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.

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.

2016 Nebraska Football Season Preview

The only thing that saves the month of August from being a complete crotch kick is the excitement of the upcoming football season. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. This particular season is completely unique from any I’ve ever experienced. There is very real optimism and excitement for this upcoming campaign. This is odd for a fan base, accustomed to nine or ten win seasons, coming off a six win season. Mike Riley has managed, through his own personal charm and off-field successes, to create a real buzz without winning a single game. It’s really quite remarkable. It’s as though folks have forgotten the numerous blown games last fall. There will be no hiding once the season kicks off in a couple weeks. There will be weekly reminders of exactly how the Mike Riley era is progressing. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Holes may exist on this roster but so does a solid core of experienced players set to make their mark on Husker lore. From Tommy Armstrong, to Jordan Westerkamp, to Michael Rose-Ivey, and Nate Gerry, these guys seem intent on breaking through and making 2016 one to remember. There is a hungry fan base that would absolutely love to see that happen. In just two weeks’ time, we will release the red balloons and we will be underway. I’m absolutely stoked, as I imagine you are. Here is one man’s guide to the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Five Keys to Success in 2016

Vastly superior turnover margin
A young, yet ferocious, pass rush
A solid, go-to, Running Back emerging from the committee
Better game management from the coaching staff
A difference-making LB corps and their mark on this defense

Five Breakout Players

Josh Banderas
Kevin Maurice
Tanner Farmer
Cethan Carter
Chris Jones

Defensive Backfield

This group is looking to bounce back after an extremely rough 2015. The defensive backfield certainly took it on the chin, ranking 121st nationally in pass defense. That experience has folks feeling oddly optimistic about this group going forward. Cornerbacks Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both showed promise despite their struggles. Sophomore Aaron Williams will man one Safety spot. Williams has a nose for the ball that you just can’t teach. 3rd year starter Nate Gerry will continue to occupy the other safety spot. Gerry also struggled in 2015 and must return to form for this unit to be a strength. There is a lot of talk about being in year two of Mark Banker’s scheme and how the experience gained from their struggles will pay off in spades. Maybe there is truth in that, but I don’t buy it as enthusiastically as they are selling it. I look for this unit to improve dramatically. I simply don’t believe the defensive backs are as bad as the stats from last year indicate. I see plenty of athleticism as well. Look for the defensive backs to surprise some people with their play this fall.

Linebackers

Its funny how a year changes things. A year ago this linebacker group was considered a weakness with barely enough bodies to run a base defense. Now, depth abounds. I project Josh Banderas, Dedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey (providing he can stay healthy) to be the starters. They all return from a year ago and have substantial experience. They all have shown talent at some point in their careers. Backing them up are Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, and Chris Weber who all played a lot in 2015. Then there are young, supposedly talented players waiting in the wings. In just one year’s time the linebacking corps has gone from a liability to the best unit on the defense. Mark Banker has a problem you want to have with all these talented bodies at his disposal. It’s his job to find a role for all of them and get this unit to lead the defense. There are countless ways to use them creatively. Look for this unit to break out in 2016. If they do not, and the LBs struggle, this defense is dead in the water. I don’t see that happening. The LBs will be awesome in 2016.

Defensive Line

Conversely, the last 12 months have not been kind to the defensive line. The Huskers lost five big time contributors from last year’s unit. That hurts a team that does not have a boat load of experience in the depth chart. There is loads and loads of youth within this group. Projected starters Kevin Maurice and Ross Dzuris are both Seniors. Freedom Akinmoladun started four games in 2015 and picked up 4.5 sacks. The experience drops off considerably from there. Carlos and Khalil Davis are both highly touted Redshirt Freshmen, who both pass the eyeball test, but have no playing experience. Daishon Neal is another Redshirt Freshman who figures to be in the mix. Mick Stoltenberg and Peyton Newell are both Sophmores that will likely see the field. You get the point. There is plenty of potential with this group but they are extremely short on experience.  First year defensive line coach John Parella has his work cut out for him. If this unit can be productive against both the run and pass, then this defense will have a substantial leg up. Taking up blocks and keeping the linebackers free to make plays is a winning recipe as well. There are a few ways to skin that cat. The success of this young group will go a very long way toward determining how successful this defense is.

Quarterback

Tommy Armstrong comes into 2016 as a four year starter. He has been largely above average but has struggled mightily at times. I like Tommy, I think he does a lot of positive things. The turnovers are as maddening as they are unacceptable. In no year has Armstrong posted a 2-1 TD-Int ratio. That ratio is the mark of any good QB. His counterpart to the East, C.J Bethard was more than 3-1 in 2015. This ratio has to improve. Tommy has a wonderful lively arm, you can’t teach that, but he simply has to make better decisions. Accuracy also factors into those turnovers. Tommy can be erratic as a passer. He has gotten better each year and I look to see him make the next step. I also look for Danny Langsdorf and Mike Riley to use him more outside the pocket. Armstrong is terrific on roll outs and bootlegs. I don’t think we saw that enough last year. Calls like that use Armstrong’s best attributes and put this offense in the best possible position. That’s good for everyone.

