb. 6 — Denver at Colorado College
Feb. 13 — St. Cloud State at Minnesota Duluth
Feb. 20 — North Dakota at Western Michigan
Feb. 20 — Denver at Colorado College
Feb. 27 — St. Cloud State at North Dakota
March 6 — North Dakota at Miami
March 6 — Denver at St. Cloud State

Needless to say, that's very disappointing for UNO fans hoping to get a road game televised. I understand why CBS wanted so many North Dakota games; Sioux fans will give them their best ratings.  Not sure why the NCHC allowed CBS to stack the schedule that way.

But one home game?  UNO and Miami clearly drew the short end of the straw from CBS.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nebraska Big Plays Keep Husker Fans Up All Night Against Fresno State

When the first reports emerged Saturday evening that Nebraska was wearing the infamous "Surrender Whites" uniforms in Fresno, it sent Husker fans into a minor panic.  Since first resurrecting the look in 1990, Nebraska is 2-10 wearing white pants with a white jersey, a look that really only works for Penn State. (Kansas City looks bad in them as well, FWIW.) Despite that bad history of the style, it was simply a response to Fresno's all-red uniforms to ensure that the Huskers could identify each other on the field.

But it was pretty clear early on that this was not going to be like many of those past all-white debacles. Even before CBS Sports Network could switch from the end of the Wake Forest/Utah State game, the Huskers were already up 7-0 with a 70 yard touchdown pass to Jordan Westerkamp. And less than a minute later after Fresno's opening drive went nowhere, Ameer Abdullah busted off tackle for 57 yards for another score...and the rout was on.

Or so it seemed. The Husker offense really only sustained a drive at the start of the second quarter with a 10 play drive that resulted in a field goal. And after Fresno State got a field goal after a 14 play drive just before halftime, the Bulldogs actually had an 11-8 edge in first downs at halftime.  It was a big lead, but it was mostly a result of big plays.

De'Mornay Pierson-El's 86 yard punt return was a sight for sore eyes, especially after Nebraska's massive failure trying to return punts last season. But Pierson-El isn't the only freshman leading the charge on punt returns; keep an eye on Joshua Kalu, who had a mean block on the play.

The mind-numbing play of the game was David Santos spiking a quick-kicked punt into the end zone. Luckily, it went out the back of the end zone before Fresno could fall on the muffed punt...limiting the damage to a safety for a muffed punt. On KOZN's Big Red Overreaction, Damon Benning speculated that Santos may have been thinking that it was a deep pass instead of a punt, and thought he was batting the ball away.

After halftime, Nebraska got more consistent with a nice touchdown drive to open the half. Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell did somehow break off a Marv Seiler-like (Iowa State 1992) 66 yard touchdown run, but that was about all the Bulldogs had on offense. One can only wonder whether Duke transfer Brandon Connette, a scratch because of a hand injury suffered last week, would have made a difference with his mobility.  I suspect that Connette might have made the game a little closer, but Fresno simply has too many issues this season to have been a threat against the Huskers.

Despite putting up a big 55-19 victory, there were concerning things on offense once again this week.  Fresno took a page from McNeese State and tried to crash the line to stuff the Nebraska running backs.  On a couple of instances where Nebraska's offensive line could clear out a little crease, Abdullah and later Imani Cross made Fresno pay.  More often, it led to an inconsistent offensive approach. For the second week in a row, Armstrong failed to check down to Abdullah, who was wide open.  Those missed opportunities didn't hurt Nebraska against Fresno State, but they might against Miami or Michigan State.  (Memo to Tim Beck:  Ryker Fyfe checked down to Terrell Newby in garbage time.  Might want to review that in the quarterback meetings this week.)

Defensively, I liked a lot of what I saw.  Good push from the defensive line, even though Randy Gregory's upset tummy was limiting his snaps in the first half. Vincent Valentine had three solo tackles for loss to lead the Huskers, and we are starting to see the potential of Marcus Newby (another freshman) in the passing game.  True freshman Joshua Kalu led the Big Red with six tackles. (Who would have thought that before the game) Josh Banderas made a few plays in the first half as well.  On the negative side, Josh Mitchell got burned a few times by Fresno's Josh Harper, the son of former Nebraska legend Willie Harper. But Harper was a thousand yard receiver last year who'll be playing on Sundays next fall.

