Saturday, January 31, 2015

North Dakota Edges UNO 4-3 in Overtime To Earn a Weekend Split

Game two of the weekend hockey series between #1 North Dakota and #5 UNO was every bit the equal of Friday night's 3-2 overtime game that UNO won...except tonight, it was North Dakota who led most of the night. Starting just 37 seconds into the game, to be exact.  Each time North Dakota scored, UNO found an answer at some point, with Brian Cooper getting the final game-tying goal with just 3:44 left in the third period.

As was the case much of the night, North Dakota controlled the play in overtime and buried the game-winner 2:04 into the overtime to give North Dakota the victory and the series split. For the season, UNO won one game, North Dakota won two, and a fourth game was officially a tie, with UNO winning the shootout.  Very much an even much so, that folks can't wait for these two teams to meet up again:

Certainly a rematch is possible in Minneapolis at the NCHC Frozen Final.  But that's for down the line... Tonight, my takeaway from this weekend is that UNO hockey is fully capable of playing with anybody and everybody. When the polls come out next week, UNO shouldn't drop. Not when #6 Bowling Green lost and tied Bemidji State and #7 Minnesota-Duluth split with #11 Denver.  UNO currently sits in a tie for third in the Pairwise rankings with Boston University, trailing Mankato and North Dakota.

And that's an amazing thing when you realize that this is a team mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.  Tonight's UNO hero was sophomore Jake Guentzel; last night's was sophomore Austin Ortega. Freshmen scored two goals last night.  The only seniors making major contributions are Dominic Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa.  Massa has been magical all season long, and he was outstanding tonight.  Zombo left tonight's game after a very chippy first period.

Simply put...this is only just the beginning. Something very special is happening around UNO hockey.  The snowstorm kept tonight's crowd down, but it still drew 10,674...and only about 1,000 of those were North Dakota fans. A lot of people reintroduced themselves to UNO hockey this weekend, and they have to be impressed with what they saw.

They're probably disappointed by what happened tonight. They should be disappointed by the final score.

They should be excited about what the future holds.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ortega Overtime Goal Gives UNO Hockey a 3-2 Victory Over #1 North Dakota

What. A. Game.

In front of over 11,000 fans, #5 UNO defeated #1 North Dakota 3-2 in overtime.  The game lived up to all of the hype this week.  UNO broke out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period with goals from freshmen Tyler Vesel and Avery Peterson.  But UNO took a series of bad penalties to let North Dakota tie the game. Freshman Joel Messner was ejected from the game late in the second period for boarding, giving North Dakota a five minute major power play.  UNO killed it off, but as it expired, Grant Gallo was penalized for interference and North Dakota scored on the delayed penalty early in the third period.

That one goal lead held until the final minute. After Brian Cooper was called for tripping with 2:30 left in regulation, North Dakota pulled their goalie to give them a 6-on-4 power play.  UNO's Jake Guentzel nearly scored an empty net goal with just over a minute left, but a North Dakota defensemen knocked the shot down at center ice.  But with 47 seconds left, North Dakota's Drake Caggiula buried a rebound to tie the game.  UNO coach Dean Blais' reaction says it all:

The demoralized Mavericks then had to scramble to get the game to overtime as North Dakota put on quite a rush to finish the game in the third period.

The brief intermission before overtime allowed UNO to regain their edge, and when North Dakota took two stupid penalties of their own, UNO had a 5-on-3 advantage.  UNO played the two man advantage extremely conservatively, not attempting a shot until just as the first penalty expired.  And what a shot:  Austin Ortega redirected Ian Brady's shot for the wing into the net for his NCAA-leading ninth game winning goal

The victory moves UNO to 2nd place in the Pairwise rankings that seed the NCAA tournament, and also ensures that no matter what happens Saturday night, UNO will remain in first place in the conference standings.

That Saturday night game should be epic, if tonight's game is any indication.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Nobody Likes Robocalls. So Why Did Mike Riley Robocall Me?

You know the routine. You are eating dinner and the phone rings...or you go to check your phone messages, and you are greeted by yet another annoying robocall:
  • Hello. This is the Disabled Veterans and we will have a truck in your area...
  • This is your final notice. We have been trying to contact you to help refinance your credit card debt...
  • Hey Husker fans, this Nebraska football coach Mike Riley...
  • Hello, this is Congressman Hal Daub inviting you...
Wait...what was that third one again?

