Big Ten Power Rankings – Week of 10/10

13 Oct

Here are this week’s Big Ten Power Rankings:

  1. Ohio State.  Did what championship teams do – pull away from a team not on their level.  The Buckeyes have won each of their games by at least 21 points.  Can Wisconsin break that trend?
  2. Michigan.  Holy Harbaugh, that 78 point win over Rutgers is the absolute definition of “domination”.  So many eye-popping stats came out of that annihilation, that picking one doesn’t do justice to the totality of that victory.  The Wolverines will face a tougher test this week when they are idle.
  3. Wisconsin.  Coming off of their bye week, the Badgers get Ohio State at Camp Randall.  In classic “something’s gotta give” matchup, Ohio State is averaging 53 points per game.  Wisconsin has not allowed more than 14 points to FBS competition.
  4. Nebraska.  Back in the Top Ten for the first time in five years, are the Cornhuskers for real?  I dunno.  The argument can be made that Wyoming is their best win.  Coming off the bye week, Nebraska will be battling Indiana and injuries – and not necessarily in that order.
  5. Penn State.  The Nitany Lions handled previously unbeaten Maryland 38-14 for their best win of the year.  Now, they get a week off to prepare for Ohio State.  After that, the rest of their schedule (Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan State) looks doable.
  6. Indiana.  The final score of the Ohio State loss doesn’t show that the Hoosiers played the #2 Buckeyes pretty close for a good chunk of the game.  That fact should not be lost on the top ten team Indiana faces this weekend (Nebraska)
  7. Iowa.  Since blowing out Iowa State, the Hawkeyes are 2-2, with four unimpressive outings.  Is this a long hangover from how their 2015 season ended?  Or after a magical season where almost everything went their way, are they returning to the norm?
  8. Maryland.  Last week, we speculated that Maryland’s (then) undefeated record might be a mirage, a theory proven emphatically by Penn State.  A tangle with Minnesota should help confirm or debunk that notion.
  9. Northwestern.  The Wildcats are 2-3 overall, but don’t count them out of the West race yet.  They come off of their bye week with an intriguing matchup against Michigan State (as much as a game featuring two 2-3 Big Ten teams can be intriguing)
  10. Michigan State.  What is going on in East Lansing?  The Spartans are 2-3 and have lost three straight.  If they are going to salvage a bowl game out this season, beating Northwestern this weekend will be huge.
  11. Minnesota.  The Gophers are not technically out of the West division race, but to keep their hopes alive, they better not lose another game in the next month (at Maryland, Rutgers, at Illinois, Purdue).
  12. Purdue.  It wasn’t pretty, but give credit to Purdue for earning a rare conference road win.  With Iowa coming to town, the Boilermakers have an opportunity to keep moving up.
  13. Illinois.  Illini fans are probably the only people in the conference happy that Rutgers is a member of the Big Ten.  My condolences to whomever has to broadcast the Illinois – Rutgers game this week.  I recommend drinking heavily.
  14. {open}
  15. {open}
  16. Rutgers.  After losing back to back games by scores of 58-0 and 78-0, I cannot in good conscious put Rutgers at 14.  Last place just doesn’t do this team justice.  I don’t care that both teams are in the Top 5.  I’ll lay down a gauntlet for the Scarlet Knights:  Beat Illinois, and you may get #13 next week.  Lose to the Illini, and I’ll consider promoting you to #14.  Get blown out, and I’ll run these rankings all the way to 50.

Big Ten Power Rankings – week of 10/3

7 Oct

With the first full week of Big Ten play in the books, it’s time to roll out the weekly Power Rankings.  These are no specific by division, but rather reflect where each team is from week to week.  I make no apologies if you feel your team is too high (or too low), but feel free to let me know in the comments.

