Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nebraska Runs The Dadgummed Ball All Over UCLA

As Nebraska's 2015 football season spun down the drain, it became clear that the coaches philosophies and the players talents were not a good match. We saw the players do their best to adapt, but the coaches really struggled.

Square peg. Round hole. Seven losses.

No where was this more obvious than on offense, where Mike Riley tried to force feed a pro-style offensive attack on a team that didn't have a pro-style quarterback. An obsession with passing lead to inexplicable losses to Illinois and Northwestern. (Let's not mention an epic disaster of coaching malfeasance in West Lafayette.)

Intermixed with those debacles was Nebraska's most dominating performance of the year at Minnesota. Nebraska ran the ball 60% of the time in that game-a ratio that Mike Riley called optimal. Yet the coaches didn't try to replicate it in subsequent games. To conclude the season, Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes on a cold, blustery day with wind chills in the teens. Armstrong took a lions share of the criticism-and rather unfairly in my opinion. Yes, Armstrong threw four interceptions...but asking Tommy Armstrong to throw 45 passes is like asking Dan Marino to run the triple option. 

This week, I heard a different tone from Mike Riley. He talked about being one of the top three rushing teams in the Big Ten as a goal for the direction of the Husker offense moving forward. Was this just more empty talk from a coach who was in danger of being fired by Oregon State at the end of last season?

Nope. Riley walked the walk against UCLA. They opened the game by running on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game, and more importantly, they kept running all night long. 62 runs and 19 passes on the game.

They ran the dadgummed ball. And ran it successfully. Earlier this season, Mike Riley suggested that some of Nebraska's struggles rubbing the ball were because of a lack of "want to." 

I don't think it was a lack of "want" by the players, for what it's worth. That is, until the bowl game. Perhaps the realization that Nebraska had lost four or five very winnable games caused the coaching staff to finally jettison their failing offensive philosophies. Maybe it was the realization that Southern Cal and Stanford had gashed UCLA on the ground that caused the coaches to rethink things.

Either way, it doesn't matter. The point is that the coaches changed, and Nebraska won the Foster Farns Bowl.

The so-proclaimed goat from the day after Thanksgiving became the MVP the day after Christmas. Yes, Tommy Armstrong played better because he was given a gameplan that gave him and his teammates a chance to succeed.

Now Nebraska can head into the offseason feeling good about the end of the season. It doesn't erase the bad taste of seven losses, but if Mike Riley and his coaches have really changed their direction and are committed to run the ball as the first priority on offense, then perhaps there is a reason to believe that Mike Riley can actually succeed as Nebraska's head football coach.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

One Week After Kicking Me Out of My Parking Spot, the World-Herald Asks If Downtown Omaha Needs More Parking

My commute to work downtown just got five minutes longer this week, thanks to the Omaha World-Herald. A week before Thanksgiving, I received the following letter, informing me that the World-Herald was kicking me out of the parking garage (where I had been a customer for over 12 years) for good. Two years ago, they bumped me to a non-reserved spot, but starting this week, I was out - period.


And scrambling for a parking spot.  I started calling around to find alternatives, and frankly, didn't find much availability.  My choices came down to two lots:  one in the Old Market and one under the Interstate 480 bridge north of the old Civic Auditorium.  I took the spot under the I-480 bridge because it was $26 cheaper than the other and some spots would be covered from hail.

And now it's a 9 minute walk from my car to work (and as my wife can attest, I'm not a slow walker) each way.  But it's really my only option at this point.

But when I saw the front page of Wednesday's Omaha World-Herald, I could have sworn that I was being trolled by Omaha's daily newspaper:
What I found incredulous are some of the comments from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and others:
Mayor Jean Stothert and city planners say they want to radically change how Omahans see parking. Garages that might appear necessary now, they say, will seem redundant in the future.
 “We do have enough parking stalls,” Stothert said. “It’s a matter of where those parking stalls are.”
 Wait, what? I guess you can argue that since there are plenty of parking spaces on the fringes of the business district, that downtown Omaha needs less parking.  Of course, I bet the mayor doesn't have any issue with parking; she surely has a covered, secured (and probably heated) spot at City Hall; she probably doesn't even need to wear a coat to get to the office.

I did see this little lulu of an idea from the Mayor's office:
For the long term, officials say the city will need to find ways to make it easier for people to come downtown without parking there.

That vision includes an urban circulator — a modern streetcar — to get people around downtown without driving. A new bus rapid transit system, a quick and convenient bus running from Westroads to downtown, could spur more people to hang up their keys and take public transit to work downtown.
Here's the problem with that idea: it doesn't exist today, and it's never going to exist in Omaha unless the city builds it like Sarpy County built a unnecessary, duplicate ballpark.  I'm not sure that I've ever seen a "convenient" bus in Omaha; in fact, with my work hours, I've learned that I really can't depend on Omaha's bus system for my job. A streetcar? I've heard it discussed more than once, but frankly, I don't know how that works unless it's (a) free to ride and (b) as reliable as the car.  That's going to take one heck of an investment by the city of Omaha, and I fail to see how Omaha taxpayers will ever agree to fund this.

Evenings and weekends aren't an issue for parking, and it's not an issue for the CenturyLink Center; there's plenty of parking there for events.  Same thing with the Holland Center; the symphony could hold a concert during the College World Series, and parking wouldn't be an issue downtown.  In fact, Omaha has hosted the Olympic Swim Trials and the CWS on the same evening.

But on a workday, parking is in short supply, and with HDR building a new headquarters downtown, it's going to get worse. Frankly, at this point, it's too late at this point to implement a streetcar to be ready when HDR employees join the crush downtown. And no, bikes are not an option for someone who lives in West Omaha.  Not in a city with this many hills and weather extremes like Omaha has.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Nebraska Throws Away It's Chance to Upset Iowa

At his Monday press conference, Mike Riley talked about how his team needed to run the ball this week against Iowa. The importance of running the ball grew as the weather forecast grew colder and colder.

So if you had told me that, despite all that, Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes against Iowa, I would have asked how badly Iowa had boat-raced the Huskers.

You can blame Tommy Armstrong for throwing four interceptions. I'll blame the play calling that asked Armstrong to throw the ball that much today. Take that 4th and 1 fade route. Or throwing 3 straight incompletions after getting gaining 8 yards on first down.

The Huskers defense played well enough to win, save for two busted assignments on Jordan Canzeri in the third quarter. But asking them to overcome a minus three turnover margin was asking too much.

Some will say that Nebraska threw out of necessity because the ground game wasn't working. It wasn't terribly effective, but I saw flashes of shotgun runs to the edge with Terrell Newby in the first half. They didn't try it in the second half.

That's the story of Nebraska football in 2015: Mike Riley trying to jam a square peg into his round hole offense. Some fans will eagerly await Patrick O'Brien's arrival as the round prg that will match better with his offense. Maybe that might work, but that's an awful lot of hope and pressure being placed on a true freshman who is still in high school.

Now the question is whether Nebraska can somehow get to a bowl game despite having a losing record in 2015. Not accepting a bowl bid if offered is not an option to me for two reasons: First, the Huskers could use the extra practice time to better learn these new systems. Second, the players deserve the bowl trip, especially the seniors. It won't be a great bowl, but it's better than no bowl.

In fact, I'd argue that the bigger question that needs to be asked is whether Mike Riley should return in 2016. I don't seriously think that Riley is going to be fired after just one awful season, but it's a more valid question than whether or not  NU should accept a bowl bid, if offered.

Especially when you consider Riley's record in recent years at Oregon State. Going into this season, I was the pessimist in predicting 7-5. Most others thought this was a nine or ten win team. Well, Nebraska won exactly half that. Despite what Shawn Eichorst. May claim, this wasn't a rebuilding effort in 2015.

It is in 2016. How does Mike Riley do that? Or can he?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Huskers Flirt With Disaster Against Rutgers

All season long, you've heard a common refrain from Husker fans:  "Run the ball."  It hit a fever pitch against Illinois, became viral against Northwestern, and became epidemic against Purdue.  Last week against Michigan State, fans started chanting "Run. The. Ball." in Memorial Stadium one series after the Huskers turned the ball over in the Red Zone with two ill-conceived pass calls.
After Nebraska beat Minnesota handily a month ago, Mike Riley said afterwards that Nebraska's 60/40 split was optimal for this team. Yet Nebraska has hardly tried to emulate it - though last week, they came closer.

