Unforgettable Embarrasment

For the most part, this has been a feel good fall for the Huskers. Coming off an abysmal 6-7 campaign, this season has been a breath of fresh air, a reason to believe that Mike Riley might be the right man to lead NU back to the mountain top. On their way to a 9-2 record, this team showed guts and moments of brilliance. Those moments seemed miles away during the Black Friday meltdown we saw yesterday. A very mediocre Iowa team trailor parked slapped the Big Red 40-10.  40-10!! Its difficult to believe. A few weeks ago when NU got housed by Ohio State, that was completely believable. Ohio State is amongst the very best teams in the country. A team that could win the national championship. Most of those players will be playing on an NFL team near you sooner or later. This is Iowa. A team that has lost in their own building to Northwestern, North Dakota State, and Wisconsin this season. Its a team that appears incapable, by their structure if nothing else, of blowing the doors off of opponents. Well forget all of that. This game will be a permanent blemish on Mike Riley’s ledger. Losses like this were unacceptable for Bo Pelini as well as Frank Solich and Bill Callahan before him. They damn sure are unacceptable for a team that, at one point, appeared to have turned the corner. The road to relevancy appears extremely long on this Saturday morning.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Lets start at the top. How was this team so ill prepared for a game that could have drastically altered the perception of their season? Its unthinkable. Offensively Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley formulated a lackluster game plan. With a gimpy Tommy Armstrong a strong game plan was necessary. Defensively, The Blackshirts got absolutely bullied around by the Iowa offensive line. It was painful to watch. The Hawkeyes ran for 264 yards and C.J Bethard was rarely bothered by the Nebraska front. Then there is the special teams. Bruce Reed’s special teams are fairly pathetic. Through 12 games, NU has virtually no punt return, no kickoff return, a shaky (at best) punt unit, and a punt coverage unit that got lit up Friday against Iowa. In short, Nebraska was poor in all phases of the game. Not surprisingly, this falls on the staff. Mike Riley and company did a piss poor job getting this team ready to play. Its that simple.

Tommy Armstrong deserves to stand before the firing squad as well. Tom was terrible, no way around it. I expect my 4 year starting QB to do better than 13-35 passing, regardless of his condition. Armstrong was all over the map. His accuracy and decision making absolutely killed NU Friday. At times there were open receivers. Tommy either missed them or threw the ball elsewhere. He was locking onto receivers all afternoon. It was one of the worst performances of his career. To make matters worse, Tommy was essentially a sack of potatoes in the pocket. There was no elusiveness nor explosiveness. Those are major reasons why Armstrong is a good QB. He was anything but Friday. Sure, he was injured. Nobody can deny the man’s will to play. But if he is so banged up that he cant be his usual effective self, then he shouldn’t have been playing at all. That is on both the coaches and Armstrong himself.

Ultimately a shit kicking like the one we endured Friday falls on the players as well. This senior laden group really messed the bed against the Hawks. From consistent over pursuit to knucklehead penalties, there were plenty of head scratching moments. After one of my many maddening runs by Akrum Wadley, I turned and said “who is this team?” They looked like impostors out there. I would have expected some of that sloppiness in week 2, not on Black Friday. This team was not mentally sharp, that is on them. Nate Gerry’s roughing the kicker penalty in the 4th perfectly summed up the day for the Huskers. Just when it seemed they had done something positive, an air head play negates the whole thing. Iowa is not immensely more talented than Nebraska, if at all. The fact that NU lost by 30 freaking points means something more is at play. It falls on everyone. The players are in no way exempt from responsibility for this monumental embarrassment.

So where, exactly, do we go from here? A good season seemed to go down in spectacular flames against the Hawks. There is no reason why Nebraska should lose to Iowa by 30 points. EVER!! Unfortunately it happened. Mike Riley and this entire Husker team needs to take a good, long look in the mirror. We have known for weeks that this was a flawed team. This defensive line, specifically, has played over its head for the better part of the fall. They got smashed against the adequate Iowa front. Likewise the Husker Oline was overmatched against the Iowa front 7. That is an area that this program has to improve. There is no doubt about that. To be honest I’m not exactly sure where we go from here. Its a debilitating, humiliating defeat. The kind that makes you want to bury your head in the sand. It hurts. Is this program ultimately headed in the right direction? I think so, but I was a whole lot more certain before 2:30 on Friday.

