Sunday, November 30, 2014

So What's Next After Nebraska Fires Pelini

Count me as disappointed over Bo Pelini's dismissal at Nebraska. I still think he's an excellent coach, even if he didn't get Nebraska where Husker fans want the program to be. And I think we're more likely to be disappointed by what's next than we are to be pleased.

But right or wrong, the decision has been made. 

I'm not worried about Bo. He's am excellent coach and will have success elsewhere.

I am worried about the players. You can tell from the initial reactions that the team loved their coach by their shock and disappointment. The next Nebraska coach has HUGE shoes to fill. Bill Callahan couldn't match Frank Solich or Pelini in terms of dealing with college athletes both on and off the field, and the next coach will have to deal with a very disappointed team.

So who is the next coach? I have a few names I'd consider and who shouldn't. Let's start with the NOT's:

Scott Frost (lack of experience), Jim McElwain (nowhere enough experience), Jim Tressel (legacy of NCAA violations everywhere he's been).

So who to consider? Start with Minnesota's Jerry Kill. Proven winner everywhere who could be huge at a school with Nebraska's prestige and resources. Maybe take  flier on Art Briles or Gary Patterson, though it's unlikely that they'd leave the state of Texas.

If Bo Pelini's nine wins aren't good enough, Nebraska must think big. That means Nebraska must be prepared to spend big money on the next coach. A proven winner might cost $6 million a year or more. Treat this hire like Alabama did when they hired Nick Saban. Make big names say no, and make it very difficult to say no.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nebraska Guts Out a Black Friday Victory Over Iowa

It looked ugly at times. It look downright absurd at other times. But somehow, in some way, Nebraska found a way to beat Iowa 37-31 in overtime.  Is it a case where Iowa sucks more than Nebraska?  You could certainly make that case. Is this a case where Nebraska's character persevered?  You could certainly say that as well.

Bottom line is that both sides of the "Bo Should Stay"/"Bo Should Go" debate found evidence to support their case. Nebraska got nine wins, and that's a decent season.  There is no quit in a Bo Pelini team.  Even though many people probably gave up when Iowa went up 24-7 on the punt into the butt.

Not me. I could see the defense was playing better, and Iowa almost certainly had another turnover in them. (What, you guys didn't think Bo Pelini could make an adjustment?) And sure enough, Ameer Abdullah sparked an offensive comeback.

Only to have the field goal blocked and Andy Janovich inexplicably stand there and not attempt to advance the ball. Would he have scored? Probably not. But he should have tried, and why he didn't is one of those mental mistakes that makes Husker fans pull their head out.

But since Iowa wasn't doing anything on offense anymore, you knew Nebraska would get the ball back, and the next time, Tommy Armstrong found Taariq Allen in the back of the endzone. Armstrong's stats weren't great on the day, but he certainly improvised when he had to.  And he had to because Nebraska was playing two third-teamers on the offensive line. Paul Thurston and Matt Finnin were thrown into the fire, and while they weren't terribly effective, Nebraska still managed to move the ball.

Another Iowa three-and-out, and then De'Mornay Pierson-El redeemed himself from last week's errors.  First a 41 yard punt return to set up a deep pass to Kenny Bell to cut Iowa's lead to 24-21. That throw was your typical Tommy Armstrong pass thrown into coverage, but Bell somehow made the catch.  Then Pierson-El went 80 to put the Huskers in the lead somehow.

Iowa wasn't done, and chewed clock to regain the lead with under two minutes to go.  Only to have Armstrong lead the team down the field again to allow Nebraska to send the game into overtime.

And frankly, wasn't it awesome to have Kenny Bell make two catches in overtime to get the Huskers the win. Bell had his senior day cut short with a concussion, but played huge today.  And in so doing, cooled down a bit of the "Bo Pelini is going to be fired rhetoric" that has been growing since the Wisconsin debacle. Not that a win over Iowa necessarily is anything that should save a guy's job, but rather that by not losing to Iowa, the detractors have one less reason to call for a coaching change.