Against Rutgers, Nebraska once again played with fire with a 20 mph wind, with a near 50/50 split. And it was working early, as the Huskers broke out to a 21-0 lead with Tommy Armstrong completing all seven of his first quarter passes.   It worked for the first 20 minutes of the game...or did it?  Take Jordan Westerkamp's first quarter touchdown catch...looks good on the stat sheet, but look again: it's thrown into triple coverage.

The next 20 minutes gave us the downside of YOLO ball; Armstrong went 3 for 7 with two interceptions, a sack, and a fumble (recovered by Alex Lewis).  And the blowout was over; Nebraska's lead was down to 21-14.

Fortunately, Nebraska returned to what they did best:  running the ball in the final 20 minutes.  17 runs, three passes. It wasn't particularly effective, but it controlled clock and more importantly, kept the ball away from Rutgers.  And Nebraska got the win.

After the loss to Purdue, Mike Riley remarked that some of Nebraska's struggles in running the ball were a lack of "want to." As we see this situation repeat itself week after week after week, I've become convinced that it's all a lack of "want to" by the coaches.  I get why the coaches like to throw the ball, especially against a team like Rutgers, who's secondary was decimated by injury.

But it's not what Nebraska does best.  Tim Miles has a saying that has turned into a hashtag for Nebraska basketball:  "It's about us."  #usAlways.

Somebody on Nebraska's crack digital media team tried to claim it for the football team today.
Mike Riley didn't get the message.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Let Me Clear My Throat: Huskers Get Upset Win Against Sparty

As Tommy Armstrong released the game winning touchdown pass, I saw that Brandon Reilly was out of bounds. So when he caught the ball, I held my celebration. And after the officials discussed whether or not Reilly was pushed out of bounds, I held my celebration. And knowing that it would be reviewed, I still held my celebration.

Too bad for me...I missed the first three opportunities to celebrated...but I didn't miss the fourth, once the review was over. (Turns out that this type of judgement call can't be reviewed anyway.) And I certainly didn't miss the fifth and final celebrating after Connor Cook forgot about the clock at the end of the game. Though I did wait to see if Mark Dantonio would get a Mack Brown extra second...

Did Nebraska get lucky? I didn't see a replay in the stadium that was conclusive enough to overrule the call. I understand people watching the ESPN replays Saw something different. Much like on that questionable pass interference call with Alonzo Moore...TV may have had a better look than I got. So i'll have to defer to folks at home...and it sure sounds the Huskers caught a huge break.

Michigan State fans will justifiably complain about it, but in a season like this, the Huskers desperately needed this one, When Chris Pankonin cranked up "Let Me Clear My Throat" for the post game celebration on the PA system, the cathartic release was on all over Tom Osborne Field.

For one night, we were reminded on how much fun Nebraska football can be. Fans, players, and yes, recruits. It was an absolute blast.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the game itself over at CornNation. Tonight, let's just enjoy a win. Winning never sucks...and in 2015, we appreciate it  a while lot more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Searching For Answers (Other Than the Obvious) After Huskers Get Boat-Raced by Purdue

After Kansas blew out Nebraska in that 2007 "Rout 76" game, I had a few thoughts about how Nebraska game planned with a first time starting quarterback:

Example in point: Joe Ganz making his first start since high school. Callahan hands him the ball and has him throw the ball on every down in the second quarter. Absolutely no running game in the 2nd quarter, save for a few scrambles. First start against a top ten opponent, and Callahan goes one-dimensional and puts it completely on the shoulders of a green quarterback. Ganz did pretty well for his first start, but it's completely shameful that his coach put the onus on him. But we've come to expect that of Bill Callahan.

Is that an unfair comparison to Mike Riley?  Let me give you the second quarter stats for the Huskers against Purdue:  6 rushes (three I-back runs that gained 25 yards, and three Ryker Fyfe scrambles and sacks) and eleven passes. Five passes completed, two intercepted.

Let's build on this a little more:  In the first quarter, Nebraska rushed the ball 13 times and threw the ball 7 times. Fyfe was 6-for-7 passing, and while Nebraska trailed 7-3 at the end of the quarter, Nebraska still led in most of the statistical comparisons.  It was just that 62 yard run by Purdue's David Blough, taking advantage of a Nebraska defensive alignment bust, that was the difference in the opening quarter.
(Look at all of that open space on the "P"... Pretty sure that was an audible...)

The first quarter was the balance that worked so well two weeks ago at Minnesota in a victory.   The second was just the opposite, and Nebraska was trending in the wrong direction.

Third quarter, you ask? Six runs, 16 passes.  Now trending even worse, and so did the score.  At that point, it was 42-16, and Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

Stop and repeat that again: Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

By Purdue.

I-backs had carried the ball 18 times; Ryker Fyfe had thrown 34 passes at that point, with three interceptions.  Yes, Terrell Newby left the game in the second quarter with an injury, but Imani Cross, the backup, was still averaging 4.9 yards per carry. If Nebraska didn't have faith in Cross, try Devine Ozigbo. He never carried the ball once, but did catch three passes.

Nebraska's I-backs rushed 18 times for 95 yards; that's 5.3 yards per carry. That average should win you some Big Ten football games.  But 18 carries by your I-backs won't.  Don't claim that the game got out of hand and Nebraska "had to throw" in the fourth quarter; while that's true, the stats were already completely out of whack before the game did.

Remember: this is a quarterback who not only was making his first start, he really was getting his first significant playing time.  He's going to make some mistakes, so help him out.

That happened in the first quarter:  a 65/35 run/pass ration, and Nebraska was in the game.

That changed in the second and third quarters: nine running plays called, and 29 pass plays.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sadly, Baxter Arena Gets More Attention than the #1 Ranked UNO Hockey Team That Plays There

Last Friday night, I attended UNO hockey's debut at the new Baxter Arena.  Afterwards, most of the buzz was about the new building.

I left more impressed with the product on the ice than the building that they play in.

There are a lot of things to like about the new building:  great sightlines and an environment optimized for a crowd of 7,000 fans.  You've got the modern amenities that an arena built today requires: suites for the people funding the building, press facilities to support television and radio, a high tech scoreboard and ribbon boards, and wireless internet access that worked really well (unlike the wifi at Memorial Stadium).  Nice touches, such as bench seating for the students (to squeeze a few more in and encourage them to stand and cheer) and UNO themed art in the concourses.  With the lower ceiling and the lack of sound baffling for concerts, it's louder than a similarly sized crowd at the CenturyLink Center.  Louder than most nights at the Civic as well, I might add.

But it's got it's issues.  There isn't enough parking (all full 45 minutes before faceoff) and the concourses are cramped (I missed the post-game celebration with the team since I couldn't get to the lobby in time). Leg room is lacking, and I spent more time letting people pass me in my aisle in one game than the last two seasons downtown. (That's a product of the cramped facilities in the concourses, as people end up having to miss the action.)

The parking situation might work itself out over time; I headed across the street and parked at Aksarben Village - and frankly, ended up closer to the arena than the far UNO lot. I didn't notice the environment before the game that much; I was in a rush to get to the game, but afterwards, I couldn't help but notice how cool it is to have bars and restaurants adjacent to the arena. It's similar to what I've noticed downtown at TD Ameritrade Park during the College World Series or Nebraska baseball games. (And reminds me of the opportunity missed to have minor league baseball downtown all summer long, but that's another story entirely.) Some people will start gravitating to the Village for the amenities and closer parking, which might solve this issue as people work into a routine.

