Saturday, October 31, 2015

Searching For Answers (Other Than the Obvious) After Huskers Get Boat-Raced by Purdue

After Kansas blew out Nebraska in that 2007 "Rout 76" game, I had a few thoughts about how Nebraska game planned with a first time starting quarterback:

Example in point: Joe Ganz making his first start since high school. Callahan hands him the ball and has him throw the ball on every down in the second quarter. Absolutely no running game in the 2nd quarter, save for a few scrambles. First start against a top ten opponent, and Callahan goes one-dimensional and puts it completely on the shoulders of a green quarterback. Ganz did pretty well for his first start, but it's completely shameful that his coach put the onus on him. But we've come to expect that of Bill Callahan.

Is that an unfair comparison to Mike Riley?  Let me give you the second quarter stats for the Huskers against Purdue:  6 rushes (three I-back runs that gained 25 yards, and three Ryker Fyfe scrambles and sacks) and eleven passes. Five passes completed, two intercepted.

Let's build on this a little more:  In the first quarter, Nebraska rushed the ball 13 times and threw the ball 7 times. Fyfe was 6-for-7 passing, and while Nebraska trailed 7-3 at the end of the quarter, Nebraska still led in most of the statistical comparisons.  It was just that 62 yard run by Purdue's David Blough, taking advantage of a Nebraska defensive alignment bust, that was the difference in the opening quarter.
(Look at all of that open space on the "P"... Pretty sure that was an audible...)

The first quarter was the balance that worked so well two weeks ago at Minnesota in a victory.   The second was just the opposite, and Nebraska was trending in the wrong direction.

Third quarter, you ask? Six runs, 16 passes.  Now trending even worse, and so did the score.  At that point, it was 42-16, and Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

Stop and repeat that again: Nebraska was getting trucked by Purdue.

By Purdue.

I-backs had carried the ball 18 times; Ryker Fyfe had thrown 34 passes at that point, with three interceptions.  Yes, Terrell Newby left the game in the second quarter with an injury, but Imani Cross, the backup, was still averaging 4.9 yards per carry. If Nebraska didn't have faith in Cross, try Devine Ozigbo. He never carried the ball once, but did catch three passes.

Nebraska's I-backs rushed 18 times for 95 yards; that's 5.3 yards per carry. That average should win you some Big Ten football games.  But 18 carries by your I-backs won't.  Don't claim that the game got out of hand and Nebraska "had to throw" in the fourth quarter; while that's true, the stats were already completely out of whack before the game did.

Remember: this is a quarterback who not only was making his first start, he really was getting his first significant playing time.  He's going to make some mistakes, so help him out.

That happened in the first quarter:  a 65/35 run/pass ration, and Nebraska was in the game.

That changed in the second and third quarters: nine running plays called, and 29 pass plays.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sadly, Baxter Arena Gets More Attention than the #1 Ranked UNO Hockey Team That Plays There

Last Friday night, I attended UNO hockey's debut at the new Baxter Arena.  Afterwards, most of the buzz was about the new building.

I left more impressed with the product on the ice than the building that they play in.

There are a lot of things to like about the new building:  great sightlines and an environment optimized for a crowd of 7,000 fans.  You've got the modern amenities that an arena built today requires: suites for the people funding the building, press facilities to support television and radio, a high tech scoreboard and ribbon boards, and wireless internet access that worked really well (unlike the wifi at Memorial Stadium).  Nice touches, such as bench seating for the students (to squeeze a few more in and encourage them to stand and cheer) and UNO themed art in the concourses.  With the lower ceiling and the lack of sound baffling for concerts, it's louder than a similarly sized crowd at the CenturyLink Center.  Louder than most nights at the Civic as well, I might add.

But it's got it's issues.  There isn't enough parking (all full 45 minutes before faceoff) and the concourses are cramped (I missed the post-game celebration with the team since I couldn't get to the lobby in time). Leg room is lacking, and I spent more time letting people pass me in my aisle in one game than the last two seasons downtown. (That's a product of the cramped facilities in the concourses, as people end up having to miss the action.)

The parking situation might work itself out over time; I headed across the street and parked at Aksarben Village - and frankly, ended up closer to the arena than the far UNO lot. I didn't notice the environment before the game that much; I was in a rush to get to the game, but afterwards, I couldn't help but notice how cool it is to have bars and restaurants adjacent to the arena. It's similar to what I've noticed downtown at TD Ameritrade Park during the College World Series or Nebraska baseball games. (And reminds me of the opportunity missed to have minor league baseball downtown all summer long, but that's another story entirely.) Some people will start gravitating to the Village for the amenities and closer parking, which might solve this issue as people work into a routine.

