The old mantra that football games are won - and lost - in the trenches is still true today, even in this PlayStation era of spread offenses. Nebraska's performance against Minnesota showed just that as the no-nonsense Gophers overwhelmed the Huskers at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Is Minnesota more talented than Nebraska? I don't think anybody would argue about that. Did they outplay Nebraska? Absolutely.
Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner was the difference maker in this game; not terribly effective in the passing game, but deadly on the ground. When the Gophers needed yards, it was usually Leidner running the ball...and usually in the open after defensive misread after misread. Going into the game, Leidner didn't scare me that much as a mobile quarterback, but as the game went on, he frightened me more and more. Although Leidner has rushed more often in recent weeks (84 yards against Purdue, 77 yards against Iowa, and 56 yards against Ohio State), he's not the type of quarterback that should put up huge numbers against the Huskers.
But he did.
And that's one of the key issues for Bo Pelini's program as right now, it's just not working right. It's not a talent problem, in my opinion. And frankly, it's not a scheme issue either. It's an execution issue. And before you think I'm somehow absolving Pelini of this problem, I'm not. I'm pointing the finger squarely at him because when execution problems keep plaguing his defense, it's a systemic issue that points back to how his coaches are implementing his scheme. It just happens too often, and too consistently for it to be anything else.
Offensively, Nebraska's offense was ineffective much of the day, but I don't blame Tommy Armstrong that much. I think he had a decent game; he certainly didn't lose it. No, the game was lost up front where Nebraska was mostly ineffective running the ball, except when loading up in an old-fashioned I-formation with double tight ends set. A 22 formation (two running backs and two tight ends) isn't seen much in college football anymore. But just before halftime, Nebraska broke out the fullback and mounted a drive just before halftime. Minnesota certainly didn't think Nebraska could do it, as Jerry Kill called a timeout on 3rd and two, expecting Nebraska to come up short. They didn't...and before too long, Nebraska was actually driving the field, only to have De'Mornay Pierson-El fumble the ball at the Minnesota 11.
Pierson-El dropped the ball after the catch three times against Minnesota; the first didn't count as it happened just after he stuck the ball over the goal line. The next two ended Nebraska scoring drives. I can easily chalk that up to freshman mistakes and forgive him. He'll get better. Much better. The real issue was that Nebraska shouldn't have needed Pierson-El to make those plays against Minnesota. Credit the Gophers for stopping Nebraska's ground game most of the day. And it starts up front. The offensive line was a sieve. Take the broken play that led to Kenny Bell's 78 yard reception; Minnesota sent four and flushed Armstrong out of the pocket. Same thing on the Pierson-El touchdown.
That 2nd and 1 play that everybody hated today? I liked the call. I hated the execution. Take a shot downfield, but don't screw it up. Screwing it up is what Nebraska did when Sam Cotton got beat badly on the edge. If the pass is incomplete, it's a very makeable 3rd and one. So why not take a measured chance and throw the ball? It's really a free play. Nebraska just completely effed it up.
I'm frustrated as a Husker fan because I know this program is better than what we've seen on the field the last few weeks. Both sides of the ball have issues, and I'm not sure how this improves without some sort of changes in Lincoln.
I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Bo Pelini, but the evidence is overwhelming that Bo's current program isn't working like it should. Ideally (in my opinion), Bo Pelini has already recognized it and is considering what needs to be revamped.
Some people will argue that after seven years, Pelini is what he is and won't ever get Nebraska further than a nine or ten win season, and if you want something different, you've got to get a different head coach. That could change things in either direction, and frankly, I still believe Pelini is still too good of a coach to fire at this point. Assistant coaches are another matter entirely. I think Pelini hasn't done himself any favors by some of his past hires, picking youth and familiarity over ability. The Charleton Warren hire broke the mold, and while the jury is out as to whether Warren was a good hire or not, at least we can drop the narrative that Pelini only hires buddies.
But if Shawn Eichorst does decide to clean house in Lincoln, he'd better have a good idea what direction to head. Let's just stop with the Scott Frost talk. One of the complaints about Pelini is that he wasn't experienced enough to take over Nebraska with his first job. Frost has even less experience. One guy I would strongly look at is Jerry Kill at Minnesota. He's proven himself everywhere he's been and his teams don't beat themselves.
Don't believe that? Then what game were you watching.