Buckeye Beatdown

Well folks, it happened. Yep, that score and the impending soreness is very real. 62-3 is a reality. The Nebraska Cornhuskers got absolutely curb stomped Saturday night. It was every bit the scene from American History X. The Buckeyes told NU to bite the curb and the Huskers were left with no choice. I’m not going to make excuses. This thing was ugly from the outset. Any talk of OSU being a “beatable” team is completely laughable the morning after a 59 point ass kicking. I could go on about how horrendous the offense was under the direction of Ryker Fyfe and their meager 204 yards of total offense. I could point to the Buckeye drive chart and shudder at the amount of TDs given up or the OSU 11-15 3rd down conversion rate. None of that is worthy of my time and effort. I highly doubt you want to hear about it either. Rather than beleaguer the point, I’m going to look forward.

Ass kickings like this happen. It’s a part of sports. Over the years I’ve seen several. There was the 70-10 shallacking in Lubbock in 2005. Who can forget 41-6 to the Missouri Tigers in 2007 or the 52-17 shit kicking the following year? These things happen. It sucks, but its all part of being a sports fan. So where do we go from here? Its time for everyone, fans included, to put on our collective big boy pants and move forward.  Put the thorough domination of Saturday night in the rear view and focus on the windshield. This team sits at 7-2 with 3 to play. Those 3 are incredibly winable. The next 2, to the Minnesota Gophers and Maryland Terrapins, are both at home. Those are chicken soup games. After 2 games against excellent competition in extremely tough environments the Big Red come home to the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium and all of their fans. That should give this team a boost. Then, of course, there is the Black Friday matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes who got their own wheels blown off last night. That game will be no gimme, but its a game NU should absolutely win. My point here is that these games are all winable. A 10-2 season is at their feet. That’s a great season. Especially when you consider the atrocities of 2015. There is still plenty to play for.

How does NU go about moving forward? Anyone who has ever tried anything has failed at some point. Perhaps it wasn’t as spectacular as 62-3 or seen by as many people, but we have all experienced failure. It’s a part of life. All there is to do is learn from it and move forward. That is all Nebraska can do. The naysayers and doubters will be out in droves, the Huskers will plummet down the rankings, and the criticism will the thick. So what? Its all bullshit right now anyway. This team needs to collectively look within, accept the ass kicking, and move on. The worst thing that can come of this is for the Huskers to throw a pity party. I’ve seen it too many times. A team gets beaten and it so thoroughly demoralizes them that they never get their act together. Mike Riley and the leaders on this team have to make sure that doesn’t happen. Don’t let Ohio State beat you twice. This is where the character and makeup of a team matters, not when you are 7-0 and in the top 10. Adversity has solidly landed on the Huskers and its incumbent upon them to get off the mat and prepare for the stretch run.

There are a few logistical issues with winning out. First, Tommy Armstrong needs to come back. Ryker Fyfe is awful. I’m not here to make it personal, so Grand Island people please save your ire. There is no way you can look at Fyfe and think that he is a workable piece. What does he do well? If there is anything, I haven’t seen it. Tommy needs to be back. We all saw him laying there motionless on the field Saturday night. He was out cold. It was a scary scene to be sure, but his subsequent actions indicate that he is going to be allright. One thing is certain, this offense needs him in the most serious way. For all Armstrong’s various flaws, he is the life blood of this offense and maybe this team. If NU is going to finish strong and salvage this season they will need #4.

As important as Tommy Armstrong will be to finishing the season strong, Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley need to recommit to this running game. These last few games it seems that NU has lost its way in that regard. Saturday night was a good example. Armstrong and Fyfe combined for 9/33 passing for 126 yards and 2 INTs. That is an average of just 3.8 yards per attempt. That should make everyone want to puke in their cereal. The NU run game was in no way good, but it averaged 3.3 yards per carry. The entire 2nd half I pulled my hair out wondering why Langsdorf insisted on chucking the ball around. More than anything, that philosophy led to the score being so extreme. Run the ball, and move the clock. Additionally, it helps the defense. The defense has been up and down, obviously last night was down, but the offense has to do their share. Doing their share involves not leaving a steaming pile in their lap time after time. A re-commitment to the running game helps everyone. Getting David Knevel and potentially Tanner Farmer back should help in getting a push, but also not playing 2 of the top 3 defenses in the Big 10 will make a difference as well. If NU can get the run game going, it will help the entire squad. That task falls squarely on the entire offensive staff.