This isn't to say that changes aren't needed in Lincoln; I do believe that something needs to change. But I want Bo Pelini making the changes, not Shawn Eichorst.  I still "Bo-lieve", even if many people don't.  I'm sorry, but nine wins a season is a pretty good thing.  No other program (except one in the south and one on the west coast) has done it over the last seven years, and that counts for something.

But the four losses are a problem.  Even worse are losses like the one at Wisconsin.   I think Bo Pelini knows better than anybody else where those games broke down, and is now able to start addressing those issues now that the regular season is over.  I expect that there will be assistant coaches looking for new jobs, though we may not realize it immediately.  Bo isn't going to fire somebody to save his job (he said so himself), and he isn't going to fire people  to hand fans a scapegoat.  He will, however, work with his departing assistants to find them their next assignment.  He's loyal to his assistants, and he's done it before in jettisoning Shawn Watson, Ted Gilmore, and Corey Raymond.   By spring practice, there will be new faces on this coaching staff.

It's been a rough season and disappointing in they eyes of Husker fans.  We should remember that experts like Phil Steele picked them to finish 4th in the Big Ten west, and whether we like it or not, third is better than fourth.  And if Nebraska manages to get a favorable bowl bid, a ten win season is still possible.  That's not all bad.

Not at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gophers Stronger Than Huskers, Which Says a Lot

The old mantra that football games are won - and lost - in the trenches is still true today, even in this PlayStation era of spread offenses.  Nebraska's performance against Minnesota showed just that as the no-nonsense Gophers overwhelmed the Huskers at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  Is Minnesota more talented than Nebraska?  I don't think anybody would argue about that.  Did they outplay Nebraska? Absolutely.

Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner was the difference maker in this game; not terribly effective in the passing game, but deadly on the ground.  When the Gophers needed yards, it was usually Leidner running the ball...and usually in the open after defensive misread after misread. Going into the game, Leidner didn't scare me that much as a mobile quarterback, but as the game went on, he frightened me more and more.  Although Leidner has rushed more often in recent weeks (84 yards against Purdue, 77 yards against Iowa, and 56 yards against Ohio State), he's not the type of quarterback that should put up huge numbers against the Huskers.

But he did.

And that's one of the key issues for Bo Pelini's program as right now, it's just not working right. It's not a talent problem, in my opinion.  And frankly, it's not a scheme issue either.  It's an execution issue.  And before you think I'm somehow absolving Pelini of this problem, I'm not.  I'm pointing the finger squarely at him because when execution problems keep plaguing his defense, it's a systemic issue that points back to how his coaches are implementing his scheme.  It just happens too often, and too consistently for it to be anything else.

Offensively, Nebraska's offense was ineffective much of the day, but I don't blame Tommy Armstrong that much. I think he had a decent game; he certainly didn't lose it.  No, the game was lost up front where Nebraska was mostly ineffective running the ball, except when loading up in an old-fashioned I-formation with double tight ends set. A 22 formation (two running backs and two tight ends) isn't seen much in college football anymore. But just before halftime, Nebraska broke out the fullback and mounted a drive just before halftime.  Minnesota certainly didn't think Nebraska could do it, as Jerry Kill called a timeout on 3rd and two, expecting Nebraska to come up short.  They didn't...and before too long, Nebraska was actually driving the field, only to have De'Mornay Pierson-El fumble the ball at the Minnesota 11.

Pierson-El dropped the ball after the catch three times against Minnesota; the first didn't count as it happened just after he stuck the ball over the goal line.  The next two ended Nebraska scoring drives. I can easily chalk that up to freshman mistakes and forgive him.  He'll get better. Much better.  The real issue was that Nebraska shouldn't have needed Pierson-El to make those plays against Minnesota.  Credit the Gophers for stopping Nebraska's ground game most of the day.  And it starts up front.  The offensive line was a sieve.  Take the broken play that led to Kenny Bell's 78 yard reception; Minnesota sent four and flushed Armstrong out of the pocket.  Same thing on the Pierson-El touchdown.