I know a lot of people expected this game to be closer, if not actually a squeaker.  I suspect that was mostly because of the late kickoff in ridiculously hot weather conditions. It certainly shouldn't have been the opponent, who's now been blown out the first three weeks of the season.  Yes, they have a 13 game home winning streak...but they lost a quarterback who's starting as a rookie and two thousand yard receivers.  And the Fresno defense was horrific last season, especially against the pass.

Bottom line:  it was a solid, but imperfect victory that was done in difficult circumstances.  The heat and the late start are things that are nearly impossible for Nebraska to emulate in Lincoln.  In fact, I wonder if the Huskers wouldn't be better off spending the night in Fresno and getting a good night's sleep, then fly home in the afternoon. I've flown the red eye a few times, and frankly, it has the opportunity to mess you up for a few days.

But the circumstances (heat and a big lead) allowed Nebraska to play a lot of youngsters, many of whom looked really good.  Besides Joshua Kalu and Marcus Newby, sophomore Lane Hovey provided a second quarter spark and shows us what kind of depth Nebraska has in their receiving corps.  That's something that certainly should give Nebraska fans a lot of optimism.

Once they get over the bleary eyes from a game that ended at 1:21 am in Nebraska.  Time to head to bed.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Political Talk: Dave Heineman's Track Record Makes Him Laughably Unqualified to Lead the University of Nebraska

I had to chuckle when Nebraska's "Worst. Governor. Ever." decided to publicly announce his candidacy to be the next president of the University of Nebraska.  Like most everything else Dave Heineman has been associated with, he couldn't even handle the announcement ceremony right, raising an ethics complaint for using state government resources to pursue a new job.

That's the laughable part.  What's not so funny is the ongoing saga of failed Heineman choices.  Lorelee Byrd, David Phipps. His "reform" of the child welfare system. Lt. Governor Rick Sheehy.  And now this year, the saga of the department of corrections miscalculating prison terms and Sheehy's replacement as Lt. Governor, Lavon Heidemann.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad to see yet another Heineman appointee involved in a controversy. After it happens over and over again, it's clear that Heineman's track record is laughably awful when selecting people to key positions. Thankfully, he'll be out of the governor's office in January.

But what about the presidency of the University of Nebraska? With UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman (age 72) and UNO chancellor John Christensen (age 65) at retirement age, the next University president could be in position to appoint replacements in the next few years. Is that something you want Dave Heineman involved with?

Seriously.  It's pretty clear that Dave Heineman isn't very good at hiring people to key positions. Why anybody would consider naming Heineman to another job where he'll have to make similar choices is simply inexplicable.

Monday, September 08, 2014

So You Want To Compare Ray Rice to Lawrence Phillips?

When TMZ released the elevator video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice repeatedly assaulting then-fiance Janay Palmer, it confirmed everything that we should have expected to have occurred last February. The NFL and the Ravens tried to minimize the case all spring and summer, suspending Rice for just two games initially.  But the new video eliminates any doubt as to what happened that night, and forced the Ravens and the NFL to put Rice's football career on ice.

That's led people to compare Rice to former Nebraska I-back Lawrence Phillips, who infamously drug an ex-girlfriend down the stairs in 1995.
Back then, Tom Osborne was roundly criticized for playing Lawrence Phillips, even though Phillips was, in fact, suspended for half of the season (six games). It led to the infamous ambush by Bernard Goldberg that riled the entire state against CBS, who was Goldberg's employer at that time.  At that time, the national perception was that Osborne didn't punish Phillips at all, and that Phillips played because Osborne wanted to win "at all costs."

Clearly, both parts of that argument are false.  There was a six game suspension, and as Florida learned, Nebraska didn't need Lawrence Phillips to win a title in 1995.  (I still chuckle at David Letterman's "Nebraska just scored again" joke the next night on CBS's Late Night.)

What Osborne should have been criticized for was suspending for ONLY six games.  It should have been a permanent dismissal from the team.  I understand Osborne's motives in the case; he hoped that by giving Phillips an opportunity to return, he could somehow reform Phillips.  Sadly, that never happened, and Osborne now regrets that decision.  But a six game suspension was not sufficient for what Phillips did.  I felt that way in 1995; I never cheered for Phillips upon his return.  That ban should have been permanent.

So if you are going to compare Ray Rice to Lawrence Phillips, fine. Since we don't have any video evidence of the Phillips assault, we can't say which attack was worse.  We don't need to:  both are horrible and inexcusable.  Lawrence Phillips should have never played football again.

Ray Rice shouldn't play football again either.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Huskers Need Ameer-acle To Avoid McNeese State Upset

Was Nebraska guilty of looking past a division 1-AA opponent? Or were the Huskers guilty of reading too much of their press clippings after a potent season opener against Florida Atlantic?