Running Back

Husker fans have been spoiled over the last 7 years or so. The Running Back position has seen some marvelous players in scarlet and cream. From Roy Helu, to Rex Burkhead and the unforgettable Ameer Abdulah, this position has been filled with wonderful, terrific talents. There is nobody like that currently on this roster. I view this group very negatively. The RB position is up for grabs during this camp, largely due to the fact that none of them are good enough to take the bull by the balls. Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo are both taking first team reps, but I don’t consider either to be outstanding. Perhaps Ozigbo will get there, he is just a sophomore, but after three years we know what Newby is. Unfortunately, he is mediocre. The fact that fresh out of high school Tre Bryant is getting reps with the top unit tells you all you need to know about the quality that exists at RB. This unit needs either a solid workhorse or a dynamic playmaker. As of today, I can safely say they have neither. I hope I am wrong about this position group, but at this point this is the weakest unit on the team. I’m not sure it’s even close.

Wide Receiver

The best term to describe the wide receiver corps at Nebraska is loaded. This group is fantastically stacked. For starters there is Jordan Westerkamp, who will hold many of the school’s receiving records by Thanksgiving. Westy is an awesome speedster with terrific hands. We will be watching him on Sundays for a long time. Brandon Reilly is a very good big-bodied receiver with good speed and hands. Reilly, himself, had over 750 yards in 2015. Stanley Morgan is a sophomore with loads of upside. He might have the highest ceiling of all, with his combination of youth, physicality and hands. Alonzo Moore is somehow lost in this mix, despite six TDs in 2015. That says nothing about Cethan Carter and Demornay Pierson-El, who are both outstanding talents. This is far and away the best position group on the team. The one negative is the DUI from WR coach Keith Williams. Williams will be suspended through the end of the month and not allowed to coach the first 4 games. Perhaps that turmoil could disrupt what is sure to be a very good fall for this group. Otherwise, the sky is the limit with this embarrassment of riches on the outside.

Offensive Line

I don’t think I am alone when I say that last year’s offensive line was mostly underwhelming. NU was middle of the pack in both yards per game and yards per carry in Big 10 play.  It seemed like Tommy Armstrong was always getting flushed out of the pocket and running for his life. So forgive me when I don’t sob over the departure of four contributors from last years OL. It’s time for some new blood up front. I really like the way this line looks on paper. Nick Gates will man the left tackle spot after gaining a year’s experience on the other side. I expect Gates to make a big jump this fall. Papillion product, Dylan Utter, moves to center from Guard, where he started every game a year ago. I think that is an upgrade over Ryne Reeves who seemed slow off the ball and consistently high on his snaps. David Knevel  is a ridiculous 6-9 315 lbs. OL Coach Mike Cavanaugh is banking that he can turn that frame into an effective right tackle. I’ll bet he is right. The two that I was the most excited about were guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. Farmer is said to be extremely strong and has trimmed down. Unfortunately, Foster is lost for the year with a knee injury. That is a big loss as I had big hopes for him. In his absence freshman Jalin Barnett looks to make his mark. Like Foster, Barnett has a big upside. Perhaps I am being especially bullish on this group for no particular reason. There is no track record nor experience to speak of. I look at the bodies occupying these spots, as well as the depth being built behind them, and feel that productive Saturdays are in store for this unit. It may take a while for this unit to gel, but I think this unit will be a strength by seasons end.

Schedule Analysis/Season Prediction

Overall, this schedule is tough, but not rough. There are several challenging games along the way, including several on the road. But if you want to be a good team in this league, these are games you can’t be afraid of. Let’s start with the one unwinnable game. November 5th, our beloved Big Red go to Columbus, Ohio to take on the mighty Buckeyes. I don’t see any way this team comes out of Columbus with a W. That team is on a different level at this particular point. September 24th, the Oregon Ducks come to town. Oregon is stumbling off its worst season in 8 years, just lost its offensive coordinator, and is unsettled at QB. That does not mean that they can’t come into Lincoln and win. If the NU defense is not clicking Oregon’s skill players will take the Blackshirts apart. Still, this is a winnable game. Beyond those 2 games there are several tough, but manageable road games. A trip to Northwestern is always a test, but one I feel this team should pass. Another to Madison comes at the tail end of murderers row for the Badgers.  In a 6 week period, UW plays at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa, and then Nebraska. There is a good chance the Badgers will be totally destroyed by the time NU comes to town. Then of course there is a Black Friday trip to Iowa City. The road team has won the last 4 in this series including an awesome comeback from down 24-7 the last time this game was played here. This game is a total toss up.