That 2nd and 1 play that everybody hated today?  I liked the call.  I hated the execution.  Take a shot downfield, but don't screw it up.  Screwing it up is what Nebraska did when Sam Cotton got beat badly on the edge. If the pass is incomplete, it's a very makeable 3rd and one.   So why not take a measured chance and throw the ball?  It's really a free play.  Nebraska just completely effed it up.

I'm frustrated as a Husker fan because I know this program is better than what we've seen on the field the last few weeks.  Both sides of the ball have issues, and I'm not sure how this improves without some sort of changes in Lincoln.

I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Bo Pelini, but the evidence is overwhelming that Bo's current program isn't working like it should. Ideally (in my opinion), Bo Pelini has already recognized it and is considering what needs to be revamped.

Some people will argue that after seven years, Pelini is what he is and won't ever get Nebraska further than a nine or ten win season, and if you want something different, you've got to get a different head coach.  That could change things in either direction, and frankly, I still believe Pelini is still too good of a coach to fire at this point.  Assistant coaches are another matter entirely.  I think Pelini hasn't done himself any favors by some of his past hires, picking youth and familiarity over ability.  The Charleton Warren hire broke the mold, and while the jury is out as to whether Warren was a good hire or not, at least we can drop the narrative that Pelini only hires buddies.

But if Shawn Eichorst does decide to clean house in Lincoln, he'd better have a good idea what direction to head.  Let's just stop with the Scott Frost talk.  One of the complaints about Pelini is that he wasn't experienced enough to take over Nebraska with his first job.  Frost has even less experience.  One guy I would strongly look at is Jerry Kill at Minnesota.  He's proven himself everywhere he's been and his teams don't beat themselves.

Don't believe that?  Then what game were you watching.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Different Perspective on Bo Pelini's Sideline Demeanor

Many of the commenters here as well as on the CornNation Facebook page have been outraged over Bo Pelini's sideline demeanor during Wisconsin's 59-24 victory over Nebraska. They see Bo Pelini yelling at a player after a mistake is made, and attribute future mistakes to the yelling. (Of course, Nebraska made an awful lot more mistakes after Daniel Davie blocked Nate Gerry out of position on one of Melvin Gordon's long runs.)

Monday night, Davie's father Damon referenced this on Twitter.
Whenever this subject is brought up, the criticism focuses on Pelini's mannerisms. It certainly doesn't bring up what he's actually saying, because while ESPN's cameras can zoom into Pelini (and even dedicate a camera to focus on Pelini during a broadcast), their microphones can't pick up what he's saying.

So what is Pelini saying?  Good question.  I don't know.  But I do know what Pelini has said in the past about these sideline conversations.  This dates back to 2007 when he was still at LSU, talking to Louisiana high school coaches.
“I take this philosophy: There hasn’t been a player ever that has tried to make a mistake out on the field,” Pelini says. “If he made a mistake, he made it for a reason. Well, as a coach, you need to search for that reason — search for a way to get through to that kid. Ultimately, when you coach that way, the players are going to believe in you. And at the end of the day, they’re going to want to run through a wall for you.”

Pelini tells a story from 2003 when he served as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. A defender made a mistake in practice, and one of the Husker assistant coaches castigated the player. The assistant ranted and raved and even ran from the sideline into the defensive huddle to get in the player’s face.

“I called the assistant coach over to me and said, ‘All that stuff you just did: Was that for you or for the player? Because I heard you yelling at that kid and not one time did you tell him what he did wrong,’” Pelini says. “I told the coach, ‘So, the next time, it’s on you.’”

The key, Pelini says, is “getting kids to understand what they’re doing so they can do it fast.”

“If I get after a kid, (later) I’ll walk up and put my arm around him and say, ‘You’re better than that, right? You know you’re better than that, right?’”
We've heard Pelini's former players talk about being willing to "run through a wall" before, so I remain convinced that's what Pelini is doing in these sideline confrontations.  That being said, Pelini and his staff are still having difficulty "getting kids to understand what they're doing" because we see all of these mistakes manifest itself during games.  I don't believe it's the manner Pelini corrects people on the field or the sideline that's the issue.

And I don't believe that Damon Davie believes that either.

