Saturday, October 22, 2016

Huskers Struggle Again With Purdue

I thought Mike Riley had learned the lessons of 2015, but then the nightmare of 2015's most horrific, most inexplicable loss resurrected itself. Seven losses in 2015 seemed to make it crystal clear to Mike Riley that in order to succeed at Nebraska, he must run the ball. And run the ball is what Nebraska did to win seven straight games.

But against Purdue?  The worst rush defense in the Big Ten and nearly the worst in college football?  It didn't happen.  Why not?

Some of it was a "could not," though that wasn't quite as apparent until after the game appeared to be heading towards an ugly repeat of 2015. It actually started as a "didn't want to".  Here are the halftime stats:

12 rushes.  18 passes.  Purdue lead 14-10.

Meanwhile, the Blackshirts were turning Purdue's David Blough into Drew Brees. Again. 16 of 20 passes for 231 yards.

If it was an experiment to prove that last year's problems were all "buy-in," then consider the theory completely disproved:
One difference between last year and this year was that Nebraska couldn't really run the ball well in this year's game. Which is hard to understand, given that Purdue's best defensive lineman, Jake Replogle, didn't play due to injury. To my uneducated eye, it's because Riley, Danny Langsdorf and Mike Cavanaugh elected to stick with Nebraska's two injured offensive tackles. Earlier this season, Nick Gates seemed to be playing at an all-conference level, but then injured his ankle last week.  He kept playing against Indiana, albeit poorly, then missed almost the entire week of practice.  He went the whole way against Purdue despite doing his best imitation of a Memorial Stadium turnstile in the second half. David Knevel was hurting even more, and finally was replaced by Cole Conrad. The only possible explanation is that Cavanaugh was more convinced that not only was an injured and ineffective Gates was better than inserting Christian Gaylord or Corey Whittaker into the game, it was also worth the risk that playing Gates would lengthen his recovery time.  (Not that we don't have some important games coming up the next couple of weeks.)

Or maybe it's just Cavanaugh's stubborn refusal to substitute on the offensive line.

Defensive adjustments helped in the second half, as Blough only completed nine of 23 passes for 78 yards. Tommy Armstrong was much more efficient through the air, and Terrell Newby found a few holes. Nebraska came back and won ugly.


Don't get me wrong:  7-0 is a hell of an improvement over last season.  But now reality is staring Husker fans right in their face, because Nebraska won't be able to be competitive with either Wisconsin or Ohio State playing the way they have been as of late. The thing is, Husker fans know that this team is capable of playing at a much higher level, because they've seen it sporadically all season long.  Sporadically won't work the next two weeks.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Huskers Survive and Advance Against Hoosiers

Survive and Advance. Survive and Advance.

Nebraska broke out to a quick 10-0 lead while Clemson and North Carolina State ran long on ABC. Only problem... ABC didn't tell fans to turn to ESPN2 at kickoff, and then switched the game off of ESPN2 several minutes before ABC picked up the broadcast.  So all we saw was Brandon Reilly's miracle deflection catch on a replay.  A couple of minutes later, Chris Jones picked off a Richard Lagow pass to give the Huskers a 17-0 lead. Cruising, right?

Well, that was the end of that.  Nebraska's offense went into it's typical second and third quarter slump, and Indiana slowly worked their way back into the game.  Bruce Read's special teams were a debacle once again, as the Huskers were completely discombobulated on that punt.  Nebraska left a huge hole up the middle, and the protectors had no idea which of the half-dozen rushers they should try to nobody did.  Easy block for a safety. Add in a substitution penalty on an extra point, and you've got yet more evidence that Nebraska's $450,000 investment in special teams is a complete waste of money.

Nebraska's offensive line struggled...really struggled. Yes, David Knevel only lasted one play, but everybody struggled.  Nick Gates had his worst game ever as a Husker, and the rest of the line was a mess. Bad pass protection led to too many YOLO desperation heaves by Tommy Armstrong that were just a mess.

But at the same time, there were Husker Heroes that emerged.  The entire secondary played really, really well.  So did the defensive line, even if the referees weren't willing to throw a flag.  Terrell Newby gutted out 102 yards and made key run after key run as really Nebraska's only I-back.  Devine Ozigbo tried to play in the second half, but apparently couldn't go.  Mikale Wilbon, I assume, was also out with injury.  That left only Tre Bryant to spell Newby. Bryant looks like a solid blocking back, but he can't continue to average 7 inches a carry if he's going to see any more playing time.

This is going to be heretical to many fans...but Nebraska's best tight end is Sam Cotton. I know fans have been tempted by Cethan Carter's potential for years, but he continues to just be too inconsistent.  Maybe fans would like Cotton better if his name was Jones or Smith.