Or is Nebraska simply overrated?

I'm pretty sure both of the first two perspectives are true.  I'm not sure the third is wrong, either.  Defensively, I thought Nebraska was OK for much of the first three quarters against McNeese State.  It was a rough start on the opening drive, but considering that Nebraska really didn't have much to base a defensive gameplan on. Last year, McNeese State ran a pro-style offense with quarterback Cody Stroud, but with former Kansas State quarterback Daniel Sams, a spread offense seemed to be in the cards. And after that opening drive, the Blackshirts played fairly well.  The problem was that the offense was misfiring too much in the first half then went AWOL in the second half.

McNeese State stacked the box to shut down Ameer Abdullah which created opportunities for the Nebraska offense that, aside from a few Tommy Armstrong runs, Nebraska failed to exploit. Receivers were open all day, but Armstrong struggled with hitting wide open receivers.  The worst throw of the day was the dead duck that Aaron Sam picked off and ran coast-to-coast to tie the game at 14-14 instead of Nebraska taking a 21-7 lead. Armstrong had a chance to make a play on the runback, but didn't. And while Nebraska quickly retook the lead on the ensuing drive, it gave McNeese State a surge of confidence. They knew they could beat a division 1-A team; they blew out South Florida last season.

That confidence grew as Nebraska went failed to get a first down on six of their next seven drives. The offensive line couldn't block, and Armstrong couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.  Maybe if Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner were in the game, maybe one of them could have made a diving catch. But there wasn't a need to make a circus catch; receivers were wide open.  Armstrong simply couldn't make a throw.

And in the fourth quarter, McNeese State finally broke through.  The old adage about letting a lesser opponent hang around too long came into play as suddenly Daniel Sams and Tyler Bolfing started to make plays as the fourth quarter neared.  And if not for safety Nate Gerry, McNeese State might have taken the lead late in the game.

Fortunately for Husker fans everywhere, Ameer Abdullah pulled a play for the ages, breaking multiple tackles to score the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left in regulation. Last year, it was Abdullah's catch on 4th and 15 that gave Nebraska a chance to beat Northwestern. This year, Abdullah's heroics might be enough to catapult him to the top of the Heisman chase if not for the little detail that it was against 1-AA McNeese State.

There's a lot for Nebraska to learn from today's game.  The offensive line played horribly, with senior Jake Cotton taking two really bad penalties in the second half that help halt what little offensive progress Nebraska seemed to be making. Tim Beck needs to find ways to get the ball to Abdullah in the passing game.

But even amidst all of the suckage, there were some bright spots.  True freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El has emerged as a legitimate punt returner. Sam Foltz showed a big leg punting. Fellow true freshman nickel back Josh Kalu made a couple of big plays late in the game.  Sophomore Nate Gerry was a vocal leader in the secondary and was the defensive MVP of the game.

Today was depressing, but considering the carnage of the Big Ten on this second weekend of the season, Nebraska is still in position to be the best of the worst Power Five conference. Wisconsin and Iowa showed more weaknesses today, and Michigan State showed that they can be beat. Miami didn't look very good against Louisville on Monday night, and Fresno State has lost badly to Southern Cal and Utah to open the season.

If Nebraska is going to get where they want the season to go, it'll start with better quarterback play. We know that Armstrong has a strong enough arm, but time's running out to find a way to get more consistency in his play. If Armstrong can't improve his completion percentage past the 51% level, maybe it's time to give Ryker Fyfe meaningful snaps. Nebraska simply has too much offensive talent to allow things to stagnate with inconsistent play from the signalcaller.

Some might argue that I'm being inconsistent with suggesting that Nebraska consider a quarterback change, but the circumstances are different now than three years ago.  Three years ago, Nebraska didn't really have a viable alternative to Taylor Martinez...and more importantly, Taylor Martinez was a better quarterback.  Martinez was a better runner, and more importantly, despite bad fundamentals, Martinez was a more effective passer than what we're currently getting from Armstrong.

And that's a rather sobering thought.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Huskers Obliterate Florida Atlantic to Open 2014 Season

Nebraska posted all sorts of impressive statistics in the Huskers 55-7 season opening victory over Florida Atlantic:  784 total yards (5th most in Nebraska history, most by a Big Ten team since 1905). 200 yards allowed, 8.7 yards per carry average on offense. But one statistic stood out the most to me:  Zero Turnovers.