Oh, and for what it's worth, Pelini's not the only coach who yells at players.

Can you imagine the outrage if Pelini hit one of his players on the sideline?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Badgers Bludgeon Huskers, Raising Questions That Scream For Answers

I've been a huge Bo Pelini supporter over the years. I've accepted the excuses over the years.  I freely admit that nine wins - even with four losses - is a decent year in college football.

I still believe that.

But when Wisconsin guts, filets, and disembowels Nebraska yet again, it's past time for excuses. It demands questioning everything.  I'm not calling for Bo Pelini to resign or be fired.  But something has to change.

Thing is, this game didn't start that way.

The defense looked great in the first quarter in forcing three fumbles and locking down on Melvin Gordon.  Huskers led 17-3, and fans should have been feeling pretty good.  Wisconsin made a few adjustments to spring Gordon free, and Nebraska imploded.

Eight straight touchdowns.  Gordon sets an NCAA record with 408 yards.  And the Badgers leave the field with a 59-24 victory.

This was the worst game in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska.  The 2012 Big Ten Championship Game was really bad; this was worse.  At least in Indianapolis, you had an offense that at least tried.  And I also felt that the answers to the defensive issues were already underway.  Guys like Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen were redshirting.  Randy Gregory and Maliek Collins were being recruited.  And Zaire Anderson was recovering from ACL surgery.

Those guys weren't the answer today. And for all of Taylor Martinez's foibles, he's still ten times the quarterback that Tommy Armstrong has been in recent weeks.  Especially today.  6 for 18 passing for 62 yards. 17 yards rushing.  Add in bad offensive line play and a clearly not 100% Ameer Abdullah...and you've got a completely impotent offense.

Everybody other than Abdullah needs to be questioned.  Start with Tim Beck and not doing something - ANYTHING - to get the ball to playmakers not named Ameer. Where was De'Mornay Pierson-El?  Where was the diamond formation?

And frankly, when it was clear that Armstrong didn't have it, where was Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton? It's not like Armstrong's issues are a one-game thing.  He's struggled all season long for the most part. And if Armstrong is clearly the best we have at Nebraska, then the problem is even worse than we think it is.

Remember, Abdullah is a senior and won't be back next season.

Defensively, we saw the same thing we've experienced in past beat-downs.  Poor tackling, out of position, and nobody available to bail things out on the third level.  Is it scheme?  Nobody else has allowed Gordon to rush for more than 250 yards in a game. Is it coaching? Who's supposed to be teaching these guys fundamentals?

I don't know what the answers are, but it's pretty clear that something needs to change.  I don't know if it means that Pelini himself should be fired, but some changes have to be made on the staff on both sides of the ball.

It's time to question everything.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

TD Ameritrade Park's B1G Win Offset by Loss of FXFL

This week brought both good news and some not-so-good news for TD Ameritrade Park. After the overwhelming success of the Big Ten Baseball Tournament in May, you knew it was only a matter of time before it returned to Omaha. So the Big Ten signed up to return in 2016 and 2018.  Why not 2017?  Some speculate that Jim Delany wants the Big Ten tournament at Yankee Stadium, but the real reason is that Creighton already reserved the ballpark for the 2017 Big East Tournament. Creighton has first dibs on the ballpark since it's their home field, so if Creighton wants to rent the place, it's theirs.

That's unfortunate for Omaha and TD Ameritrade Park, as the Big Ten tournament will be far bigger than the Big East tournament.  Creighton might want to pretend that they are "Omaha's Team", but that really only applies to men's basketball. (UNO's Trev Alberts would even take offense to that claim...) If you've been to any Nebraska/Creighton baseball game in Omaha, you know that Husker fans take over the ballpark like they took over Kansas State's football stadium before Bill Snyder turned things around in the Little Apple.

All hope is not lost on 2017, though.  Unless the Big Ten can work out a deal for Yankee Stadium, I suspect they'll wait until after the 2015 Big East tournament finishes in Omaha to see whether the Big East is going to re-up for 2017 or not. In the meantime, the businesses around the ballpark need to plan for a double CWS in 2015.  This year, they were not, and that left money on the table. Heck, prior to the event, most media members thought that the 6k-capacity Trailer Park in Sarpy County was a better choice.  That talk was over after the first day when over 10,000 showed up.  The Big Ten pretty much indicated that the only reason 2017 wasn't part of the deal was that those dates weren't available to the Big Ten.

