Monday, October 31, 2011

BlogPoll Ballot: Huskers Look Like a Top Ten Team

When I bumped Nebraska out of the Top Ten in September, I left open the possibility of moving the Huskers back up once the defense started to play like we expected.  Well, that happened, and combined with a wacky weekend of football, I've moved the Huskers up to #8.  Homer pick?  Probably.  But here's my justification.  Nebraska didn't narrowly escape Vanderbilt or Duke...and Nebraska's victories over Ohio State and Washington keep looking better and better.
After that, it starts becoming a bit of a muddle. Wisconsin's probably the best two loss team in the country...and it took two Hail Mary's to give them those losses.  So I'm keeping them up in the standings for now.  Houston is an enigma; putting up big scores on nobodies.  Kansas State is back where I think they should be.  Southern Cal doesn't go down far for narrowly losing to a top five team...

Oklahoma State's blowout of Baylor finally convinced me to move them up to #3.  So they'll likely be #2 next week after the LSU/Alabama game.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spring Football Might Work for UFL, But Not in Omaha

Crowds like this can't be
accommodated in the spring.
The UFL is currently exploring all alternatives they can to survive into 2012, though their latest idea probably won't work in Omaha. Rather than trying to compete with high school and college football, the UFL is considering switching to the spring, ala the USFL and XFL.  The idea makes sense in many other markets where the league isn't getting the exposure they need...but not in Omaha.  Don't get me wrong, I think Omahans would flock to professional football no matter what season it is.  The problem isn't the fans, but the logistics.  Where would the Omaha Nighthawks play in a spring season?

I don't think TD Ameritrade Park would be available for football. The new downtown ballpark was built first and foremost to support the College World Series, and keeping the NCAA happy is job one.  I can't imaging the NCAA being supportive of football games being played in April and May on the same field, wearing out the turf. Heck, if you saw tonight's Philadelphia/Dallas game, you noticed that they've already had to resod the middle of the field...and it's only October.  Football puts a lot of wear and tear on a field, and the NCAA wants their event played in as pristine of an environment as possible.

Football in July and afterwards is fine; new sod can be laid down in the fall, and repairs can be made in the early spring, with plenty of time for it to grow and mature before the Series begins in mid-June.  So football downtown would be out, so where else could the Nighthawks play?  Probably the best option would be UNO, where Al Caniglia Field sits mostly idle.  But the capacity of UNO's field is under 10,000, though it is possible to add bleachers to extend the capacity to 15,000.  UNO also lacks the skyboxes and other amenities that would make football a better revenue generator.  And let's not forget that UNO football itself was financially unsuccessful there as well.

Spring football is at best a gimmick, in my opinion. Arena football makes it work, but I don't see anything else working. We've seen it tried before...and it's failed.  In my opinion, the only option the UFL has to become viable long-term is some sort of partnership with the NFL. Apparently the UFL once rejected a bid by the NFL to buy 51% of the league.  Oops.

Bring in the NFL as a managing partner is step one to rescuing the league. The schedule shenanigans this season destroyed the credibility of the league with many fans and players.  I don't know how much credibility the current management of the league still has, but the NFL brings instant credibility.  Expand the league to eight cities, and let NFL teams send players from their practice squad to the UFL for development.  When mid-season injuries pop-up, the NFL teams can recall players back from the UFL, just like they do in the NHL and Major League Baseball.  It's a system that makes the NFL a better league because the reserves are in football shape.  Start training camps Labor Day weekend, after the NFL does their final cuts.  Begin playing games late September, and finish up around Thanksgiving.  Play games on Thursday and Friday nights in college hotbeds, and on Saturdays in markets without college football.  Broadcast games on the NFL Network, and promote them as a place to see the young quarterbacks that an NFL team drafted.

But just say no to spring football. It might work in Sacramento and Las Vegas...but not in Omaha.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blackshirts Emerge from Slobberknocker with Sparty