  1. Ohio State.  Still the best in the league, by a wide margin, but playing Rutgers makes that gap look bigger than it probably is.  Indiana should be a good gauge for how the Buckeyes truly are.
  2. Michigan.  Held off one of the toughest teams in the league, thanks in part to this super-human interception. For a reward, the Wolverines get two straight bye weeks…oh wait…they play Rutgers, then the bye week.
  3. Wisconsin.  If not for one of the craziest interceptions you’ll ever see, the Badgers are easily #2 in these rankings.  So forgive me if I don’t punish them too much for a seven point loss.  A well-deserved week off before the second half of their gauntlet.
  4. Nebraska.  The Huskers entered the fourth quarter trailing Illinois by six.  A year ago, the Huskers lose that game.  This year, they win by 15.  That said the Huskers are literally limping into their bye week with the meat of their schedule still to come.
  5. Indiana.  It’s possible I’m rewarding the Hoosiers for Michigan State being overrated – and/or melting down in overtime, but who would you put ahead of them?  We are going to learn a lot about the Hoosiers in their next two games (at Ohio State, Nebraska).
  6. Maryland.  Yes, the Terps are 4-0, but arguably their best win is a six point victory over Central Florida, who has a new coach.  If Maryland is for real, the next two games (at Penn State, Minnesota) should be wins.
  7. Minnesota.  It is way too early to consider the Floyd of Rosedale game to be a West Division elimination game.  But it may be tough to overcome two conference losses before the middle of October.
  8. Iowa.  Who is Iowa?  Are they the team that beat up on MAC-level competition (Miami of Ohio and Iowa State) by a combined 87-24?  Or are they the team that lost to an FCS school, Northwestern, and only beat Rutgers by seven?  All I know is I feel like I have the Hawkeyes too high.  What I said about Minnesota applies here too.
  9. Penn State.  This is probably as good of time as any to note that while I do consider head-to-head results, they are not a necessarily the final word.  In this case, while Penn State’s three point win over the Gophers was duly considered, it doesn’t overcome the Lions’ 39 point loss to Michigan.
  10. Michigan State.  I have a very hard time putting the defending conference champions this low.  But then I realize that they are 2-2, with only one win over a FBS team (an equally disappointing 2-3 Notre Dame).  It was shocking to watch the overtime period of the Indiana game.  Michigan State looked sloppy, undisciplined, and clueless – adjectives rarely connected to MSU in the last five seasons.  The harsh reality is Sparty’s visions of a repeat may already be dead.
  11. Northwestern.  Give credit to the Wildcats for taking the battle to Iowa, and having the ability to close out the victory.  I’m looking forward to their next game (at Michigan State on 10/15) as a measuring stick of both schools.
  12. Illinois.  With back to back games against Purdue and Rutgers, the Illini have a golden opportunity to distance themselves from the dreaded teen spots (13 & 14) in the rankings.
  13. Rutgers.  For those who like to compare teams using common opponents, Rutgers – fresh off a 58-0 drubbing by Ohio State – hosts Michigan this weekend.  Of course, you could also compare the Buckeyes and Wolverines based on how they fared in their spring scrimmages.  Probably the same difference.
  14. Purdue.  They say bad things come in threes:  First was a 50-7 beating by Maryland.  Second was this blistering column by Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, saying that he can’t be care enough to be mad about Purdue because nobody cares about Purdue.  Finally, a burst pipe caused a sinkhole in one of Purdue’s end zones.  I’ll let you make your own joke for that one.

You Can’t Hide Your Illini

6 Oct

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*   *   *

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago, after (what was then) the ugliest and most painful loss of the 2015 season, I wrote this*.  Rereading it brings back all of the struggles and difficulties Nebraska was facing a year ago:  highly questionable play calling, horrible game and clock management, not utilizing talent correctly, abandoning the run, players with horrible attitudes, a secondary that couldn’t cover their own shadow, fourth quarter collapses, and other things that you and I have still managed to repress.

*And given that I used a song title last year, I’ll continue the theme this year with a horrible pun that I absolutely love.

A year later, the transition is dramatic.  Danny Langsdorf called another strong game, playing to the strengths of his personnel.  Clock management was not an issue.  Nebraska is running the ball – and sticking with it.  After what could have been a divisive week the team unity and focus seems to be strong.  I thought the secondary played one of their worst games of the season on Saturday and they held Illinois to 14-23 for 146.  The Illini had almost 100 more passing yards a year ago, despite ridiculously windy conditions.  Finally, Nebraska’s biggest transformation may be in how they are owning the fourth quarter.

