No Trouble Turtles

Saturday’s game had a strange feel to it. No drama, no tension, no agonizing over the outcome. This one was long decided. It was just a cool, breezy afternoon watching the Huskers wrap up their home campaign for the season. It was a drastic departure from the rest of the season. In games against Oregon, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, the mood was tense. So much of the season hung in the balance. Those games were really tight. Hell, even Wyoming and Purdue had some uneasy moments. Those were miles away Saturday as the Big Red easily dispatched of a woeful Maryland team. Watching that team Saturday its hard to imagine them winning 5 games. More perplexing still is how they beat Michigan State by double figures. I know Michigan State is bad this year, but they are still Sparty and Maryland is, well Maryland. The Terrapins have now lost 4 in a row. The last 3 by a combined 149-13. Owch. So lets not heap too much praise on the Big Red.

I have to tell you, I was nervous about Ryker Fyfe starting this game. His resume isnt exactly sterling at this point. Additionally, so much of the offense has run through Tommy, I wondered how much trouble Danny Langsdorf might have altering the game plan. Those fears were alleviated early. Fyfe was solid. He wasn’t great, we don’t now have a QB controversy on our hands. But he wasn’t at all bad. He looked like he knew where to go with the ball, which was incredibly encouraging. He often found the open receiver and kept the chains moving.  Fyfe was 23/37 for 220 and a TD on the day. Again, nothing earth shattering, but it was effective. Most importantly he never made the big mistake that could have made this thing interesting. That is most important. The offense wasn’t always smooth, things came a bit unraveled through the course of the game, but the train never came off the tracks. That is a credit to Fyfe. Who knows, maybe Armstrong won’t be healthy enough to play on Black Friday. Perhaps there are bigger moments still. But for today lets simply appreciate a decent performance by QB2 for what it was.

I have to eat some crow once and for all. In my season preview I called Terrell Newby “mediocre at best.” Holy hell, was I wrong and he has been making me eat those words for the better part of the season. Newby looks like a different player. Decisive, elusive, and a bear to bring down. He puts his foot in the ground, gets up field and then looks to punish safeties. It is absolutely gorgeous to watch him run right now. The offensive line is getting better but is very hit and miss. #34 is making the most of the openings afforded to him. When Ozigbo went down halfway through the year I was really nervous for this group. Terrell Newby has put on his superman cape and carried this offense at times. Good for him. I am happy to eat my words. It was great to see him have a terrific senior day running for 3 Tds and nearly 100 yards.

If football had mulligans I am sure the defense would want one on that 92 yard TD screen pass. Goodness gracious that was sloppy. There were several NU defenders that should have been able to bring him down. Alas, they didn’t and D.J Moore scored Maryland’s only TD in 3 games. However, if you take that play out the defense played a stellar game. Without that one play, Maryland has just 115 yards of total offense. They just couldn’t get anything going. Part of that is a dismal offense manned by a backup QB, but part of that is genuinely good defense. The Husker D allowed just 11 rushing yards. 11!  That is complete domination at the line of scrimmage. LBs Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas were all over the place, sideline to sideline. Up the middle Kevin Maurice, Carlos Davis and Mick Stoltenberg were unmovable. It was another really good performance by a unit that seems to get better and better. That’s a credit to the coaching staff. Mark Banker is doing a really solid job with this unit. Iowa is next and they are playing their best ball of the season. This defense will have to pull their own weight, and then some, on Black Friday. Personally, I think they are up for it.

Its time I say it. This special teams is terrible. I have been overly patient. When your punter, and team leader, dies in an auto accident just weeks before camp, the leash tends to be pretty long. Caleb Lightbourne has been very up and down. That is to be expected. Saturday we saw NU get a FG blocked, a fake punt converted and general sloppiness in the other special teams areas. Furthermore, NU hasn’t been able to get Demornay Pierson-El going in the punt return game. That is not acceptable. Mike Riley is going to have to make some changes in that area. I don’t know if that means Bruce Read gets fired or not. But the inadequate special teams are turning into a real Achilles heel for this squad. It hasn’t yet cost NU a game, but it may soon enough.

So here we are. 11 down 1 to go. A 9-2 record that is quite satisfying. Just one more date left and it is with the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City on Black Friday.It is going to be terrific. The Hawks are fresh off a revitalizing win over #2 Michigan and they just beat Illinois in Champaign. They are playing their best ball of the year. Just in time. Its going to be a lot of fun. Should NU win it would be their first 10 win regular season since 2010. That is certainly worthwhile. It wont be easy. The Hawks aren’t going to roll over and die for you. Whatever, that is fine. This team has earned everything to this point. I’m confident this group can come out and compete with a very game Hawkeye team. I guess we will see Friday. For now, lets soak in and relish the 9-2 record this team has given us after an easy breezy game Saturday.