This season is not lost folks. I had a pretty good idea that last night would go the way it did. Ohio State played angry. Nebraska offered little resistance. It’s tough coming off an emotionally draining game, like the one in Madison last week, only to play one of the best teams in college football. A beat down was foreseeable. Although, I must admit, I didn’t think it would get that out of hand. Mike Riley did absolutely zero damage control once the train went off the tracks. Whatever. It matters little. Saturday night happened and now we all must move forward. Live in the windshield. The next 3 games will go a long way to define just what type of season 2016 is.

 

Better Late Than Never, Heartbreak in Madison

I’m still here Husker fans. There were a few circumstances that prevented me from doing a write up Saturday night. A late start, a Halloween party, and a trip out to the high plains all contributed to my lack of sleep and inability to write a post. Never to be deterred, here are some thoughts from Badgers 23, Huskers 17.

I love Tommy Armstrong. He’s been a tremendous leader and a steadying presence during a very turbulent time in Husker Football history. I want so much for him to have an awesome performance in a big time game, for the whole world to see. Well, it didn’t happen Saturday night. Tommy was absolutely putrid through the air. His decision making was poor, his accuracy was worse. He passed for 153 yards and under 5 yards per attempt. Ugh. The numbers don’t accurately portray just how wobbly that performance was. He consistently missed open receivers on critical plays. He was a liability. It was extremely hard to watch. I have to believe that Armstrong is the difference between winning and losing this game. It brings me pain to say that, but its 100% true. If NU was better under center, there is no way you can objectively claim that the Big Red doesn’t win this game in regulation. What does the NU offense do with a replacement level, to borrow a baseball term, QB? There is no way it can be any worse than #4 was for the better portion of the game Saturday. Tommy missed simple throws and those INTs in the first half didn’t help matters. The Huskers were in the game despite Tom, not because of him. That hurts to say. Again, I’m a big Armstrong fan, but he was horrendous Saturday night. I’m really hoping for a big bounce back performance next Saturday against the Buckeyes. I’m hoping for it, but not banking on it.

Don’t look now, but this defense is turning into a top shelf unit. Sure, Wisconsin was able to gash the Husker defense occasionally, but there was nothing consistent. The Nebraska defense was consistently stout despite being put in tough spots by the offense. I figured the defense would hold up their end and keep NU in the game, but I was extremely impressed with how they did it. The Husker LBs, in particular Josh Banderas, flew around and made plays. There were several times where Badger ball carriers were greeted with substantial malice. This defense laid the wood several times. It was beautiful. The secondary made life difficult for which ever UW QB they decided to trot out, allowing just 114 passing yards. Nate Gerry came up with 2, enormous INTs to help the Husker comeback effort. Gerry in particular was terrific Saturday night (despite getting stiff armed by Corey Clement) both against the run and in coverage. His energy and leadership are invaluable to this unit. Most encouraging, this defensive line is molding into shape. This unit is getting better each and every week. Carlos Davis, in particular is a rising star up front. #96 is a star in the making. Hats off to the job John Parella is doing with that line. This group is getting better each and every week, despite working with a skeleton crew. That fact is a nod to the quality of Parella’s work. That hire looks fantastic 8 games into the season. The rise of this defense as a whole coincided substantially with the improvement up front. Its really exciting watching this defense improve each week. Saturday night was affirmation that this defense can lead this team to greatness.

A whole lot is being made out of the officiating Saturday night. The no call on the pass interference on 3rd down in OT is obviously at the center of it. But the officiating was extremely consistent Saturday night. By consistent, I mean non existent. The refs pretty much washed their hands of the action on the field. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were 3 total penalties Saturday night. A false start and illegal formation on NU and an offsides by Wisconsin.   Yes, all pre-snap. That is incredible. THERE WASN’T A SINGLE PENALTY THAT WAS CALLED DURING THE COURSE OF PLAY!!! This isn’t some kind of screw job. That’s the way the game was being called. It’s extremely odd that no penalties were being called, but don’t you think that may have helped NU as well? Especially with a beat up O-line against that Badger pass rush? Think about it.