Inconsistency has been the hallmark of Nebraska's 2011 football season, especially on defense. Brief stretches of great play, such as the third quarter against Wisconsin, the fourth quarter against Ohio State, or the first twenty minutes against Wisconsin were offset by some rough (to be kind) stretches. (Think the second twenty minutes against Wisconsin, if you are a masochist.) The good stretches give you cause for optimism, but the bad stretches hold you back.  For the last couple of weeks, the coaching staff has told us they thought the team had turned the corner. Just yesterday, secondary coach Corey Raymond told fans at the Big Red Breakfast in Omaha that the team was close:
"I think we're going to be much better than we are," Raymond said. "We're going to get there."
So I went into today's game against Michigan State hoping for the best...but expecting the worst.  The Huskers, meanwhile, came out with a defensive effort we haven't seen since last season. First solid sign?  Lance Thorell picking off a Kirk Cousins pass on the Spartans' opening possession of the game.  But it wasn't just was the entire defense.  Biggest difference maker to me? Cornerback Andrew Green, who was a surprise starter over Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Earlier this season, Green seemed to out of position about half the time. Opposing quarterbacks seemed to target him as he repeatedly got burned. But apparently he showed something in practice, as the coaches gave him a second chance this week, and he delivered. Big time. Seven tackles; two for a loss.  Seemingly always in the right position, he was solid in pass coverage as well.

The big heroes of the game on defense were the tag team of corner Alfonzo Dennard and safety Daimion Stafford.  They channeled their inner Amukamara and totally took B.J. Cunningham out of the game.  Cunningham is Michigan State's leading receiver, averaging over 100 yards a game receiving each game. Cousins tried to find him over and over again, but Dennard and Stafford weren't having any of that. Cunningham's lone appearance on the stat sheet in today's game?  The tackle on Thorell's interception.  Zero catches for Michigan State's leading playmaker.

Michigan State's lone offensive threat today was running back Le'Vion Bell, who took over from struggling Edwin Baker.  Bell did some early damage on the ground, but found less and less running room as the Huskers dialed in on the Spartans. That forced Cousins to make plays, and the Blackshirts were eager to face a pocket passer who wasn't a significant risk to scramble. Even so Cousins did make a couple of plays with his feet...but more often than not, went down hard.  Cue Eric Martin, who saw significant time in pass-rush situations in the second half and contributed two sacks.

Nebraska's offensive effort might not look all that impressive at first, until you realize that the Spartans rank in the top ten in all the major defensive categories. Rex Burkhead cemented his place in Nebraska football lore with a gritty, gutty 35 carry performance. The 3.7 yard average won't impress people...but the heart he showed in grinding out extra yard after extra yard all day was memorable. In the third quarter, Burkhead went down with a cramp, and you could almost hear fans holding their breath as they waited to see how badly Burkhead was injured. He missed two whole plays...and returned to the game with a bang, catching a touchdown pass to give the Huskers a seemingly insurmountable lead.

Taylor Martinez did a decent job managing the game today; we even saw a nifty touchdown run that was nullified by an unnecessary holding penalty on Quincy Enunwa.  The receivers had an off-day all-around. Kenny Bell had a false-start penalty, and there were a few drops.  On the play before the Burkhead touchdown catch, both Enunwa and Kyler Reed limped to the sideline.

Truth be told, it was a physical game and the game was rather choppy as the training staffs of both teams spent a lot of time on the field. It started on the opening kickoff and never stopped. As the second half unfolded, those two long Nebraska touchdown drives seemed to wear down the Spartans.  If Nebraska needed to score more points in the fourth quarter, they could have...but with a comfortable lead, there was no need to take a chance.

Carl Pelini shows the defense what they've earned.
Photo Courtesy:
Especially with the Husker defense returning to form. I noticed in Bo Pelini's post-game radio interview that he mentioned the performance of the Blackshirts. No doubt in my mind that the defense finally earned their Blackshirts today. A few fans may disagree with how Pelini handles the Blackshirt tradition, but it's hard to argue with Pelini's results. Under Pelini, the Blackshirts truly mean something.  It's a badge of honor.

With today's victory, Nebraska played themselves in the lead position to win the Big Ten's West division this season. The teeth of the schedule is still ahead.  Road games at Michigan and Penn State await next month. Everything is still in front of the Cornhuskers this season, and in a game that's as crazy as college football, who knows where things will lead. But Nebraska's division lead is tenuous at best, as there is zero room for error.

Win and advance.  Win and advance.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

BlogPoll Ballot: Bouncing Sparty up to #10; Huskers Stay at #14

Up until now I had no reason to drop Oklahoma out of the top spot.  Now I do.  And frankly, after what LSU did to Auburn this weekend, I think I might have given serious thought to doing it anyway. The Sooners loss to Texas Tech (with three starters out on defense) sent the spiraling downward.  Stanford's demolition of Washington caught my attention, so I'm moving them up to #3.  Maybe that's only to prevent any SEC "Game of the Century" talk for the matchup in a couple of weeks.

