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.

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.