But really, the new building almost seemed to be a distraction from the real story: UNO hockey looks pretty damn good and as deserving as any team at this point to be ranked #1 in the nation.  The biggest question going into this season was goaltending, and Kirk Thompson looked pretty darn solid Friday night. I missed Saturday night's game (a late scratch due to hyperactive kids), but by all accounds, true freshman Evan Weninger has been just as clutch.  UNO's top line combo of Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega is going to contend for national honors this season.  And freshman Steven Spinner delighted fans with a fantastic spin-move (pun intended) on a breakaway for UNO's final goal on Friday night.

UNO's 6-0 start is only the beginning of what could be a very special season for Maverick hockey. The November and December schedules are fairly light with home games, with the core of the home schedule coming after the holidays.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Nebraska's Fourth Quarter Struggles Continue in Northwestern Upset

Six hours later, I'm at a loss for words to really explain how Nebraska lost to Northwestern. More than one person has compared this to Iowa State's 19-10 upset of Nebraska in 1992. Both Tom Shatel and my old buddy AJ compared Northwestern's Clayton Thorson to Marv Seiler today, and that's saying something.
Granted, this Northwestern team is about 100 times better than that Iowa State squad, but even so, this game shouldn't have been this close.  And frankly, in that first half, except for one play, it wasn't that close. Just before halftime, I took this picture of the stats board on top of North Stadium:
And that's including a 68 yard run by Thorson...which means that Northwestern's offense was pretty much in neutral the whole first half. Yet Nebraska trailed because (a) Nebraska couldn't sustain any drive and (b) the defense gave up two big first half scrambles by Thorson.

Nebraska's offensive inconsistency started with playcalling:  nine rushes and 14 passes called. Last week, Mike Riley praised the 60/40 run/pass split as being optimal, but this week, Nebraska didn't even try to build off of what worked last week. Argue all you want about how Nebraska couldn't run the ball effectively, but don't forget the point that Nebraska never tried it in the first place.

Does Nebraska have issues on the offensive line? Clearly so.  Some want to point fingers at the previous staff, and they may have a point. But here's my question: what's this staff doing about it? With offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh's refusal to substitute, we don't really know that there aren't other bodies available on the offensive line who could help. We do know that he converted Givens Price from being a part-time starter last season to being a backup defensive tackle who doesn't play this season.

I'm not going to bury the defense much this week, though linebacker play was really shoddy late in the game when Northwestern took the lead. But I didn't expect Northwestern's offense to challenge Nebraska much, and they didn't most of the afternoon. Problem is, Nebraska's misplays on offense kept Northwestern not just in the game but actually in the lead, despite the clear lead on the stat sheets.  And when you let an inferior team hang around with you as long as Nebraska let Northwestern hang around, eventually something bad is going to happen.

And something bad did happen.  Can someone explain to me why Tommy Armstrong threw 48 passes today?  Can someone explain what Nebraska's kickoff strategy is with Jordan Stevenson? And when you've won the time of possession battle in the third quarter, how do you explain another fourth quarter meltdown?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Huskers Claim the Broken Chair With 48-25 Victory Over Minnesota

This week, Nebraska built up a big enough lead in the first three quarters that the Huskers couldn't blow it late. That's the glass half-full take on this game.

The fact that Nebraska tried to do just that is the glass half-empty take.

One difference between this game and the last two was the return of the intermediate passing game - and it started on Nebraska's second offensive play: an 11 yard completion to Jordan Westerkamp.  The third play was pretty good as well: a 69 yard Terrell Newby touchdown run.

That being said, Nebraska still shows a disturbing obsession for throwing the ball deep, and in this game, at inopportune times.  Take the fourth quarter: Minnesota has just scored to pull to within two scores at 38-22. Terrell Newby starts the drive with a 16 yard run, which is exactly what Nebraska needs to do in this situation. As the clock nears the eleven minute mark, Tommy Armstrong drops back to pass, and you can hear the collective groans across the state of Nebraska.  Which only get louder when the pass falls incomplete, because you know what is happening next.  A second down pass play. Also incomplete.  Which, of course, means a third down pass play.

Also incomplete.  Nebraska punts, and only runs a minute off the clock. And Minnesota promptly moves the ball downfield and scores. Week after week we see Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf fail miserably at clock management; it's simply something that Nebraska fans are going to have to get accustomed to. This coaching staff thinks nothing of throwing the ball on three straight plays, but running the ball three plays seems to be an anathema to them.  They only ran the ball three plays in a row twice in this game, and the string of consecutive running plays ended with points on the scoreboard. But throwing the ball up for grabs into double coverage? YOLO! De'Mornay Pierson-El somehow tipped the ball back to himself for a touchdown, but don't expect that to happen again.

On my CornNation report card last week, some thought I was too hard on the secondary, saying that the pass defense was better last week. Well, it wasn't better this week.  Minnesota's Mitch Leidner threw for 301 yards; he threw for 59 and 72 yards the last two weeks.

And that fourth quarter? Leidner racked up 132 yards through the air, continuing the pattern of fourth quarter defensive breakdowns.   So yeah, if Mitch Leidner can do it, anybody can. And will.  It's happened over and over and over again.

But it is a win, and Husker fans should celebrate every win. Maybe that's the lesson we need to take from this season. Another lesson that fans - and former players - need to take is to quick knocking the players for this supposed "lack of buy-in" or "needing a culture change."  The players don't need Jason Peter pouting about the previous staff and trying to throw players under the bus. Simply stop manufacturing ridiculous opinions about the mentality of this team. Maybe take the lead of Alex Lewis instead, who pumped up his teammates this week with a positive talk about how to play.

Yes, that's right. I said Alex Lewis.  Some Husker fans are upset with Lewis' actions off the field, but the rality is that he was simply reacting (and reacting badly) to the garbage being thrown his way. Wisely, he shut his Twitter account down and is learning to turn a deaf ear towards the numbnuts out there who have no probably with trash-talking a 300 pound offensive lineman.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day", Huskers Lose Again At The End

"Nebraska is just a few seconds shy of being 5-0 this season!"

"Nebraska is just one play away from winning each of their games this season!"

Those are the excuses I'm sure some people will point out to justify Nebraska's latest loss - but in the end, they are just that: excuses. Nebraska is 2-4 on the season, and it's not a fluke. Nebraska's not a really bad team - they just aren't a very good team. They don't run the ball well, and they simply cannot defend the pass.

Some people gave the defense a pass (pun intended) because sacrificing the pass to stop the run seemed like a good way to win the Big Ten West. Especially Wisconsin, right?

Except this is not a classic Wisconsin rushing team: prior to today, Wisconsin ranked 74th in rushing offense...and Nebraska still let the Badgers rush for 147 yards with their second string and fourth string backs. Taiwan Deal, perhaps their best back, left the game after just four carries with an injury.

So what happens? Wisconsin's Joel Stave throws for 322 yards.  Stop and reflect on that for a moment: 322 yards passing by Wisconsin.  322 yards passing.  It'll be one more week for Nebraska with the nation's worst pass defense, and that is why Nebraska keeps losing these games.

Stop the excuses about "forgetting how to win" or the conspiracy theories about this team being sabotaged. Nebraska is losing games because of their ineffective pass defense: it's why Nebraska lost to BYU. It's why Nebraska lost to Miami. It's why Nebraska lost to Illinois. And it's why Nebraska lost to Wisconsin.

And most importantly: it's not a talent issue. It's just fundamentally broken; corners are playing soft and safeties are playing to stop the run (and not nearly as effective as some Husker fans wanted to believe). Against Wisconsin, they were vulnerable time and time again to the comeback route. The defensive line (banged up as it was), didn't get much pressure against an equally banged up Wisconsin offensive line.

Nebraska's porous pass defense isn't helped at all by Nebraska's awful ground attack. If anybody has identified any rhyme or reason in how Nebraska runs the ball, I'd like to know. Frankly, it's almost like they don't want to do, but they feel they have to in Lincoln.  Last week, true freshman Devine Ozigbo looked like he might be the answer. Against Wisconsin, he got three carries.

Three.

Nebraska didn't even start an I-back in the game; it was Andy Janovich as the lone back on the first series. Terrell Newby played the most with 15 carries - but when it was crunch time, he was nowhere to be seen. On that key third and one late in the fourth quarter, it was Imani Cross in the game - but it was Janovich that got the ball.  Great call to use the fullback in that situation, mind you, but Janovich isn't a solution to Nebraska's rushing issues.  Especially when you rush up the middle three straight times when Nebraska was in position to salt the game away.