But really, the new building almost seemed to be a distraction from the real story: UNO hockey looks pretty damn good and as deserving as any team at this point to be ranked #1 in the nation.  The biggest question going into this season was goaltending, and Kirk Thompson looked pretty darn solid Friday night. I missed Saturday night's game (a late scratch due to hyperactive kids), but by all accounds, true freshman Evan Weninger has been just as clutch.  UNO's top line combo of Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega is going to contend for national honors this season.  And freshman Steven Spinner delighted fans with a fantastic spin-move (pun intended) on a breakaway for UNO's final goal on Friday night.

UNO's 6-0 start is only the beginning of what could be a very special season for Maverick hockey. The November and December schedules are fairly light with home games, with the core of the home schedule coming after the holidays.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Nebraska's Fourth Quarter Struggles Continue in Northwestern Upset

Six hours later, I'm at a loss for words to really explain how Nebraska lost to Northwestern. More than one person has compared this to Iowa State's 19-10 upset of Nebraska in 1992. Both Tom Shatel and my old buddy AJ compared Northwestern's Clayton Thorson to Marv Seiler today, and that's saying something.
Granted, this Northwestern team is about 100 times better than that Iowa State squad, but even so, this game shouldn't have been this close.  And frankly, in that first half, except for one play, it wasn't that close. Just before halftime, I took this picture of the stats board on top of North Stadium:
And that's including a 68 yard run by Thorson...which means that Northwestern's offense was pretty much in neutral the whole first half. Yet Nebraska trailed because (a) Nebraska couldn't sustain any drive and (b) the defense gave up two big first half scrambles by Thorson.

Nebraska's offensive inconsistency started with playcalling:  nine rushes and 14 passes called. Last week, Mike Riley praised the 60/40 run/pass split as being optimal, but this week, Nebraska didn't even try to build off of what worked last week. Argue all you want about how Nebraska couldn't run the ball effectively, but don't forget the point that Nebraska never tried it in the first place.

Does Nebraska have issues on the offensive line? Clearly so.  Some want to point fingers at the previous staff, and they may have a point. But here's my question: what's this staff doing about it? With offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh's refusal to substitute, we don't really know that there aren't other bodies available on the offensive line who could help. We do know that he converted Givens Price from being a part-time starter last season to being a backup defensive tackle who doesn't play this season.

I'm not going to bury the defense much this week, though linebacker play was really shoddy late in the game when Northwestern took the lead. But I didn't expect Northwestern's offense to challenge Nebraska much, and they didn't most of the afternoon. Problem is, Nebraska's misplays on offense kept Northwestern not just in the game but actually in the lead, despite the clear lead on the stat sheets.  And when you let an inferior team hang around with you as long as Nebraska let Northwestern hang around, eventually something bad is going to happen.

And something bad did happen.  Can someone explain to me why Tommy Armstrong threw 48 passes today?  Can someone explain what Nebraska's kickoff strategy is with Jordan Stevenson? And when you've won the time of possession battle in the third quarter, how do you explain another fourth quarter meltdown?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Huskers Claim the Broken Chair With 48-25 Victory Over Minnesota

This week, Nebraska built up a big enough lead in the first three quarters that the Huskers couldn't blow it late. That's the glass half-full take on this game.

The fact that Nebraska tried to do just that is the glass half-empty take.

One difference between this game and the last two was the return of the intermediate passing game - and it started on Nebraska's second offensive play: an 11 yard completion to Jordan Westerkamp.  The third play was pretty good as well: a 69 yard Terrell Newby touchdown run.

That being said, Nebraska still shows a disturbing obsession for throwing the ball deep, and in this game, at inopportune times.  Take the fourth quarter: Minnesota has just scored to pull to within two scores at 38-22. Terrell Newby starts the drive with a 16 yard run, which is exactly what Nebraska needs to do in this situation. As the clock nears the eleven minute mark, Tommy Armstrong drops back to pass, and you can hear the collective groans across the state of Nebraska.  Which only get louder when the pass falls incomplete, because you know what is happening next.  A second down pass play. Also incomplete.  Which, of course, means a third down pass play.