Now let’s be clear:  everything is not magically fixed.  There are plenty of flaws to be found in this game and where the team is at today.  There is a ton of work left to be done and room for improvement.  Heck, another 5-7 season is not out of the question at this point.

But take a moment to acknowledge the progress that has been made so far.

So what did we learn?

The Huskers are literally limping into their bye week.   Thank goodness the bye week is in the middle of the season, instead of at the end like last year.  Here is a partial list of guys who did not play – or did not finish the game – on Saturday:  Nebraska’s best receiver, their NFL-caliber tight end, arguably their best running back, their fastest receiver, two starting offensive linemen, and it feels like I’m missing a couple more.

Depth continues to be a major concern for the Huskers.  There are a number of positions where the drop-off between starter and backup – in terms of talent, experience, or both – is dramatic.  There was a play in the 3rd quarter where the guys on the field resembled a lineup you might see in the 3rd quarter of a Red-White Scrimmage.

The bye week, and the opportunity to rest and heal it provides, could not come at a better time for this team.

Milt Tenopir would be proud of the last four Husker drives.  When word came out about legendary line coach Milt Tenopir’s passing, I said the best way for Nebraska to honor him would be to have the team rush for 300+ yards.  While that didn’t happen, the team did the next best thing:  they dominated the ball in the second half.  Look at these two drives:

  • 18 plays, 75 yards, 10:42 of possession.  Touchdown.  A drive for the ages.  18 plays???  Almost 11 minutes of possession???  And by the way, Nebraska took the lead with the score.
  • 11 plays, 59 yards, 5:49 of possession.  Touchdown.  This drive opened up with seven straight runs.

Those are numbers straight out of Milt Tenopir’s heart.  You can picture the old coach getting a little misty eyed watching his boys control the line of scrimmage for most of the second half.  And just like in Milt’s day, those two drives played a huge role in the last two drives of the day:

  • 2 plays, 70 yards, 0:54 of possession.  Touchdown.  First play: a run up the middle for seven yards.  Second play:  an offtackle run for 63 yards and a giant nail in the coffin.
  • 2 plays, -1 yard, 1:14 of possession.  End of game.

Rest in peace, Milt.  You will be missed.

One of the Big Ten’s “sleeping giants” may be waking up.   Illinois is often described as a “sleeping giant” program – one with resources, deep pools of in-state talent, and the biggest obstacle to success being themselves.  Think Missouri prior to Gary Pinkel.  The Illini have talent within their borders, the ability to recruit Chicago, and are the only big time public school in the state.  Big Ten membership gives them money for anything they might need, namely coaches buy-outs and new training facilities.  All that is left is for the administration to care, and to find the guy who can build something sustainable.

There is a chance that Lovie Smith may be that guy.  His first team may be 1-3, but you can see his blueprint coming together already:   build from the lines out, make your name on defense, and play physical football.  Illinois is clearly a couple of years away talent-wise, but Lovie has the NFL cred that is valuable in recruiting.

Don’t be shocked if in the next few years Illinois gets out of their own way long enough to become a contender in the West.

So what don’t we know?

Does NU win this game a year ago?   Walking out of the stadium, enjoying the glow of victory, a thought crossed my mind:  Trailing by six headed into the fourth quarter, would the Huskers have won this game a year ago?  Obviously there are a lot of factors that make it tough to compare and impossible to know for sure, but my gut says Nebraska loses this game.

For me, the only question is how Nebraska would have lost.  Do promising drives end with interceptions, with a pick-six to ice the game?  Maybe the Huskers reclaim the lead, but Illinois proceeds to march down the field and win in the final minute.  Is the spot on the 4th and 1 carry by Newby marked short (or overturned on replay) stalling all momentum?

Was the reaction to the National Anthem protests a distraction?  The offense got off to a slow start, only scoring 10 points in the first three quarters.  Meanwhile, the defense had issues with soft coverage and softer tackling.  As Husker fans tried to understand why this was happening (without giving any credit to the Illinois defensive line) one of the theories tossed out was the national anthem protest was a distraction.  Or more specifically, the reaction by media, fans, and elected officials was a distraction.

To that, I say:  Bull.

