Monday, November 26, 2012

BlogPoll Week 13 Ballot: Can't Stomach Notre Dame On Top

What I did see of Southern Cal trying to lose to Notre Dame last night convinced me that my gut instinct on Notre Dame is correct; they ain't the best team in the country.  And since other ballots didn't list Notre Dame on top last week, I'm going to join that parade.

And before Irish fans squawk about #3, I easily thought about #6.  Georgia looks pretty darn good...and frankly, I still think Stanford essentially tied Notre Dame in South Bend.  Some say that the top 10-12 teams are pretty much interchangeable in the poll, and I'm not sure they're wrong.

Why move Nebraska ahead of Oklahoma?  That's a hard question, but it comes down to how bad the Sooners defense has been as of late.  As for the rest of the teams in this poll, it really became a crapshoot of teams to add.  Heck, I even moved Oklahoma State up one spot for losing in overtime; that's a rule I've always's better to play a good team well than beat the heck out of a crappy team.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Legend of Rex Grows As Huskers Squeak Past Squawkeyes

It was brutally ugly out there most of the day in Iowa City, but in the end, yet another second half comeback means Nebraska is heading to Indianapolis as the Big Ten's West division champions. The game started out fast as the Huskers pounded the ball all the way inside the Iowa ten yard line before having to settle for a field goal.  16 plays, 75 yards, eight minutes off the clock.  It looked like Iowa was mailing it in on defense.

Except Iowa's offense wasn't quite ready to fold.  They answered with an impressive drive of their own.  The Iowa offensive line was blowing huge holes in the first quarter for Mark Weisman.  Add in a fingertip catch by tight end A. J. Fiedorowicz, and the Hawkeyes stunned Husker fans with a first quarter touchdown and a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Then, it was back to the Three Stooges comedy of errors in the second quarter.  Ameer Abdullah fumbles a punt.  Taylor Martinez can't make up his mind whether to hand off to Abdullah or keep it on one play.  Runs into fullback Andy Janovich on another play. 14 plays, 10 yards of offense on the quarter.  Even with the benefit of the wind, the Huskers couldn't do a dog-gone thing on offense. Fortunately, the Iowa offense was only modestly less incompetent. The Hawkeyes managed to work their impersonation of a two-minute offense all the way inside the Nebraska 20 yard line, then somehow managed to get an illegal substitution penalty coming off a timeout.  How does that happen?  The wind pushed the field goal wide left, and the Hawkeye lead remained 7-3 at halftime.

Apparently Nebraska was hoping to keep Rex Burkhead on the sideline unless it was absolutely necessary.  That first half pretty much made it necessary, and in came Burkhead.  Sparked Nebraska's opening drive, which cut the Iowa lead to 7-6, then scored on a toss-sweep to put the Huskers up 13-7.  Now, it's just a case of holding onto the ball and holding the lead against an Iowa team that wasn't doing much of anything positive in the second half.  Well, other than hitting Fiedorowicz for a clutch completion for a stay of execution. 

Taylor Martinez ran an option to Rex Burkhead, seemingly to gain a first down.  But Nebraska apparently didn't realize that the pitch could have gone forward, and gave the replay booth enough time to signal for a review.  That goes on Tim Beck, who should have seen that from the press box and immediately signaled into a quick play to save the first down.  Instead, the penalty wiped out the gain, and Martinez's poorly executed quarterback draw went absolutely nowhere to force Nebraska to punt.  It was that type of day for Nebraska's quarterback; quite possibly his worst performance of the year.

Hence, the need for Burkhead today.  The Blackshirts forced Iowa into a three-and-out, but the wind-aided punt was downed just outside the goal line.  That's when Burkhead cemented his spot as a Husker Legend.  On second down from the NU three yard line, Burkhead powered his way for a four yard gain.  Or so it seemed at first...the pile just kept moving with Rex at the bottom of it.  A nine yard gain got Nebraska out of deep trouble and a first down.  Then he did it again, pushing another pile forward for an eight yard gain.  Fans cringed when Rex left the game, but fortunately, it was only to adjust the knee brace.  Two plays later, he was back in.

