Thursday, December 29, 2016

Shawn Eichorst Speaks of Talent...and His New Visibility

Criticized by many (reporters and former coaches alike) for hiding out in his office, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has made it a point to make himself more visible.  Case in point: yesterday, Eichorst met briefly with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star and Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald. Sipple even asked him about his new visibility around the program:
"I don't know if there was a change in approach. I love the game of football, as you know. We've gone into depth on that. When you transition into incredible positions like at Nebraska, there's a lot of looking, listening and learning to do. I would attribute it more to having a lot of things to do, a lot of people to get to know, more than anything. I now think I know the place a little better than when I first came in, know the people better. That allows me a little more flexibility to get around and to be available."
Well, that's pretty much political BS right there. If you have a lot of people that you need to get to know and a climate that you need to understand better, the last thing you do is lock yourself up in your office. Instead, you go out and make yourself visible. You meet with the people you are supposed to lead and understand them and the environment that you find yourself in.

Shawn Eichorst didn't do that during his first two years.  (And got called out for it.)  He's doing it now, and that's a good thing. But don't lie about it: admit that you are evolving and becoming a better leader.  Eichorst did change his approach, and for the better.

One of Eichorst's key points in both of his discussions was to note that Nebraska needs to improve on it's talent. Many will interpret that as recruiting, and that is definitely part of it.  But read Eichorst's quote from Shatel's column:
“I look at the All-Big Ten teams, particularly the coaches team,” Eichorst said. “The first three teams, we had two players. I think Michigan had 17, Ohio State 14, Iowa had nine, Wisconsin had eight, Penn State had seven. We have work to do.”
Michigan and Ohio State are recruiting juggernauts and in New Years' Six bowls.  That's to be expected.  Penn State is suddenly released from their Sandusky sanctions, so they've been able to open the floodgates on recruiting.

But then there's Iowa.

If you believe that it's all recruiting, then Iowa is that uncomfortable outlier.  Here's Rivals team rankings for Iowa and Nebraska's last five classes:

Iowa:  44, 51, 56, 59, 42
Nebraska:  26, 17, 32, 28, 26

Iowa being third in all-Big Ten honorees is not about recruiting, but coaching and development.  And Nebraska falling to only two honorees is mostly about coaching and development.  It's no surprise to me that Mike Riley has already dismissed two members of his initial staff at Nebraska, because development with this staff is a major concern to me.

You hear a lot of comments and excuses being laid out to account for Nebraska's performance on the field the last two seasons, and one of them is the lack of offensive line talent. I submit that Nebraska has much more talent on the line than we've seen...or rather, we've been allowed to see.  Case in point?  Givens Price.  He was a starter in 2014, but was demoted in 2015.  After essentially being demoted off the two-deep, Price didn't give up, but gave defense a chance.  He didn't play there either, but he kept grinding it out.

And guess what? The Arizona Cardinals saw something Mike Cavanaugh didn't (or couldn't).  They gave hi a chance on the practice squad, and now he's on an NFL active roster.

Not good enough for Nebraska?  That's a huge fumble by Nebraska's coaching staff to let an NFL offensive lineman slip through right through their hands.
How many more Givens Price's are there on Nebraska's roster?  Especially on the offensive line.  I can only wonder.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Without a Doubt, 9-3 Is Improvement for the Huskers

The 40-10 beatdown that Iowa administered to the Huskers to end the regular season was an unpleasant ending to a relatively pleasant Nebraska football season. I knew the offense was going to struggle against the Hawkeyes because of the quarterback situation, but I wasn't prepared for the defense melting down in Ohio State-like fashion.  So I'm not pleased with how this game ended, but I am pleased with how the season went, in the grand scheme of things.

Why? I went into the season with relatively low expectations; I still had doubts about this coaching staff going in.  And while I'm not sold, I am impressed by how this staff adapted and accepted the players they inherited.  And yes, in turn, the players better accepted the coaches.  The defense was significantly better (except in a couple of games), and the offense was better.  And the results were better:  9-3 (with still a chance to win a tenth) beats the heck out of 6-7.  Going from needing an NCAA waiver for a bowl game to a possible New Year's Day bowl game is better.

It's not even debatable.

Some will though. Some just want to be argumentative, while others are just disappointed that the Huskers dropped another egg this month. And then there a few (explitives) who just want to rag on former head coach Bo Pelini.

The Bo-leavers have a valid point; after this season, it's Mike Riley's offense moving forward.  Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe won't be around after the bowl game, and the quarterback room will be occupied by Mike Riley guys.  But will it be better next year?  I fear not.

Next year's quarterbacks will be Tanner Lee, Patrick O'Brien and probably Tristan Gebbia, assuming he enrolls in January. That's two freshman and a Tulane transfer who put up worse passing numbers at Tulane than Tommy Armstrong did his first two seasons.

Wait, what?  Doesn't Sean Callahan insist that Lee is a NFL draft pick (in a high round, I might add)?

Yes. But the numbers don't lie.

Tanner Lee:  53.5% completions, 3601 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions
Tommy Armstrong: 52.9% completion, 3661 yards, 31 touchdowns, 20 interceptions

And the rushing numbers?  Well, there's no comparison:

Tanner Lee:  -287 yards rushing, zero touchdowns
Tommy Armstrong: 907 yards rushing, eight touchdowns

I've never seen Lee play in person, and maybe he'll adapt better to Riley's offense than he played in Tulane's offense. But the hype train reminds me more of the hype that surrounded Sam Keller ten years ago, and Keller at least had a record from Arizona State that partially explained the hype. Lee just has Sean Callahan's tweet as the explanation.

It's presumptive and premature to pencil any of the three quarterbacks into the 2017 lineup. O'Brien will have had close to another 100 or so practices before we see him again, and Gebbia is still in high school. That uncertainty causes me to temper my thoughts for 2017, and thus my appreciation for the 2016 season.

2015 should have taught every Husker fan to appreciate each and every victory, and I certainly appreciated a nice bounceback season, overcoming all sorts of adversity.

No doubt about it.  Nebraska improved quite a bit in 2016.  That's something to appreciate.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Harry, the Chicago Cubs and I

Until Cox Cable rolled into town in 1981, I didn't really have a baseball team. Sure, I went to a handful of Omaha Royals games over the years, and watched the Kansas City Royals battle the Yankees for the pennant in the 70's, but it was really just a casual follow.  But when my parents finally were able to get cable television, all that changed.  Along with Nickelodeon, USA and ESPN, we now had Superstations WGN, WOR and WTBS. Between WOR's partial schedule and Ralph Kiner, I didn't watch much of the Mets.  WTBS coverage of the Atlanta Braves was my initial interest; Braves catcher Bruce Benedict grew up four houses up the street from me.

But as time went on, it was the Chicago Cubs games that caught my fancy. Any summer afternoon, you had a 50-50 chance of finding a Cub game on at 1:20 pm in the afternoon...a dead zone of television unless you liked soap operas. 1984 really solidified it for myself; the Cubs were winning, and since I started classes at UNO, I could still follow the games after my classes got out in the early afternoon. And with the games on the radio locally, I could even listen to them on the drive home.  But 1984 brought me my first heartbreak in the playoffs against the San Diego Padres. The Cubs looked to be heading to the World Series until Lee Smith failed in the deciding game five.  I was working that day, so I sadly had to listen to Harry Caray describe the meltdown on the radio.

Harry Caray and Steve Stone became the voices of my baseball fandom. The Cubs faded for the next few years, but stormed back in 1989, only to get shut down again, this time by Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants.  In the 1990's with college out of the way, I was able to make a couple of pilgrimages to Wrigley, and even though I was now working during those afternoon games, I still was a fan.  Harry passed on, and WGN started to cut back on the number of games they carried, but I still watched when I could.