It's almost like last week's third and seven debacle scarred Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf to the point that they were afraid to do anything other than the most conservative play. Of course, with Wisconsin still having their three timeouts, Nebraska needed to do SOMETHING on the ground.

And they didn't.

And with that Nebraska is now 2-4.  Even worse, Nebraska has now lost seven of their last ten games. Not all of that is on Mike Riley, mind you.  But going back to last season, Mike Riley has lost seven of his last eight conference games; going back to 2013, Mike Riley has lost 14 of his last 16 conference games.

You read that right: Oregon State lost their last five conference games in 2013 and went 2-7 in the Pac-12 in 2014. Riley is right when he points out that he's never lost games like this; at Oregon State, his teams would have lost the game long before the final 15 seconds.

2-14 in conference games dating back to October 26, 2013. I know some fans like Riley's demeanor, and are very hopeful that he's the guy to take Nebraska to the next level.

2-14. Hope all you want - but the record makes it pretty clear where this is heading.

Friday, October 09, 2015

A Preview Look at UNO Hockey's New Baxter Arena

As a UNO alum (class of 1988), I got the chance tonight to take a look at UNO's new Baxter Arena for my very own eyes. I've long been a critic of the facility for several reasons: primarily, it's been built smaller than many UNO hockey crowds, plus the Omaha area really doesn't need four arenas.  (Especially when you consider the financial difficulties being faced by the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs and the Ralston Arena.)

But UNO built it anyway - and to be sure, there were good reasons why.  It's nice for UNO to not get bumped for other events (except, of course, the Aksarben Coronation this year) and it's closer to campus than the CenturyLink Center. (Please don't call it "on campus" when it's nearly a mile away from the Pacific Street campus and about three miles from the main campus.)

Probably the biggest reason UNO needed to build SOMETHING was the lack of practice ice. For the first 18 years of UNO hockey, the Mavs have bounced from rink to rink in search of a place to practice when the home rink wasn't available. A practice facility has been talked about for over ten years, but nothing was ever done - mostly because of the desire for the holy grail of a practice rink adjacent to the arena. And that UNO has done; literally, the "community ice" rink is across the hall from the arena.  The only thing separating the two is the Zamboni garage, which means that UNO will now keep all their stuff full time at the arena.  When basketball or a concert makes the arena unavailable, they just walk over to the other rink.

For fans, the arena reminds me of a larger Ralston Arena, with mostly open concourses and simply designed fan amenities. It's not nearly as grand as the CenturyLink Center - but it doesn't need to be either. Take the suites, which are relatively spartan compared to the suites downtown at the Clink or TD Ameritrade Park.
For most UNO hockey fans, that doesn't really matter because it's all about the game at UNO hockey games, and sightlines are pretty good wherever you go. I saw a  picture in the World-Herald that made it appear that there were blind spots, but that was a false alarm. I checked my seats in the upper deck and was pleased to see that I could see the dasherboards over the railing.  So the views should be excellent, and yes, a little closer than at the CenturyLink Center.
The seating, on the other hand, might be a bit of a concern. They look like they should be really comfortable, but I quickly discovered that they have much less of a recline than the seats downtown.  Is that a problem? Actually no. For sporting events, you don't want particularly comfortable seats; you want fans jumping up and being active. That's why it's great that UNO used my idea of using benches for the student section. I have no problem with the seating for hockey games.  If I attend a concert there, that might be a different matter entirely.
The pitch of the upper deck is somewhere between the CenturyLink Center and the old Civic, which was really vertical. Overall, it makes the building wider than the old Civic - but maybe not as tall.

Tonight was an open house and chance for skaters to try out the ice, and the rest of my family had a blast. I don't skate, so that left me free to wander the building. (On our backyard rink in the wintertime, I'm limited to being the human Zamboni.)  But for the most part, real impressions will have to wait two weeks for the opening game. There's no way to really gauge what the place will feel like during a game.  They did blow the train horn a few times, but it didn't sound any louder than it did at the CenturyLink Center.
One thing that was great during the open house was UNO's first honest hockey pep band. In the past, UNO has occasionally sent a jazz band with guitars and clarinets - which wasn't very good. A good college pep band does wonders for the ambiance, and this has been a sorely lacking feature at UNO games. I'd love to see them back in two weeks.

Bottom line to me is that whether I like it or not, this is going to be UNO's new home for hockey and despite being undersized for the Omaha area, it's what UNO has and where UNO is going to play. There are no opportunities to expand this building without major renovations; I did see a few spots where a seat or two could be added, but this building is going to be forever capped at under 8,000 fans.  For some UNO fans, that's more than enough, but for people like me that have dreamed of UNO being something even bigger, well, that dream is over. What UNO has is what UNO will have.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mike Riley's Incompetence Leads to Nebraska's 14-13 Loss to Illinois

Unbelievable.

Mike Riley is 62 years old; he's been a college head coach for 15 years. Coached three years in the NFL. He oozes experience.

But all of that experience means nothing when you don't have any common sense...and now, everybody who watched Nebraska somehow manage to lose 14-13 to Illinois knows it too.

It was clear from the opening possession that it was going to be a tough day to throw the ball; the winds were whipping around Champaign, and it was swirling.  How so?  Look at these flags.
Or just look watch the game. Neither quarterback was having much success through the air, and Tommy Armstrong was really struggling. He started 2 for 9, and finished 10 for 30. Some of his passes were pure "YOLO" deep shots that had almost zero chance (save for Cethan Carter's single 55 yarder) to be caught.

Yet Nebraska kept throwing the ball. Nebraska was averaging 9.3 yards a rush early, but it was still a 65-35 pass-run mix.  Every Husker fan knew it was the wrong thing to do, but Riley and Danny Langsdorf kept dialing up passes.

Fortunately, Nebraska had the lead most of the day, and finally in the closing three minutes, Langsdorf and Riley finally realized that the Big Red could run out the clock on the ground...until Nebraska found themselves with a 3rd and 7 at the Illinois 28 yard line.  Illinois has no time outs left, and Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass. Riley tried to throw Armstrong under the bus after the game by saying that Armstrong was supposed to run the ball on that play, but I find that hard to believe that somehow that Armstrong ad-libbed it to a pass in that situation.

Incomplete...and the clock stops with 50 seconds left. Run the ball, and Nebraska snaps the ball on 4th down with under 20 seconds left in the game.  At best, Illinois will get the ball with 10 seconds left.  So Nebraska punts, right, to pin them at the goal line, right?  Nope.  They go for it, and throw yet another incomplete pass. (Who didn't see that coming.)

Illinois takes over, and Nebraska's awful secondary takes the field.  And you know what happened.

So what happens next?  Good question.  I never was a big fan of the Mike Riley hire in the first place, so I'm jaded here.  My suspicions that hiring Mike Riley at Nebraska was a huge mistake are being confirmed.  The evidence is pretty convincing - and damning.

But here's the problem:  Nebraska simply can't fire Mike Riley.  Not now, not after just five games.  That would be the quickest ziggy in the history of college football - and worse, who would take over? There are no free agent head coaches out there, and you certainly don't want Mark Banker or Danny Langsdorf taking over on an interim basis.

And no, before you even begin to say it:  Tom Osborne can't come back on an interim basis as head coach.

But that does point out the bigger issue at Nebraska:  Shawn Eichorst.  You simply cannot allow Eichorst to hire another head football coach after he messed this hire up that badly.  Just like you couldn't let Steve Pederson hire another coach, you can't let Eichorst hire another coach.

Does that mean Osborne has to return as interim athletic director?  Yes.  Put Osborne back in charge, and prepare for the inevitable.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Putting Nebraska's Rush Defense into Perspective

Many Husker fans have dismissed concerns about the Blackshirts by pointing out that the Huskers rank seventh in rush defense - and that in the Big Ten's West division, the Huskers won't face as strong of passers.  Which is true...but there's another perspective to keep in mind: Nebraska hasn't faced a very strong rushing attack this season either.