Facing third and three, Tim Beck had a Bill Callahan moment.  Rex Burkhead is taking control of the game, and Nebraska is trying to run clock.  So what's the play call?  Just like against Texas in 2006, a pass play.  A good pass by Martinez, mind you.  But Janovich drops the ball, the clock stops, and Nebraska's forced to punt. Fortuately for Nebraska, Greg Davis and the Iowa offense had no plans to take advantage of their last chances.  Three Mark Weisman rushes up the middle?  That's all Iowa had left?  The Huskers ate three minutes of clock, but punted the ball back to Iowa with three minutes to go.

Again, Iowa must have thought there were three hours left, but frankly, with the way the Hawkeye offense was performing, they could have had the ball for three days and not threatened to score. After a Weisman run for a first down, the Hawkeyes lazily huddled the ball and took their sweet time getting the next play off.  Maybe they already knew what was going to happen next:  James Vandenberg's pass was picked off by Alonzo Whaley to seal the Husker win.  All that was left was for Rex Burkhead to run out the clock.

It was a great performance by the Blackshirts in the second half, especially Eric Martin and Whaley.  Martin was unblockable at times in his pursuit of Vandenberg.  That explains why Iowa wanted to try to run the ball today, but as the clock wound down, Weisman was never going to make it to the endzone by himself. That's a great testament to the defensive line, who had to go without Baker Steinkuhler most of the game.  And with Steinkuhler leaving on crutches, Nebraska will have to find a way to stop Wisconsin's running backs next weekend without him as well.

After the Ohio State debacle, Bo Pelini said Nebraska had to win out.  Mission accomplished.  Pelini found a way to make the defense serviceable this season, and that's a testament to him and his staff. There are still lingering questions about the future of the defensive line, especially considering how little playing time the non-seniors have been seeing as of late.  But that's a question to discuss in the winter and spring.  Right now, Nebraska's off to the Big Ten championship game.

Three conference title games in five years for Bo Pelini; that's a pretty good record at most places.  Except at Nebraska, where we set our expectations a little higher.  And we should.  But with Nebraska at 10-2, all those Bo Pelini critics need to tip their caps off to Nebraska's head coach. 

But not the players and team...there's one thing that needs to be accomplished first.  Beat Wisconsin...and get to Pasadena.  It's time to add a post-2000 date to the facade on the skyboxes at Memorial Stadium.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The New Ballpark Smell Wearing Off The Trailer Park

The Omaha World-Herald reports that the former Omaha Royals are rolling back ticket prices for season ticket holders.  Sure, they'll paint it as a magnanimous gesture towards their fans, but let's recognize it as a business decision. A business decision that reflects the fact that the stadium is no longer brand spanking new.  The people who wanted to see the new ballpark have done so.  Now they must focus on keeping them.

The long-anticipated development out in BFE Sarpy County hasn't happened yet.  Pennant Place was announced nearly two years ago, and still isn't happening yet.  So to keep interest levels up, they are cutting prices.  Or devaluing the ticket, as it used to be called when the stadium was being proposed.  It's not a big price cut (3%-5%), but it's right on my schedule. Cutting prices in 2013?  What will it be like in 2015 in year five?

BlogPoll Week 12 Ballot: Notre Dame #1 By Default

Am I convinced Notre Dame is the best team in the country?  Absolutely not.  But it's impossible to vote just about anybody else #1.  On my ballot, Ohio State is ineligible, otherwise they'd be ranked ahead of the Irish.  And frankly, from a strength perspective, I still think Alabama, Oregon, and Kansas State are better than Notre Dame.  Probably Stanford as well - especially considering that the Irish essentially tied the Cardinal, if they had called that overtime touchdown correctly.

So with that in mind...