Yes, that protest – and the various reactions it spawned – were the hot topic of conversation across the state all week long, and across all mediums.  But aside from Michael Rose-Ivey having a conversation with the Governor, and a few extra questions during the team’s media availability, I truly believe it was a non-issue in the locker room.  You may doubt the validity (or the sincerity) of Riley’s team being a “melting pot”.  I’m willing to guarantee multiple players on the team did not care for the protest, but I’ll also guarantee that the culture of respect is fully in place.

Who knows how it would have played out if Rose-Ivey knelt in Riley’s first year – or in one of Pelini’s last two seasons.  My guess is it would not be nearly as seamless as we’ve seen so far.

Can Nebraska clean up their sloppiness?   Your Huskers are 5-0, but not without their flaws.  The good news is, three of the biggest warts are things they can control.

  • Red zone turnovers.  Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity pointed out that five of Nebraska’s six turnovers  occurred inside the opponent’s 15 yard line.  Since I consider Drew Brown to be automatic inside 35 yards, red zone turnovers cost the Huskers at least three points every time.  Protect the ball and get your points.
  • 15 yard flags.  It says something about how sloppy this team can be that picking up two 15 yard penalties in a game is a major improvement.
  • Quarterback decision-making.  Tommy Armstrong is trending in a bad direction with his decision making.  His one interception was a ball under thrown into triple coverage.  He deserved a second INT when he was flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right and threw a lob back to the middle of the field.

It’s actually rather impressive that Nebraska has made it to 5-0 as sloppy as they can be.  But unless those things get cleaned up – or at least drastically reduced – they will lead to losses.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  The defensive intensity in the second half.  In the first half, Illinois had 169 yards on 24 plays (an average of 7 yds per play).  But in the second half, the Blackshirts raised their game allowing just 101 yards on 20 plays (5 yards per play).

Remember those amazing ball control drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters that won the game?  Don’t forget the defense’s role in that.  After giving up a 74 yard field goal drive to get the score to 16-10, Illinois had three more possessions.  The Illini gained just 18 yards on 10 plays, with no first downs.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  Two of Nebraska’s best receivers being taken to the locker room with injuries.  Get better soon, boys.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Terrell Newby.  After an injury to Ozigbo and a fumble by Wilbon, the much maligned Newby was asked to be a workhorse in the second half.  And did he respond.  He gained 143 on 27 carries, and scored two touchdowns.  He also caught two passes for 26 yards.  Newby is probably the least respected NU I-Back since Dahrran Diedrick or Josh Davis, but he has been a much improved player in 2016.
  2. Sam Cotton.  Speaking of much maligned Huskers, let’s take a minute to appreciate the youngest member of the Cotton clan.  Watch any clip of a Nebraska back running, and you’ll likely see Cotton somewhere in the frame blocking his man, setting an edge, or chopping down opposing players.  And I have a hard time thinking of a better catch by a Husker than his fingertips grab of a Tommy Armstrong missile for a big first down.
  3. Kevin Maurice.  The stats (2 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 hurry) don’t really show it, but the “Space Cowboy” has been playing at a very high level of late.
  4. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  When you see him blocking defensive backs to the sideline, or making big catches on third down, it is tough to remember that he is just a true sophomore.  This kid Stan has a bright future – and with Westerkamp and Carter out, a big opportunity to increase his role.
  5. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  I love watching him return punts.  The way he moves in space, accelerates, and finds creases cannot be taught.  I like seeing him getting touches in multiple facets of the game (returns, receptions, and rushes).  Finally, his work as a perimeter blocker was equally impressive.

Honorable Mention:   Trey Foster, Jordan Westerkamp, Joshua Kalu, Michael Rose-Ivey, Dedrick Young, Freedom Akinmoladun, Ross Dzuris’s old-school black cleats, Corey Whitaker