Also incomplete.  Nebraska punts, and only runs a minute off the clock. And Minnesota promptly moves the ball downfield and scores. Week after week we see Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf fail miserably at clock management; it's simply something that Nebraska fans are going to have to get accustomed to. This coaching staff thinks nothing of throwing the ball on three straight plays, but running the ball three plays seems to be an anathema to them.  They only ran the ball three plays in a row twice in this game, and the string of consecutive running plays ended with points on the scoreboard. But throwing the ball up for grabs into double coverage? YOLO! De'Mornay Pierson-El somehow tipped the ball back to himself for a touchdown, but don't expect that to happen again.

On my CornNation report card last week, some thought I was too hard on the secondary, saying that the pass defense was better last week. Well, it wasn't better this week.  Minnesota's Mitch Leidner threw for 301 yards; he threw for 59 and 72 yards the last two weeks.

And that fourth quarter? Leidner racked up 132 yards through the air, continuing the pattern of fourth quarter defensive breakdowns.   So yeah, if Mitch Leidner can do it, anybody can. And will.  It's happened over and over and over again.

But it is a win, and Husker fans should celebrate every win. Maybe that's the lesson we need to take from this season. Another lesson that fans - and former players - need to take is to quick knocking the players for this supposed "lack of buy-in" or "needing a culture change."  The players don't need Jason Peter pouting about the previous staff and trying to throw players under the bus. Simply stop manufacturing ridiculous opinions about the mentality of this team. Maybe take the lead of Alex Lewis instead, who pumped up his teammates this week with a positive talk about how to play.

Yes, that's right. I said Alex Lewis.  Some Husker fans are upset with Lewis' actions off the field, but the rality is that he was simply reacting (and reacting badly) to the garbage being thrown his way. Wisely, he shut his Twitter account down and is learning to turn a deaf ear towards the numbnuts out there who have no probably with trash-talking a 300 pound offensive lineman.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day", Huskers Lose Again At The End

"Nebraska is just a few seconds shy of being 5-0 this season!"

"Nebraska is just one play away from winning each of their games this season!"

Those are the excuses I'm sure some people will point out to justify Nebraska's latest loss - but in the end, they are just that: excuses. Nebraska is 2-4 on the season, and it's not a fluke. Nebraska's not a really bad team - they just aren't a very good team. They don't run the ball well, and they simply cannot defend the pass.

Some people gave the defense a pass (pun intended) because sacrificing the pass to stop the run seemed like a good way to win the Big Ten West. Especially Wisconsin, right?

Except this is not a classic Wisconsin rushing team: prior to today, Wisconsin ranked 74th in rushing offense...and Nebraska still let the Badgers rush for 147 yards with their second string and fourth string backs. Taiwan Deal, perhaps their best back, left the game after just four carries with an injury.

So what happens? Wisconsin's Joel Stave throws for 322 yards.  Stop and reflect on that for a moment: 322 yards passing by Wisconsin.  322 yards passing.  It'll be one more week for Nebraska with the nation's worst pass defense, and that is why Nebraska keeps losing these games.

Stop the excuses about "forgetting how to win" or the conspiracy theories about this team being sabotaged. Nebraska is losing games because of their ineffective pass defense: it's why Nebraska lost to BYU. It's why Nebraska lost to Miami. It's why Nebraska lost to Illinois. And it's why Nebraska lost to Wisconsin.

And most importantly: it's not a talent issue. It's just fundamentally broken; corners are playing soft and safeties are playing to stop the run (and not nearly as effective as some Husker fans wanted to believe). Against Wisconsin, they were vulnerable time and time again to the comeback route. The defensive line (banged up as it was), didn't get much pressure against an equally banged up Wisconsin offensive line.

Nebraska's porous pass defense isn't helped at all by Nebraska's awful ground attack. If anybody has identified any rhyme or reason in how Nebraska runs the ball, I'd like to know. Frankly, it's almost like they don't want to do, but they feel they have to in Lincoln.  Last week, true freshman Devine Ozigbo looked like he might be the answer. Against Wisconsin, he got three carries.


Nebraska didn't even start an I-back in the game; it was Andy Janovich as the lone back on the first series. Terrell Newby played the most with 15 carries - but when it was crunch time, he was nowhere to be seen. On that key third and one late in the fourth quarter, it was Imani Cross in the game - but it was Janovich that got the ball.  Great call to use the fullback in that situation, mind you, but Janovich isn't a solution to Nebraska's rushing issues.  Especially when you rush up the middle three straight times when Nebraska was in position to salt the game away.

It's almost like last week's third and seven debacle scarred Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf to the point that they were afraid to do anything other than the most conservative play. Of course, with Wisconsin still having their three timeouts, Nebraska needed to do SOMETHING on the ground.