I feel I penalized Wisconsin too much for giving up a Hail Mary on the final play of the game, but if I didn't put Sparty ahead of the Badgers, someone would point out "didn't you watch the game"?   Into this week's poll comes USC and Georgia. Auburn and Washington don't get penalized much for losing to elite teams; this drop is more because they lost so badly, not because they lost. Teams should get credit for playing top teams, even if they come up on the short end of the scoreboard.

Why did Texas A&M stay at #25? Simple. I still haven't seen enough to convince me that the Aggies are a legitimate Top 25 team. Call it the hangover from last year's Nebraska game when even with help from the officials and Taylor Martinez hobbled, they still struggled to win at home. But that's last year, you say. They do have a victory over Texas Tech, which probably is their best win to date.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

First Half Bounces Go Huskers Way in Blowout of the Goofers

Most people thought it wasn't going to be much of a game, and the 34-0 halftime score certainly confirmed it. But frankly, it wasn't so much that Nebraska played so well, but rather that Minnesota played that poorly. That's not to say the Huskers played poorly today...there was a lot of good things we saw on the field. But the biggest reason the score got out of hand was Minnesota's mistakes.

Example 1:  Nebraska faces 3rd & 10.  Minnesota tries to jump the snap, but fails to get back before the snap and gets flagged for offsides. Despite going backwards at the snap, the penalty negates a sack of Martinez. Instead of punting, Rex Burkhead gets the first down. Nebraska goes on to get a field goal.

Example 2: After the Huskers went up 10-0 in the first quarter, Minnesota's Duane Bennett was tackled by his own teammate at the Gopher 25 yard line.  No other Huskers were in position, and Bennett probably would have gained another ten yards on the return.

Example 3: MarQueis Gray fumbles twice; the first, returned by Austin Cassidy for a touchdown, and the second on fourth down ended Minnesota's best drive of the first half.

With an opponent playing so poorly, Nebraska did what good teams do...pounce. The Huskers racked up 330 yards in the first half. So don't get the wrong idea...Nebraska outplayed the Gophers on both sides of the ball in that first half.

Second half, Nebraska seemed to let up on the gas. Maybe it was the big lead; maybe Minnesota regrouped and played their best football since losing to Southern Cal 19-17 in their season opener. With a seemingly healthy MarQueis Gray back at quarterback, the Gophers aren't as bad as they appeared in recent weeks.

So what did we learn today? You have to like how the Huskers came out and took it to Minnesota early in the game. Taylor Martinez threw the ball fairly well with a glove on his throwing hand. We didn't see Stanley Jean-Baptiste get burned in his first start.

Early on, I didn't think the Husker offensive line blocked all that well, especially on pass protection.  Martinez took a few hits early on that he shouldn't have had to.  But Martinez looked fairly good throwing the ball today.  One of his worst throws was redeemed when Tim Marlowe made a spectacular one handed grab.  But Nebraska's first drive of the second half ended when Kenny Bell, Marlowe, and Jamal Turner couldn't make very makeable catches. I think Tim Beck had a "Tin Cup" moment, telling Taylor Martinez to give him another (deep) ball rather than take a safer play to keep the drive alive. So while Martinez's 13-for-22 passing doesn't look that good, there were so many drops today that you had to wonder if Ted Gilmore had flown to Minneapolis today.

My biggest concern about Martinez's play today was two pitches in the option game.  That fourth-and-one botched pitch turned out golden...but that was purely a lucky bounce.  (Is that even the correct ruling? I would think that on fourth down, the ball should have been marked where Nebraska last touched it, not where it went out of bounds.  But I'm not an official and I'm not a rulesmaker.)  That impromptu pitch on third and goal from the Gopher one yard line was a bad decision that fortunately bounced into Rex Burkhead's hands.

Burkhead was steady and solid once again, and Kenny Bell got our attention with a nifty 82 yard reverse for a touchdown. Why show that play today, asked former DoubleExtraPoint blogger Jeffie Husker. Good question, except that perhaps there are other things to show out of that besides just faking the reverse. On defense, the biggest concern was either Alfonzo Dennard or Daimion Stafford blew the coverage on DaJon McKnight.  Couldn't tell from the video review.  Doesn't matter; it just better not happen next week against B.J. Cunningham.

Speaking of Michigan State, how about that finish against Wisconsin? How much does Sparty have left in their tank after defeating Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin in October?  We'll find out next Saturday in Lincoln.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Lunch: Unfortunate Doubleheader Downtown with Nighthawks and Mavs

Tonight's simultaneous UNO Maverick hockey game and Nighthawks football game downtown is an unfortunate scheduling situation. It's far from optimal, but the situation is as it is.  The Nighthawks are fighting for survival, and there really isn't much of an alternative this weekend (except to try and play on Sunday afternoon).  So tonight it is.

