Sunday, November 02, 2014

Blackshirts Overcome Woeful Husker Offense Against Purdue

One e-mail kind of summed up the dichotomy of Nebraska's 35-14 victory over Purdue:  How can Husker fans be upset over a 21 point victory?  Nevermind the margin of victory, and focus instead on Nebraska's offensive production.  Nebraska totaled 297 yards against a Purdue defense that ranks 11th in the Big Ten prior to the game, giving up 429 yards a game.  They started slow, improved slightly, then regressed badly at the end.  Can you point to Ameer Abdullah's absence as a reason? Yes, but that doesn't explain this level of offensive ineptitude. Two weeks ago, Minnesota racked up 450 yards of offense on Purdue; are Husker fans thinking that without Abdullah, Nebraska's offense is worse than Minnesota's?

And the blame goes across the board on offense.  Let's start up front where the offensive line really hasn't played well in over a month.  Remember how impressed fans were with Nebraska's rushing attack against Miami? Now, this offense can't even run the ball consistently against the likes of Purdue. In recent weeks, it's become downright impossible to snap the ball consistently.  Ryne Reeves may be a little better blocking, but it seems that more of the bad snaps happen with him in the lineup. Not that Mark Pelini is much better snapping the ball.

Things weren't any better at the other end of the snap; Tommy Armstrong had another horrible game.  It started with a botched handoff on Nebraska's second drive of the game (resulting in Abdullah's sprained knee, I might add), and it was all downhill from there. Armstrong is running the ball better this season, but he's not throwing the ball better. The most frustrating part of Armstrong's game is how he consistently fails to check down from covered receivers. Armstrong may have a sweet and powerful arm, but it does Nebraska absolutely no good when he forces throws into coverage when other receivers are open. Taylor Martinez was excoriated for his passing during his Husker career, but the more I see Armstrong, the more I'm convinced that Taylor Martinez is a better quarterback than Tommy Armstrong.  Can Armstrong improve? One hopes, because his fundamentals are so much superior to Martinez...but you simply can't ignore the reality that Martinez completed throws as an inexperienced freshman that Armstrong consistently misses as a sophomore.

Is someone else the answer at quarterback? I have to assume that the coaches are playing the best quarterback. We haven't seen Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton in situations with the game on the line, so I'm not assuming that one of those men would be better. We have to trust that these coaches are putting the best quarterback on the field. The biggest nail in Bill Callahan's coffin as a head coach was when we realized that Joe Ganz was a better quarterback than Sam Keller in 2007, yet Callahan refused to make the change until Keller's collarbone snapped. Could Fyfe or Stanton provide the offense a Ganz-like spark?  Or would it only make Nebraska's offensive issues even worse?  We don't know now, but if the offensive struggles continue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Bo Pelini may not have any choice but to make the gamble.

Certainly Armstrong wasn't helped wasn't helped by his receivers today.  Pelini said after the game that on Armstrong's two interceptions, the receivers ran the wrong routes. The first interception was a tipped pass, so Armstrong deserves the benefit of the doubt.  The second one was thrown into coverage, so even if Jordan Westerkamp was running the wrong route, Armstrong still shouldn't have thrown the ball there.

If the offense was that bad, how did Nebraska manage to pull out the win? Simple: the Blackshirts were outstanding all day. With Austin Appleby starting at quarterback for Purdue, the Boilermakers had scored over 30 points against defenses like Michigan State and Minnesota.  But that wasn't going to happen today unless Armstrong started to repeatedly throw pick-six interceptions. Arguably, Nebraska might have been able to pitch a shutout if Corey Cooper didn't blow coverage on Cameron Posey in the second half, or Randy Gregory had stayed disciplined when Appleby scrambled in the first half.

Throw in some great first-half special teams play with two blocked punts and another long punt return on top of that, and that was enough for Nebraska to defeat Purdue, even with some absolutely dreadful offense.  That won't work in upcoming weeks though. Next up for Nebraska is Wisconsin, and we know what happened the last time Nebraska traveled to Madison. The Badgers WILL take advantage of Nebraska's offensive mistakes in ways that Rutgers, Northwestern, and Purdue couldn't. I'm cautiously optimistic that the Blackshirts can hold their own against Wisconsin, but not if the offense keeps trying to give the game away.

If Ameer Abdullah's knee injury is truly just a minor sprain, that will help. But it'll take more than Abdullah to beat Wisconsin, and that's something that we haven't seen much of from Nebraska's offense for quite some time. Time is running out to fix these problems.

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