Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Big Ten Power Poll, Week 9 Ballot

When Nebraska loses to a team that they shouldn't, they fall. Maybe not as much as some people would think, until it's validated by other losses.

So with that, here's my ballot for the CornNation Power Poll this week:
  1. Ohio State
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Michigan State
  4. Michigan
  5. Nebraska
  6. Iowa
  7. Penn State
  8. Minnesota
  9. Northwestern
  10. Indiana
  11. Illinois
  12. Purdue
Why Nebraska still fifth? I'm still not a believer in Iowa.  We'll see if the Minnesota game was an aberration or not; I suspect it is.  If it's not, we'll know for sure in three weeks.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gophers Pound the Blackshirts in 34-23 Husker Loss

Other than being unable to block, catch, and tackle, Nebraska had a decent game against Minnesota. Except for the fact that blocking, tackling, and catching the ball are just a wee-bit important in football.

And yes, that's sarcasm.

We'll start right off the bat with what was good today.  Ameer Abdullah, except for that fumble.  Unquestioned leader of the offense.  And many Husker fans' favorite pincushion, Taylor Martinez.  Is he 100%? No.  But whether he's 70% or 80%, he's clearly Nebraska's best quarterback.  We didn't see Ron Kellogg or Tommy Armstrong take a snap, but Martinez still made enough plays by himself that the other quarterbacks can't.  Take that 35 yard zone read run.   Take some of that presence to step up in the pocket and deliver a pass.

Problem is that Abdullah and Martinez didn't have much help.  Quincy Enunwa had multiple drops that could have kept drives alive.  Kenny Bell had a couple of drops, but those probably belong on Martinez for a pass that wasn't perfectly thrown.  And that's to be expected, with Martinez spending the last six weeks in a boot on the sideline.  Could Armstrong have made those throws?  Maybe.  But more than likely not, especially when you remember that ridiculous catch Kenny Bell had to make against Illinois that should have been intercepted, in all honesty.

Ra'shede Hageman earned some serious money today, though he won't be able to cash in until next summer. He was disruptive enough in the pass rush to keep Nebraska out of sync offensively.

But the biggest problem of the day for Nebraska was the inability to stop the Gophers running the ball. Minnesota wisely scouted last year's Big Ten championship game and saw how Nebraska discombobulated defending the jet sweep.  The Gophers don't have anybody that could match Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, so they didn't actually hand the ball off that much.  They didn't need to, not when just the jet sweep action was enough to provide enough of a distraction to allow David Cobb to find a seam.
Combine that with poor tackling, and you have the makings of a debacle on defense.  Late in the fourth quarter, ESPN showed Cobb with 94 yards after contact.  Almost assuredly, he topped the 100 yard mark on yards after contact.

Ball game.

Frustrating as all hell. We had hoped that the defensive improvement we saw earlier in October was real, but today was a huge step backwards. Credit Minnesota for exploiting Nebraska's youth on defense, and Nebraska's young linebackers were all too frequently suckered out of position.  Who's fault is that?

That falls on Bo Pelini and his coaching staff.  We've seen this coming as Nebraska tried to recover from recruiting mistakes in 2010 and 2011.  Now we're feeling the pain of the youth movement.  Sometimes they play well, sometimes they don't.  And today they didn't.

Many people are going to be out there calling for Bo Pelini's head this weekend.
I'm not going to join that call, as I've seen enough from this young defense to see things to be optimistic about down the line. That doesn't mean that I'm excusing what happened today.  That doesn't mean that I'm happy about this.  That doesn't mean that I don't think that changes are needed in Lincoln.

I just don't think that firing Bo Pelini, a consistent winner, is the answer.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cornell Scores Three in Third in 5-3 UNO Loss

Three third period goals gave #19 Cornell the comeback victory over UNO in hockey tonight. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I missed the third period as my youngest son was too tired to stick around to the end of the game.  For a while there, I thought UNO was going to get a hard-fought victory against an eastern hockey team, but it was all for naught as UNO's nemesis, the ill-timed penalty, burned UNO. Two Brock Montpetit penalties led to the game-winning and game-clinching power play goals.