The problem with a Sunday game is the NFL. While I don't think that would matter locally, it does matter in the long term. A Sunday afternoon game on a nice October afternoon would probably draw a huge crowd - better than tonight, I think. But it would send a bad message to the UFL and the Nighthawks rescuer:  the NFL.

Many people dismiss the idea of the NFL salvaging the UFL.  I don't, and Tom Shatel wrote an excellent article yesterday about the potential that the NFL could sweep in and make the UFL viable.  If the NFL was interested in buying 51% of the league in the past, they might be now.  If you add in four more markets for an eight team league and work out player agreements with NFL squads where "practice squad" players were playing in the UFL, the financials might work out for everyone.

Certainly the way the UFL is handling this is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of fans and players alike. The UFL has lost almost all of it's credibility with the way this season has been handled.  I think the Nighthawks organization is a victim of this as well.  If the NFL sweeps in and takes control, it'll bring the credibility the UFL lacks. And frankly, I think the Nighthawks can thrive in this market as long as there is a league supporting them. Right now, that ain't happening.

As for the Mavs, Chad Purcell of the World-Herald reports that Alex Hudson will be back in uniform tonight for the Mavs. After a three game losing streak and a roster filled with underclassmen, senior leadership from a player like Hudson can't hurt. But how much of his leadership was tainted by the issues that led to his suspension?  We'll find out tonight.

Also suiting up for the Mavs tonight is a revised, red Durango. So far, I'm not too keen on the "teaser" shots of the new mascot.  All I can think of is "Deranged Elmo".  This one seems to be designed with Mad Cow Disease in mind.  Maybe I'll change my mind after seeing the full effect tonight.  Just don't scare the children, please.

If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely have to check out Bo Pelini in the locker room after the Ohio State comeback.  It's not quite Paul Rhodes...but you can see exactly why Bo Pelini is so loved by his players, and furthermore, why he reacted as he did when Dirk Chatelain reopened up his can of worms in the post game press-conference.

The uproar over Chatelain was a topic of the interview between HuskerLocker's Erin Sorensen and KOZN's Kevin Kugler. Kugler expressed gratitude towards his station's management and their support when people called for Kugler to be fired for uncomplimentary stands against Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan.  I agree with Kugler to this extent: media members shouldn't be fired for not "toting the Nebraska line".  The media (and bloggers like me) should feel free to call out the leadership in Lincoln when they are wrong.  Chatelain shouldn't be fired for writing something critical of Bo Pelini and Taylor Martinez. That being said, Chatelain's poor analysis ("there are no other quarterbacks to play", therefore Martinez should be benched) should have raised major red alerts in the upper levels of World-Herald management. It's one thing to be critical, it's another thing to write a muddled mess of a column that pours gasoline on a fire.  And Chatelain should have been called out for it.  Just like Kugler and his co-host Mike'l Severe love to criticize others in the media (Chris Berman, Chris Mortensen, etc.) for their comments, Chatelain earned his criticism as well.

By the way, I nearly vomited last night with Chatelain's suggestion that ESPN's Sean McDonough should replace Joe Buck on Fox's baseball broadcast. I'm not defending Buck here... but let's be honest, McDonough got his gig for the same reason Buck did.  Difference is that McDonough is, from my perspective, one of the worst announcers in sports today. I hated him 20 years ago when he did football and baseball, and he hasn't improved one bit since.  About the only sport he does well is golf; he's got the perfect vocal style for golf.  But not for baseball and certainly not for football.  The McDonough/Matt Millen pairing is one of the worst in the game today-even worse than almost anything FSN throws (up) at us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

BlogPoll Ballot

With the Huskers on a bye week, I didn't feel like moving the Huskers up for not playing...but with the losses by some teams, there's an opportunity to look at teams with a new perspective.  Namely a school like Michigan State, which looked pretty good against the Weasels.  But there's still that loss to Notre Dame, which is worse than Nebraska's loss to Wisconsin in my book, so I'll give the Huskers the edge there.

And that victory over Washington is looking more impressive all the time; the Huskies are 5-1.  It's also time to show some love towards Kansas State, who's quietly up to 6-0.

Also added to the poll is Texas A&M, who didn't collapse in the 2nd half against Baylor.  I debated about knocking out Illinois out of the top 25 altogether, but they suffered enough being Zooked.