2003 found the Cubs back in the playoffs, and game six looked like the Cubs were finally going to break through. In the seventh inning, with the game seemingly under control, I took the dog for a walk, figuring that I needed to get that done to enjoy the ninth inning and the post game.

Well, we all know what happened while I was out.  I'd later learn about Alex Gonzalez and Steve Bartman, but I came home to find that the Marlins had somehow put up an eight-spot in the eighth inning...and all that preparation was for naught. Perhaps it was better that I didn't endure that.

Two years ago, WGN decided to completely drop their broadcasts of the Cubs outside the Chicago local area, meaning that the only games I get to watch now are national broadcasts. But the games are back on the radio on 1490 AM - just like they were in 1984. Last season looked like it could be "the year"...but those Stupid Mets broke my heart yet again, just like they did thirty years earlier.

When the Cubs broke out to a .800 start this season, this year looked like THE year. The Cubs ran away with the division, and the only question in September was who the Cubs would face in the playoffs. The Giants and Dodgers each had a pitching ace that the Cubs probably would have liked to avoid, but neither Madison Bumgarner nor Clayton Kershaw could pitch enough innings to tilt the field.

Corey Kluber, on the other hand, almost did. Things looked awfully bleak for the Cubs after Kluber's gem in game 4; a game I didn't really watch much of because of the Husker game.  But the Cubs avoided elimination Sunday night, and gave themselves a chance in Cleveland. I knew that Kluber awaited the Cubs on Wednesday night, should the Cubs make it that far.  They did, and my hope for the Cubs was that Kluber, like Bumgarner and Kershaw, would run out of gas.

And run out of gas he did.  The Cubs shelled him, and it looked like the Cubs were cruising late. And in the eighth, I debated what I was going to do. Do I watch the game on Fox and listen to Joe Buck - or do I go out to the car and listen to Pat Hughes call the ending over the radio.  That's one of the biggest shames of baseball's media contract: only the originating station can carry the local broadcast of the World Series teams, though it is also available on satellite radio. Die-hard fans want to hear the voices that carried them through all 162 regular season games call that final out, not some national guy.

But then Jon Lester gave up an infield hit, and Cubs manager Joe Madden hit the panic button. He went to the bullpen to bring in Aroldis Chapman for the third time in four days. Chapman has been nothing but dependable since joining the Cubs, but after throwing over 60 pitches the last three days, he had nothing left.

Steve Garvey. Will Clark. Rajai Davis?  Seriously? Suddenly, the lead and the dream was gone. Madden kept Chapman in the game in the bottom of the ninth, and it felt like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football from Lucy's hold knowing full well what was going to happen.  But somehow it didn't, and the game went to extra innings.  Then the rain came.

The tarp rolled out, and the radar didn't look good.  I thought about it for a minute and said to myself "I have to get out of this house!"  The dog still hadn't had his walk, so I just grabbed the leash and headed out. The whole time I wondered what was going to happen.  How long could I wait this game out?  Do I just wait until next year, like always?

Sigh.  Depression.

I open the door, and walk into the living room, with the television still on. The rain delay was already over, and just like 13 years before, things changed dramatically while I wasn't watching.  The first pitch I saw was Ben Zobrist drilling a double down the third base line.  The Cubs scored twice in the tenth, and were now just three outs away from the title.

I briefly thought about my prior plans, and quickly rejected them. I was going to watch this damn thing through.  Cleveland scored and had the tie run at second base and the winning run at the plate.  Mind is blown.  It wasn't until Kris Bryant fielded that slow roller that I realized that it was happening.

Yet I couldn't scream.  I couldn't yell.  The rest of the family was asleep in their beds.  I could tweet, but it wasn't satisfying.  No, I had to do something.

So out to the garage I went.  Over the years, I had set aside a supply of fireworks, likely for a huge Nebraska victory.  I was halfway out to the garage in 2009 when Colt McCoy's pass landed incomplete out of bounds, stopped only by the review to gift Texas an extra second to win the game.  So it's been sitting there.  Ready.  Waiting.

It was time.

I grabbed the firing tube, a box of shells and a lighter.  Royals fans woke me up a year ago; I was going to wake them up.  And off it went, in a beautiful display of red sparks and the accompanying boom.

And yelled.

I thought about firing more, but decided against annoying the neighbors further.  I made my point.

So I went back in to watch interviews and the celebration, and then Fox cuts away to commercial and I see this.

Harry.

As much as anyone else, Harry Caray is probably about as responsible as anybody for my Cub fan-dom. Perfect.

I headed to bed...but couldn't sleep.  Probably only got about 4 hours sleep total before heading to work.  Then what do I see come up on Twitter, courtesy of Kevin Kugler?  A brilliant simulation of Harry calling the Cubs World Series win, 19 years after his passing.

Tears. I've probably watched that video about twenty times over the last day. It still brings tears.  I still keep finding myself wondering if it actually happened, much like I did January 2, 1995 in south Florida when the  Huskers slew Miami in the old Orange Bowl stadium.

Why do we obsess about sports like we do? It's more than entertainment; it's not merely a diversion for two or three hours of fun. No, our sports teams become a part of us.  We live, love and mourn through them.  When it's your team, it's not just a game.  And while I didn't throw one pitch, swing one bat or even try to catch a single ball, I feel a part of it.

I definitely don't consider myself one of those "long-suffering fans".  I've been a fan for 35 years; that's no match for fans like Wayne Williams, who listened to game 7 at his father's grave to fulfill a promise made long before I became a Cub fan.

But I am a fan...and I am still celebrating.  Thank you Cubs...and thank you Harry.  We did it.

The unbelievable is now believable.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Huskers Struggle Again With Purdue

I thought Mike Riley had learned the lessons of 2015, but then the nightmare of 2015's most horrific, most inexplicable loss resurrected itself. Seven losses in 2015 seemed to make it crystal clear to Mike Riley that in order to succeed at Nebraska, he must run the ball. And run the ball is what Nebraska did to win seven straight games.

But against Purdue?  The worst rush defense in the Big Ten and nearly the worst in college football?  It didn't happen.  Why not?

Some of it was a "could not," though that wasn't quite as apparent until after the game appeared to be heading towards an ugly repeat of 2015. It actually started as a "didn't want to".  Here are the halftime stats:

12 rushes.  18 passes.  Purdue lead 14-10.

Meanwhile, the Blackshirts were turning Purdue's David Blough into Drew Brees. Again. 16 of 20 passes for 231 yards.

If it was an experiment to prove that last year's problems were all "buy-in," then consider the theory completely disproved:
One difference between last year and this year was that Nebraska couldn't really run the ball well in this year's game. Which is hard to understand, given that Purdue's best defensive lineman, Jake Replogle, didn't play due to injury. To my uneducated eye, it's because Riley, Danny Langsdorf and Mike Cavanaugh elected to stick with Nebraska's two injured offensive tackles. Earlier this season, Nick Gates seemed to be playing at an all-conference level, but then injured his ankle last week.  He kept playing against Indiana, albeit poorly, then missed almost the entire week of practice.  He went the whole way against Purdue despite doing his best imitation of a Memorial Stadium turnstile in the second half. David Knevel was hurting even more, and finally was replaced by Cole Conrad. The only possible explanation is that Cavanaugh was more convinced that not only was an injured and ineffective Gates was better than inserting Christian Gaylord or Corey Whittaker into the game, it was also worth the risk that playing Gates would lengthen his recovery time.  (Not that we don't have some important games coming up the next couple of weeks.)

Or maybe it's just Cavanaugh's stubborn refusal to substitute on the offensive line.

Defensive adjustments helped in the second half, as Blough only completed nine of 23 passes for 78 yards. Tommy Armstrong was much more efficient through the air, and Terrell Newby found a few holes. Nebraska came back and won ugly.