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Tackling.  As impressive as the overall defensive performance was, I’d love to see how it would have looked if the first (or even second) defender would have made the tackle.  Far too often, an Illinois player was bouncing off two or three guys before going down.
  2. Loose coverage.  The secondary spent most of the game playing way off the Illinois receivers.  It was not uncommon for there to be an 8-10 yard cushion between Chris Jones, Kalu, or one of the Williams boys and the receiver.  Illinois gained a lot of yards on basic pitch and catch throws that could have been avoided with tighter coverage.
  3. Option Football.  Let’s set the stage:  3rd & 2 from the Illinois 5.  NU is down six and on play 14 of their marathon drive.  Settling for a field goal is not an option.  So what play does Danny Langsdorf opt for when he needs two yards?  An option to the left.  Armstrong had to pitch the ball early and Newby was fortunate to get a yard.  Hopefully, we all know by now that I love me some option football.  But that was not the right time or situation for Nebraska to run their first option of the year.  From the execution, it looked like they could use a little more work.
  4. Referee Don Capron’s Microphone Etiquette.  Dear Don – I’m not sure how long you’ve been a referee for major conference football, but here is a pro tip for you:  After you explain a penalty or other procedural thing, you will want to always – ALWAYS – turn off your microphone before blowing your whistle.  Otherwise, you end up rupturing eardrums, shattering eyeglasses, and pissing off every dog for 30 miles.  And you really don’t want to do it three times because 90,000 of the greatest fans in college football will boo the crap out of you.
  5. Mike Rozier’s headwear.  It’s always great to see the former Heisman Trophy winners back in town, but I was a little bummed to see Mike Rozier in a black ball cap.  I’m not expecting him to break out his glorious two-tone suit and matching hat, but getting Rozier in a ball cap is like being served chicken nuggets at a five-star restaurant.


Big Ten Predictions – 2016

30 Sep

My lovely wife works in the financial industry, specifically with retirement plans.  And whenever you discuss retirement plans and investment options you often come across a specific disclaimer:  Past performance does not necessarily predict future results.  In other words, just because that fund heavily steeped in dot com startups grew exponentially in the early years, you shouldn’t purchase that vacation home just yet.

The same thing hold true when attempting to predict how the teams in the Big Ten will finish the season.  It’s easy to look at Wisconsin’s two big wins, or Iowa’s loss to a FCS school and make quick assumptions on who will win the West.  But past performance does not necessarily predict future results.  Iowa may improve, dramatically, from their loss and folks will realize that North Dakota State is, regardless of their “lower tier” status, a pretty damn good football team.  Michigan State may have looked inept against Wisconsin, but you count out a Mark Dantonio team at your own risk.  Past performance does not necessarily predict future results.  Indiana football has stunk for most of this century, but past performance does not necessarily predict future results.  The Hoosiers could challenge for the upper half of the East.

Really, there are only two exceptions to “past performance does not necessarily predict future results”:  Purdue will continue to suck, and there will definitely be a “what the hell was I thinking?” prediction that will look foolish in two months.

So with the first full weekend of Big Ten conference games kicking off this weekend, what will the standings look like on December 1?  What will each team need to have happen in order to make it to the conference championship game in Indianapolis?  Let’s take a look:

East Division

1. Ohio State.  The Buckeyes have the best talent in the conference, a coaching staff that has proven they take talent and produce championships, and Michigan playing in the Horseshoe.
To make it to Indy, Ohio State will need to:  Beat Michigan.  Start preparing yourself now, because the hype for that game is going to be ridiculous.

2. Michigan State.  The loss to Wisconsin was surprising, but it says here that the Spartans have the second best coaching in the conference, and an underrated pool of next-level talent.  Like an 18 play drive to win the game, you don’t count the Spartans out until the bitter end.
To make it to Indy, Michigan State will need to:  Win out.  The rest of their schedule is very manageable.  Both Michigan and Ohio State are at home.  Their remaining West games are Northwestern and Illinois.

3. Michigan.  I remain skeptical of Jim Harbaugh and his ability to restore Michigan as a legitimate power.  He seems to be more distraction than savior.  Let’s put it this way:  if the Wolverines’ on-field success approaches the off-field media attention Harbaugh draws, it could be a special year in Ann Arbor.
To make it to Indy, Michigan will need to:   Beat Ohio State in Columbus, and avoid last second meltdowns.

4.  Indiana.  It should be noted that there is a significant gap between 1-3 and the rest of the East.  I think the Hoosiers are ready to make a step up – six conference wins is not out of the question.  Of course, I’m pretty sure I said that last year…and probably the year before that.
To make it to Indy, Indiana will need to:  Play out of their minds, and root for chaos to open the door.