If you are into moral victories this game had plenty of them. Other than the Huskers, I’ve watched more Wisconsin football than any team in the country. I find their hard nosed, smart, efficient brand of football especially interesting. The Badgers are incredibly physical as well. They went toe to toe with both Michigan and Ohio State in their only 2 losses. I think they are one of the very best teams in the country.  Coming in, I thought they might absolutely manhandle the Huskers. NU hadn’t seen anyone with that kind of physicality. Nobody close, in fact. My fears were alleviated early. This game was a brawl and the Huskers were landing plenty of blows. This game should have gone NU’s way. There is no doubt. For a number of reasons, NU just couldn’t come away with it. But a big picture view is appropriate here. If you wondered about the direction of this program under Mike Riley, you learned a lot Saturday night. Camp Randall has been a house of horrors ever since joining this league. Rightfully so, its an incredibly tough place to play. Saturday, NU showed the kind of toughness that it takes to play and win on the road in this league. That is something the Huskers can take with them going forward. That kind of belief can be program altering. I think we saw it the other way under the Pelini administration. It’s clear to see that Mike Riley and company have changed the course of this program for the positive.  Although a win Saturday would have been spectacular, a macro view of that effort reveals several promising signs about the direction of this program.

Next up, a trip to Ohio Stadium for a date with the Buckeyes. A few weeks ago I chalked this up as a certain loss. But the way NU played against the Badgers, and the way OSU has been staggering around, makes it not so certain. It’s going to be a hell of a challenge for this Husker team. A win still puts them squarely in the drivers seat in the Big 10 West. Armstrong will need to be better and the NU secondary is in for a big test against JT Barret and the slew of Buckeye offensive weapons. It will be tough. I hope this team is up for the challenge. If Saturday is any indication, they will be.

Never Pretty

After what may have been the worst interception I have ever seen, followed by the easiest TD run I’ve seen all year, I was feeling pretty good. Maybe it was the fever I have been fighting, but I was feeling downright upbeat. Perhaps I could spend a carefree afternoon watching Nebraska Football. That would be a welcome change from the white knuckle ride of the last 6 weeks. It was not to be. Purdue proved to be a feisty bunch, but it goes further than that. This Husker squad is simply incapable of putting the pedal to the metal and destroying an opponent. They just can’t do it. It has to be something between the ears. Couple that with the fact that NU plays some pretty ugly ball from time to time, and you get games like Saturday’s. Purdue is not a good team. This game should not have been competitive. But NU dilly-dallies around, playing with Purdue like they are the family pet for the better part of the afternoon. The result was a fair amount of perspiration for this Husker fan..

The Husker defense had me sweating bullets early on. Purdue QB David Blough came in white hot, causing problems for a pass defense that has been pretty salty to this point. Josh Kalu tripped on a deep ball. That drive ultimately resulted in a TD. Then on a 3rd and 11 Deangelo Yancy takes a pass 88 yards to the house. Jesus!! Worse yet, Purdue was consistently moving the ball early in the first half. I was seriously concerned. Then, almost in unison, Blough cooled off and the Blackshirts collected themselves and turned in a very solid effort. Purdue did not score in the last 40 minutes of the game. In fact, David Blough was just 9/23 for 78 yards in the 2nd half after throwing for 231 yards in the 1st.  The best part was that NU got to David Blough with just their front 4. Freedom Akinmoladun, Carlos Davis and Ross Dzuris made life difficult for the Purdue signal caller. This is a terrific sign. Not only is the D-line improving, but the ability to get pressure with the front 4 opens up the playbook for Mark Banker. It should also be noted that it appeared Banker called a pretty good game. David Blough looked confused with the variety of pressures and coverages Banker threw at him. There were areas for concern. Chris Jones left the game twice with what appeared to be a leg injury. Jones has been outstanding thus far. If he is lost, or even banged up, that is bad news. Ideally, you would like to see a 60 minute effort from your defense. But this is not an ideal team. Overall this was a very solid performance, particularly in the 2nd half. Hopefully this is just another sign that this defense is getting better as major challenges loom in the next couple of weeks.