Specifically:

  • #61 Miami, 184.3 yards per game. 
  • #85 Southern Miss, 158.0 yards per game.
  • #107 South Alabama, 132.3 yards per game.
  • #119 BYU, 103.8 yards per game.

Now, with just four games, the impact of one game is rather large, but it does point out that none of Nebraska's opponents have particularly strong ground games. Miami's is the best, but the 'Canes rushed for 132 yards against the Big Red.

It is true that many of Nebraska's upcoming opponents aren't particularly strong in the passing game, but they are stronger than most Husker fans probably think.

  • #43 Purdue, 257.3 yards per game.
  • #57 Iowa, 243.0 yards per game.
  • #58 Illinois, 242.8 yards per game.
  • #72 Rutgers, 226.0 yards per game.
  • #76 Wisconsin, 219.8 yards per game.
  • #78 Minnesota, 219.5 yards per game.
  • #84 Michigan State, 209.5 yards per game.
  • #119 Northwestern, 145.8 yards per game.

Does the idea of facing six offenses that pass the ball more than Connor Cook and Michigan State make you more comfortable about that Big Ten schedule?

Me neither.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Huskers Ugly - But Not As Ugly as Southern Miss

I woke up about 3 am after a nightmare where Nebraska somehow lost to Southern Miss today. Fortunately, I realized it was just a dream, and was able to get back to sleep.

For much of this afternoon, that nightmare kept recurring to me. The game started fine, as Nebraska marched down the field on their opening possession and scored. It helped that Southern Miss decided not to challenge the secondary most of the first half. But Nebraska's sharp start couldn't be sustained, and the Huskers settled for five first half field goals.

I knew Southern Miss had the receivers to dominate the Nebraska secondary, so that halftime lead was extremely uneasy to me. And as the second half went on, I got more and more uneasy.

I'm going to have to chew on this one s bit, but there are several areas of extreme concern to me as I return from the game:

First, Nebraska still doesn't have a true #1 I-back. Terrell Newby is a nice scatback, but he's not an ever down back. Imani Cross is a short yardage back, not a game breaker. Mikale Wilbon actually looked like the best back against BYU, but hasn't seen the field in a meaningful situation since. WHY? Clearly, the coaches see something that we don't...but the evidence that Newby and Cross aren't the answer is pretty decisive.

The secondary played better at times today, but soft coverage continues to be a known failure point. That might not hurt much against Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Wes Lunt certainly can exploit it next week.

For a team with a dedicated special teams coordinator, Nebraska sure seems ill-prepared to defend the onside kick.

12 penalties once again means that this issue isn't going away soon. Yes, a couple were questionable, but it's still alarming.

How any more groin injuries this week? This is starting to become a real trend...is it systemic?

Please stop crediting this staff with "improved tackling." Because tackling is not improved by any means.

Frankly, that applies to just about everything with this staff. Other than the play of Tommy Armstrong and our linebackers, it's difficult to point to any thing that's improved at this point. It's way too soon to declare anything as a failure at this point, but the signs on progress aren't clear at all.

It's easy to overreact after a game like this, but remember it's just one game. After a bad game. Hopefully things turn around soon, because things don't look terribly encouraging right now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Two Dumbest Things I've Heard from Nebraska Fans (and Media!) This Week

For the first time since 1981, Nebraska has started the football season with a 1-2 record.  It's not a surprise to me; I predicted a 1-2 start (and a 7-5) to this Husker season.  I won't claim that I predicted how Nebraska would lose those two games, though. I highly doubt anybody did; in fact, I get the feeling that most people didn't even see those two losses coming, and that's caused people to react strongly.  (And they should: nobody should like a 1-2 start.)  But those strong reactions have led to two "HOT TAKES" that, quite frankly, are simply ridiculous.

The first is from Bo Pelini supporters that a 1-2 start is simply unacceptable and proof that Mike Riley is merely a "likeable loser" as a head coach - and in over his head at Nebraska. Truth be told, I tend to agree that Mike Riley isn't the right guy and isn't an improvement over Pelini, but there's one little problem with that assertion.

Three games isn't anywhere near enough to judge Mike Riley. It's THREE GAMES in - and each of those two losses came on the LAST PLAY OF THE GAME. Both were games that Nebraska could have won - but didn't. That's bad on Riley, but really, you have to give Riley more of a chance than this.

The second is the far more common statement, but it's equally ridiculous:  "A Bo Pelini team would have simply folded and lost by perhaps 50 on Saturday."
I take that back, the more I think about it, it's actually the more ridiculous and inane hot take. The Pelini supporters are simply taking advantage of their first opportunity to take their shots. It's simply too soon to make that statement, but they might still be proven right.

The "Bo-leavers" really only have two games to stand on:  the 2013 UCLA game and the 2014 Wisconsin game.  Yep, those games got away from Nebraska, and they folded.  But the counter-evidence to that "Pelini teams would fold" claim is far stronger.

2011 Ohio State.  It's the game that brought us "How about?!?  Stan-Ley!" and the first Pelini hot recording.
But that's not the only comeback. In 2012, Nebraska fell behind Michigan State 24-14 at the start of the fourth quarter...but didn't fold. They rallied to win 28-24. In 2013, Nebraska fell behind Northwestern 21-7 and rallied to win 27-24.

Last season, it happened twice. Nebraska fell behind Michigan State 27-3, but came roaring back in the fourth quarter to pull within 27-22 late. A late desperation heave into the end zone was dropped by Alonzo Moore, and the comeback came up short...but the Huskers did come back. Arguably, if Nebraska hadn't gone for two point conversions on those fourth quarter touchdowns, they could have simply tried to get within field goal range on that final drive...and very well could have sent the game to overtime.

And against Iowa, Nebraska trailed Iowa 24-14 before roaring back in the fourth quarter to take the lead. In the Holiday Bowl (sans Pelini), Nebraska trailed 45-27 in the third quarter, but made it a game in the fourth quarter.

Oh, there are others. Like that miserable 2009 Suh game at Missouri. Nebraska trailed Missouri 12-0 after the third quarter, but somehow erupted for 27 points to win going away. In 2008, Nebraska trailed seventh ranked Texas Tech 24-10 in the fourth quarter, but stormed back to somehow force overtime.

So yeah, we've seen Nebraska come storming back from double digit deficits before. In fact, the common theme from many of Nebraska's beat writers for both the World-Herald and Journal-Star was "here we go again" with another frantic comeback.

So no, it's not assured that a Pelini team would have folded up. In fact, the evidence strongly indicates that a Pelini team more than likely would NOT fold under the pressure.

Bottom line: it's a ridiculous, stupid claim.

Mike Riley isn't going anywhere after this season. He doesn't even need to show progress from last season. Make it to a bowl game in 2015, and he's back - no questions asked - in 2016.  There's no need to puff up Riley with false charges against Pelini. Eventually, Riley's record - and record alone -will determine his fate.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Huskers Improbable Comeback Falls Short as Miami Hurricanes Avoid Tropical Depression

I've been the guy who's been negative on the prospects of Nebraska football in 2015. Some saw nine or ten victories; I even saw a guy who thought NU could win 11.  And then I've been the stick in the mud that called for seven wins.

Overly negative, some say.  Mike Riley hater, said others.

They may have a point.  But at least acknowledge that I have a point as well.

Did Miami have more talent on the field? Yes.  But blaming this loss on "talent" misses the point that Miami outplayed, outexecuted and - yes - outcoached the Huskers for the first fifty minutes. Nebraska beat Miami by ten points in Lincoln last season because Nebraska outplayed, outexecuted and outcoached the Hurricanes.  But that was a team with Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Randy Gregory, right?  Well, yes.  But that Miami team lost seven guys to the NFL draft; five in the first three rounds.

So talent doesn't explain Nebraska trailing Miami 33-10 in the fourth quarter.  The explanation is quite easy: dropped passes, poor pass defense and poor play calling on offense.  But then something really weird happened - much like at Michigan State last season, heart took over.  And improbably, Nebraska somehow found a way to tie the effin' ball game up.