Again.

Don't get me wrong:  7-0 is a hell of an improvement over last season.  But now reality is staring Husker fans right in their face, because Nebraska won't be able to be competitive with either Wisconsin or Ohio State playing the way they have been as of late. The thing is, Husker fans know that this team is capable of playing at a much higher level, because they've seen it sporadically all season long.  Sporadically won't work the next two weeks.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Huskers Survive and Advance Against Hoosiers

Survive and Advance. Survive and Advance.

Nebraska broke out to a quick 10-0 lead while Clemson and North Carolina State ran long on ABC. Only problem... ABC didn't tell fans to turn to ESPN2 at kickoff, and then switched the game off of ESPN2 several minutes before ABC picked up the broadcast.  So all we saw was Brandon Reilly's miracle deflection catch on a replay.  A couple of minutes later, Chris Jones picked off a Richard Lagow pass to give the Huskers a 17-0 lead. Cruising, right?

Well, that was the end of that.  Nebraska's offense went into it's typical second and third quarter slump, and Indiana slowly worked their way back into the game.  Bruce Read's special teams were a debacle once again, as the Huskers were completely discombobulated on that punt.  Nebraska left a huge hole up the middle, and the protectors had no idea which of the half-dozen rushers they should try to block...so nobody did.  Easy block for a safety. Add in a substitution penalty on an extra point, and you've got yet more evidence that Nebraska's $450,000 investment in special teams is a complete waste of money.

Nebraska's offensive line struggled...really struggled. Yes, David Knevel only lasted one play, but everybody struggled.  Nick Gates had his worst game ever as a Husker, and the rest of the line was a mess. Bad pass protection led to too many YOLO desperation heaves by Tommy Armstrong that were just a mess.

But at the same time, there were Husker Heroes that emerged.  The entire secondary played really, really well.  So did the defensive line, even if the referees weren't willing to throw a flag.  Terrell Newby gutted out 102 yards and made key run after key run as really Nebraska's only I-back.  Devine Ozigbo tried to play in the second half, but apparently couldn't go.  Mikale Wilbon, I assume, was also out with injury.  That left only Tre Bryant to spell Newby. Bryant looks like a solid blocking back, but he can't continue to average 7 inches a carry if he's going to see any more playing time.

This is going to be heretical to many fans...but Nebraska's best tight end is Sam Cotton. I know fans have been tempted by Cethan Carter's potential for years, but he continues to just be too inconsistent.  Maybe fans would like Cotton better if his name was Jones or Smith.

But let's credit Indiana's Tom Allen for a stout Hoosier defense; during Kevin Wilson's time in Bloomington, Indiana football has looked like old-style WAC football where defense was optional.  But Indiana's defense is becoming legit.

Good win?  Absolutely.  But Nebraska will need to find some healthy bodies and get some offensive issues fixed in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Will Dean Blais Be The First Casualty of UNO's Baxter Arena Debacle?

Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald had an ominous conversation with UNO hockey coach Dean Blais, who all but said that his time is up at UNO. He's clearly not happy with what's happening at UNO, and isn't confident in the direction of the school.

“It’s good here,” Blais said. “But a real big loss for me is John Christensen. He and his wife are two of the biggest fans we have, and supported hockey to the max.


 “He had your back. As a coach, nothing is more important than knowing the chancellor, the guy in charge, has your back. That will be important.


“It’s like Bo Pelini over in Lincoln, the chancellor didn’t have his back.”
Ohhh, he said the "B" word, which will certainly ruffle more than a few feathers around here. Lack of support from the chancellor was the ultimate end to Frank Solich, and once Tom Osborne wasn't around to stand behind Bo Pelini, Pelini was gone as well. It's no secret that neither coach was particularly well liked by Harvey Perlman, and that's something that Bo Pelini referenced when he was hired at Youngstown State.

It's clear that UNO's Baxter Arena isn't meeting the promises that were used to justify it's construction in the first place. Instead of solving UNO's financial problems, it's magnifying them. And the repercussions are simply not good. Trev Alberts is dealing with a $600,000 budget cut to help deal with the unanticipated extra expenses of maintaining an arena 365 days a year.  That's $600,000 that's not available to do the other things that UNO needs to do to field a national contender hockey program.  Full cost of attendance scholarships? Not happening, and not happening any time soon.

The uncertainty over what UNO can do - and will have to do - as a result of the debacle that is Baxter Arena's financials that clouds the future of UNO hockey.  And that has Dean Blais looking longingly towards the golf course and fishing hole, and that's making a bad situation even worse.  Who would succeed Blais?  It's certainly not somebody on the current staff.  Would UNO be forced to return Mike Kemp behind the bench?  Not that Kemper is a bad coach...but he's already wearing too many hats as arena manager and assistant athletic director.  Mike Hastings?  Could UNO afford him now?  And would he want to jump into the UNO situation?

Sad to say that the future of the program looks almost as bleak as it did 10 years ago. If only the solution were as simple as cancelling a vice-chancellor's subscription to SiriusXM...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Huskers Grit a Victory Over Illinois

Nebraska opened the game against Illinois with a long touchdown drive; the first score on an opening drive in 2016, and I thought the Huskers were well on their way to a dominating victory.  Perhaps what Gary Sharp called for earlier this week on KOZN-1620 AM radio: "A Fifty-burger."

Except it never materialized. Nebraska consistently moved the ball, albeit in small chunks all day, but trailed after halftime thanks to a couple of turnovers. The defense was surprisingly leaky against an Illinois team that could only rush for three yards two weeks ago against Western Michigan.  Online chatter from the media suggested that Nebraska's linebackers were the reason, and from my perspective, senior Josh Banderas found himself out of position on Kendrick Foster's 31 yard touchdown run and Nathan Eckhard's 26 yard catch that set up Illinois' game tying field goal in the 2nd quarter.  We didn't see much of Banderas after that today.  For what it's worth, I saw both Michael Rose-Ivey and Dedrick Young both make a few plays.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Nebraska's offensive line play today.  On short yardage situations, the Huskers generated enough push to drive Illinois back three yards consistently...but until late, the Huskers couldn't generate anything more than a 4 or 5 yard gain.  Through the end of the third quarter, the Huskers rushed 31 times for 89 yards.  That's not going to cut it in Big Ten play.  Dauwane Smoot wreaked havoc all game long from defensive tackle.  David Knevel got pulled at right tackle in the second quarter, but to be honest, Cole Conrad wasn't better by any means.

But the one thing I took away from this game was that Nebraska stayed with the run and resisted the temptation to go to the air. I was reminded of last year's Iowa game where Riley panicked as the game went on.  Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes, four of which turned into interceptions, and Nebraska lost to Iowa. Nebraska wore down Illinois in the fourth quarter on the ground, which is something that Michigan State proved could be done a week later in the Big Ten title game.

It's a win, but a costly win. The injuries to Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter could be very serious; I don't expect them back anytime soon.  As luck would have it, Nebraska has a bye week next week, which is very good news for a 5-0 team.  Nebraska might be able to survive the next two games playing this way, but the reality is that Nebraska can't afford to wait until the fourth quarter to get things going under the lights in a month.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Huskers Survive Red Zone Miscues In Front of the Sea of Red in Chicago

It seems that whenever Nebraska plays Northwestern, weird things seem to happen.  In some respects, the 2016 game resembled the 2012 game in that Nebraska's domination on the stat sheet wasn't reflected on the scoreboard. In 2012, it was costly turnovers and ill-timed penalties; in 2016, it was fumbles inside the one yard line. In fact, I'd argue that Terrell Newby's fumble changed the entire tone of the game.  If he's down at the one yard line, it's not unreasonable to think that Nebraska punches it into the end zone on the next play.  That would be 75 yards in four or five plays and a 7-0 lead just over a minute into the game. Instead, Nebraska's momentum complete deflates, and the Huskers only gain another 32 yards the rest of the first quarter.