The Husker offense was downright maddening Saturday afternoon. What exactly did they consistently do well? What could Tommy Armstrong and company hang their hat on? The passing game was hit and miss. Tommy missed a few open receivers, threw a pick and was generally harassed by the Purdue defensive front. Armstrong was considerably better in the 2nd half going 8/11, but the pass game was inconsistent. The run game was extremely aggravating. What happened to the NU offensive line? I know there are injuries, but how is it possible that they have forgotten how to block anyone? Remember, this Purdue defense gave up an eye popping 365 rushing yards to Iowa and rank 124th nationally in run defense. Sure, Purdue loaded the box in an effort to stop the run. Still, I expected NU to have some success on the ground. There was little. Time after time, Boilermaker defenders were wreaking havoc in the NU backfield. It’s time to be concerned about this running game. The injuries along with the quality of play have taken their toll. Danny Langsdorf, Mike Cavanaugh and of course Mike Riley need to figure out how to jump start the run game. I’m not sure exactly what that means. Perhaps some different formations. Maybe shake up the offensive line. I know I would really like to see someone in there to replace Sam Hahn. Jalin Barnett? Going forward this run game has to improve or Ws like the one we saw Saturday could become scarce.

The saving grace for the Nebraska offense was the WR unit. NU was still down 14-10 mid way through the 3rd quarter when DeMornay Pierson-El caught a simple slant, then turned on the jets and left the Purdue secondary in the dust. Its good to see Pierson-El getting more involved with the offense. You can’t coach that kind of explosiveness. Brandon Reilly had 4 catches for 73 yards. Alonzo Moore also ran for a TD on a jet sweep. Stanley Morgan had a sensational catch as well. This unit created problems all day for the Boilermakers. There  were times that Tommy Armstrong delivered a precise, beautiful ball. There were others that he just missed. That’s life with Tommy. But these receivers were consistently open and made the most of their opportunities. Purdue simply had no answers for this group.

This team does not have the killer instinct that you would like to see out of a top 10 team. That much is indisputable. But what they do have is the ability to regroup, collect themselves and keep grinding. Furthermore, this team knows how to hang around and grind out wins. In many respects, that quality may be more important to the 2016 squad. Would I have enjoyed a 42-10 shit kicking of this inconsequential Big 10 bottom feeder?  Sure, without question. But that isn’t what this team does. This team grinds out wins. It beats the hell out of the alternative. As it stands this squad is 7-0 going into a very key stretch. The rubber meets the road next week. Wisconsin beat Iowas to keep their Big 10 West aspirations afloat. NU will bring that 7-0 record to Camp Randall next Saturday night in what could be the biggest game of the year. A win would all but seal the Big 10 West for the Huskers. That sure would be sweet. Make no mistake, it will not be easy.

Offensively Challenged

I knew it. It was too good to be true. I just knew it. As Chris Jones took the ball into the endzone in the first quarter to give Nebraska a 17-0 lead, I knew that what I was seeing was not reality. I would have loved nothing more than to watch my beloved Huskers steamroll a quality conference opponent. To really stick it to someone for all to see. It looked promising. But I knew it was not to be. From that point forth the Huskers offense collapsed, while the special teams wilted and the defense fought its ass off to stay alive. Don’t get me wrong, a win is a win. I’m very happy with being 6-0 and really enjoy the resolve this team shows. This team has a lot of intangibles you really can’t teach.  That’s the good news. The bad news is this was an extremely uneven performance that should not have resulted in a W.

I’m just going to say it. The Husker offense was utter garbage for a large chunk of this game. It was absolutely putrid. But don’t take my word for it. Lets look at the drive chart. Between the Terrell Newby TD in the first quarter and the outrageously lucky Stanley Morgan TD in the 4th, the drive chart goes as follows: punt, safety, punt, interception, end of half, punt, punt, punt, interception. In case you weren’t counting that is 5 punts, 2 Ints, and a safety. 4 of those punts were the result of drives that lasted less than 5 plays.  Good grief. It was some of the worst NU offense I have seen in a very long time. The Huskers had no answer for the Hoosiers swarming defense. None. Short passes didn’t work. Neither did long passes, nor screens. The run game was all but abandoned for the better part of the afternoon. Nothing worked and the line is largely to blame. The patchwork line was awful for the better part of Saturday afternoon. There were no holes for runners and the pass protection was just as poor. Time after time Tommy Armstrong was running for his life. But lets not let him off the hook either.