It's clear that Tommy Armstrong has benefited tremendously from the coaching of Danny Langsdorf, even if his completion percentage was well short of 50%. The problem is that while Langsdorf has improved Armstrong's play, Langsdorf's play calling really hurts Armstrong at time. It starts with a lack of commitment to running the ball.  18 carries for Nebraska's I-backs?  That's not good.  How many third and short plays became passing downs, where Nebraska failed to convert?

Want to call the defense Cosgrovian? You might have a point with all of the missed tackles, telegraphed blitzes and wide-open receivers in the secondary.  People have forgiven Mark Banker the first two games because BYU and South Alabama's running backs weren't terribly effective. Queue Joseph Yearby, who showed what Big Ten backs are going to be able to do to Nebraska later this season.  No, Mark Banker is not an upgrade over the previous staff.

But what we still have to work with is the heart of the team.  Somehow this team found a way to come back, even without a kick return by De'Mornay Pierson-El.  Folks, this team has a lot of character, and it showed late in the game. You can be forgiven if you gave up on the team; they looked dead to rights almost all evening.  Tommy Armstrong didn't give up, and he gets player of the game honors for it. Some will criticize the last interception as a bad decision; that's fair.  But if not for Armstrong, Nebraska loses by 50 and the mood is very much different.

I predicted a 1-2 start, but I'd be lying if I told you I expected that this is how Nebraska would lose those two games.  This is not a great Nebraska football team by any means, and they still could very well finish 7-5. Or worse; Northwestern looks like they might be pretty good.  This defense looks bad, and the offense needs to find something other than Armstrong going full Taylor Martinez ridiculous to get points on the board. But all is not bad, and frankly, it's not a team you ever want to give up again...because just when you do, somehow they pull a rabbit out of their hat.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Nebraska Out-Talents South Alabama...But Leaves An Uneasy Feeling

I'm not sure I remember a Nebraska football game that the Huskers won so handily that left me so concerned afterwards. Maybe that 2002 game against McNeese State perhaps?  A 48-9 victory shouldn't leave you feeling that way, but that's my take. Much of that goes to the opponent, who really isn't that good. Five returning starters (though they did pick up a few exiles from UAB) on a team that struggled last week to defeat Gardner-Webb 33-23 last week.  (Gardner-Webb went 4-8 last season and defeated Elon tonight in triple overtime.)

It's not like there weren't good things to see, such as the Huskers rush defense stifling South Alabama's running backs.  Xavier Johnson was apparently suspended for the first quarter, but still ended up being the Jaguars' leading rusher with 28 yards on seven carries.  And that's with three starters (Jack Gangwish, Dedrick Young and Josh Banderas) in the front seven sidelined with injury. Truth be told, though, I'm not so sure they were missed that much, thanks to the return of Nebraska's best linebacker: Michael Rose-Ivey.  You could tell early on that he was motivated to make up for being suspended last week.  The other linebackers seemed to play well as well: Chris Weber did fine in the middle in his first real playing time, and Luke Gifford played better as well.  Freedom Akinmoladun gave us two big splash plays in relief of Gangwish at defensive end.

Terrell Newby put up some impressive numbers (198 yards on 28 carries), but I suspect that had more to do with the opponent than Newby.  After Gardner-Webb rushed for 177 yards last week, I expected Nebraska to rush for 400 yards on the day, and that didn't happen. Much of that has to do with the play calling: Nebraska threw the ball 38 times and only rushed the ball 37 times. Tommy Armstrong was efficient throwing the ball, completing 21 of 30 passes, but this points to a philosophical difference I have with the Riley plan. Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf simply feel more comfortable throwing the ball than running the ball, and that's something that I think will bite this team as we go into the Big Ten season.

Or maybe next weekend when the Huskers travel to steamy Miami.  The 'Canes looked rather feeble in the first half Friday night against Florida Atlantic, but rolled in the second half. Last weekend, Nebraska didn't handle the heat and humidity well at all, and the heat index is forecast to hit 100 next Saturday.  Miami's Joseph Yearby looks to be the toughest runner Nebraska has seen this season by far, while Brad Kaaya certainly looked impressive last season against the Huskers last season in Lincoln.

Which brings me to my biggest point of concern: the decline of the Nebraska secondary.  Going into this season, I thought the secondary would be Nebraska's strength on defense, but it actually looks like it's now the weakness. I don't believe it's a talent issue either; I believe it's a schematic and philosophical issue.  Nebraska's defensive backs seem to be playing softer, and frankly, not very well. Daniel Davie could find himself riding the bench next week in place of Jonathan Rose or Chris Jones.  Way too often against South Alabama, the Husker defensive backs got beaten on a deep throw.  They aren't getting much help from the defensive line either, who aren't generating much of a pass rush this season either.  It's way too much pitch and catch.

It's also week two.  Way too early to even begin consider looking for a panic button.  But like I said, it leaves me an uneasy feeling heading to South Beach next weekend.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Huskers Get All 'Riled Up In the Second Half...But Allow BYU to Snatch Victory on Hail Mary

Under new head coach Mike Riley, the Huskers played three decent quarters of football against BYU.  In the middle was a horrific second quarter where Nebraska couldn't block, pass or tackle - and didn't try to run the ball. BYU's run defense was stout last season; the Cougars only gave up six rushes of 20 yards or more in 2014. So it made sense for Nebraska to throw the ball against BYU - but not as much as Riley and Danny Langsdorf were choosing to. At halftime, Alonzo Moore was the leading rusher with 24 yards on two jet sweeps.  Mikale Wilbon had 16 yards on four carries, Terrell Newby 3 carries and Imani Cross one carry.  Only three of those carries came in the second quarter.

Tommy Armstrong threw 15 passes in that second quarter.  Only three were completed. I suspect that Tommy Armstrong's hot start (10 for 12 in the first quarter) misled the new Husker coaches into going out of balance.  Or is this a case where the new coaches don't really understand their players?  Case in point: Mikale Wilbon.  Wilbon was the most impressive I-back in the first half, but only touched the ball four times in the second half.  Yes, the offense was better in the second half, but still, it was a curious decision based on what we saw.

Defensively, frankly, there was a lot not to like. We know that Nebraska struggled with stopping the run under the previous regime, but against BYU, there wasn't much stopping of anything. Receivers running free, non-existent pass rush and linebackers, well, frankly lost at times if they weren't blitzing. And that final Hail Mary play?  Four defensive backs line up deep in the end zone...and let the game winning touchdown get caught in front of them.  Nate Gerry did make an attempt to knock the ball down, but nobody else made any attempt to stop Mitch Matthews.

Lucky play? To some degree.  Poorly defended?  Absolutely.  This is an extreme example, of course...but it wasn't the only time the secondary was out of position.

There are more concerns; let's start with conditioning.  We've heard lots of raves about new strength and conditioning coach Mark Philipp. How many times did Nebraska players have to leave the game with cramps?  Yes, it was a hot day, but you didn't see many BYU players camping up.  And if you think today was hot and humid, there's an afternoon game in steamy Miami in two weeks. (AccuWeather predicts a heat index of 98 on September 19.)

The Huskers were flagged 12 times for 90 yards. That's sloppy at best, but perhaps to be expected when changing coaching staffs.  Except there's this little detail about Oregon State being one of the worst teams in college football the last two years:  87th in penalties in 2013, 122nd in 2014.

I don't want to read too much into one game...especially one game against a pretty good opponent. But this first game confirms many of my concerns going into this season. They say that a team improves the most between the first and second game; Nebraska has a lot to improve on over the next week.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Not Riled Up About Nebraska Football in 2015

Tonight, the college football season kicks off the 2015 season, and on Saturday, Nebraska faces BYU in the season opener.  Exciting, yes?

Of course.  College football is a good thing.  But I have something to confess:  I'm not all that excited about Nebraska football this season.

Curious, most definitely.  But excited? It depends on how you define "excited":  if it's just the pageantry and the action, then yes, I'm still excited.  But in terms of chasing championships and winning football, then no.  No, I'm not.