As a long time believer in Mikale Wilbon, I was pleased to see him see even more playing time against Northwestern.  In fact, he surely was Nebraska's most effective I-back in the second half.  I don't think he's going to start next week, but if he runs the ball like he did in the Windy City in future weeks, he'll be starting games before too long. He's definitely earned more playing time next week.

Tommy Armstrong continues his impressive run this season; maybe his completion rate hasn't improved, but his turnover rate has. And more importantly, he's making plays with his legs and proving the importance of a dual-threat quarterback in today's age in college football. I'm not sure he had a lot of help from his offensive line today, though.

Nebraska's defense had their worst performance of the year, in my opinion.  Justin Jackson got his 4 yards per carry average that he put up against MAC and 1-AA competition, and Clayton Thorson once again made NU look silly.  Thorson had a net loss of negative two yards rushing this season prior to facing the Huskers and was completing under 50% of his passes...but the Huskers let him go 42 yards untouched and complete 65% of his passes. Can we please put the whole #LockDownU notion under a lockdown?

Good win?  Absolutely! Every win is a good win, and there's nothing to apologize about being 4-0.  Especially after last season, when Nebraska seemed to be magnetically attracted to the banana peel. But let's put those wins in perspective: Nebraska's four opponents have only won three games against division 1-A opponents this season.   2-2 Oregon has beaten Virginia and lost to Colorado.  2-2 Wyoming beat Northern Illinois and 1-3 Northwestern beat Duke. 1-3 Fresno State, like Oregon and Wyoming, has a 1-AA victory on their resume.

Taking a nervous look towards that matchup with undefeated Wisconsin in a month?  Yeah, I'm getting more and more concerned about that one.  But let's not worry too much about that yet; the Huskers found ways to lose to Illinois and Purdue last season, and redeeming those losses comes up first.
A lot is going to be said over the next week about Michael Rose-Ivey kneeling during the national anthem, joining the protest originated by Colin Kaepernick a month ago. Some will undoubtedly be outraged by the "disrespect" being shown to the flag. That's a fair opinion. Some will even call for Rose-Ivey to be punished in some manner for his actions.

That's not a fair opinion.

In fact, that's an even bigger disrespect of our flag and our nation. Silencing people who have dissenting opinions of the actions of government is something we expect in North Korea, not the United States of America. If you truly believe that America is the greatest and most free country in the entire world, then certainly Michael Rose-Ivey has the right to kneel during the national anthem as a symbol of protest.  And when you consider that just this week that a police officer in Tulsa was charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing an unarmed black man a week ago, Rose-Ivey has a right to be concerned.

In fact, I applaud Rose-Ivey for taking a stand that's not going to be popular in this state. We're free in this country to disagree with Rose-Ivey's position. The court system will determine a resolution to the situation, but if we're truly the land of the free, then Rose-Ivey is free to be concerned that a police officer may have made a tragic mistake. Disrespectful?  Not nearly as disrespectful as yelling "you lie" at the President of the United States during a speech to Congress.  (Especially when the facts show otherwise.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Huskers Clear Their Throat Again After Successful Duck Hunt

Husker fans have anxiously awaited this matchup with the Oregon Ducks ever since it was announced, and while this edition of the Ducks isn't quite the same caliber as they were a couple of years ago, Oregon is still a potent offensive team. But when Royce Freeman left early in the first quarter, Oregon was no longer elite on offense, merely good.

Meanwhile, the Huskers offense was rather stagnant in the first half, thanks to a gameplan that thought that the Huskers could run the ball right down the Ducks throat. The Ducks struggled this season stopping the run, so it made sense...but Oregon sold out on stopping the run, and the up-the-middle runs weren't working.

What was working? The runs out of the shotgun, especially with Terrell Newby, who averaged 7 yards a carry in the first half. It's something the coaches realized at halftime, and the Huskers dominated the third quarter...until the Huskers folded on 3rd and 27. Hard to believe that the Ducks not only got the first down, but took it to the house.

And when Oregon followed that with a 98 yard drive, things looked pretty bleak.  Buy that's when Tommy Armstrong delivered with the game on the line. First hitting Jordan Westercamp for a fourth down completion, and then scrambling for the game winner.

That's an aspect of Nebraska football I'm going to miss over the next few years, as Mike Riley is now recruiting pro-style throwers at quarterback. Color me skeptical that this is a good move in the modern era of football, but that's the's going to be the future of the Huskers.

Still, Oregon had a chance to score , and looked to be threatening until they were flagged for holding again. Between the Freeman injury, the penalties and Oregon's obsession with the 2 point conversion, the Ducks had plenty of opportunities to win this game, but didn't. It was fitting that Michael Rose-Ivey got the final stop after playing a whale of a game.

It wasn't the greatest game; both teams have plenty of things to improve on. But as Husker fans learned last season,appreciate every win. Iowa showed last season that football teams just need to find ways to win each game to have a great season.

The Huskers made enough plays today, and are 3-0. Maybe not a pretty 3-0, but 3-0 looks a helluvva lot better than 1-2 like last season started.

Just win, baby. Just win.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Turnovers Turn Tight Game into Blowout Husker Victory over Wyoming

For three quarters, the Nebraska-Wyoming game seemed to live up to my prediction that the game would be closer than the Vegas point spread.  Wyoming had just cut the Huskers lead to 24-17, and seemed to have the momentum after instant replay correctly ruled that a deep pass from Tommy Armstrong to Brandon Reilly had slipped out of Reilly's hands and onto the ground ever so briefly. My Twitter feed showed fans at home didn't see it, but the HuskerVision screens found a replay that showed the ball on the ground.  And even before the officials had a chance to announce the call was being overturned, both teams began walking back to the other end of the field.

Nebraska did score on that drive at the start of the fourth quarter, and then Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen became a turnover machine.  How bad?  Four turnovers on Wyoming's next nine offensive plays...and suddenly, a 24-17 nailbiter was now a 52-17 blowout.

As a self-proclaimed "run the ball" guy, I wasn't terribly pleased with Nebraska's game plan in this game, as I think the Huskers were too quick to give up on the running game.  Or at least the coaches were too quick to give up on the I-backs.  Granted, Devine Ozigbo wasn't terribly effective all day, but Terrell Newby looked OK on his four carries. And let's be clear:  four was also the number of I-back runs in each quarter of the first half.

Was that offensive approach all that effective?  Well, Nebraska led 14-10 at halftime; debate that if you wish.
I would point out that in that decisive fourth quarter, Nebraska ran the ball 17 times and only threw six passes, but most of those runs came in garbage time.  It wasn't offense that won this game, it was defense.

I've been fairly impressed with John Parrella's new defensive line, though to be honest, this group hasn't been really tested yet.  They will be next week by the Oregon Ducks.  Nebraska won't be able to wait for the fourth quarter to put the game away against Oregon.

Monday, September 05, 2016

UNO's Baxter Arena: First Year Results Hemorrhages Crimson Ink

Sunday's Omaha World-Herald shone light on the first year financial results, and the results were the opposite of what supporters expected going in.
The university-owned arena recently ended its first fiscal year $1.5 million in the red, forcing campus officials to infuse $1.4 million in university funds into the operation to help cover construction bond payments.
The disappointing results aren’t just a first-year blip. It’s expected that $1.5 million in university dollars will need to be tapped to balance this year’s books, with $1 million kicked in by UNO and $500,000 committed by NU central administration in Lincoln.
Sounds bad? It's actually worse.
The athletic department had been counting on roughly a half million dollars in arena profits to help fund its own operations, dollars that did not materialize. That shortfall and myriad other budget issues left athletics with a $1.8 million budget deficit of its own.
Not a surprise to me, mind you. I thought the numbers didn't add up before one spade of dirt was turned over, and turns out, my suspicions were correct. But that doesn't help things one bit.  The money has been spent; the building is built.  There's no turning back.