So what's the no-so-good news?  The FXFL cancelled this week's season finale between the Omaha Mammoths and Brooklyn Bolts.  Supposedly the game is now being rescheduled in New York as an "FXFL Championship Game"...except there isn't a date or time for it. The players on the Omaha roster are already leaving town, meaning that it may be difficult to reassemble a team in a couple of weeks should a final game actually materialize.

But the real problem of this move by the FXFL is that cancelling a game is the type of stunt that the now-defunct UFL pulled over and over. I do believe that a league like the FXFL could work in Omaha, but only if they convinced the fans that it was viable.

Cancelling games does just the opposite.

I'd love to see the FXFL return in 2015. But they've got a lot of work to do in proving that the league is viable.  Now it's more work than it was going to be.  The first step is to establish some sort of formal relationship with the NFL; it's the one thing that will convince people that the league is viable. Schedule games on Friday nights instead of Wednesdays.  Make it enticing for fans to attend.  Heck, last week's game should have been scheduled for Saturday night, since the Huskers were on a bye.  Start ticket sales as soon as the NFL arrangement is finalized.  And promote the heck out of the fact that no matter what fans thought of the 2014 season, the NFL pursued these players.

Monday, November 03, 2014

UNO Hockey Starts Season Strong

Four weeks ago, UNO lost an exhibition game to Canada's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology 4-0, which might have been the Mavericks worst hockey game ever.  I wasn't there, so I really couldn't say if it was or not, but losing to a Canadian team is bad enough, but getting shut out is far worse. Of course, UNO didn't play most of their upperclassmen and chose instead to give most of the ice time to UNO's 11 freshmen, so it wasn't exactly a preview of what UNO hockey was going to be in 2014-15.

Since then, UNO has gone 4-1-1, with the only loss being to Mankato, an NCAA tournament team last season in the opening weekend of the season. This past weekend against Cornell, the Mavs tied 1-1 on Friday and won 2-1 on Saturday night.  Cornell started the season ranked 18th, but now it's the Mavs who are ranked 19th nationally.

This is a pretty fantastic start for UNO hockey, considering that they won't have another home game until November 21st with one of the weirder schedules I can remember.  Six straight road games with two bye weeks followed by eight straight home games during the Christmas season is not common.  This weekend, they travel to Columbus to face Ohio State, with the Saturday night game running concurrent with the Buckeyes' football game against Michigan State.  (That'll draw quite a crowd in Columbus; "Oooh! Ahhh! Not bigger than a Knights crowd!")

The biggest deal about this UNO team is that it's ridiculously young; the top scorers are sophomores Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega.  Six of the top eight scorers are freshman and sophomores. Forward Dominic Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa are providing plenty of leadership; Zombo is third on the team in scoring. And Ryan Massa has been sparkling in net, with a 1.38 goals against average and a .952 save percentage.

We can talk elsewhere about why UNO shouldn't be building a new arena that can't hold an average Mav hockey crowd, but if you are looking to build a new arena and want to build some buzz around it, a young team like UNO is putting on the ice is just the way to do it.  It'll be interesting to see how this team continues to develop in the upcoming weeks.  What looked like it might be a lost season is starting to look rather intriguing.  Wins against east coast teams out-of-conference really help a hockey team's resume as the season unfolds, and an undefeated weekend against Cornell is definitely a positive sign.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Blackshirts Overcome Woeful Husker Offense Against Purdue

One e-mail kind of summed up the dichotomy of Nebraska's 35-14 victory over Purdue:  How can Husker fans be upset over a 21 point victory?  Nevermind the margin of victory, and focus instead on Nebraska's offensive production.  Nebraska totaled 297 yards against a Purdue defense that ranks 11th in the Big Ten prior to the game, giving up 429 yards a game.  They started slow, improved slightly, then regressed badly at the end.  Can you point to Ameer Abdullah's absence as a reason? Yes, but that doesn't explain this level of offensive ineptitude. Two weeks ago, Minnesota racked up 450 yards of offense on Purdue; are Husker fans thinking that without Abdullah, Nebraska's offense is worse than Minnesota's?