I know I'm in the minority here; I think Nebraska took a wrong turn last December. It wasn't so much the decision to fire Bo Pelini, though I freely admit that I thought he should stay.  It's more that I'm not sure that Mike Riley is the guy who can take Nebraska any further.  And it's pointless to argue why at this point:  Riley is the coach, and is going to be the coach for the next 3-4 years at least, as long as he keeps Nebraska going to bowl games.  And even longer than that, if he proves me wrong and brings home some hardware.

This is more about 2015, and what we'll see on the field.  And from my vantage point, I see a team full of questions.  How will Tommy Armstrong adapt to a new philosophy?  How will Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf adapt to players with a different skill set?  I don't forsee Riley and Langsdorf adopting a Bill Callahan square peg/round hole philosophy, but can Nebraska find offensive success somewhere in the middle?

Even without the change in scheme, how does Nebraska improve offensively without Ameer Abdullah and several members of the offensive line?  Terrell Newby has had spot opportunities to play in the past, but squandered them as a freshman by failing to hang onto the ball.  Now he appears to be the man, but only by default.  De'Mornay Pierson-El could have been that difference maker on offense, but his broken foot still has weeks to heal.

Defensively, you hear good things about how Trent Bray has solidified the linebacking corps in practice, but now it's game week.  And the reality is that Nebraska might be starting two linebackers on Saturday that have never played linebacker in a college game.  But for all the good things you hear about the linebackers, you hear concerns about the secondary.

The schedule is tricky, in my opinion.  There are no games that Nebraska can't win, but there are a bunch of games that the Huskers will need to play really well in.  BYU is not your typical season opener; they embarrassed Texas last year and could have made some noise if it weren't for Taysom Hill's injury.  They say he's 100%, and if that's the case, he's going to be tough to defend...especially when breaking in a new scheme defensively.  BYU stops the run really well, and that would seem to be Nebraska's bread and butter going into the season.

Miami isn't exactly a cakewalk either.  I'm very concerned about our conditioning; the game is in the afternoon in South Florida, and Riley elected to hold practices in the evenings to avoid Nebraska's August heat.  And we also know that Wisconsin and Minnesota are very loseable games...with Michigan State coming to Lincoln in November.

So yes, I'm predicting a 7-5 season...and frankly, no Husker fan would be excited if that happens.  That being said, there are a bunch of reasons that make 7-5 more of a worst case scenario. Maybe Riley is that gem that was only held back by being in Corvallis most of his career. (Didn't stop Dennis Erickson from winning big at Oregon State, but I digress.)  10-2 or 11-1 is entirely possible.

I don't see a large amount of downside below 7-5 though. Iowa seems to have too many problems, while Northwestern is still figuring out what they are going to do.  Illinois just wants to survive 2015.  Frankly, the only other school that I see that could upset Nebraska is Purdue.  Yes, Purdue.  Not likely at all, mind you...but I think Purdue has a better chance (in West Lafayette) than Iowa and Northwestern have at winning in Lincoln this season.

So no, this is not a Bill Callahan train wreck that's coming.  It's just that I see that "four loss" string coming to an end, and in a negative fashion.  The good news is that if I'm wrong, we'll know about it really, really soon.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Revolving Door of Husker PA Announcers Reflects Badly on Nebraska

The story of Patrick Combs, the former Nebraska football public address announcer, was weird enough.  That quickly led to a search for a new announcer to serve at Memorial Stadium this fall.  (CN's Pat Janssen tried out for the job, but Nebraska was looking for someone local, who wouldn't have any travel issues to complicate the game day planning.)  Monday, it was announced that Jon Schuetz, the former sports anchor at KETV-Channel 7 in Omaha, would take over.  Seemed like a good choice, and it got quite a bit of publicity.

He lasted one day.

One day?  One Day.

Seems that someone found an old Facebook post by Schuetz criticizing Harvey Perlman; it was nine months old, posted in the aftermath of the Bo Pelini dismissal.

EXCLUSIVE: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and 1620 the Zone have come upon the alleged Facebook post that Jon Schuetz put out...
Posted by Unsportsmanlike Conduct on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

And the administration in Lincoln decided that couldn't be tolerated. Schuetz apologized and removed the post, but it was too late.  Schuetz was out, and the University scrambled.  For this season, Lane Grindle of the Husker Sports Network will move up to the press box from the sidelines to handle the PA.  It makes sense that NU would stay in-house on such short notice. No fear of having another Schuetz situation developing there, though it does complicate the radio broadcast setup for the IMG Network.  (I originally feared that NU would tap Jim Rose, who's now with the athletic department as a fund-raiser.)

The whole situation is awfully silly, with the University looking foolish on multiple fronts:
First, not vetting Schuetz's Facebook page in the first place. Schuetz's post was public, so it was easy to find. And it was found, after they announced he was hired. Do this in the first place, before the announcement, and NU moves on to the next candidate.
Second, having a thin skin.  What Schuetz said was nothing different than many Husker fans have said at one time or another.  I dare say "most".  Schuetz also said it long before pursuing the job, when he was a private citizen and not associated with the University.  It's not insubordinate.  Furthermore, Harvey Perlman has already announced his retirement.  (Jim Tressel is not replacing him, though.)

Here's the thing: if Schuetz quietly takes down the Facebook post but remains as PA announcer, this doesn't get near the attention that firing a guy after a day does. Maybe someone sends it out afterwards, but then, it's on Schuetz, who could then issue a quick apology and it would be over and done with.

Instead, it becomes a national story and another circus. Which it didn't need to be.

On Monday, Mike Riley talked about being at the center of attention in the state of Nebraska. In Riley's situation, it's all positive at this point.  (He undefeated in Lincoln, after all...)

But this points out the flip side of the situation...when stories about PA announcers get this much attention, well, it points out the down side of the intense focus on anything associated with Nebraska football.  And when Bo Pelini says "that's what wrong with that place," you have to acknowledge that he has a point.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Arenas and Stadiums Don't Meet Expectations

I've been one of "those guys" who is typically skeptical about the need for building new arenas and stadiums in this area.  The CenturyLink Center?  Great decision, at least with the arena, which has hosted events that Omaha would never otherwise be able to host:  NCAA tournaments, Olympic swimming trials and big-name concerts.  (The convention center is another matter entirely, and the part that drags down the profitability.)  TD Ameritrade Park? Good decision, when you combine the NCAA's willingness to sign on for an unprecedented 25 year contract for the College World Series with what the Henry Doorly Zoo is able to do with the additional space.

Bad decisions? Look no further than the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, which has been reduced to a role as a staging site for concert tours looking for empty arenas that they can use for a few weeks to practice in.  Werner Park, affectionately known as the "Trailer Park" on the outskirts of the metro area, which still has failed to produce any of the commercial development that county officials were promised - yet still racks up ever increasing bills for mistakes made during the planning stage, such as lack of parking and a lemon of a scoreboard.  Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the city is trying to strong-arm the NU athletic department into allowing beer sales during Nebraska basketball games to balance the books.

And now add Ralston Arena to the "bad decision" column.  Hemorrhaging cash ever since it opened, the city is now facing the need to hike property taxes 34% to balance the city's budget, in order to cover the revenue shortfall from the arena.  Mistake?  Hard to argue that it's not.

Of course, all of these venues were built with glowing positive expectations...but now reality has set in for Council Bluffs, Sarpy County and now Ralston.  Next up:  UNO with their new Baxter Arena.  One of the driving factors behind the decision was that it costs "too much" for UNO to play hockey games at the CenturyLink Center.  I submit that it's cheaper to rent an arena for 21 nights a year than to own and maintain an arena 365 days a year.

Who's right?  We'll see.  UNO certainly employed many experts who analyzed the proposal and justified it economically.  But here's the kicker: so did Council Bluffs, Sarpy County and Ralston.

Bottom line to me is that you don't build stadiums and arenas to make money, you build them because it makes your community better.  That happened with the CenturyLink Center.  When you consider the NCAA's commitment to the city and zoo expansion, that happened with TD Ameritrade Park.  The rest?  Not so much.  (No, I don't buy the argument that the Omaha Royals would have left the area entirely - not when Walter Scott and Warren Buffett still owned 50% of the team.)