UNO can't undo this mistake.

The Monday Morning Quarterback can say that UNO hockey should have stayed downtown at the CenturyLink Center with basketball remaining at the Ralston Arena. Baxter Arena has been a lose-lose proposition for everyone: the other arenas have fewer events, and UNO's athletic budget is exposing the reality that the expenses of owning a building 365 days a year are much higher than renting a building for the 20-25 days a year they actually need it.

Doesn't matter now.  They built it, and now must deal with the results.  The University of Nebraska system, which signed off on the bad idea, is now on the hook to cover the losses. Hopefully UNO won't lose any more sports in the aftermath.  I suspect that any plans for UNO to build a baseball field are now dead, which is a shame, because they deserve a better facility than what they've got out at Boys Town.  Maybe UNO could find an agreement with another high school; I know that Millard North has a better looking facility than Boys Town.  I suspect Westside might also have a decent field.  Maybe UNO and MECA could swallow their egos and find a way to compromise so that UNO could use TD Ameritrade Park on a part-time basis. (Imagine UNO and Creighton working on joint scheduling to bring opponents to town to play games with just one road trip.)

You know what would help UNO even more?  Winning hockey games in March... and April.

One thing is clear:  the Omaha metro area is done building arenas and ballparks for many, many years to come.  This area has overbuilt, and has double what the region actually needs and can support.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

Huskers Run the Dadgummed Ball, Honor Foltz, and Beat Fresno State Going Away

Probably the best way to describe the start of Nebraska's 2016 season was "wet".  When Sam Foltz's young nephews led the Huskers out of the locker room on the Tunnel Walk, tears were flowing throughout Memorial Stadium. I think this might be the first time I didn't clap along to Sirius; I couldn't.  Even the sky was crying.


And all of that emotion might explain Nebraska's uneven performance in the first half.  Nebraska looked OK at times running the ball, though it was inconsistent in the first half. And they ran the ball primarily. Last season, I argued that in losses, Nebraska didn't run the ball enough.  Against Fresno State, you could make an argument they ran the ball too much:  51 runs and 13 passes, a 80/20 ratio.  That's probably an overreaction too far the other direction, but considering that the Bulldogs were 116th in the nation in rush defense, it wasn't exactly a bad choice.

Especially when you consider that Nebraska went turnover free.

Defensively, there were quite a few things to like, especially up front. I liked the play of the defensive line, especially senior Ross Dzuris with three tackles for loss.  I suspect that if the officials had been interested, they could have called a half dozen or so holding penalties on Fresno.  The officials did throw the flag with targeting calls against Luke Gifford and Aaron Williams.  Of the two, I still believe Williams' hit was closer to targeting than Gifford's, though the official review apparently "confirmed" Gifford's penalty and overturned Williams'.  It wasn't until I saw a BTN replay after returning home that I see what Gifford got called for, but I still think it's a very questionable call.  Gifford led with his arms, hitting Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil on the upper arm, with the helmets colliding as Virgil started to fall.  Is targeting now any helmet-to-helmet contact?  That seemed to be the decision of this crew.

It's a first game, so you have to expect some unevenness, especially when you consider the emotional impact of the loss of Sam Foltz.  The Huskers finished the game strong in the second half, and that really should be the takeaway. But let's put it in this perspective: I suspect that Fresno State will be the weakest opponent Nebraska will face in 2016.  I expect Wyoming and Maryland to be much improved in 2016, and Nebraska went 1-5 against the other schools in the Big Ten's west division.

I mean, Nebraska did beat South Alabama 48-9 last season.  This was definitely a better win than that, and hopefully something to build on.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bankruptcy Looms Around Sarpy County's Ballpark Boondoggle

Today's Omaha World-Herald provides us with an update of development around Werner Park in Sarpy County on the edge of town.  And frankly, it's the same:  "Next verse, same as the first!"  Nothing's happening, other than the SID used to build the infrastructure around the "Trailer Park" (as I like to refer to it) appears to be heading towards bankruptcy.  No development means that the SID can't pay off the $12 million that was borrowed to build roads and install utilities.  Alamo Drafthouse?  Built elsewhere, closer to Omaha and the Interstate.  Pennant Place?  Didn't happen.  Not even an Arby's, it would seem.

Sarpy County officials make it a point to say that the ballpark itself isn't in financial trouble.  Which is true, though their statements come with a huge asterisk.
“Our revenues are coming in even without any development at the ballpark. They’re coming in and covering our debt payments.”
The asterisk?  One of the key components paying for the ballpark is a hotel tax, and that's a tax that was used to fund other things in the past.  Nothing new there at all; I wrote about it in 2009. There isn't any word as to what happened to the programs that used to be funded by the hotel tax, but you know it's coming from elsewhere in the county's tax revenue.  A big shell game.

Oh, and attendance out in BFE Sarpy County?  It still continues to be lower than the last years at Rosenblatt, averaging four more people a night in 2016 than in 2008.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Finally. Omaha's Civic Auditorium is Coming Down

This week, demolition of the long-obsolete Civic Auditorium began.  Some are sad about it, especially feeling nostalgic about the building's glory days when a 9,000 seat arena was big enough for most concerts and even the NBA.  I'm not, mind you.  Don't get me wrong; the Civic Auditorium served the city well in it's day.  But it's time was long past.

When the CenturyLink Center opened up, it was clear that the Civic's days were numbered. Events at the new arena had a big-time feel to them - even when the crowd could have fit into the Civic.  More importantly, the new place brought in events that simply wouldn't have come to Omaha otherwise.  U2, Springsteen, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Olympic Swim Trials and the NCAA basketball tournament.   Two weeks from now, I'll don a Hawaiian shirt for the Jimmy Buffett concert.  Sure, not every event appeals to everyone, but there's no denying that Omaha isn't better for having these events come to town.

Many UNO hockey fans are nostalgic for the Civic; I'm not. If anything, I'm still nostalgic for the CenturyLink Center.  The Civic was a functional starter home for UNO hockey, but that's all it was.  It's time is in the past.  Now the property is going to be redeveloped into something more valuable for the city.  It's a better use for the property.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Can Keith Williams Stay as the Huskers Receivers Coach?

When news breaks, it's almost inevitable that someone is going to go on Twitter with a truly awful #HOTSPORTSTAKE.  On Sunday, after CornNation's Brian Towle broke the report of Nebraska assistant football coach Keith William's arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence, the worst takes started with concerns about recruiting.

I truly understand where the thought comes from:  Williams has done a fine job with his on the field coaching and has seemed to be a pretty effective recruiter. But all of that is secondary in this situation, as football implications have zero relevance as to what happens with Williams.

Let's clear up a couple of misconceptions folks have: first, according to police reports, this is Williams' third incident with driving under the influence.  It's not "one mistake"...but his third time making a very serious mistake.  Second, it wasn't just one-too-many beers; Williams was double the legal limit when tested, which according the blood alcohol chart, indicates that he'd had at least three or four too many.

"Is this going to hurt recruiting?"  Well, duh.  It's already happened.  Done and done.
Williams set an awful example for his players and showed huge irresponsibility.  No matter what Nebraska decides to do with Williams, this is out there.  And that's even before we consider the legal ramifications:  third offense DUI would seem to involve some serious jail time and a loss of driving privileges. Want to worry about recruiting?  OK, how is Keith Williams going to get to a rural area to look at a recruit?  Take a bicycle on the plane?  If taxis or Ubers aren't available, he's not going to be able to do his job?