5.  Maryland. I’ll be honest, I have no idea if Maryland will be good, bad, or indifferent.  In the Big Ten East, that gets you 5th place.
To make it to Indy, Maryland will need to:  Hypnotize teams with their hideous “pride” uniforms and steal a couple of wins.

6.  Penn State.  I’ve seen where James Franklin is referring to this as “season one” with full scholarships, which sounds to me like he’s keeping expectations low.  I think when November rolls around PSU will be wishing they could trade the 9th conference game for another non-con cupcake to get themselves bowl eligible.
To make it to Indy, Penn State will need to:  Fly so far under the radar that nobody knows what is happening until they run out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium.

7.  Rutgers.  As you read this, Jim Delaney is furiously Googling “conference expansion return policies”.
To make it to Indy, Rutgers will need to:  Go full Jersey mafia on teams 1-6.



1. Iowa.  Do I think the Hawkeyes are the best team in the West?  No.  So why do I have them #1?  It comes down to what they have (a proven quarterback, experience winning the division, Wisconsin and Nebraska at home) and what they don’t have (Wisconsin’s schedule).
To make it to Indy, Iowa will need to:  Realize that North Dakota State would be picked no worse than 3rd in the West.

2. Nebraska.  The Huskers are off to a best case scenario 4-0 start, with a very manageable road to 7-0.  The challenge for the Big Red is getting past Wisconsin (one win in six tries since joining the league, zero in Madison), Ohio State (they’re kinda good), and Iowa (when the Heroes Trophy  – sponsored by Hy-Vee – is on the line, you throw the records out the door!!!).
To make it to Indy, Nebraska will need to: Keep Tommy Armstrong healthy and win their road games – all three of the games mentioned above are on the road.

3. Wisconsin.  With the Badgers, it’s more about why they won’t win as opposed to why they could win.  Those reasons are:  at Michigan State, at Michigan, (bye), Ohio State, at Iowa, and Nebraska.  They aced the first exam, but that is as brutal of a stretch as anybody in the conference.
To make it to Indy, Wisconsin will need to: Win the head to head contests in division, and brush up on other tiebreaker rules.

4.  Minnesota.  If Wisconsin has the hardest schedule in the league, the Golden Gophers may have the easiest.  When you draw Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers as cross-over games, you’ll have a fighting chance at the division title.
To make it to Indy, Minnesota will need to: Handle their business in the West, and let Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State help them out.  Having Mitch Leidner live up to his hype as a first round NFL quarterback certainly wouldn’t hurt.

5.  Illinois.  Sheesh, the bottom of the West is a mess.  Three teams combined for four wins in September.  I’ve seen Northwestern play (and lose) twice, and I have no confidence in Purdue, so that leaves us with Illinois at #5.  Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the Illini’s chances.
To make it to Indy, Illinois will need to:  Have Lovie Smith pretend he’s still the head coach of the Chicago Bears and get the Illinois players in the stadium when the Bears play the Colts on October 9.

6.  Northwestern.  The Wildcats are not a good team.  I really like their running back Justin Jackson, who could start for most of the teams in the league.  But after that, Northwestern doesn’t have much of anything.  But since I can’t see a Pat Fitzgerald team going from 10 wins to the cellar, I’m sticking them here.
To make it to Indy, Northwestern will need to:  Find a loophole to get Trevor Siemian another year of eligibility, and bring Von Miller with him.

7.  Purdue.  With two non-conference wins, and cross-over games against Maryland, Penn State, and Indiana.  Purdue could get themselves bowl eligible this year.  But as we said at the top:  Purdue is an exception to the “past performance does not necessarily predict future results” rule.  Until they prove me wrong, they live here.
To make it to Indy, Purdue will need to:  take I-65 south towards Lucas Oil Stadium.  They arguably will be able to purchase tickets at the stadium, but I’d recommend using the secondary market to get seats below face value.  They’ll need the extra money to hire a new coach.

In the Big Ten Championship, I’ll predict Ohio State proves they are much, much better than North Dakota State:  Buckeyes 56, Hawkeyes 13.

For a dark horse prediction, let’s go with Tommy Armstrong throwing for 300 and rushing for 100 as the Huskers beat Michigan 38 – 34.