Yep, somebody in the Nebraska athletic department thought it would be a good idea to have Mike Riley record a message and then call every football season ticket holder to interrupt dinner time.  (OK, mine arrived a little earlier than my meal time:  5:37 pm Wednesday evening.  But I know many people are eating dinner at that time.)

It started with a noble idea: send a message from the new coaching staff to the fans to introduce themselves. The problem wasn't the message, it was selecting the most annoying way to deliver the message.  There's no way that Mike Riley could make 30,000 phone calls - especially during recruiting season. But they could have sent a mass e-mail or post a YouTube video to Facebook and Twitter.

Instead, they chose the delivery method most despised by people: the robocall, joining the ranks of illegitimate charities, credit card scammers, and politicians desperately seeking reelection. Sometimes robocalls are simply a necessary evil; it's the most efficient way to deliver urgent messages to a large audience. (Think school closings.)  But this wasn't quite the same situation; it wasn't an urgent message.

So hey, Mike Riley is so appreciative of Husker fans that he spent a whole minute recording a message to ask us to renew our season tickets.

I don't think that was the message that the athletic department really intended to send.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#5 UNO vs. #1 North Dakota: The Biggest Regular Season Weekend in UNO Hockey History?

UNO has played teams ranked #1 before...but never, ever when UNO has also been ranked anywhere near this high.  UNO sits in first place in the NCHC standings, just one point ahead of second place North Dakota.  The difference?  A shootout win by the Mavs when the teams played in Grand Forks on Thanksgiving weekend.

Now the scene shifts to Omaha, and it's not only the biggest regular season series in UNO hockey history, it's also the biggest series in the nation this weekend. CBS Sports Network is televising the Friday night game, and NET is televising the Saturday night game.  (Fox College Sports will be simulcasting the NET coverage nationwide on Saturday night, meaning that's two nationally televised games for the Mavs this weekend.)

Last weekend, North Dakota swept Colorado College at home, but both games were a lot closer than the teams' respective records would indicate.  The Tigers have been playing a lot better as of late, as indicated the week prior, when UNO and CC split the weekend series. At that time, it looked like UNO might have been playing down to their competition, but in hindsight, it's probably more to Colorado College turning their season around.

Looks like there will be big crowds this weekend as well; a quick check of Ticketmaster shows that the lower bowl is just about sold out both nights.  I wouldn't be surprised if both night's crowds approach 9,000 or more fans.  (And hopefully it's not all green Sioux fans, as the local beer distributors hope.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DaiShon Neal Says Something About Husker Fans They Won't Admit

I don't follow recruiting, but an early morning meeting found me in the car at the moment Omaha Central's DaiShon Neal reaffirmed his commitment to play football for Nebraska.  And, of course, I was listening to KOZN-1620 AM radio's "Sharp and Benning in the Morning" as I do pretty much every morning (except probably next week during the Worst Week of the Year. But that's another topic - for next week.)

Most Husker fans hit on the following quote from Abe Hoskins, Neal's father:
“Michigan was a powerhouse, they came in and they stormed us. … They made one bad statement and ruined it,” Hoskins said during the “Sharp and Benning Show” in-studio visit. “They said without football DaiShon wouldn’t be able to go to Michigan, like we couldn’t afford to send him there or we couldn’t get him (in) academically.”
Neal interjected: “They basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face.”
Hoskins continued: “Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house.”
Make fun of Michigan?  Hey, that's always lots of fun for Husker fans.  It's easy to hate on the Weasels in Maize and Blue.

What I found much more interesting is the following quote, which fans are ignoring.
“The reason everything started is because I had a good relationship with the old coaching staff,” he said. “I really committed to Coach Kaczenski. He was a great coach and I loved what he said to me. Then the fan base got rid of the entire coaching staff. So, I mean, you can’t be mad at me just for looking around.”
Neal said the same thing later in the interview, so it's not like it was a misquote.  I highlighted the entire quote to give you context. And I understand why Husker fans would ignore those statements; it's uncomfortable to admit their own role in the end of the previous coaching regime.  Point the thumb?  That was supposed to be for Bo Pelini, not us.  You heard Bo's blasphemy.  How can he say that the fans were against him, when we have sold out Memorial Stadium for 51 years?