I see one way Keith Williams salvages his coaching career at Nebraska, and that is that as soon as he's released from police custody, he heads into alcohol rehabilitation for as long as it takes.  (At a minimum, he's going to be suspended multiple weeks anyway.)  He needs to own up to his mistake, and look his players in the eye and tell them how he failed them and how he failed his family.

Then, and only then, is it even possible to discuss whether Keith Williams can coach for the University of Nebraska ever again.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Good Lord Calls Sam Foltz Home

There are no words to do justice when tragedy strikes. Words can try to calm, words can try to sooth...but words cannot completely ease the pain. But several people have tried to do just that with Sam Foltz, and came pretty close.  First up is KOLN-TV weekend sports anchor Kevin Sjuts, who tells the story of how Foltz talked to his son's first grade class earlier this year.
How he said this without breaking down in tears, I have no idea. Or how he explained what happened to his son. My son also was a first grader this past year, and I can only appreciate how difficult that discussion must have been.

Next is ESPN's Joe Tessitore, who was with Foltz last night at that kickers camp in Wisconsin. The weather forced the camp to cancel the evening session, and Foltz filled the time by talking to young people with his own inspirational message.
As one of the very last things he did on this earth.

Sometimes you never truly appreciate people until they are gone.
Thank you Sam, and God bless you, your family, your teammates and friends. In due time, we'll worry about who might possibly try to fill Foltz's shoes on the football field. But for now, Nebraskans and college football fans everywhere will take a moment to mourn the loss suffered by the Foltz family.

And then, maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to live up to the challenge Sam Foltz left us.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Will the Huskers Really "Run the Ball" in 2016?

To me, it's the big question going into 2016: Will Nebraska actually commit to running the ball in 2016? We saw what happened last year; the Huskers lost seven games, sometimes in mind-numbing fashion, in forcing the passing game. I'd argue that Nebraska lost at least four games (Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa) last year because of excessive use of the passing game. Yes, Nebraska has some dynamic receivers...but overdependence on a passing attack led to far too many turnovers, and thus, too many losses in 2015.

In the Foster Farms Bowl, Nebraska unleashed a furious ground game and pulled off the upset of UCLA. But was that a change of philosophy by this coaching staff, or simply the coaches recognizing that UCLA had been vulnerable all season on the ground? Immediately after the game, I thought it was more of the former.

As this year has gone on, I'm starting to worry that it's the latter. In a March news conference, I read that Mike Riley hoped not to run the ball more, but rather merely run the ball better. I have no problem with trying to run the ball better, but I believe that in order to do that, the Huskers will need to run more in 2016 than they did in 2015. I  firmly believe that Nebraska needs to run the ball 60-65 percent of the time with this personnel.  That doesn't mean 50 rushes, like against UCLA...but it does suggest that the Huskers need to be pushing to be over 40 a game on a regular basis.

Evidence is lacking as to what direction Mike Riley will go this season...but what little I've seen suggests that Riley isn't willing to change his stripes offensively. He might have been forced to if he wanted to stay at Oregon State, but now I get the feeling that he's hoping he can recruit players to effectively run his scheme more successfully to Lincoln than he could in Corvallis.

Problem is that he doesn't have that sort of quarterback in 2016. And frankly, I don't see a lot of evidence that he's doing it for future seasons either. 

Yes, that's premature to say at this point. Certainly blasphemous for a Husker fan to say. And arguably hypocritical for a known non-believer in recruiting hype today at this point. So call it more of a hunch at this point than anything else.

So you tell me: do you think Mike Riley will run the ball more in 2016? Or do you even care?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Still Not a Believer in Mike Riley at Nebraska

I started this blog over eleven years ago primarily because I didn't believe in the head football coach at Nebraska. In the end, I was right about Bill Callahan.

Yay me?

Hardly. It's no fun watching your favorite team lose game after game after game, sometimes horrifically.

I believed in the next guy. But four losses a year (some of them ugly) weren't good enough at Nebraska, so he was sent packing. That's wrong on me, FWIW.

huskers.com
So next is Mike Riley, and once again, I find myself extremely skeptical that he's the right guy for Nebraska. And that skepticism continues to grow, the longer I observe the program.

Riley is a nice guy, and that's not meant as any sort of criticism. But it's also not any sort of qualification to be a college football coach at a school like Nebraska.

When I look at Mike Riley, I see a coach who was failing at Oregon State. Contracts were being reworked to lessen the impact of coaches leaving the program in a year or two. After his Beavers were blown out by Oregon to end the 2014 season, Mike Riley even admitted that his approach had to change.

Then Shawn Eichorst called and offered him an escape to Nebraska. Knowing that his time at Oregon State was coming to an end, it really was an offer he couldn't refuse.

So rather than change his approach to the game, Mike Riley changed ZIP codes and players. He tried to jam his square peg into the round hole of a team he inherited...and failed.

It didn't work at Oregon State and it didn't work at Nebraska either. Some take solace in Riley's failure by saying that he'll be able to attract players to Nebraska to make his system work here. I'll freely admit that MIGHT happen, but I think that's more wishful thinking than anything. The game of football has changed dramatically over the last twenty years as the spread offense has taken over, and Mike Riley has been slow to adapt to it.

Riley received accolades from Husker fans who wax nostalgic about fullbacks and tight ends, especially those that bristled when former offensive coordinator Tim Beck agreed with the assertion that tight ends and fullbacks were becoming obsolete. Here's the thing:  look at the NFL and college football.  Beck is right.  Tight ends and fullbacks are declining in use throughout football for multiple reasons. Andy Janovich wasn't drafted by the Denver Broncos for his value as a fullback; it was for Janovich's value on special teams.  It wasn't that Beck "hated" tight ends; it's merely a recognition of where the game of football is going in this day and age.  And in Mike Riley, I see a coach who doesn't recognize that and doesn't seem open to change.

Mike Riley does what Mike Riley wants to do offensively, damn the situation or the strengths of his team.  Inexplicable losses to Illinois and Purdue.  Even in his best game, the upset of Michigan State, fans chanted in the stadium "RUN THE BALL" in obvious displeasure to what they expected Mike Riley to do.

It is wrong. It's just yet another sign that the wrong coach was hired at Nebraska.

The defenders of Mike Riley point out that all this will work out once he gets players that fit his system into Nebraska, and his recruiting shows that he'll get it done. Well, I've heard that line before.  It didn't work the last time. Will it work this time?  We'll see, but I'm skeptical.

The hype train for Nebraska recruiting in 2016 is eerily reminiscent to 2004, though at least then it was five star recruits, not three-stars driving the train.  (Are recruitniks now agreeing with me that stars don't matter? I kid, I kid...)  For all of the hype, the reality is that Nebraska has 10 commitments in June, which is good. But let's not get carried away. The previous staff (you know, the one who couldn't be bothered with recruiting) had nine recruits in April 2014 before the Spring Game.  Needless to say...I'm not convinced.

What will convince me? Winning.  Show me something tangible on the field that gives me a reason to believe.  Mike Riley gave me seven reasons to not believe in him last season.  Michigan State was good, in the end...and the game plan against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl was encouraging, but everybody should know not to put too much faith in bowl game performances.

I'm not rooting against Mike Riley.  I don't want Mike Riley to fail.  I just look at the situation, and don't find a lot to be optimistic about.  It's not just me... Dave Bartoo of the CFBMatrix called him "dead man walking" after showing him at -6 in coaching effect in his 2015 Anti-Coach Effect, for doing the least with more talent and resources.

Mike Riley's a nice guy, and he's doing some nice things off the field. I'd love to like him as Nebraska's head football coach.  I just can't.  I just don't believe Mike Riley will succeed at Nebraska.