Are there some good reasons for UNO to build an arena? Yes.  Getting games closer to campus is a good thing.  Having practice ice adjacent to the arena is hugely important.  Not having to schedule UNO hockey games around other events is a good thing as well.  All are good.  But will UNO be financially better off with this arena?  They say absolutely, but past history suggests that "they" are dead wrong.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Can Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain Reverse the Attendance Slide at the Trailer Park?

After plateauing in 2012 as the "new ballpark smell" wore off at former Omaha Royals' new ballpark out in Sarpy County, attendance began to drop the last two seasons. Not a huge surprise; any new venue always sees a spike in attendance as people rush to see the new facility. The trick is to capitalize on it while you can and expand your customer base.  As I asked in 2010:


I fully expect Royals attendance to increase in 2011, but that's not the question.  It's where Royals attendance will be in 2015, once the "new ballpark smell" has worn off.

Well, we kind of know the answer now.  Average attendance prior to this homestand was 5,335 fans a night.  That's below the 2008 average of 5,375 a night. That's two years before the "final season at Rosenblatt" and the ensuing interest in "one last season of nostalgia" mind you.  Prior to building the new park, Royals attendance was increasing every year...now it's going in the opposite direction.

Or at least it was until it was announced that the Kansas City Royals were assigning former Nebraska baseball legends Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain to Omaha. It never hurts ticket sales around Omaha when you can offer a chance to see a couple of former Husker legends, so I'd be shocked if the final average attendance doesn't top the 2009 average when the season is over. But let's put the credit where it's due: Husker Power.

Mind you, I doubt that the ownership of the Omaha Storm Chasers is all that concerned about it. They've got a sweetheart deal in Sarpy County with the ability to charge more for tickets and parking, so even if attendance is down, the revenue is up.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Does Nebraska Have Much Depth at Tight End?

One of the more interesting positions to watch at Nebraska on offense this fall will be the tight end. There isn't any debate over the fact that tight ends haven't been involved much in Nebraska's passing game the last two season.  The argument is why:  what was the cause and what was the effect?

The common wisdom is that Tim Beck didn't want to use tight ends in the passing game, and that this was the cause.  I argue that was the effect of the situation, not the cause.  It's not a popular opinion, as the CornNation.com comment section shows.  The primary evidence was Ty Peteranetz's 2013 interview with Beck:
CN: Would you say tight ends and fullbacks are becoming obsolete in college football?
TB: Absolutely.  The game's become more athletic.  It's almost basketball on grass.  I think when you- back in the day- if when you think of it, all the way around: concussions.  There are fewer practices. The NFL only has so many days in full pads. It's almost like, "No hitting with the head, no this, no that", no late hit, throw the guy out, protecting the players.
All these things that are developing, don't get me wrong, they're good things, but it shows the game is making a change to becoming less physical.  They're trying to get it to be less physical by the rules and the regulations, again, for safety because guys are bigger, stronger, faster.
So it's turned in to more basketball on grass, and as schematics, if you have four legitimate wide receivers lined up, you have to cover ‘em, so you wanna have no help?  Play what we call Cover Zero and there's nobody helping?
Note that the question was whether tight ends were "becoming obsolete" - not that they "are obsolete". Why is this important?  Well, let's first observe that Beck was talking about college football in general, not his preference.  Let's also point out something that CornNation's Jon Johnston observed:  Nebraska had 11 tight ends on the roster last season.  Which raises the question:  If Tim Beck really believed that tight ends weren't useful, why did he have eleven of them on the roster?

If your answer is that Beck is an idiot, let me remind you that Beck was hired by Urban Meyer as Ohio State's co-offensive coordinator.  So try again.

So why didn't Beck throw the ball at tight ends the last two years?  My answer is very simple after watching Nebraska's tight ends the last few years:  the tight ends on Nebraska's rosters are better blockers than pass catchers.  It's something I've mentioned a few times in my weekly post-game report cards, but apparently now it's controversial:

Bigger still would have been getting production out of the tight ends; I didn't expect that we'd miss Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed as much as we have. - UCLA 2013 Report Card

Freshman tight end Cethan Carter finally got untracked with a couple of nice catches. - South Dakota State 2013 Report Card
Last season, Carter was hurt much of the season, which also played into his lack of involvement in the passing game. Even so, I've watched him drop way too many catchable balls during his time in Lincoln, especially in 2013. So it's crystal clear to me:  Beck tried to get the ball to Nebraska's tight ends, but over time, targeted other, more reliable receivers.  Why?  Because completed passes are better than incomplete passes.  The lack of passes to tight ends was a natural result of the ability of the tight ends, not a conspiracy, as some allege.

Still don't buy my argument?  OK, let's look at 2012's statistics for tight ends:

  • Kyler Reed: 24 catches, 357 yards
  • Ben Cotton: 18 catches, 239 yards
  • Jake Long: 6 catches, 55 yards

That's 48 catches by tight ends.  In a Tim Beck offense.  For comparison purposes, Mike Riley's tight ends at Oregon State caught 55 passes last season.  Pretty comparable in my book.  But then Reed and Cotton graduated, and Long was injured quite a bit in 2013.  And while Nebraska had a good quantity of tight ends on the roster (and still does), they weren't terribly useful in the passing game.  The sudden dropoff in tight end production has a very simple explanation: talent.  And it's something that people aren't considering in their rush to blow raspberries at the previous staff.

It'll be interesting to see how Mike Riley uses Nebraska's tight ends this season.  I stand by my statement in the spring game report card at CornNation.
But Mike Riley is going to learn what Tim Beck already figured out: while you can make a quarterback throw the ball to a tight end, you can't make him catch the ball. FWIW, Sam Cotton did have a nice catch. But this fall, it looks like it'll be up to Matt Snyder if a tight end is going to contribute in the passing game.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Few Thoughts about Jordan Stevenson and Nebraska's I-Back Situation

When word leaked out on Friday that Jordan Stevenson wasn't able to enroll at Wisconsin, I had a feeling that Nebraska was going to try to pounce on an opportunity to sign a touted running back prospect. For one thing, it appears that attrition has brought Nebraska under 85 scholarship players, so there is room for him.  The bigger issue is this:  I'm not sold on any of Nebraska's I-backs at this time.

The previous staff saw something in Terrell Newby that they weren't able to bring out.  As a freshman, he really, really, really struggled with ball security, and while he was better as a sophomore, he wasn't terribly dynamic running the ball.  I didn't see that much from Newby in the spring either - though to be honest, I didn't see ANYTHING promising on offense.  It's definitely a work in progress.

Imani Cross is solid in short yardage situations, but he never was able to make much of a case for more playing time.  Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf apparently don't see it either; they've moved Newby ahead of him on the depth chart, it appears.  Adam Taylor looks to me like the best of the bunch, but I'm not sure anybody sees him as a potential star.  In fact, most people seem to think that Nebraska is going to use an I-back by committee approach.  That's something I read as "Nebraska doesn't really have a top-notch I-back right now."

And that's a problem when you've got a roster that's geared towards running the ball.  Nebraska may have the receivers to throw the ball more (unless there is more roster attrition), but I'm not convinced that Nebraska has the quarterback for it.  It's one of the reasons I told Mike'l Severe on the World-Herald's "The Bottom Line" show that I'm predicting the Huskers to go 7-5 this season.  I thought at that time that Nebraska's next great I-back was still in high school.  Well, maybe he just graduated and he's still looking for a place to go.  I'm skeptical that it'll be Nebraska, because his mom clearly wants him to go elsewhere.  And when Mom can't be sold on Nebraska, that makes Nebraska an unlikely destination for a kid.

Another concern I have is whether Riley and company promised (or at least insinuated) that they weren't going to bring in any other running backs this fall while recruiting Devine Ozigbo. His response this weekend on Twitter says it all.
Apparently someone quickly talked to him, because he apparently made peace with the situation on Monday.
Still, you have to wonder about the Nebraska I-back situation - regardless of whether Stevenson ever shows up in Lincoln again.