You'll see several SEC teams dropping.  LSU dropped only to make room for Stanford.  Florida dropped for not exactly playing great against an FCS foe.  South Carolina waited until the fourth quarter to win their game against Wofford.

Joining the poll this week are Northwestern, Oklahoma State, and 9-1 Rutgers.  When there are so many four loss teams on the cusp of being ranked, it's hard to argue against a one loss Big East team.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Huskers Demolish Gophers on a Throwback Saturday

In a flashback to glory days of the past, Nebraska sent retiring athletic director Tom Osborne off to a second retirement by dominating a bowl eligible conference opponent.  But that's where the similarities end.  This wasn't Missouri or Kansas that Nebraska was Minnesota. Nebraska only rushed for 133 yards on the day, but passed for 311.

Not quite sure what to make of the Huskers on offense today; Minnesota is giving up 185 yards a game on the ground in conference play, and Nebraska couldn't even get within 50 yards of that number.  Yet the Gophers were third in the conference in pass defense and Taylor Martinez completed 21 of 29 passes with a gale blowing out of the southwest.

Nebraska's rushing attack was definitely a disappointment today, especially in the second half when the Huskers were trying to run clock.  Eleven carries for 32 yards in the third quarter?  Yuck - especially when 23 came on one Ameer Abdullah run. Thankfully Taylor Martinez brought his A-game with his arm this week, completing 72% of his passes with no interceptions. Kenny Bell caught nine passes for two touchdowns, though his day ended with getting clobbered over the middle.  Probably just got the wind knocked out of him, but it made it clear it was time to clear the benches in the second half.

That's where the game got ugly.  Ron Kellogg only completed 1 of 4 passes as the entire offense ground to a halt; the Huskers only gained 19 yards of total offense with the reserves in the game.  If anybody is still holding to that tired line that Taylor Martinez should have been benched, it's time to thrown in the towel. And let's make it clear:  Taylor Martinez is the most important player on Nebraska's roster; if he goes down to injury, this season would essentially be over.

The story of this game is the defense.  Minnesota went ONE for 13 on third down today, and it started with the first possession of the game.  Gopher freshman quarterback Phillip Nelson sprinted nine yards on a naked bootleg, yet the Blackshirts still forced a punt.  The Gophers couldn't really run or throw the ball until the reserves came in late.  It was a solid performance on all levels from my perspective:  defensive line, linebackers, and secondary.  Even when the Blackshirts made a mistake, things tended to work out anyway.  In the third quarter, Nebraska mixed up the defense with a three man line and moved Eric Martin out wide to cover a tight end.  Martin drops the coverage, and the receiver is running free over the middle.  Nelson throws high, and the wide open receiver deflects the ball to Stanley Jean-Baptiste.  Easy interception, and 48 yards later, the Huskers are up 38-0.

Nebraska needed to break the streak of having bad first half performances, and today fit the bill.  Nebraska was dominant from the opening kick, and this game was never really in doubt.  Did the tribute to Tom Osborne give the team that extra spark?  We'll never know.  It was a fitting tribute to the man that has meant so much to Nebraska football over the years.

So guess what...Nebraska is 9-2 and facing hapless Iowa on Friday for the B1G's west division title.  Not bad for a team that some people thought would only win eight this season...especially for those people who wrote this team off after the UCLA and Ohio State losses.  And after today's results, those losses are actually looking pretty good now.  There are only two undefeated teams left in the country:  Notre Dame and Ohio State.  UCLA just clinched a berth in the Pac-12 championship game.  If Stanford beats UCLA next weekend, those two teams will play again six days later for the Rose Bowl berth.  If UCLA beats Stanford, the Bruins head to Oregon.