I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Nebraska Horse Racing's Death Wish

Last Saturday night, I took in the races at Omaha's Horsemen's Park. It's a fairly nice facility (as long as you ignore the junkyard just to the south), and with only a couple of weekends of racing, generates a bit of the buzz of the glory years of Ak-Sar-Ben. As I approached the track, I chuckled at the nerve of the folks posting signs in front promoting yet another attempt to bring casinos to Nebraska. I mentioned to my wife that I was surprised to see that at Horsemen's Park, considering how well THAT worked in Iowa.

Once I got inside the entrance gates, I immediately was accosted by the petition signers, and realized that it was actually the horsemen promoting this. Sure enough, the idea is that by bringing slot machines into Nebraska, the funds raised could be invested in horse racing.  That's what they are saying.

Of course, that's what they said 25 years ago in Iowa.  Once some communities had gambling, others wanted it. The competition forced the tracks to invest more money to keep their casino side up-to-date, meaning there was less money for racing. Then the Vegas gambling interests bought the casinos, and the tracks became more of a sidelight. And then, Vegas pulled the plug on the races.
In recent years, you only had to go to the Horseshoe Casino next to the track to see the difference in appeal. The packed slot rooms stood in sharp contrast to the abandoned racing clubhouse. In the end, the slot machines that were once seen as Bluffs Run’s salvation helped spur its demise.
“Slot machines pretty much killed it,’’ said David Steinbach of Omaha, a fan at Bluffs Run from day one.
From a short-term business perspective, I kind of see the horsemen's point. Get the lucrative short term profits of a casino.  And then, cash out when Vegas buys them out.  But don't kid yourself that it'll "save" horse racing, because it won't.

If it passes, it'll start with casinos at tracks in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Grand Island and South Sioux City.  But then, Norfolk, Kearney and North Platte will complain and say "what about us?"  So they'll get casinos, but without tracks.  Then Sarpy County will demand one.  Competition between the casinos will increase, and the horse tracks will become less of a priority.

And then a burden.

And then they'll be gone.  Just like in Iowa.

Casinos won't save horse racing; they can't save racing. Casinos will kill racing.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

So What Does the "Art Briles For Nebraska Guy" Think NOW?

Back in December 2014, I was "that guy" that suggested Art Briles to be the successor to Bo Pelini as Nebraska's next football coach. Today, Briles was fired by Baylor, but it wasn't for any lack of success on the field.  No, it was the misbehaviors of his players and, more importantly, the lack of concern, if not complete white-washing, with the problem by the entire Baylor administration.

Was I wrong about Briles? Yes.  But truth be told, nobody knew anything about these problems until this spring.  Am I guilty of being ignorant of the situation?  Yes, but everybody was ignorant of the situation.

For what it's worth, yes I'm glad that glad that Briles wasn't considered for the Nebraska job. I don't believe that Nebraska would have had the chance to fully vet Briles, as Briles didn't want to seem disloyal to Baylor.  He wasn't interested in interviewing at that time, but would consider an offer. That was the story when he briefly discussed the opening in Austin at Texas.

But was that because he knew of the skeletons in his closet in Baylor?  You have to wonder now.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

X's & O's - Or Jimmies & Joes? The Eternal Debate Goes On

The undercard for last weekend's NFL Draft had to be between the Recruitniks and the anti-Recruitniks, each trying to use the results of the draft to validate their point.  SB Nation's Bud Elliott played with his Photoshop to toot his own horn.
Though to be honest, not all was quite lining up the recruitniks way.
So who's right?  Let's look a little closer at few other little tidbits:
Let's look at Michigan State, who's 2011 recruiting class was ranked 32nd nationally and 2012 class was ranked 33rd...and had an unranked player (Jack Conklin) get drafted with the eighth pick overall.  Five Spartans were drafted this season alone.

Let's look at Texas, with top three recruiting classes from 2010 through 2012.  Six Texas Longhorns have been drafted the last three seasons COMBINED.

So is it the REALLY the Jimmies and the Joes?  To some extent, yes.  But I personally subscribe to the theory that coaching plays a bigger factor.  And let me be a little more specific:  some coaches simply do a better job of evaluating prospects than others, and then do a better job of developing them. Recruitniks do track on this a bit, as players targeted by recognized successful coaches do get a boost in their star rankings. But it is clear that some coaches (i.e Nick Saban) do a better job of selecting top notch talent and developing it than other coaches (i.e. Mack Brown).

And coaches like Mark Dantonio do a better job of selecting not-so-highly-regarded high school talent and transforming it into talented college players.  Want another example of the converse?  How about our old friend Bill Callahan, who landed highly ranked recruits, only to get fired after four seasons because his teams weren't very good.

Today, some people want to transfer most of the credit for Bo Pelini's early success at Nebraska to Callahan's recruits.  They may have a point, but it's mitigated because of the way Callahan's players failed with him on the sidelines.

I'm not going to tell you that recruiting isn't important - it is.  But it takes more than highly ranked recruiting classes to win.  Recruitniks will point to Alabama, Florida State and Clemson as proof of the power of recruiting, but they miss the point.  I'm pointing towards the head coaches of those programs as the reason for their success.  Why do Alabama, Florida State, Clemson and Michigan State win?

It's because of their coaches.  They do a great job of selecting players and developing them into a team.

Why are teams like Texas so inconsistent?  It's because of their coaching.  Sometimes they guess right on their recruiting and do enough development to win games.  Sometimes they guess wrong, and fail miserably.

It takes both.  But it's not enough to just recruit four and five star players coming out of high school.  You have to identify players who can become stars down the line.  They may start out as five star high school players --- or start out as unknown players, like Jack Conklin or Carson Wentz.  Or Andy Janovich, for that matter.  It takes both, but it starts with coaching.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reflections on An Even More Meaningless Nebraska Spring Game

With the advent of nationally televised spring games, the endeavor has moved away from being a meaningful scrimmage into more of an exhibition to entertain the fans. Not that there is anything wrong with that - especially for those of us with kids. It's a good chance to get the kids into Memorial Stadium and experience Nebraska football without spending hundreds of dollars.  (Even if the kids no longer get to go out on the field at halftime, sad to say.)

The cancellation of the on-field halftime activities caused us to put our plans to buy tickets on hold; the original plan was to do it the day they went on sale, but we passed on that to think about it. Then life took hold: my wife found out she was on call, while my daughter had a birthday party come up.  So really, it wasn't until Friday that I decided that my son and I could go to the game.

And the opening play of the game had me questioning why I even bothered. As Tommy Armstrong started his snap count, I took a look at the defense and noticed Marcus Newby and a bunch of reserves starting for the White defense.  Then Armstrong rolled out and threw deep...and incomplete.

Deep pass against the scout team.  I saw this act before... in 2004.  It wasn't meaningful then, and it wasn't meaningful in 2016.  Going into Saturday's game, I had hoped that we would see the top units facing off in this game, but it never, ever happened.  So I pretty much ignored much of what was happening on the lines, because I didn't have any context for whether a guy was playing well or just overwhelming an inferior player on the other side.  That left me with just a few takeaways from the game action:

Mikale Wilbon caught my eye at the start of the game by getting positive yards against the top defense with absolutely no blocking. On his first carry, he nearly got tackled for a two yard loss, but spun out and ended up with a three yard gain. Later, he did get a few snaps with the first string offense and looked as good as, if not better than, every other I-back.

Redshirt freshman Avery Anderson caught my eye more than once with some big hits and some fine play, along with fellow redshirt freshman Eric Lee, Jr. Both spent a lot of time defending the top offense and looked good.