Tommy was bad. Really, really bad. His numbers appear fairly pedestrian. 10/26 for 208 yards 1 TD and 2 INTs. Typically, mediocre numbers like that don’t warrant a skewering. This was not a typical performance. The 2 Ints were both completely unacceptable. One of which was a total jackpot, toss up that you might see at your local elementary school. Thats not hyperbole, check it out yourself. I expect better decision making from my senior 4 year starter. Much better. The yardage is also deceiving. 72 yards came on a total keystone cop moment by the IU defense. 3 defenders collided while Stanley Morgan caught the ball and went to the house. 45 more came on a miracle catch by Brandon Reilly that should have been a pick. Take those 117 yards out and you get 91 yards on 8/24 passing. Awful. One particular time Alonzo Moore got free deep. A TD would have went a long way toward securing the W. Tom missed him, badly. I don’t know if Tommy isn’t healthy or if the Hoosier defense rattled him. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. QB play that poor gets you beat. It’s that simple. Armstrong has to be better. I’m sure he would be the first to tell you that.  He is a major cog in this offense. If he plays like that the rest of this season could have several long afternoons.

Well, that feels better. I needed to vent about the offense. They were infuriating. By all rights this unit should have cost NU the game. But there is a silver lining.

The beleaguered and much maligned Nebraska offense took the field with 8:26 to go and nursing a very tenuous 2 point lead. Somehow, NU found a way to run the ball. For the 2nd straight game Terrell Newby was a stud. He avoided a near fumble that was as close as it gets and churned out yards to salt this thing away. Along the way Mike Riley went for it on 4th and short near mid field. The NU offense had no consistent push, but Riley made the call. That call took considerable onions. Riley deserves credit for such a bold call. After that conversion the Nebraska offense gets a FG and milks the clock to under a minute. The drive may go down as a season definer. Despite the monumental struggles of the Husker offense, when the chips were down this unit came up with a 15 play, 60 yard drive that burned an astonishing 7:41 off the clock and all but assured a Husker victory. That deserves kudos, even if the rest of the day was largely hot garbage.

This defense turned in a performance Husker fans can be proud of. Despite the offense consistently laying a steaming pile in their lap, this unit answered the call time and again. Coming in I was concerned that the NU rush defense would allow Indiana RB Devine Redding and his powerful frame to run wild. That never materialized. The NU rush defense held the Hoosiers to below 3 yards per carry despite a 33 yard TD run in the 3rd quarter. The pass defense was also largely terrific. Chris Jones Josh Kalu and company were all over the place. Did they allow some yardage?  Sure. But this is a pretty crafty offense. They will distribute more than their share of headaches before this season is over. Still, Indiana was held to less than 6.5 yards per attempt passing. That is pretty damn good. The defense had a ton of looks thrown at them and they adjusted nicely. Of Indiana’s 4 scoring drives, 2 were started deep in Husker territory due to turnover or special teams play. Otherwise Indiana had difficulty putting points on the board. Another bright spot was the pass rush which created pressure without the blitz. That was super encouraging to see. Lets hope that continues as the season progresses. In general my aggravation with the Husker performance had little to do with the defense. This group hung tough in difficult circumstances for the majority of the afternoon. They earned their stripes Saturday. They are the reason that NU wins a tough game on the road and improves to 6-0.

There is no doubt that 6-0 feels great. It’s been a long time coming. This team has managed to navigate the various potholes of the schedule to this point. That fact should not be overlooked. There is a certain team directly to the East of NU that wishes it could say the same. But they can’t. Still, one cannot disregard the various shortcomings of this squad. Today it would have been great to absolutely squash Indiana. The Big Red had the chance. Up 17-0 early, the opportunity to break their spirit with another score presented itself. Unfortunately, the Huskers could not capitalize. That is a problem. Great teams bury their opposition in situations like that. Let’s make no mistake, there are a couple great teams forthcoming. If Nebraska plays like it did Saturday, they will get absolutely curb stomped. Indiana is a good team, this might be NU’s best win to date, but the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State will trailer park slap the Huskers with a performance like that. Those dates should loom over this team like a dark cloud. Get better or else.