But let's not worry about the Rose Bowl just yet.  Beat Iowa, then beat Wisconsin.  First things first.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bo Pelini Leaving Nebraska, Chapter 5: Auburn

There goes Bo again...
or is it just the rumor mill again?
It's a double feature in the never-ending saga of rumors that Bo Pelini is leaving Nebraska yet again.  This time, we're treated to not only Auburn, but also a rerun of the Arkansas report from this spring.  Every time these reports come up, they're shot down within hours, and the report never gets substantiated.  Yet people keep biting on them.  Why?  Some people just love a good rumor; others deep down keep hoping it's true.

It shouldn't be a surprise that other schools have an interest in Bo Pelini.  If the Huskers can beat either Minnesota or Iowa, Pelini will have won nine or more games for the fifth straight season.  While some Husker fans might think that's not enough, other schools find that compelling. That's new for Nebraska football.  Certainly nobody was interested in stealing Bill Callahan away from Nebraska, and Frank Solich was probably viewed as a lifer in Lincoln.  Same thing with Tom Osborne, though offers from Houston and Michigan State did come in after his retirement.  There probably were other inquiries back in the day when the rumor mill didn't have access to the internet.

Sam McKewon of the World-Herald doesn't find much substance in these rumors.  He speculates the Auburn story is just that..speculation from the media.  The Arkansas report could have some legs, though the interest is by Arkansas, not Pelini.

So once again, we are treated to the lather/rinse/repeat of these stories, with the implication that Pelini has been banging on doors trying to get out of Lincoln.  Except he's still in Lincoln and these reports never go far.  Am I being pollyana in simply accepting Pelini's denials of interest?  Maybe.  But haven't we  learned that unsubstantiated reports frequently are just plain wrong?  Ten years ago, there was the wild rumor that Bob Davie was having cable installed at his new house in Lincoln in preparation of replacing Frank Solich.  Turned out to be completely bogus, yet people believed it.  People believe the darndest things about Pelini. My favorite from ten years ago was the report that Pelini didn't even own a suit.

After a caller to Pelini's call-in radio show insinuated that Pelini had lost his team, the rumor mill ran amok.  It was fanned further by Daimion Stafford's expression of frustration with Pelini in the first half of the Penn State game.

I heard the call into the radio show, but since I was at the game and not watching the ABC telecast, I never saw the exchange between Stafford and Pelini.  All I know is that if Stafford was upset with Pelini, it didn't last long; Stafford had a pretty good game in the second half.  And tonight, Stafford and Will Compton cleared the air after practice tonight.  What they said generally corresponds with everything I've heard about Pelini's relationship with his players over the years.  Here's Compton to the Lincoln Journal-Star:

"There's no better guy to play for, and there's no better guy to have in your life, as far as leadership and a father figure."
So when I hear these rumors that Pelini can't wait to leave his team for the latest rumor du jour, I stop and think about everything I've heard from inside the Nebraska football program over the last ten years.  And in the end, the rumors just don't smell right.  And when they are so quickly dismissed, I have no reason to put any stock in them.

Will Arkansas or Auburn try to contact Pelini?  Quite possibly.  Pelini might actually answer the phone and tell them "no", which will then lead to rumors that he's "talked" with these schools.  But I'm going to need more substance before I buy into these rumors.

And substance continues to be in short supply whenever the "Bo Pelini is leaving Nebraska" story gets regurgitated.

Monday, November 12, 2012

BlogPoll Week 11 Ballot:

So much for 'Bama, thanks to Johnny Football.  Cue the ESPN hype machine for some Tebow-esque overdoing it.  In the meantime, Oregon moves to the head of the line.  I'm sticking with my current order of K-State followed by Notre Dame.  Alabama drops to #4; still think they're the best of the 1-loss teams at this point.

Nebraska stays right where they were; don't see much of a way to move them.  Oregon State lost to a top ten foe (in my book), so they don't drop much.  UCLA drops a touch for mailing it in at halftime, but I have to keep the Bruins ahead of the Huskers at this point.  Back in this week is Wisconsin (after mauling Indiana) and Texas Tech.  Mississippi State stays in because (a) it was a loss to a top ten foe and (b) who the heck do I rank otherwise?