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.