Since I wasn't there, I don't know what happened on either penalty.  UNO sports information director Dave Ahlers said on the radio that it was hard to argue over the first penalty when Montpetit was standing there with a shattered stick. And after the game, UNO's Red Army made the frustration over a senior's play down the stretch crystal clear.
After Dean Blais told the World-Herald's Rob White that dumb penalties are killing the Mavs this season, look for Montpetit to be a healthy scratch for Saturday night's game.
“If they take many more, they won't be playing,” Blais said. “They'll be sitting up in the stands. How many times do you have to tell them, show them, that it's a bad penalty? And if they take it ... what else is there that they'll understand?”
Archibald scores on the penalty shot to tie the game
It's a shame that the game turned on that, as the Mavs battled against the bigger Cornell team, who had a burst in their season opener.  The Mavs outshot the Big Red all night long, but it seemed Cornell had the edge much of the night in play. In the second period, UNO's team speed started to show, especially when Cornell's Cole Bardreau hauled down UNO's Josh Archibald on a breakaway. Archibald was awarded the penalty shot, and on a great deke, beat Cornell goalie Andy Iles just under the crossbar on the glove side.

And with just over two minutes left in the second period, Ryan Walters buried a rebound past Iles to give UNO a 3-2 lead going into the final period.  A lead that UNO couldn't hold in the closing 10 minutes.

Frustrating.  That's about the only thing to say about this one.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

B1G Power Poll, Week 8 Ballot

If anything, Nebraska looked better this week for not playing.  Wisconsin gave up quite a few points to Illinois, and Michigan State's offense reverted to ineptitude at home against Purdue.  That's just one week after the Huskers used a backup quarterback to slice, dice, julienne, and smash the Boilermakers on the road.

So here's my ballot for this week's poll at CornNation.
  1. Ohio State
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Nebraska
  4. Michigan State
  5. Michigan
  6. Penn State
  7. Iowa
  8. Northwestern
  9. Minnesota
  10. Indiana
  11. Illinois
  12. Purdue

Most of the changes were in the second half; Michigan State's offense and Michigan's defense both had horrible weeks.  Iowa moves up mostly due to Northwestern's tailspin.  That, and Indiana getting into a boat race with Michigan.  Keeping it competitive with Ohio State counts as well.

I can come up with any number of reasons to shuffle numbers 6 through 11 around, so I'm going with gut feel here.  I'm not impressed with Indiana or Illinois at this point, and I have to figure that eventually Northwestern is going to turn it around.

I just hope it's not until after November 2nd.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

B1G Power Poll - Week 7 Ballot

Here's how voted in this week's Big Ten Power Poll at CornNation:
  1. Ohio State
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Nebraska
  4. Michigan State
  5. Northwestern
  6. Michigan
  7. Penn State
  8. Indiana
  9. Iowa
  10. Illinois
  11. Minnesota
  12. Purdue
Nebraska moved up, partially because of a strong defensive performance, but more importantly, because of the poor showing by Northwestern.  Yes, Kain Colter and Venric Mark were injured, but even so, Wisconsin shouldn't have dominated the Wildcasts like that.  Michigan State makes the biggest jump, mostly due to the emergence of an actually productive offense.

And yes, I know that on the field, the games say Indiana > Penn State > Michigan.  I attribute those results to the "any given day" phenomenon. So I'm going with my gut for now.

Easiest choice is to put Purdue at #12. Nobody is going to argue that point until they actually beat somebody.  Best chance might be on November 23rd when Illinois comes to West Lafayette.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Blackshirts Derail Boilermakers As Armstrong Struggles

The most annoying meme in Nebraska football in recent weeks has been the "Tommy Armstrong is better than Taylor Martinez" viewpoint. If it was limited to a few crackpots, it would be fairly easy to dismiss. But it's not; people who should no better have signed onto the "Tommy Armstrong in 2013" bandwagon.  Even when the evidence is in scant supply.

No doubt that Tommy Armstrong runs the option better than Taylor Martinez.  He also has better fundamentals throwing the ball.  But he's also a redshirt freshman, who's fairly inexperienced.  He's done well in a simplified offense against inferior competition.  The competition heats up in November, and Armstrong isn't playing anywhere near the level that Martinez is capable of. Not only isn't Armstrong the best quarterback in Lincoln, he hasn't even established himself as the best available quarterback. 

That's led many people to bring out the black helicopter theories from the grassy knoll as to why Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III are splitting snaps in both practices and games.
Today, reality hopefully hit home like Ndamukong Suh hits quarterbacks. For all the talent and potential Armstrong has, he's still inexperienced. And it showed today... 18 passes thrown, six caught by Huskers, three intercepted by Purdue. And as the game went on, Armstrong got worse.  In the second half, Armstrong threw five incompletions, one interception, and no completions.  One "should've" been caught by Quincy Enunwa, but others could have been intercepted...but weren't. Suffice it to say that Purdue isn't a very good team in 2013.