It's not all fans, of course.  But a large group of fans, former players, and media played a definite role in creating the toxic environment that resulted in Bo Pelini's dismissal. That's not to say that Bo Pelini didn't have anything to do with it either.  He did.

Just don't deny the reality that many Husker fans turned on Pelini. Pelini wasn't wrong when he said that in that team meeting.  DaiShon Neal saw it firsthand.

It's too late to do anything about that now. But it's something to think about how we respond when Mike Riley loses a big game.  It doesn't mean we can't be critical.  It just means that we have to be a little more fair and make sure our criticism isn't just venomous anger.

We saw where that got us.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Your HOTTAKE on Ron Brown's Move to Youngstown State Likely Depends on your HOTTAKE on Bo Pelini

Today's news that former Nebraska running backs assistant coach Ron Brown is following Bo Pelini to Youngstown State is eliciting strong reactions from folks at both extremes of the opinions regarding Pelini.

Folks who still believe in Bo bemoan that Brown not only wasn't retained, he wasn't really even considered.

Folks who want Bo buried in the past bemoan that the topic even came up.

Both are wrong.

Ron Brown's legacy with Nebraska football makes this newsworthy. We had stories about Urban Meyer hiring Tim Beck, so why not stories about Ron Brown, who was hired in 1987 by Tom Osborne?

So should Brown have been retained by Mike Riley?

My answer is: not unless Mike Riley really wanted to.

Coaches should build their staffs with the people they want to work with. There shouldn't be any restrictions from outsiders (fans, former players, or administrators) as to who they hire. If Mike Riley wants his first hire to be a guy he promoted from being a graduate assistant barely one year earlier, that's his call. (It did make it fun to watch the people who criticized the experience level on Bo Pelini's staff squirm when that happened.)

Mike Riley wants to go a different direction? Let's go then.  Ron Brown is owed our thanks for his longevity and his contributions to championships over the years.  He's not owed another job in Lincoln.  He's been compensated very fairly for his contributions to Nebraska football, and he isn't owed anything other than what is spelled out by the terms of his contract.

Should Brown's fervent religious beliefs be an issue? Absolutely not. In this country, we have the freedom to believe what we want to believe, and as long as Brown is simply sharing, not enforcing, his beliefs on others, that should never be an issue.  From my perspective, Ron Brown's relationship with Ameer Abdullah, a devout Muslim, is proof enough to me that Brown knows - and practices - the distinction.

In fact, telling Brown that he can't share his beliefs is more offensive than Brown's proselytizing. It's freedom "of" religion that is protected, not freedom "from" religion. Ron Brown is welcome to share his beliefs, and we're all better for him doing that.  We learned that in the wake of the revelation of the horrors that Jerry Sandusky inflicted on young kids at Penn State in 2011.  That doesn't mean that Brown has always toed that line properly.  He admits as such; he knows he's sinner.

So why did he decide to work again for Bo Pelini, especially after the release of that secretly taped final meeting with his players? Critics point to the negative things he said: the vulgarities and the claims that many people around Nebraska wanted him to fail.

But that's only part of the story.  National media types picked up on a theme in that meeting that the local media pretty much missed, and that is how much Pelini cares for his players.  And his coaches as well. The local media missed it because, well, the World-Herald released the juiciest quotes first (tainting the discussion without context), then falling back on the prickly relationship many have with Pelini.

So Ron Brown is off to Youngstown State.  I hope it all works out for Youngstown State, just like I hope this all works out for Nebraska.

Ron Brown is a good man, just like Bo Pelini is and I hope Mike Riley is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

UNO Hockey Ranked Eighth Nationally After Sweeping Denver

On the heels of UNO hockey's sweep of now-#13 Denver this past weekend, the Mavericks jumped to #8 in this week's USCHO rankings.  Minnesota State is ranked #1, while North Dakota is ranked #3 and Minnesota-Duluth is ranked #5.  Those are teams UNO has played this season, and the Mavs split series with those teams.