Turnovers have been an issue throughout Bo Pelini's tenure in Lincoln, but last season, turnovers became a critical problem that directly led to November losses to Michigan State and Iowa. Today, it was a clean performance as last year's fumbling freshmen became sensational sophomore contributors.  Quarterback Tommy Armstrong showed better touch on many of his passes, wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was the leading receiver on the day, and I-back Terrell Newby rushed for 107 yards on the day.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ameer Abdullah ran like a man possessed, rushing for 232 yards on the day. (Mistake on my part: I could have sworn that Abdullah came out of the locker room in street clothes after halftime. I tweeted it...then quickly realized I was wrong.  Sorry to anybody who was misinformed due to my mistake.)  Frankly on offense, there wasn't much that didn't work right, other than a few first quarter penalties for illegal blocks downfield.

Defensively, you really couldn't ask for much more after Florida Atlantic's first series.  49 yards in the second quarter, -1 yards in the third, and 74 in the fourth. The absence of Randy Gregory was alarming initially until it was eventually acknowledged that Gregory "probably" could have returned. It wasn't necessary, especially with the way the rest of the defensive line was playing. If you've been wondering who Jack Gangwish was during preseason practice, well, now you know. Greg McMullen was very impressive as well at the other defensive end spot.

Great opening performance for the Huskers.  But it's too easy to overreact to a single game against an overmatched opponent.  Last time Nebraska opened the season with such an impressive performance was 2007...and we all sadly remember how the rest of that season went. I don't suspect any similar sort of tailspin in in the works for 2014, but I don't know that anybody anticipated what happened in 2007 either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2014 Big Ten Predictions

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Over at CornNation, the team dropped our predictions for Nebraska and college football in general, but I thought I'd go into the Big Ten a little more in depth, now that I've finished my 2014 opponent previews.  And yeah, it's got a homer pick in it.

I'm not locked into these picks, and I'm certainly not arrogant enough to guarantee this is how it'll turn out. Because I also know that somebody will probably call me out if I'm wrong.

East Division

1. Michigan State

With the best defense in the east division, there's no reason to deviate from the reigning conference champs.

2. Ohio State

Don't sleep on Urbz...but my pick would have still been Sparty on top even if Braxton Miller were healthy this season.

3. Michigan

The narrative on Brady Hoke swung 180 degrees way too fast. I think Michigan could be better on offense this year with a more competent offensive coordinator, and that should put the in the upper half of the east.  That might not be enough to satisfy Weasel fans.

4. Maryland

Not quite sure what to think about Maryland's transition, so I'm sliding them in here.

5.  Penn State

I think they start really feeling the depth issues from the Sandusky sanctions this season.  Bill O'Brien and now James Franklin have done an amazing job working around the limitations, but can't deny that depth is going to be a concern.

6. Indiana

We know the Hoosiers have a pretty good offense, but the defense has been mostly non-existant.

7.  Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights were horrible throwing the ball and defending the pass in the "AAC" (aka the former "Big East") last season. To put it kindly, Rutgers is in B1G trouble.

West Divsion

1. Nebraska

Yep, I'm making the call. Part of it is faith in the Huskers. Part of it is the realization that as I reviewed the other contenders in the Big Ten's west division, the other contenders tend to have even more questions.  I think the arrival of Alex Lewis makes the offensive line better, even if officially there is only one returning starter.  The defensive line is ready to start making a name for themselves in the Big Ten.  The questions are:  can the freshmen hold onto the ball as sophomores?  And can somebody please block for a punt return?

2. Wisconsin

This is a team that could either race for the four team playoff...or have their season over before most people start decorating for Christmas. Too many questions at receiver and in the defensive front seven for me to list them on top of this list, but I wouldn't be completely surprised if they are a top ten team by the time Nebraska returns to Madison. So I'm picking them 2nd behind the team I'm simply more comfortable with.

3. Minnesota

They aren't the most talented team in the Big Ten. They're probably the best coached team, though. And I like what their sophomores might be capable of doing in the passing game.  Jerry Kill has been a success at each level as he's moved up, and I have no reason to doubt that he's doing the same with the Gophers. Is this a stretch? Possibly. But I think they're going to surprise somebody like they did Nebraska last season. Just hope it's not the Huskers.

4. Iowa

Bill Connelly's preview attributed Iowa's successful 2013 to extraordinary health on offense and defense. Probably can't count on that happening again in 2014 (AIRBHG, anybody?), and more importantly, there are questions in the back seven on defense.