And they didn't.

And with that Nebraska is now 2-4.  Even worse, Nebraska has now lost seven of their last ten games. Not all of that is on Mike Riley, mind you.  But going back to last season, Mike Riley has lost seven of his last eight conference games; going back to 2013, Mike Riley has lost 14 of his last 16 conference games.

You read that right: Oregon State lost their last five conference games in 2013 and went 2-7 in the Pac-12 in 2014. Riley is right when he points out that he's never lost games like this; at Oregon State, his teams would have lost the game long before the final 15 seconds.

2-14 in conference games dating back to October 26, 2013. I know some fans like Riley's demeanor, and are very hopeful that he's the guy to take Nebraska to the next level.

2-14. Hope all you want - but the record makes it pretty clear where this is heading.

Friday, October 09, 2015

A Preview Look at UNO Hockey's New Baxter Arena

As a UNO alum (class of 1988), I got the chance tonight to take a look at UNO's new Baxter Arena for my very own eyes. I've long been a critic of the facility for several reasons: primarily, it's been built smaller than many UNO hockey crowds, plus the Omaha area really doesn't need four arenas.  (Especially when you consider the financial difficulties being faced by the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs and the Ralston Arena.)

But UNO built it anyway - and to be sure, there were good reasons why.  It's nice for UNO to not get bumped for other events (except, of course, the Aksarben Coronation this year) and it's closer to campus than the CenturyLink Center. (Please don't call it "on campus" when it's nearly a mile away from the Pacific Street campus and about three miles from the main campus.)

Probably the biggest reason UNO needed to build SOMETHING was the lack of practice ice. For the first 18 years of UNO hockey, the Mavs have bounced from rink to rink in search of a place to practice when the home rink wasn't available. A practice facility has been talked about for over ten years, but nothing was ever done - mostly because of the desire for the holy grail of a practice rink adjacent to the arena. And that UNO has done; literally, the "community ice" rink is across the hall from the arena.  The only thing separating the two is the Zamboni garage, which means that UNO will now keep all their stuff full time at the arena.  When basketball or a concert makes the arena unavailable, they just walk over to the other rink.

For fans, the arena reminds me of a larger Ralston Arena, with mostly open concourses and simply designed fan amenities. It's not nearly as grand as the CenturyLink Center - but it doesn't need to be either. Take the suites, which are relatively spartan compared to the suites downtown at the Clink or TD Ameritrade Park.
For most UNO hockey fans, that doesn't really matter because it's all about the game at UNO hockey games, and sightlines are pretty good wherever you go. I saw a  picture in the World-Herald that made it appear that there were blind spots, but that was a false alarm. I checked my seats in the upper deck and was pleased to see that I could see the dasherboards over the railing.  So the views should be excellent, and yes, a little closer than at the CenturyLink Center.
The seating, on the other hand, might be a bit of a concern. They look like they should be really comfortable, but I quickly discovered that they have much less of a recline than the seats downtown.  Is that a problem? Actually no. For sporting events, you don't want particularly comfortable seats; you want fans jumping up and being active. That's why it's great that UNO used my idea of using benches for the student section. I have no problem with the seating for hockey games.  If I attend a concert there, that might be a different matter entirely.
The pitch of the upper deck is somewhere between the CenturyLink Center and the old Civic, which was really vertical. Overall, it makes the building wider than the old Civic - but maybe not as tall.

Tonight was an open house and chance for skaters to try out the ice, and the rest of my family had a blast. I don't skate, so that left me free to wander the building. (On our backyard rink in the wintertime, I'm limited to being the human Zamboni.)  But for the most part, real impressions will have to wait two weeks for the opening game. There's no way to really gauge what the place will feel like during a game.  They did blow the train horn a few times, but it didn't sound any louder than it did at the CenturyLink Center.
One thing that was great during the open house was UNO's first honest hockey pep band. In the past, UNO has occasionally sent a jazz band with guitars and clarinets - which wasn't very good. A good college pep band does wonders for the ambiance, and this has been a sorely lacking feature at UNO games. I'd love to see them back in two weeks.

Bottom line to me is that whether I like it or not, this is going to be UNO's new home for hockey and despite being undersized for the Omaha area, it's what UNO has and where UNO is going to play. There are no opportunities to expand this building without major renovations; I did see a few spots where a seat or two could be added, but this building is going to be forever capped at under 8,000 fans.  For some UNO fans, that's more than enough, but for people like me that have dreamed of UNO being something even bigger, well, that dream is over. What UNO has is what UNO will have.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mike Riley's Incompetence Leads to Nebraska's 14-13 Loss to Illinois


Mike Riley is 62 years old; he's been a college head coach for 15 years. Coached three years in the NFL. He oozes experience.