 

Same Song, Different Verse

I worked all night in the rain Thanksgiving night. Finally, mercifully, I got off at 9. It was Black Friday, and I was home free. I was a strange combination of excited and exhausted. My plan was simple, go home, catch a nap, and then watch my Nebraska Cornhuskers blow up the Iowa Hawkeyes perfect season. It was going be so, incredibly satisfying. I had my brew and my leftovers ready as I settled in for the 230 kickoff. As the game unfolded an old Nebraska Football bugaboo reared its ugly head. NU turned the ball over 4 agonizing times and despite out gaining the Hawks by 183 yards lost the game. This was not a single game fluke. NU was -2 or worse in turnover margin 4 times last fall.  The Big Red was winless in those games. In fact NU hasnt had a positive turnover ratio since 2009. It’s very simple. Good teams get turnovers, bad teams give them away. The Huskers were -12 in turnover margin in 2015. Considering that figure, its hard to imagine how the Huskers were competitive in as many games as they were. A turnover margin of -12 ranked 117th in the country. That puts them in the same general area as juggernauts SMU (2 wins), Iowa State (3 wins) Army (2 wins) and Eastern Michigan (1 win). Obviously, this is an area that NU must improve upon and their improvement will directly lead to happier Saturdays.

As much as I admire and respect Tommy Armstrong I have to take him to task. Armstrong threw 16 interceptions last fall. That’s way too many. He would tell you that. Armstrong had 1 INT every 21.8 pass attempts.  That is 2nd most in the Big 10. Interceptions against Iowa, Miami  and Northwestern DIRECTLY led to Husker losses. For a player that is now a 3 year starter, numbers like that are completely unacceptable.  A big part of this team improving and making the jump from decent, to good and hopefully great lies on #4’s ability to make better decisions. I don’t want Tom to turn into a checkdown Charlie. That would negate the best part of his game. Rather, Tommy must be more judicious in his risk assessment. Armstrong does a lot of really good things. He’s mobile, strong armed and extremely elusive. That says nothing about his ample leadership abilities. I cringe to think about where this team would have been without him. He is a top half of the league QB, who is capable of leading this team to a conference title. But in order for that to happen, Armstrong must learn to be more conscientious of his tendency to turn the ball over and make better decisions and throws. If he does this, the offense will light up the scoreboard and the win column this fall.

Conversely, the Nebraska defense needs to pick up the pace in the turnover department. The Huskers only got 15 turnovers last fall, ranking 104th nationally. That stat makes me nauseous. Good defenses create takeaways that give their offense a better opportunity to put points on the board. That was never the case with last year’s group. I wrote previously about the horrible pass defense last year. The Huskers intercepted 10 passes ranking 78th in the country. Just 3 more, which would be very easy based upon the number of drops, would send them into the top 50 and give this team a substantial boost. Worse, and completely unexplainable, is the number of fumbles recovered by the Nebraska defense. NU recovered just 5 fumbles ranking an outrageous 113th nationally. I would think a team that played 13 games would trip over more fumbles than that. This number has to go up, and in a big way. The Huskers need to come close to doubling that total this fall. Last year 9 fumbles recovered would have ranked 45th. NU needs to be more in that range to give themselves a chance at winning the West. Not to sound like a broken record, but this falls on Mark Banker and the scheme that he employs. Pressure creates turnovers and more specifically fumbles. With an inexperienced defensive line, Banker must be far more creative in 2016 with the way he packages the defense in an effort to create turnovers and be a difference, rather than a liability.

Given the numbers I’ve laid out before you, it should be no surprise that the Huskers ranked 13th in the Big 10 in both turnovers and turnovers created. It’s a statistical category that puts NU behind the 8 ball every time. Consider the -12 turnover margin in relation to our competition within the division. Minnesota was a paltry -4, Wisconsin a pretty good +3, and Iowa a substantial+11. Yes, that Iowa team that Nebraska largely outplayed on Black Friday was 23 turnovers better on the season. That makes an enormous difference. Its the difference in the kind of season the Hawks had and the kind of season the Huskers had. Its that simple. A better turnover margin, will result in more wins. That falls on Tommy Armstrong being more careful with the ball and the defense creating more turnovers. If those things happen, this team will roll into Indianapolis December 3rd.