5. Northwestern

It's now Trevor Siemian's show, for better or worse. But without their best runners (Venric Mark and Kain Colter), best passer (again, Colter, believe it or not), and now best receiver (Christian Jones), I think Northwestern still has too many questions to address.

6. Illinois

Tim Beckman looks like he'll swirl the drain again this season.  Some youngsters should give the Illini a chance to feel optimistic, but I think they're still overmatched.

7. Purdue

When does basketball season start?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Haters Keeping Bo Pelini On Their Hot Seat

Earlier this week, Martin Rickman of Sports Illustrated came out with a list of ten coaches on the hot seat in 2014.  And well below Michigan's Brady Hoke, Florida's Will Muschamp, and even Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Rickman added a few names that didn't make his list, but thought he needed to briefly mention.

And halfway down the list, there's Bo:

Bo Pelini, Nebraska: A revamped offseason image took some of the heat off Pelini, but early struggles could wipe the shine away again.
Probably fair to list him there, despite the fact that Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has repeatedly defended Pelini strongly. Most importantly, the last one was pretty much unsolicited.  A question about what Bo Pelini was doing different this spring (with all of the cat jokes) solicited the following response:
"He's a good ball coach, a good person, he's serious about his craft and he's very disciplined in his approach. We're lucky to have him at Nebraska."
Eichorst didn't have to go there...but he did. That's why Bo Pelini isn't really on a hot seat anymore. But that hasn't stopped the speculation from the Pelini haters, who seem to turn nearly every third thread into yet another debate on why Bo Pelini is on the hot seat. Never mind that Eichorst has pretty much stomped that talk after last season's Iowa game:
"volume of unfounded speculation and conjecture about our head football coach..."
It's like the instructions on your bottle of shampoo:  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Over and over and over again.

It's fruitless to debate this subject anymore.  Most fans have made up their minds on this. You either buy Pelini's record as a consistent nine or ten game winner...or you don't.  And even if you disagree with Shawn Eichorst, it really doesn't matter.  Eichorst has made his decision, and Pelini is staying.

Period.

Now, can Pelini work himself back onto the hot seat?  Absolutely. Heck, even Joe Paterno managed to get himself fired at Penn State. But nothing is on the horizon. Pelini is 1-0 since Eichorst first came out in support of Pelini, and won't lose again for at least three weeks. So why are we still discussing it?

One of the favored reasons for Pelini haters is that recruiting has slipped under his watch. That may - or may not - be true. I'm firmly convinced that  recruiting has an extremely long latency to evaluate...and that process takes years from the initial targeting of a recruit to finally determining how good the player actually is. So how is Pelini doing on the talent acquisition and development front?  Nick Handley from KXSP-AM 590 radio in Omaha found this on NFL.com today.

Bucky Brooks ranked Nebraska #14 on his list of teams with NFL prospects, naming Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper, David Santos, and Byerson Cockrell as players to keep an eye on. Who's ranked lower than Nebraska in terms of talent?  #15 Clemson, #16 South Carolina, #17 Texas A&M, #18 Auburn, #19 Oklahoma, and #22 Texas.

Yes, it's one man's opinion...and somewhat premature to say. But it is an indication to feel optimistic about the future, and more importantly, it's a more thoughtful evaluation of Pelini than we get from the critics, who are convinced that if they call him "Pellllini" just one more time, people like me will suddenly see the light.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summertime...And The Blogging Is Sparse

It's been a really busy summer, and I'm waaaaay behind. How far behind? I'm only up to game five on my CornNation Husker opponent previews, with just six weeks until the season opener.

Speaking of which, anybody else disappointed with the kickoff times for the first couple of Husker games? 2:30 for Florida Atlantic is OK, but there is no reason to schedule the McNeese State game for 11 am. The official excuse seems to be to "protect" the Big Ten's primetime games those weeks, which is just plain silly.

Here's a thought for Labor Day weekend. If you want to "protect" Wisconsin's game against LSU, play it on Sunday. The NFL isn't playing that weekend. There's no need to squeeze the games on Saturday that weekend.

It's been a month since the World-Herald reported that the FXFL would play downtown at TD Ameritrade Park. But nothing since. I'd love to see pro football in Omaha, but it's just about too late to make a serious plan together for 2014. And with the bad taste from the UFL still lingering in Omaha, it's ill advised fora new league to start by making the same mistakes the UFL did to seal their failure.