And Armstrong is a freshman.  It happens. And when the freshman is struggling, sometimes you have to pull him. And it's a heck of a lot easier to do when you are already alternating quarterbacks... especially when quarterback 1-A IS playing well.  I understand the narrative that when you play two quarterbacks, you don't really have a quarterback.  Well, Nebraska doesn't really have a healthy quarterback, so you play what you've got.

And based on today, if Taylor Martinez isn't ready to go against Minnesota, Nebraska's starting quarterback in Minneapolis should be Ron Kellogg III.  Doesn't mean that Armstrong shouldn't play in that game...but Kellogg should be rewarded with the start for a better performance today.  Armstrong is young; he'll bounce back.

Fortunately, all that was moot on a day when Nebraska imposed their will from the opening play of the game. Aaron Curry started the game with a five yard sack of Purdue's true freshman quarterback Danny Etling, and the rout was on.  Etling might be a good quarterback down the line after they build a offensive line, but today, the Boilermakers were overwhelmed by the Nebraska defense.  Don't make the mistake of saying the Blackshirts are somehow back; Purdue is exactly the type of team that a Bo Pelini defense excels against. Without the threat of a run by the quarterback or running back, the defensive line could attack and the secondary could worry about covering.

The Blackshirts simply did their job today, and did it well.  Randy Gregory was disruptive much of the day, and even Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah got into the mix.  Isn't it time to give Gregory that Blackshirt? I thought the secondary played pretty well in the first half...not quite so much in the second half, especially at cornerback. Josh Mitchell had his problems, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste spent the second half in the locker room after being ejected.

Should Jean-Baptiste have been ejected? By the letter of the new rules, yes.  Earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to listen to Big Ten official Tripp Sutter discuss the new targeting rules, and it's crystal clear. If defenders aim for the belly and below, they'll probably be fine.  Aim at the shoulders, and the risk of being ejected is great. The officials have no choice in the matter; the call is clear, and if the officials fail to  make the call, they'll be disciplined.  Fair or not, the official called it correctly.

The most disappointing play of the day on defense had to be the last one, with Jonathan Rose losing coverage on DeAngelo Yancey to end the shutout bid.  Offensively, the biggest disappointment had to be losing all-American offensive guard Spencer Long to a knee injury. Bo Pelini didn't want to say it in the post-game press conference, but it sounds an awful like a season-ending ACL tear, if you read between the lines.

His loss really shook up the continuity on the offensive line, and that's something that could be devastating if he's out as long as it sounds like it could be.

Bottom line is that Nebraska played well enough today to beat an overmatched opponent. That might not be enough in November against Michigan and Michigan State, but if the defense continues to improve and Martinez is back and reasonably healthy, it might be enough.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Big Ten PowerPoll, Week 6

The top five remain unchanged this week.  I can't drop Northwestern for losing to the best team in the conference. 
  1. Ohio State
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Northwestern
  4. Nebraska
  5. Michigan
  6. Michigan State
  7. Penn State
  8. Iowa
  9. Indiana
  10. Illinois
  11. Minnesota
  12. Purdue
The first big move is Michigan State.  We know their defense was tops, but their offense was horrid.  Nice breakout game for the Spartans on offense, but can they do it again?  Penn State stayed where they are, mostly because I wasn't sure I could move anybody else up.  Indiana hasn't been THAT impressive to this point, but if they play like that again, they could move up.

Not sure what to make of Minnesota...they hung in for a while with Michigan, but eventually fade out.  One thing is clear, the line between the top 6 and bottom 6 is becoming more and more distinct. And I can make a case for anybody in the top 6 to win in Indianapolis.

Monday, October 07, 2013

McKewon Says Martinez is a "November QB"; Armstrong isn't yet.

In his weekly rewind of the previous Saturday's game, Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald look a closer, critical look at Tommy Armstrong's performance against Illinois.
There's so much to like — the shake-bake, the willingness to hold himself in the pocket and dare the defense to flush him out, the “court sense” on option plays — and not much to fret over. But Beck's done a good job of protecting Armstrong and putting the load on Abdullah and the offensive line.
Pretty good for a redshirt freshman...and good enough against Illinois. Certainly good enough against a struggling Purdue team. And probably Minnesota as well. But beyond?
But Armstrong would have to make a decent leap in the rest of October to be a full-on November quarterback who can beat three of the Big Ten's five best defenses. Don't kid yourself: As rickety as this Husker thing has looked in 2013, coach Bo Pelini has designs on winning them all. Twelve passes won't beat Michigan. Won't beat Michigan State.
 And Taylor Martinez, for all the arrows thrown at him, made “the leap,” at the very latest, last year, when he beat those defenses, often with second-half comebacks.