Another Saturday, Another Battle

My wife ran in an Oktoberfest run early Saturday morning. Naturally, I was there in red. I struck up a conversation with a Michigan fan. As it concluded, I wished him luck. He did the same. I confidently replied “I don’t think we are going to need it today.” I was that sure the Huskers would roll. In my preview I said that the Huskers would “grind Illinois into a fine powder.” I was eating those words, and my lower lip, as the Huskers trailed early in the 4th quarter. For the better part of the afternoon it seemed that Nebraska was hell bent on giving this one away. If it wasn’t penalties, it was a redzone fumble, or shotty defense. For the 3rd straight week the Big Red were in an absolute battle deep into this game. True to form, this club owned the 4th quarter and came away victorious. Give credit to the Illini. They did not play like a 1-2 team. They had this fella sweating bullets all afternoon.

Through 5 games it is now apparent that Nebraska has a few holes on defense. Specifically, the defensive line. Illinois, who had previously been listless running the ball, averaged nearly 6 yards per rush Saturday. The holes were gaping. The LBs can only do so much. We all knew that this DL would be under manned, but that is becoming painfully evident. The pass rush is poor also. If Mark Banker wants to get to opposing QBs, he has to blitz and expose the secondary. That is not a good spot to be in as a playcaller. As poor as the defense was at times Saturday, they answered the bell and made a few key stops. After Nebraska took the lead on an 11 minute drive, the defense stepped up with a 3 and out. Then after NU extended the lead to 8, the defense again forced a 3 and out. Those 2 series went a long way toward winning this game. Ultimately for all the blunders, missed assignments and poor play this unit made plays when it had to.  That deserves some kudos. This defense is far from perfect. It has a long way to go. Frankly I have serious doubts if it can be a dominating unit with the talent on hand. These problems aren’t going away.  But for today this defense played well enough. Not great, not by a mile, but well enough in key situations for this team to improve to 5-0.

The offense Saturday was not playing with a full deck. Wide Receiver Alonzo Moore and Guard Tanner Farmer did not play. Cethan Carter, Jordan Westercamp, David Knevel and Devine Ozigbo all left the game with injuries. Those are major cogs in the offensive wheel. That left the offense undermanned and it showed. The offensive line sorely missed Farmer  and then Knevel as it was unable to push Illinois around the way I thought it would. Tommy Armstrong’s safety blanket Cethan Carter would have come in handy as he escaped oncoming defenders all afternoon. Give the Illinois defense credit for confounding the NU offense for the better part of the afternoon with blitzes and other pressures. They had NU on their heels. But also give the Huskers credit for a gritty 2nd half. Down 16-10 the offense embarked on an 18 play, 75 yard TD drive that took nearly 11 minutes off the clock. That’s right, 11 minutes. Along the way Nebraska was twice bailed out by penalties on 3rd down and got an ultra favorable spot on 4th down inside the 10 yard line. Still, that is a big boy drive that completely flipped the momentum of the game. After a 3 and out, NU did it again this time with a 6 minute drive. That took the wind out of the sails of the Illini and secured the win.

During those 2 game winning, perhaps season saving drives Nebraska leaned heavily on Terrell Newby.  He wasn’t Walter Payton or anything, but the dude was durable and gutsy. This was his best game in scarlet and cream. Good for him. I’ve been tough on Newby. His performance does not change my ultimate opinion of him, but he did show incredible grit. Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf put this one on his shoulders. Newby ran 16 times for 113 yards in the 4th quarter alone!! I’ll admit, I did not think he had that kind of performance in him. With Ozigbo hurt, and Mikale Wilbon in the dog house after a red zone fumble, Newby ran 29 times for 140 yards and 2 Tds. He also caught 2 passes for 26 yards including a pivotal 3rd down reception on the go ahead drive. Newby’s biggest play was a 63 yard run that salted the game away for good. I’ve gained a new respect for Newby after this ballsy performance. On a tough day for this offense, Newby stepped up and was the difference.

Make no mistake, this was not a good performance. The defense was generally shotty, there was missed tackles, and assignments. The offense sputtered as well and there were a slew of missed opportunities. A performance like this will get you beat, especially against good teams. Illinois does not qualify. But, like last week, a win is a win. This team dug deep and collectively made plays when it had to. This is a game the 2015 Huskers lose. That is a good sign. When a team consistently plays close games they are able to draw from that experience.  This team is used to being in tough games after the last month. That experience is invaluable. It pays off. Next up is a bye. This team needs to get healthy first and foremost. There is also plenty of work to be done to improve. The race for the Big 10 west will no doubt get more and more interesting. Currently, the Huskers are in the drivers seat after Wisconsin and Iowa both lost Saturday. But performances like the one Saturday will not be good enough to earn a trip to Indy. I hope Mike Riley is pounding that point home this week.