Speaking of minor leagues, I see that attendance continues to drop out at Sarpy County's Boondoggle, aka the Trailer Park. And with Alamo Drafthouse relocating a few miles to the north, the promised development that supposedly justified this mistake remains a pipe dream as we near the end of the fourth season.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Different Perspective on Attendance in Sarpy County for Minor League Baseball

I've developed a reputation as the local curmudgeon when it comes to Sarpy County's ballpark.  I've felt it was unnecessary expense for the local area to build two ballparks when one would suffice.  On Friday, people thought it would be fun to razz me over Tom Shatel's column in the Omaha World-Herald, where he points out the booming crowds showing up at the Trailer Park for minor league baseball while the College World Series was underway in Omaha.
A baseball carnival not named the College World Series was open for business Wednesday outside Papillion. More than 7,000 baseball fans came out to watch a game, drink a beer, hear the crack of a wooden bat and maybe see a home run or two.

Well, they got me. Clearly I was wrong.  With only 6,434 seats out in the Trailer Park, a crowd like that would have the grandstand jammed with a huge crowd out on the berms.

Wait, did they say Wednesday?  Funny thing, my daughter was there with her summer program that day...along with several hundred other kids from the Millard and Elkhorn schools' summer programs.  And they were nice enough to share some pictures with the parents on Facebook.


Hmmm... maybe everybody's out in left field during the third inning?


Maybe on the berms?


Maybe it's just an illusion...or everybody just happened to be in the bathroom at that moment?


Shatel obviously used the official attendance for the game, which was 7,524. I have no reason to doubt that paid attendance number.  Why?

Because they were giving tickets away.


It's great that the Sarpy County Storm Chasers gave away so many tickets to kids. But let's not pretend that there it was standing room only in the 6,434 seat ballpark, because it's clear that most of the seats were unoccupied all afternoon Wednesday.

Unfortunately, that misperception carried through to Ballpark Digest, who duly reported on it.  Maybe at some point down the line, I'll be proven wrong about the Boondoggle in Sarpy County...but the longer this goes on (and the attempts to prove otherwise continue to be feeble), the chances of that become less and less.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Patriotism Drives Television Ratings of National Team

Soccer fans around the US erupted a second time today when the ratings for yesterday's game between the United States and Ghana were announced.
Big numbers, to be sure. But then people try to draw comparisons to other sports... mistakenly so.
Problem is you are comparing apples and oranges. A national all-star team playing with the flag on their uniform in international competition, versus two teams out of over two dozen similar teams in the country. It's simply not the same thing.
The best comparison is to the Olympics. When it's the Olympics, people watch curling, skiing, gymnastics, swimming, and track much more heavily than they do during the rest of the year. Or the preceding three years.  Nobody says that when NBC pulls in huge ratings for the Olympics that suddenly interest in curling or gymnastics is booming.  It's simply people watching the best in their country competing with the best the rest of the world has to offer.

I'll give you another example: hockey. I'm a hockey guy.  Love the game.  But I also know that it ranks fourth in the United States in terms of fan interest.  Well behind football, and trails basketball and baseball.  Still ahead of auto racing and, yes, soccer too.

But at the 2010 Olympics, the Gold Medal hockey game between the US and Canada pulled in ridiculous ratings.  How ridiculous?

The last event of the Vancouver games turned into one of the biggest (non-N.F.L.) sports events in recent television history. The Canada-U.S.A. gold medal hockey game was seen by a huge audience of 27.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched hockey game on American television since two games in the 1980 games from Lake Placid, headed by the famous U.S. upset over the Soviet Union.

The 27.6 million viewers put the game ahead of such recent high-profile sports contests as the Masters golf tournament (14.3 million), the Daytona 500 (16 million viewers), the top game from last year’s N.B.A. Finals (16 million), the N.C.A.A. basketball final (17.6 million), Game 4 (the most watched) of the 2009 World Series (22.8 million) and the 2010 Rose Bowl (24 million).

If I tried to tell you that hockey was now bigger than college football, you'd laugh at me.  Of course, I couldn't say that with a straight face. I'm a hockey guy, but I know that hockey doesn't rate that highly.

Except when the team is wearing the red, white, and blue. Doing battle against another country, especially one that probably cares much, much more about the sport than we do. And probably with better talent than we have.

That gets our interest. That gets the casual sports fan or even some of the non-sports fan to watch. Even outside of prime time.  It's not the sport.  It's our patriotism.

If you want to use television ratings to compare interest level, use the ratings of the MLS to judge the interest level in soccer, not the World Cup.  Like last year, when ratings for the NHL were triple those of the MLS.