David McGee / CornNation
Husker fans should be excited for the future with Armstrong, or perhaps Johnny Stanton at quarterback. Next year. For 2013, though, Nebraska's best quarterback is still clearly Taylor Martinez, when he's healthy.  Will he be healthy by Minnesota?  That's a good question. Some wonder if a turf toe injury can be healed sufficiently at all this season.

McKewon points out that Beck's game plan set up Armstrong perfectly for success on Saturday. With Martinez, the offense does much, much more, and that's why Martinez is still the best quarterback for Nebraska.
Beck designed a game plan in Nebraska's 39-19 victory against Illinois that gave quarterback Tommy Armstrong easy throws from start to finish. Most of them off play-action. All of them provided Armstrong — who usually threw on his toes without following through with his lead foot — an open option down the middle or to his strong, right side.
The push by some to create a quarterback controversy is purely a result of "Martinez fatigue".  Let's be honest... some people simply don't like Martinez.  He's not a perfect quarterback by any means, but some people simply aren't willing to look past his past faults, especially the ones from his freshman and sophomore seasons.  Not all of them have been fixed, but not all of them still apply either.  And it's clear that some people simply have an agenda against Martinez. And so are their friends...
Bottom line is that the only question that can honestly asked about Nebraska's quarterback situation revolve around Martinez's toe. Everything else is pretty much revisionist thinking, tailored to your personal biases.  Armstrong didn't have the best day throwing the ball against Illinois, and Bo Pelini pointed out today that if it wasn't for Kenny Bell's incredible catch of the year, that pass was probably going to be an interception.
I'm not down on Armstrong. I just want to keep the hype in check. Same way I held back on Martinez and the Heisman hype in 2010.  Armstrong is doing OK as the backup, but when Martinez is ready to return, it's clearly Martinez's job.

Anybody who says different is simply letting their personal biases cloud reality.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Abdullah Torches Illini as Blackshirts Show (A Little) Progress

I sensed a lot of concern from Husker fans in recent days over Nebraska's game with Illinois. At a superficial level, it was easy to see:  Nebraska's defense has been porous for all season, and the Illini torched Miami (Ohio) last weekend.  Of course, most fans probably didn't realize that Miami's defense was the second worst in division 1-A.  Heck, I'm not sure that Enrico Blasi's hockey squad at Miami couldn't have done better job slowing Illinois than the Redhawks' football team.  So I wasn't quite so concerned, especially when I realized that the Illini defense was playing nearly as poorly as Nebraska's this season.

It was sure nice to see Nebraska seize command of today's game right from the start. Earlier this season, I-Back Ameer Abdullah seemed a little off.  A little slow, a little sluggish...I couldn't say for sure in the first two games against Wyoming and Southern Miss.  That was then, this is now...and Abdullah is now running at an all-Big Ten level. 21 touches for 240 yards, and it all started with the second play of scrimmage.  After the first of many errant Tommy Armstrong passes (more on that later) to open the game, Abdullah ripped off runs of 11, 3, 30, and 2 yards to give the Huskers the lead that would never be relinquished.

Abdullah's backups weren't anywhere near as effective. Terrell Newby had an 11 yard run to open the second quarter, but had a fumble in the third quarter that might have killed a drive.  Imani Cross had two fumbles (one lost), and even worse, got nailed for a safety in the second quarter.  That safety appeared to be a bad call to me; Cross got nailed inside the 2 yard line and pushed back into the end zone, where he was tackled.  Normally, the call is forward progress stopped at the 2, and that's where the ball is spotted.  Not here.

That wasn't the first of the bad calls.  Cross was also the victim of a horse-collar tackle that wasn't called.  Neither was intentional grounding on Nathan Scheelhaase for a fourth quarter throw that fell two yards shy of the line of scrimmage. But they did manage to flag Jared Afalava for pushing Scheelhaase out of bounds.  Not to mention Kenny Bell for shh-ing the student section.  And all game long, they allowed Illinois to snap the ball without allowing Pelini to get his substitutes into the game.

While the officials were wrong, it's ultimately Bo Pelini's responsibility to recognize the way the officials were handling the game, and to stop the situational substitutions.  No excuse to bull-headedly continue to be caught with players not in position, or even worse, have 12 (or more) defenders on the field.  Save the protest for the conference office; you have to play the way the game is being called.