Lovie and the Illini Come to Town

Well Husker fans, it appears that dear ole NU has something good cookin. Nevermind the fact that Oregon is now 2-2 after losing at home to Colorado, Wyoming is 2-2 after losing to Eastern Michigan and Northwestern is now 1-3 after the defeat we handed them Saturday night. Yeah, those teams aren’t exactly murderers row, but you play the schedule in front of you. 4-0 is all the same, particularly after the plane crashed into the mountain last year. This Saturday the Illinois Fighting Illini come to town for a 2:30 tilt. They bring a coach a lot of people will recognize, a QB with a big arm, but otherwise a big bag of nothing. This is not a good team. Need proof? Check the stats of their two losses to FBS opponents by a combined 49 points. The Illini shouldn’t do much to cause your hair to go gray on Saturday. Here are a few things to look for.

*Illinois Run Defense– The Huskers have made no secret that they want to run the ball. All that talk in the offseason about committing to the run game wasn’t just noise. Its worked out pretty well for the Big Red thus far. NU is averaging 242 yards per game and over five yards per carry for the season. Meanwhile, the Illini  have had a tough time stopping the run in their two FBS games. Both North Carolina and Western Michigan averaged more than five yards per carry. Specifially, the Broncos ran for 287 yards in a 34-10 demolishing in Champaign. Look for Nebraska to hold true to form and pound the ball down the Illini’s throat with tremendous success Saturday.

*Wes Lunt– This dude passes the eye test big time. Lunt is 6-5 and has a big, impressive arm. Unfortunately for the Illini, he has largely underachieved in his college career. A look at the stats reveals that while Lunt completes an impressive 62 % of his passes, he does so for an average of 6.7 yards per attempt. That dink and dunk show ranks 89th nationally. In Illinois’ game with North Carolina, Lunt’s YPA was 3.6. That is horrendous. Despite Lunt’s impressive build and arms strength, he is really quite sub par. Against what is likely the best secondary he has faced, in his first road game of 2016, its doubtful he has much more success.

*Pressure Packages– I have to hand it to Mark Banker, with a defensive line that lacks a true pass rushing presence, Banker has found creative ways to get to the QB. Whether it is blitzes with four down lineman, or interesting nickle and dime packages, there have been no shortage of looks for opposing offenses to prepare for. As the season rolls on, I’m looking to see what else Banker has up his sleeve as well as how frequently he brings pressure. With a secondary that is as strong as NU’s, I think Banker can afford to roll the dice with more blitzes.

*Running Back Rotation– Through four games it has become obvious to me that a simple 1-2 punch at RB will not be enough. I really like Devine Ozigbo, but I have severe doubts about his durability as his carries increase. I would like to keep him fresh and punishing defenders. Terrell Newby looks improved this year, but I don’t think he can be counted on to carry the bulk of the load. Insert Mikale Wilbon. He looked fantastic against Northwestern. He is quick, shifty and can make a defender miss. I think he is can fill a role within this offense. Tre Bryant is another option, but his ball security questions concern me. I think Wilbon is the answer here and I hope Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf agree.

*Block Out the Noise-Its been a hectic week in Huskerville. The death of Milt Tenopir is a major blow. Tenopir wan an all time great. There will no doubt be many heavy hearts inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Meanwhile the stance taken by the three kneeling Huskers have sparked a heated debate on a variety of subjects. Saturday it is back to football, back to the tie that binds. Its time we all get together and cheer on the Big Red and celebrate the life of a Husker legend. As for the team, I expect them to remain focused despite everything else that has been happening this week. It will do them well to get out there and play an actual game. It’s bound to be an emotional day inside Memorial Stadium, and I’m eager to see if this team can stay focused on the task at hand and dispose of the Illini properly.

*Prediction– Huskers roll over the Illini 42-14. Perhaps Lovie Smith can get that program moving in the right direction, but at this point it’s a bad team. The Huskers grind them into a fine powder Saturday.