NU vs. NU: They Played A Game Too?

29 Sep

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*   *   *

My apologies – I, like many of you, have been so caught up in the discussion around the three Husker players who knelt during the national anthem that I forgot to actually write about the game.  It turns out, after the national anthem concluded Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois they did play a football game.  That’s not to discount or discredit the silent protest by three Husker players, but to not so subtly let you know that we’re going to keep our focus* on what happened between the opening kickoff and the end of the game.

*As an aside, I do have several thoughts and opinions on the coverage, controversy, and conversation over the three Husker players who took a knee during the national anthem.  I encourage you to read them here.  Now back to your regularly scheduled column.

As is our custom for the Northwestern game, the winner gets to be referred to as “NU” for the remainder of the column.

So what did we learn?

Don’t panic over losing two fumbles in the end zone.   It was shaping up so well.  Nebraska took the opening kickoff and was flying down the field.  Terrell Newby broke loose and was about to score from 50 yards when he fumbled the ball stretching for the pylon.  In the second quarter, Devine Ozigbo was trying to score from a yard out and had the ball stripped away by a Wildcat defender.  I know the natural instinct is to freak out about ball security and squandering scoring opportunities.  But you shouldn’t lose sleep over either play.

Newby tried to make a hustle play and it backfired.  Sure, you can look at the play through hindsight and say he should have tucked it and gone out of bounds at the three.  But that is not realistic.  I want players who refuse to step out of bounds to avoid contact.  I want players who will make every effort to get into the end zone.  As an example, look at the touchdown Newby scored in the second quarter.  He twisted, spun, displayed the balance of a gymnast, and made it into the end zone.  Are you telling me that level of effort is any different from the play he fumbled on?

As for Ozigbo, it was an unfortunate set of circumstances.  You could certainly argue that his forward momentum had stopped.  But how often do you see a back squirt through the scrum into the end zone – or as we saw earlier this year, be pushed and pulled in by your teammates?  If the refs had a quick whistle and Ozigbo appeared to score, we would be understandably upset.  This is the flip side to that play.

Bottom line – I have a hard time faulting a player for a fumble when they are giving max effort trying to get into the end zone.

Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf trust Armstrong and the offensive line.  It was one of those “am I seeing this correctly?” moments:  second drive of the game, 4th down and 1, from your own 30 yard line and Nebraska lines up to go for it.  If NU gets stuffed, you are all but giving Northwestern points.  I assumed Nebraska would do the old routine where you line up, try to draw ’em offsides, call a timeout and punt it away.  Instead, Armstrong lined up under center, took the snap and plowed forward for two yards and a first down.

Aside from bucking every tenet of “conventional coaching wisdom”, the decision to go for it in that scenario showed that Nebraska’s coaches have extreme confidence in the offensive line to get a push and in their senior QB to get the necessary yardage.  What makes that decision even crazier is on the preceding 3rd and 1, Ozigbo was stuffed for no gain.  On the subsequent first down play, Ozigbo lost a yard.

Keep an eye on this as the season goes forward.  If Riley feels that he can get a yard or two whenever he needs it, we may see more 4th down attempts from all over the field.

Northwestern should hire a graduate from the real NU to take care of their field.   Did you know that Nebraska offers a major in Turfgrass & Landscape Management through the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources?  Clearly, our friends in Evanston do not.

Early in the week, I felt the concerns over Northwestern’s field – particularly the length of their grass – were overblown.  Then I saw the field and realized they were growing the grass long to attempt some type of Gene Keady comb-over to hide the numerous bald spots.

How bad was it?  My yard is composed of 65% weeds, 30% grass, and 5% toys and other crap my kids leave out.  I think I’ve mowed once in the month of September.  And I’d put my lawn up against the Ryan Field “turf” any day.

So what don’t we know?

Do we need to worry about bad snaps again?   In years past, Nebraska centers have struggled with getting the snap properly placed.  It felt like Tommy spent the majority of a season snagging snaps aimed at his helmet or a random point two yards to his right.

Through the first three games, there were no glaring issues between Dylan Utter and Armstrong.  But on Saturday, there are multiple snaps that sailed high, wide, or both.  A couple of them cost NU yards and/or stalled drives.