Kenny Bell's acrobatic one-handed touchdown catch will show up on every highlight reel, but it was a symptom of Armstrong's errant throws all day.  Undoubtedly, the wind made it tough to throw the ball today, but even short throws (like that fourth and goal pass) were off target.  Only great efforts by Quincy Enunwa, Bell, and Sam Cotton turned incompletions into completions.  Am I being overly tough on Armstrong?  Yes, when you consider he's a freshman. But not at all, when people still insist that there is a quarterback controversy at Nebraska.  Armstrong wasn't too bad today, but the reality is no matter how much some people dislike the senior, Taylor Martinez is Nebraska's best quarterback.  Or at least, when he's healthy. Will he be healthy next week?  Don't know.  Will he be healthy in three weeks against Minnesota?  Hope so.  How about in a month against Northwestern?  That's the big question, and he better be.

On the defense, we saw a revamped lineup up front with several surprises.  I was pleased to see Aaron Curry start, but I expected him to replace Thad Randle instead of Vincent Valentine. Valentine played later in the game, and caught my eye a few times getting some penetration into the backfield, so I'm hoping this was a motivation thing.  Michael Rose had a big day on the stat sheet replacing Zaire Anderson (out with a bone bruise) and Nathan Gerry.  That being said, with the number of times Illinois running back Josh Ferguson got into the Nebraska secondary, there's going to be some painful video study this weekend for Nebraska's linebackers.

Randy Gregory did have another monster game at defensive end, and you get the feeling that he's starting to get comfortable with his role. This is where we remember that he's just a sophomore...and going to get even better.  Did linebacker play improve with Michael Rose and Jared Afalava in the game?  A bit, but there were still a few too many misreads with guys seemingly out of position.  Andrew Green had a strong performance today at safety; I'm still not prepared to say that the other safety position opposite Corey Cooper is solved.  Le Roy Alexander looked OK at times in relief, but sometimes it was more of the same problems that Nebraska's had all season long.

Bottom line is that it was a win, and a better win than Vegas oddsmakers and some pessimist fans expected.  And that makes it a good win.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Why Must Politics Interfere Unnecessarily With Sports?

Barring some sort of mass influx of sanity into Washington, the effects of the federal government shutdown will include two college football games this Saturday. If Congress fails to find a compromise by noon Thursday, games between Air Force and Navy plus Army and Boston College could be cancelled.

Why?  Because a handful of Tea Party conservatives are so infatuated with stopping health care reform that they are willing to hold the entire federal government hostage. Nevermind the fact that opponents of health care reform have continually lost vote after vote to try and stop health care reform. Nevermind that much of what became the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation (and RomneyCare).  Nevermind that only gerrymandering of Congressional districts have allowed the GOP to control the House of Representatives.  Since the previous 42 attempts to undo this have failed, the Republicans have upped the ante in their Don Quixote-like assault on the windmills of ObamaCare.

The Democrats aren't exactly blameless in this matter. Whether it's shutting down web sites or college football games, some things being shut down are being done to make it more painful instead of conserving government funds. Football games are revenue generators, so cancelling these games cost the government far more than will be saved.

So how far will this go?  Can enough people in the middle rise up and say "enough"?  I fear not, not with the polarized views espoused on the talkshows aired by Faux News and MSNBC.

Eventually, cooler heads will prevail.  The Republicans are destined to lose this battle eventually; the only question is when, and what will the repercussions be?  And will it be in time to save a couple of college football games this weekend?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Big Ten Power Poll, Week 5

With so many teams on a bye week, not a lot of movement this week, except at the top.

1. Ohio State

They aren't invincible...but they've earned their place on top of the B1G tire fire.

2. Wisconsin

Had their chance to pull off the upset on the road.  Just needed some better clock management.

3. Northwestern

Doesn't suck to be undefeated, that's for sure.

4. Nebraska

Fix the defense, please!

5. Michigan

Why is Nebraska ahead of the Weasels? Simple: Wyoming is a better team than Akron or UConn.

6. Penn State

The NCAA is giving Bill O'Brien a break in the future...Penn State will be back eventually.

7. Iowa

I thought the Squakeyes would fumble Floyd away to the Gophers. Instead, the Gophers got stomped at home.

8. Michigan State

I think Nebraska's defense is fixable. I'm not sure Michigan State's offense is.

9. Illinois

The Illini looked good against the #115 scoring defense and #123 scoring offense. They should have.

10. Minnesota

This was why the Gophers can't have nice things, other than TCF Bank Stadium.

11. Indiana

Basketball practice has begun!

12. Purdue

This locomotive is off the tracks.