Thursday, January 01, 2009

Blackshirts Dominate Tigers in the Gator Bowl

Today's Gator Bowl continued a trend that began in November, where the Huskers won a game that was much closer than it really should have been. A handful of plays in the Kansas, Kansas State, and Colorado games were the difference that prevented those games from turning into Husker blowouts. Same thing today. A missed tackle here, a bad decision there, and suddenly Nebraska found themselves down 14-3 at halftime.

When I reviewed Clemson's season for earlier this week, I noted two things. As C.J. Spiller and James Davis go, so goes the Tiger offense. And in the final two games, the Tiger defense created a bunch of turnovers.

That storyline pretty much played out today. The Blackshirts shut down turned the Tigers "Thunder and Lightning" backfield into a light drizzle, as they combined for 49 yards. It all began up front with Ty Steinkuhler and Ndamakong Suh up front. They spent so much time in the Clemson backfield, they may need to file a South Carolina tax return next year. Want some more evidence? Total rushing numbers for Clemson when you subtract out sacks of Cullen Harper: Four yards.

A lot of Husker fans are going to suggest that Nebraska "gave" Clemson those turnovers. Truth be told, Clemson's defense forced those turnovers. Especially that first fumble on the option pitch. Maybe it was inexperience in reading the option, but while you can blame Ganz for forcing the pitch, recognize that DeAndre McDaniel blew up that option play and essentially intercepted the pitch.

Nebraska's offensive woes weren't helped by some poor playcalling by Shawn Watson in the first half. The Husker offense gained an identity late in that Missouri blowout, adopting a spread look that loosened up defenses. That spread look was forgotten in the first half, as Nebraska tried to run the ball against a stout Tiger defense. When they weren't running the ball, they were trying short screen passes. All in all, it kept the Tigers defense in the box and made the Husker offense anemic.

Second half, they spread the field better and threw the ball downfield more, and not surprisingly, opened up the running game a bit. Quentin Castille came up huge today replacing the injured Roy Helu and Marlon Lucky. No fumble problems today, and Castille ran like a man possessed.

All in all, I never felt that despite the Huskers mistakes that they were ever out of the game, and so once Nebraska took the lead, it was more a matter of keeping the game under control.

So Nebraska ends the season 9-4, which is their best record since the last time Bo Pelini coached the Huskers in a bowl game. Certainly something to savor, and while the future of Nebraska football looks better after the 2008 season than it did after the 2007 season, there are plenty of questions that will need to be answered.

Who will take over at quarterback, now that Joe Ganz's eligibility is over? As Ganz went, so did the Huskers this season. Will Ndamakong Suh return for his senior season? He doesn't sound so sure now, as I'm sure the NFL has to be impressed by Suh's performance in the latter part of the season. Who will replace Nate Swift as a clutch receiver?

We'll have plenty of time to get answers to those questions. For now, Husker fans should savor a nine win season. I'm not sure that the Huskers will end up in the Top 25 after the bowl season, but nine wins is unmistakably a huge improvement from 5-7 in 2007. The improvement in the team as this season progressed is unmistakable, both in terms of just making plays, but also in character as well. This year, we saw a team that didn't dwell on their mistakes, and simply played harder as the game went on. They may have been outmatched early, but they always came back hard and finished each and every game strong, as evidenced by comeback attempts against Virginia Tech and Texas Tech, plus come from behind victories against Baylor, Colorado, and Clemson.

Is Nebraska football "back"? Is "Order Restored"? Hardly not. This is not where Nebraska football strives to be. But it's the first step on that journey. It may not happen next year. But this program definitely is moving in the right direction.

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