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 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.