Friday night, UNO got off to yet another slow start, trailing 3-0 midway through the second period before erupting for three goals in four minutes near the end of the second period.  Midway through the third, Denver took a 4-3 lead sending goalie Kirk Thompson to the bench. Thompson has been pressed into service as top goalie Ryan Massa has been out since Christmas with the flu followed by a concussion suffered in practice.  But with three minutes to go, David Pope scored despite a Denver player's illegal hit to tie the game at four.  On the ensuing power play, senior Dominic Zombo crashed the net and pushed a rebound for the game winner in a 5-4 victory.

Saturday night, UNO started hot by dominating Denver in the first period.  Sophomore sensation Austin Ortega scored on a breakaway just three minutes into the game. Denver cranked up the pressure in the second period, dominating the play down the stretch, but Kirk Thompson played his best game ever in a UNO jersey.  Thompson's 39 save perfomance might have been one of the best goaltending performances ever by a UNO Maverick, as Thompson had to make a number of frantic saves to hold the lead.

The sweep moved UNO into the first place in the conference, passing Miami and Minnesota-Duluth at the half-way point in the season. This weekend, UNO goes on the road to play last place Colorado College before returning at the end of the month to play North Dakota.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Separating Fantasy From Reality With Mike Riley's New Nebraska Staff

It became blatantly obvious to me that a lot of Husker fans took a lot more out of the announcement of Mike Riley's Nebraska football staff than I did. I take most of it as being hopeful about the future, because there certainly are far more concerns about this staff than fans are acknowledging.

I also note that it's probably an overreaction to the "meh" reaction the Riley hire has made from national pundits. Grantland's Matt Hinton earlier this week called Riley the "lowest ceiling hire that the Cornhuskers could have reasonably made." That's led to even more snipes at Bo Pelini from people who previously wanted to "move on" and "leave it in 2014."  It's rather akin to bashing the ex-flame, if only to make your new romantic interest that much better looking in comparison.

Make no bones about it, Riley's new staff is much more experienced overall than Pelini's last staff. But for all the talk of hiring the "best people" out there, Riley went with buddy hires almost across the board: six of the eight announced assistants coached with Riley at Oregon State.  Only two are new to Mike Riley: defensive line coach Hank Hughes and secondary coach Charleton Warren.  Hughes went to college with defensive coordinator Mark Banker, making Hughes really another "buddy" hire, leaving only Warren as a true newcomer.  And I'm still not convinced that Riley made the decision to retain Warren, as Warren was the only assistant coach that Shawn Eichorst allowed to be on the road recruiting during NU's brief coaching search. (An awfully convenient coincidence, if it were.)

The size of the support staff raised a lot of eyebrows, as it's significantly bigger than previously. Some see that as proof of Eichorst's support of the program, but is that the same freedom that Pelini was given? We all know Pelini's private rant about not being supported. We don't know what Pelini exactly meant by that, but just because Riley is hiring a huge staff doesn't mean that Pelini was allowed to do the same.

One concern I have is how Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will mesh their "pro-style" background with Nebraska's "spread" personnel. While Langsdorf and Riley are quick to point out that they'll adapt things to their personnel, I'm also reminded that Bill Callahan also talked about how "flexible" his system could be.  This is one of those things I'll be watching very intently this spring and fall to see how this actually works out.  I suspect this is going to be one of those trial-and-error things; I have no doubt that Riley will be better than Callahan in that respect...but that bar is set awfully, awfully low.

And let's be honest, Riley's offense wasn't very good in recent years at Oregon State.  At the same time Eichorst was making the decision to fire Pelini, Riley was telling folks in Oregon that his offense had to change.  But Riley isn't really changing his staff...he's just changing his personnel by adopting a more potent Nebraska roster.  Langsdorf fills a definite void at Nebraska in quarterback coaching, but overall, I do think skepticism about where this offense is headed is warranted.

This isn't to condemn Riley's staff as a failure; they haven't lost a single game yet.  We don't know how this is going to play out, and that's the fascinating thing we're going to watch over the next eight months. My point is simply that just because you want really, really hard for this to succeed, we don't really know if it will or not.

That's the reality of Nebraska football in 2015.