Saturday, November 02, 2013

Just Another Ordinary Nebraska Victory Over Northwestern: OMFG! RK3-to-1!

I admit it. I lost faith in my Huskers as the closing seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter. I had thought that Nebraska and Northwestern were heading to overtime...that is, until Tommy Armstrong unleashed yet another freshman mistake.  First and goal, Northwestern with just three minutes to go.  I couldn't criticize those fans who started heading for home. Things looked awfully bleak.  Nebraska seemed destined to be 5-3. The boo-birds were going to be out for Bo Pelini, and things were going to get ugly.

But then some little things occurred that reminds you that there is no quit in Nebraska football.  The Blackshirts (yes, I used that term) held on for a goal-line stand to limit the damage to a field goal.  Ameer Abdullah somehow getting 16 yards on fourth and 15.  And then the most incredible of incredible finishes as Jordan Westerkamp and Ron Kellogg III ensure a place in Husker history.

We've known that Westerkamp has the best hands of a pretty good receiver corps.  We've known that Kellogg probably has the best fundamental arm on the team, but still, the idea that this was the winning combination blows the mind...because that describes the Nebraska situation on offense.

Nebraska's all-Big Ten quarterback, Taylor Martinez, was up in the press box with injuries to his hip and foot.  The Huskers best receiver, Kenny Bell, left the game early and finished the game in sweats after suffering a groin injury.  The most electric playmaker, Jamal Turner, was out with a hamstring injury.

So when Nebraska was on offense, there was Tommy Armstrong throwing passes to Alonzo Moore, Westerkamp, and Sam Burtch.  And yes, that offense had some issues. Northwestern dared Nebraska to throw the ball, sometimes stacking ten defenders in the box.

Tommy Armstrong was really sharp in the first half, completing 10 of 14 passes for 124 yards and rushing for 52 more. Third quarter, not so much. 4 for 9 passing with an interception. Fourth quarter, six passes, zero completions, two interceptions.  That's the freshman coming out.  He'll get better over time with experience. It's just something to keep in mind for people who wanted to see Armstrong inserted into a game when the chips are down.

Ron Kellogg was just the opposite.  1 for 5 passing for 13 yards and an interception in the first half, earning him a spot on the bench for the third quarter.  And deservedly so.  But with Armstrong struggling in the fourth quarter, I wondered whether Bo Pelini and Tim Beck would turn to Kellogg and his arm with under four minutes to play.  They didn't...and Armstrong threw his third pick.  It looked like "game over."  But Kellogg rewrote his stat sheet: 6 for 8 passing for 91 yards...and THE touchdown.

With all the talk about receivers and quarterbacks, we almost forgot the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense:  I-back Ameer Abdullah who's putting together one of the great seasons in recent years for a Nebraska I-back.  24 carries for 127 tough yards against a defense that was selling out to stop him. And on that final drive, Abdullah caught the first three passes for 31 yards, including that oh-so-important 16 yarder on fourth down. Watch the replay again as he breaks three tackles to move the sticks.

Defense was a mixed bag: a really rough start, and a finish that sustains my hope for the future.  Northwestern put three of their first four drives into the end zone, giving the Wildcats a 21-7 lead on the road. Although I didn't hear it in my seats in the north end zone, others heard the complaints.  Was this 2007 all over again? Not in my book.  Against Oklahoma State, Nebraska was listless on both sides of the ball enroute to a 38-0 deficit.  That wasn't the case today.

There were, however, more missed tackles.  David Santos had a rough first half, especially trying to cover "superback" Dan Vitale.  Michael Rose had a couple good plays, but a bunch of whiffs and horrible reads at middle linebacker. In came Josh Banderas to stem the bleeding.  Second half was much, much better.  104 yards of offense.  On 13 Northwestern drives from the midway point of the second quarter on, Nebraska forced 11 punts and one interception. The other drive?  A field goal despite holding Northwestern to just 2 yards and no first down.

Is that the Blackshirt defense we want at Nebraska?  I won't go there...but it's a heck of a lot closer. I saw a lot to like on the defensive line today, especially with the ends.  Avery Moss with the pick-six.  Randy Gregory with two quarterback hurries.  Even Jason Ankrah had a sack.  We saw Vincent Valentine escape off of the milk carton and be a little bit disruptive as well.

Ciante Evans was huge on run support, with five tackles for loss and playing much bigger than he is.  Saw some good things from Corey Cooper as well.  Stanley Jean-Baptiste almost put the game away, narrowly missing an interception with nobody between him and the end zone.

The victory makes Nebraska bowl eligible.  There are issues without a doubt, but let's not forget the following fact:
Everybody has injuries. Heck, Northwestern had to insert their sixth string running back after Treyvon Green left the game. (Has Iowa finally transferred the curse of AIRBHG to jNWu?)  But gutting out a victory without three of your top offensive playmakers and finishing the game with more than half of your projected preseason offensive starting lineup means something.

Maybe Nebraska is not where fans want them to be. But let's drop the psychobabble of the team "giving up" or being "mentally weak".  Mentally weak teams that give up don't win games like this one.  Focus on this:  while Nebraska has issues, we saw players step up. Plays were made when the chips were down.  We saw depth emerge at receiver. We're going to need depth to step up on the offensive line down the stretch.  Nebraska's still in control of their destiny in the Big Ten west division.

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