And the blame goes across the board on offense.  Let's start up front where the offensive line really hasn't played well in over a month.  Remember how impressed fans were with Nebraska's rushing attack against Miami? Now, this offense can't even run the ball consistently against the likes of Purdue. In recent weeks, it's become downright impossible to snap the ball consistently.  Ryne Reeves may be a little better blocking, but it seems that more of the bad snaps happen with him in the lineup. Not that Mark Pelini is much better snapping the ball.

Things weren't any better at the other end of the snap; Tommy Armstrong had another horrible game.  It started with a botched handoff on Nebraska's second drive of the game (resulting in Abdullah's sprained knee, I might add), and it was all downhill from there. Armstrong is running the ball better this season, but he's not throwing the ball better. The most frustrating part of Armstrong's game is how he consistently fails to check down from covered receivers. Armstrong may have a sweet and powerful arm, but it does Nebraska absolutely no good when he forces throws into coverage when other receivers are open. Taylor Martinez was excoriated for his passing during his Husker career, but the more I see Armstrong, the more I'm convinced that Taylor Martinez is a better quarterback than Tommy Armstrong.  Can Armstrong improve? One hopes, because his fundamentals are so much superior to Martinez...but you simply can't ignore the reality that Martinez completed throws as an inexperienced freshman that Armstrong consistently misses as a sophomore.

Is someone else the answer at quarterback? I have to assume that the coaches are playing the best quarterback. We haven't seen Ryker Fyfe or Johnny Stanton in situations with the game on the line, so I'm not assuming that one of those men would be better. We have to trust that these coaches are putting the best quarterback on the field. The biggest nail in Bill Callahan's coffin as a head coach was when we realized that Joe Ganz was a better quarterback than Sam Keller in 2007, yet Callahan refused to make the change until Keller's collarbone snapped. Could Fyfe or Stanton provide the offense a Ganz-like spark?  Or would it only make Nebraska's offensive issues even worse?  We don't know now, but if the offensive struggles continue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Bo Pelini may not have any choice but to make the gamble.

Certainly Armstrong wasn't helped wasn't helped by his receivers today.  Pelini said after the game that on Armstrong's two interceptions, the receivers ran the wrong routes. The first interception was a tipped pass, so Armstrong deserves the benefit of the doubt.  The second one was thrown into coverage, so even if Jordan Westerkamp was running the wrong route, Armstrong still shouldn't have thrown the ball there.

If the offense was that bad, how did Nebraska manage to pull out the win? Simple: the Blackshirts were outstanding all day. With Austin Appleby starting at quarterback for Purdue, the Boilermakers had scored over 30 points against defenses like Michigan State and Minnesota.  But that wasn't going to happen today unless Armstrong started to repeatedly throw pick-six interceptions. Arguably, Nebraska might have been able to pitch a shutout if Corey Cooper didn't blow coverage on Cameron Posey in the second half, or Randy Gregory had stayed disciplined when Appleby scrambled in the first half.

Throw in some great first-half special teams play with two blocked punts and another long punt return on top of that, and that was enough for Nebraska to defeat Purdue, even with some absolutely dreadful offense.  That won't work in upcoming weeks though. Next up for Nebraska is Wisconsin, and we know what happened the last time Nebraska traveled to Madison. The Badgers WILL take advantage of Nebraska's offensive mistakes in ways that Rutgers, Northwestern, and Purdue couldn't. I'm cautiously optimistic that the Blackshirts can hold their own against Wisconsin, but not if the offense keeps trying to give the game away.

If Ameer Abdullah's knee injury is truly just a minor sprain, that will help. But it'll take more than Abdullah to beat Wisconsin, and that's something that we haven't seen much of from Nebraska's offense for quite some time. Time is running out to fix these problems.