There are no shortage of potholes on this schedule, but is largely manageable. If this team wants to contend for a division and conference title the door is wide open. The schedule maker has all but eliminated both Wisconsin and Northwestern, leaving Nebraska and Iowa.  Once again the schedule looks relatively easy for the Iowa Hawkeyes. They draw a trip to Penn State and a visit from Michigan from the east, as well as home games against the other West contenders.  The door is in no way closed for NU.  They will certainly need a win on Black Friday or a win in Madison, but I feel like that is realistic. If this defense can gel much earlier than it did a year ago and NU can effectively run the ball, everything is possible. I’ll play the Husker homeboy and call for that to happen and for the Huskers to be playing on Black Friday for the Big 10 west title. I’ll go a step further and say NU wins that game, winning the west and finishing 9-3.

(Pass) Defenseless

Lets take a trip down memory lane. September 26th 2015, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles came to Lincoln as a 21 point underdog. After 3 quarters, the Huskers led 29-7 and looked to be cruising. Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken threw the game plan away and started simply hucking the ball downfield at a vulnerable Nebraska secondary. The Husker pass defense was utterly helpless against Nick Mullens and spark plug WR Casey Martin. This game turned into a dog fight in the 4th quarter. Southern Miss had the ball in Husker territory in the game’s final minute down just one possession. This is all due to the terrible pass defense that was on the display each Saturday last year. The Nebraska pitiful pass defense cost them at minimum 3 games last season. The stats are every bit as bad as the anecdotes. The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in pass defense, surrendering 288 yards per game. NU picked off just 10 passes while allowing 22 passing TDs. It was depressing. If the Huskers hope to reach their goals in 2016 this must be shored up. Otherwise, the Huskers are sunk, and my liver will be in for a very rough fall.

One way NU can expect a better pass defense this fall is through its personnel. Corners Josh Kalu and Chris Jones both took their lumps, repeatedly, but also showed some promise by years end. I like Jones, he is a big physical corner who showed his inexperience but also flashed some skills. Josh Kalu was the most hot and cold of any NU defender. He had 3 INTs and was tied for the team lead for passes defended, but was burned plenty of times. Still, his improvement through the year was easy to see.  If he and Jones can learn from their experiences in 2015 and build upon their successes, this defense will be improved considerably. The biggest X-factor for this entire defense, not just the pass defense, is Safety Nate Gerry. Full disclosure, Gerry is one of my favorite Huskers, but he was bad last year.  Painfully bad. Too often he was in poor position, or would miss a tackle.  He was not himself. Often it looked like there was an impostor wearing number 25. Gerry has all Big 10 capabilities. His vision, physicality and smarts should make him one of the best in the conference, if not the country. If he can return to form, I think this pass defense improves considerably and this defense has a good chance to be good enough for NU to win this division.

In order to take some of the pressure off the Nebraska secondary, the pass rush must improve this fall. The Huskers front 7 were exceptional against the run, but they were mediocre, to God awful, creating pressure. 6 times last fall the Nebraska defense recorded 1 or fewer sacks, amassing just 24 all season. Nebraska ranked 10th in the Big 10 in sacks in conference play. Those stats make me cringe, but accurately high-lite the ineffective pass rush. The lack of a pass rush gave opposing QBs all the time in the world to pick apart the beleaguered Husker secondary. It seemed to happen every Saturday.  Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker must find creative ways to get to the QB and rattle them. The good news is it appears NU has a bevy of options at Linebacker. Last fall the injury bug was relentless. Michael Rose missed 6 games, Josh Banderas missed 4, while Chris Weber missed 3. That is horrendous luck. This year the Big Red return the top 8 at that position. This group will be a strength and Banker must manipulate their talents into production, something that wasn’t done in 2015. Nebraska’s top 5 LBs recorded just 1 sack last fall. That is completely unacceptable. Banker must be more creative this time around. Blitzes, packages, whatever can be done to put the likes of C.J Bethard on their ass. Defensive Lineman like Freedom Akinmolodun and Ross Dzuris must also do their part to help the pass defense. If the Huskers can get to opposing QBs with their front 4 that is a recipe for success. That’s a lot to ask for from a unit trying to break in 6 new members in their 2 deep. Its Mark Banker’s job to work with the experience at LB and inexperience up front to find a way to have a productive pass rush. The success of the 2016 Huskers depends on it.

I have very real and very grave concerns about Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker. Based upon what I saw last fall, he is not a great DC. It took the defense far too long to gel and even when it did there were glaring holes. Perhaps part of that was personnel, injuries, transition to a new system, etc. We have all heard the excuses. Its put up or shut up time for coach Banker. This unit simply cannot be as atrocious as it was against the pass. That must change. The returning experience and improvement made toward the end of the year indicate that is possible. Likely even. Call me jaded, but I need to see it. The tools are there for this defense to be better against the pass and be far more productive overall. That’s all sunshine and rainbows but I’m here to tell you that if this pass defense isn’t better in 2016, the Huskers will not be competing for anything meaningful. If this is the case, heads should roll. It starts with Banker.