The hype machine with recruits grates me to no end, and so the constant murmuring and high expectations for Patrick O'Brien rubs me the wrong way. So when the stadium gave a huge ovation to O'Brien when he finally entered the game, I could only shake my head.  The only good thing I can say about his performance is that hopefully fans will dial down their expectations on a quarterback who really should be preparing for his high school prom this spring. He's clearly not adjusted to the speed of the college game - and nobody should expect him to, either. He's had exactly 14 college practices; it's going to take him time to understand the playbook. He doesn't have the athletic ability of the other quarterbacks to make something out of nothing, so it's going to take him time.

In other words: he's not taking over for Tommy Armstrong this fall, barring a rash of injuries. He was the fourth quarterback in the game for a reason, and frankly, I suspect that if injuries became an issue this fall, the coaches would move Zach Darlington back to quarterback ahead of O'Brien.  O'Brien looks like he needs a redshirt year to not only master the playbook, but also master the speed of the college game.  Dial it down, fans. Dial it down, big time.

We shouldn't have been surprised by the departure of defensive tackle Kevin Williams; he's been oft-injured and seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. Greg McMullen's departure, on the other hand, is troubling. He went through most of spring practice, then decided to step away last week?  OK.  Now, let's combine it with the fact that Nebraska has now had their four most experienced defensive linemen choose to leave the program since the Foster Farms Bowl. Each has their own reasons...but still, four?

Even more troubling is how defensive coordinator Mark Banker seemed to be completely blindsided by McMullen Saturday.
Especially since apparently McMullen told the team before the game.
Why DIDN'T Mark Banker know about McMullen?  Mike Riley seemed to know something on Thursday, as he said he'd have an announcement after the spring game. The team knew. This simply doesn't add up, and when you combine it with the churn on the defensive line, certainly raises my eyebrows.


It's something to keep an eye on, as I'm not sure that this story is over.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Kenny Bell's TweetStorm Generates A Lot of Anger - And a Reversal of Boyd Epley's Plans

Former Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell launched a Tweet-storm against the Nebraska athletic department Wednesday afternoon.  (For those not familiar with the term, a "Tweet-storm" is a series of tweets where someone has something lengthy to say that it can't fit into one 140-character posting on Twitter.)  The aftermath wasn't terribly pretty, as a lot of people took "hot takes" to an entirely new level in trying to defend Bell or people at the athletic department that they thought were wronged.

For those of you that missed it:



This next one cleared Mike Riley and his staff (though many people who really should know better decided to ignore it for whatever reason.)
Some took that as a shot at Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, which brought out his defenders in full force.
And so it went on...and on...and on. One astute Twitter user found a story from last year where Boyd Epley stated his plans:
Epley said he’s resetting school records in athletic testing and starting over for a standard benchmark.
But now that it's happened, the fallout was clear. And it wasn't just Kenny Bell feeling that way:

Many Husker fans were upset with Bell because he took it public on Twitter instead of contacting someone at the athletic department first. Bell says he tried that...but got no response.
And sure enough, the response was loud enough that someone inside of One Memorial Stadium took notice, and the newly implemented offending policy was history.
Specifically:
All records will be restored and displayed, regardless of testing procedure, as we want to recognize all of our record holders regardless of the timing and testing system.
Which is good news, in the end. But couldn't someone have responded to the concerns of Bell (which were clearly shared by other current and former players) before this blew up on Twitter?  A lot of awful (and erroneous) things were posted online Wednesday afternoon (and evening, it appears) - many of which won't be corrected.

Which makes this another black eye for the so-called "Greatest Fans in College Football" - can we please take those signs down now?  Because frankly, we're toxic.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Explaining UNO Hockey's Second Half Collapse

Back in October, UNO's hockey team was ranked #1 in the nation and seemingly on top of the hockey world. They opened their brand new arena, and all seemed well for a huge, memorable season.  But by mid-March, the season was over. UNO went from being a #1 seed in the tournament to ending the season on an eight game losing streak. After the Christmas break, UNO only won four out of their last 18 games.

Thud.

A 14-3-1 start to the season gets wasted, as the Mavs finished 18-17-1 on the season.

What the (bleep) happened?

UNO fans have been asking themselves that same question for weeks, if not for a couple of months, if they are truly being honest with themselves. I'm not a hockey expert by any means, but I do have a few thoughts on the season.  And it's a multi-part answer.

1. UNO's start was overrated.


UNO jumped to near the top of the national and PairWise ratings with their hot start to the season. But that gave everyone a false read on the team. Sweeping #6 Mankato and #20 Vermont looked good in October, but those teams ended up ranked 23rd and 33rd in the Pairwise. Air Force ended up ranked 28th, and Ohio State ended up 31st.  And Arizona State? 59th out of 60 division 1 teams.

Going 10-0 in the non-conference was good...but not as good as it looked at Christmas time.  Even a mediocre UNO team probably would go 7-3 against this schedule.

2. UNO's schedule was backloaded in terms of strength.


UNO played six games against Denver and four against North Dakota in the second half of the season. Those two teams will play next week in one of the semifinals at the Frozen Four. That eight game losing streak to end the season?  All of those games were against top 10 teams in the nation.

3. Goaltending wasn't the same after freshman Evan Weninger injured his ankle


In Weninger's first 12 starts, he ranked second in the NCHC in save percentage (.942) and third in goals-against average (1.99 a game).  His save percentage dropped to .923 and his goals-against-average rose to 2.46 by the end of the season. He looked good against Colorado College, but after that, the freshman struggled down the stretch. He'll get better next season for sure, and let's not forget that he was playing the toughest competition of the season at the end as well.

4.  Most of the roster went into an offensive funk after Christmas


Outside of Jake Guentzel and Mason Morelli, it's hard to identify any Mavs who had a particularly strong finish to the season.  And teams need to have more than one line that can score...but that didn't seem to happen down the stretch for UNO.

So what's next?

Good question. On Tuesday, Dean Blais dismissed his two top assistants: Troy Jutting and Alex Todd.   It was inevitable that something had to change. It'll be interesting to see who Blais hires to fill out his staff - especially because whomever becomes his top assistant will also likely be heir-apparent for the 65-year old Blais.  I'll throw out a few names: 

First, there is Penticton Vees head coach and general manager Fred Harbinson. The former St. Cloud State assistant has built quite a dynasty in western Canada with the Vees and was pursued hard by Wisconsin a year ago to be an assistant. I suspect that he might have passed on the Badgers opening because Wisconsin's Mike Eaves was on the hot seat in Madison - and sure enough, Eaves was fired after a spectacularly awful season.

Next is Minnesota assistant head coach Mike Guentzel, the father of the departed Jake Guentzel. The senior Guentzel is a former Lancers head coach and was an assistant for Blais in the 2010-11 season.  One could easily argue that the Minnesota job is better than the UNO job, but I'd point out that in Omaha, he'd be positioning himself for a head coaching position in a few years, something that probably won't happen in the Twin Cities, I suspect.

Former UNO player Nick Fohr spent a couple of years working with Blais before moving onto the US National Development Team.  He was a candidate for an opening at Wisconsin last season as well; he'd make a good #2 assistant, I suspect.

Harbinson and Guentzel are probably shoot-for-the-moon hires that many will dismiss (or at least doubt). That's fine, but I'd like to see UNO take their shots at their first choices. Certainly that's how UNO landed Blais seven years ago, and that's worked out OK so far.  (Two NCAA tournament berths and one Frozen Four rates more than OK with me, quite frankly.)

This season it became clear that this UNO hockey team, while seemingly more talented than Blais' earlier teams in Omaha, didn't seem to play with the same level of speed and precision that his early teams in Omaha did. Blais arrived with a reputation for "race horse" "run and gun" hockey, but we've seen little of that as of late. Perhaps that's because of the evolution of the staff, and this might be Blais' opportunity to reset his program.  With Weninger having three more years, it might not hurt to unleash the skills on the ice and turn up the level of play.  And with the right assistant coach hires, it still could happen.