But all of that experience means nothing when you don't have any common sense...and now, everybody who watched Nebraska somehow manage to lose 14-13 to Illinois knows it too.

It was clear from the opening possession that it was going to be a tough day to throw the ball; the winds were whipping around Champaign, and it was swirling.  How so?  Look at these flags.
Or just look watch the game. Neither quarterback was having much success through the air, and Tommy Armstrong was really struggling. He started 2 for 9, and finished 10 for 30. Some of his passes were pure "YOLO" deep shots that had almost zero chance (save for Cethan Carter's single 55 yarder) to be caught.

Yet Nebraska kept throwing the ball. Nebraska was averaging 9.3 yards a rush early, but it was still a 65-35 pass-run mix.  Every Husker fan knew it was the wrong thing to do, but Riley and Danny Langsdorf kept dialing up passes.

Fortunately, Nebraska had the lead most of the day, and finally in the closing three minutes, Langsdorf and Riley finally realized that the Big Red could run out the clock on the ground...until Nebraska found themselves with a 3rd and 7 at the Illinois 28 yard line.  Illinois has no time outs left, and Tommy Armstrong throws an incomplete pass. Riley tried to throw Armstrong under the bus after the game by saying that Armstrong was supposed to run the ball on that play, but I find that hard to believe that somehow that Armstrong ad-libbed it to a pass in that situation.

Incomplete...and the clock stops with 50 seconds left. Run the ball, and Nebraska snaps the ball on 4th down with under 20 seconds left in the game.  At best, Illinois will get the ball with 10 seconds left.  So Nebraska punts, right, to pin them at the goal line, right?  Nope.  They go for it, and throw yet another incomplete pass. (Who didn't see that coming.)

Illinois takes over, and Nebraska's awful secondary takes the field.  And you know what happened.

So what happens next?  Good question.  I never was a big fan of the Mike Riley hire in the first place, so I'm jaded here.  My suspicions that hiring Mike Riley at Nebraska was a huge mistake are being confirmed.  The evidence is pretty convincing - and damning.

But here's the problem:  Nebraska simply can't fire Mike Riley.  Not now, not after just five games.  That would be the quickest ziggy in the history of college football - and worse, who would take over? There are no free agent head coaches out there, and you certainly don't want Mark Banker or Danny Langsdorf taking over on an interim basis.

And no, before you even begin to say it:  Tom Osborne can't come back on an interim basis as head coach.

But that does point out the bigger issue at Nebraska:  Shawn Eichorst.  You simply cannot allow Eichorst to hire another head football coach after he messed this hire up that badly.  Just like you couldn't let Steve Pederson hire another coach, you can't let Eichorst hire another coach.

Does that mean Osborne has to return as interim athletic director?  Yes.  Put Osborne back in charge, and prepare for the inevitable.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Putting Nebraska's Rush Defense into Perspective

Many Husker fans have dismissed concerns about the Blackshirts by pointing out that the Huskers rank seventh in rush defense - and that in the Big Ten's West division, the Huskers won't face as strong of passers.  Which is true...but there's another perspective to keep in mind: Nebraska hasn't faced a very strong rushing attack this season either.


  • #61 Miami, 184.3 yards per game. 
  • #85 Southern Miss, 158.0 yards per game.
  • #107 South Alabama, 132.3 yards per game.
  • #119 BYU, 103.8 yards per game.

Now, with just four games, the impact of one game is rather large, but it does point out that none of Nebraska's opponents have particularly strong ground games. Miami's is the best, but the 'Canes rushed for 132 yards against the Big Red.

It is true that many of Nebraska's upcoming opponents aren't particularly strong in the passing game, but they are stronger than most Husker fans probably think.

  • #43 Purdue, 257.3 yards per game.
  • #57 Iowa, 243.0 yards per game.
  • #58 Illinois, 242.8 yards per game.
  • #72 Rutgers, 226.0 yards per game.
  • #76 Wisconsin, 219.8 yards per game.
  • #78 Minnesota, 219.5 yards per game.
  • #84 Michigan State, 209.5 yards per game.
  • #119 Northwestern, 145.8 yards per game.

Does the idea of facing six offenses that pass the ball more than Connor Cook and Michigan State make you more comfortable about that Big Ten schedule?

Me neither.