But let's credit Indiana's Tom Allen for a stout Hoosier defense; during Kevin Wilson's time in Bloomington, Indiana football has looked like old-style WAC football where defense was optional.  But Indiana's defense is becoming legit.

Good win?  Absolutely.  But Nebraska will need to find some healthy bodies and get some offensive issues fixed in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Will Dean Blais Be The First Casualty of UNO's Baxter Arena Debacle?

Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald had an ominous conversation with UNO hockey coach Dean Blais, who all but said that his time is up at UNO. He's clearly not happy with what's happening at UNO, and isn't confident in the direction of the school.

“It’s good here,” Blais said. “But a real big loss for me is John Christensen. He and his wife are two of the biggest fans we have, and supported hockey to the max.

 “He had your back. As a coach, nothing is more important than knowing the chancellor, the guy in charge, has your back. That will be important.

“It’s like Bo Pelini over in Lincoln, the chancellor didn’t have his back.”
Ohhh, he said the "B" word, which will certainly ruffle more than a few feathers around here. Lack of support from the chancellor was the ultimate end to Frank Solich, and once Tom Osborne wasn't around to stand behind Bo Pelini, Pelini was gone as well. It's no secret that neither coach was particularly well liked by Harvey Perlman, and that's something that Bo Pelini referenced when he was hired at Youngstown State.

It's clear that UNO's Baxter Arena isn't meeting the promises that were used to justify it's construction in the first place. Instead of solving UNO's financial problems, it's magnifying them. And the repercussions are simply not good. Trev Alberts is dealing with a $600,000 budget cut to help deal with the unanticipated extra expenses of maintaining an arena 365 days a year.  That's $600,000 that's not available to do the other things that UNO needs to do to field a national contender hockey program.  Full cost of attendance scholarships? Not happening, and not happening any time soon.

The uncertainty over what UNO can do - and will have to do - as a result of the debacle that is Baxter Arena's financials that clouds the future of UNO hockey.  And that has Dean Blais looking longingly towards the golf course and fishing hole, and that's making a bad situation even worse.  Who would succeed Blais?  It's certainly not somebody on the current staff.  Would UNO be forced to return Mike Kemp behind the bench?  Not that Kemper is a bad coach...but he's already wearing too many hats as arena manager and assistant athletic director.  Mike Hastings?  Could UNO afford him now?  And would he want to jump into the UNO situation?

Sad to say that the future of the program looks almost as bleak as it did 10 years ago. If only the solution were as simple as cancelling a vice-chancellor's subscription to SiriusXM...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Huskers Grit a Victory Over Illinois

Nebraska opened the game against Illinois with a long touchdown drive; the first score on an opening drive in 2016, and I thought the Huskers were well on their way to a dominating victory.  Perhaps what Gary Sharp called for earlier this week on KOZN-1620 AM radio: "A Fifty-burger."

Except it never materialized. Nebraska consistently moved the ball, albeit in small chunks all day, but trailed after halftime thanks to a couple of turnovers. The defense was surprisingly leaky against an Illinois team that could only rush for three yards two weeks ago against Western Michigan.  Online chatter from the media suggested that Nebraska's linebackers were the reason, and from my perspective, senior Josh Banderas found himself out of position on Kendrick Foster's 31 yard touchdown run and Nathan Eckhard's 26 yard catch that set up Illinois' game tying field goal in the 2nd quarter.  We didn't see much of Banderas after that today.  For what it's worth, I saw both Michael Rose-Ivey and Dedrick Young both make a few plays.

I'm not quite sure what to make of Nebraska's offensive line play today.  On short yardage situations, the Huskers generated enough push to drive Illinois back three yards consistently...but until late, the Huskers couldn't generate anything more than a 4 or 5 yard gain.  Through the end of the third quarter, the Huskers rushed 31 times for 89 yards.  That's not going to cut it in Big Ten play.  Dauwane Smoot wreaked havoc all game long from defensive tackle.  David Knevel got pulled at right tackle in the second quarter, but to be honest, Cole Conrad wasn't better by any means.

But the one thing I took away from this game was that Nebraska stayed with the run and resisted the temptation to go to the air. I was reminded of last year's Iowa game where Riley panicked as the game went on.  Tommy Armstrong threw 45 passes, four of which turned into interceptions, and Nebraska lost to Iowa. Nebraska wore down Illinois in the fourth quarter on the ground, which is something that Michigan State proved could be done a week later in the Big Ten title game.

It's a win, but a costly win. The injuries to Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter could be very serious; I don't expect them back anytime soon.  As luck would have it, Nebraska has a bye week next week, which is very good news for a 5-0 team.  Nebraska might be able to survive the next two games playing this way, but the reality is that Nebraska can't afford to wait until the fourth quarter to get things going under the lights in a month.