I don’t know if it was a fluke thing, a result of the first road game, playing on Northwestern’s bomb crater of a field, or if Utter was distracted by the chrome facemasks.  But here’s hoping it is a one game thing.

Why do Nebraskans insist on getting married on Saturdays in the fall?   I missed the majority of the game as we were attending the wedding involving a family friend.  Thanks to the fine folks at BTN, I was able to watch a rerun late Sunday night, but I’ll honestly never understand why Nebraska natives get married in the fall.

I’m sure the bride didn’t care for people asking if there would be a place at the reception where they could watch the game.  And when I was leaving to take my youngest two kids back to the hotel (around the end of the 3rd quarter) there had to be 20+ guests in a separate room from the reception watching the game on TV.

Engaged couples:  I assume you want the complete and undivided attention of your guests on your special day.  Nobody wants their wedding day soured by friends and relatives in a bad mood because NU turned it over five times and lost on a last second play.  And do you really want to make Grandpa pick between coming to your wedding and his tickets in West Stadium that he’s had since Nixon was in office?  Are you sure you’ll come out on top?

Nick and Danielle, I wish you a lifetime of love and happiness.  To everyone else, remember:  there are 40 other Saturdays in the year without a Nebraska game.  Pick one of those.  Please.

What is Bruce Read’s secret to defending field goals?  With another missed kick on Saturday, Nebraska opponents have now made just two of six field goals this season.  I’m not really sure what Bruce Read is doing schematically to confound and confuse opposing kickers, but it is working.  There doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming surge at the line, extreme pressure off the edge, or safeties sitting back working voodoo dolls.

Heck, Oregon was so intimidated by NU’s field goal defense that they chose to go for it on fourth down multiple times instead of attempting kicks.  Northwestern tried a fake field goal, which was also shut down.

I don’t know about you, but a 33% success rate on field goals is probably worth $450,000 a year.  Seriously, how much would you pay to go back and have any two Texas field goals sail wide left?

The best thing I saw on Saturday: Four Huskers (Sam Hahn, Zack Darlington, Drew Brown, and Nick Gates) stepped up to help Northwestern with a giant American flag being displayed before the game.  Setting aside the other (and completely separate) thing with the players who knelt during the anthem, this was a very cool thing to see.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday: Northwestern’s purple M*A*S*H tent where they took injured players for evaluation away from the prying eyes of opposing teams, sideline reporters, and degenerate gamblers.  Are you really that paranoid about your opponents getting an edge – or possible HIPAA violations – that you need to quarantine guys who sprain their ankle?

I do know this:  somewhere in Kansas there is another purple-clad Wildcat who is ticked off that he didn’t think of it first.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Blocking Receivers.  The receivers and tight ends put on a perimeter blocking clinic.  From the first carry of the game until the final carry, the receivers were locked in on their man with the apparent goal of pushing them into Lake Michigan.  While I can think of an example from every single receiver and tight end who played, special recognition goes to Stanley Morgan, Jr. He was a complete beast all night long.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, runner.  Armstrong racked up a career high 132 yards on just 13 carries.  He was fast, decisive, elusive, and Northwestern had no answer for him.  His running ability opened up a lot in the passing game.
  3. Mikale Wilbon.  Remember the guy who looked so good in the 2015 opener that fans wanted him to start for most of the season?  He’s back.  I don’t know if Wilbon has been coming on in practice (my assumption), if he got an opening due to the fumbles by Newby and Ozigbo, or if his expanded role was due to being Chicago kid playing close to home.  Regardless, he made the most of his opportunities and earned more touches down the road.
  4. Dedrick Young.  With all due respect to the other guys on the roster, Young may be the most complete linebacker on the team.  He is instinctive in run support, a sure tackler, and is getting enough pass break ups to earn an honorary degree from Lockdown U.
  5. Offensive Line.  There will always be a spot here for the O-Line when NU rushes for more than 300 yards.  I really like knowing that in the final game of Milt Tenopir’s life, the Huskers rolled up their first 300 yard day of the season.  Rest in peace, Milt.

Honorable Mention:   Kevin Maurice, Cethan Carter, Aaron Williams, Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones, Alonzo Moore, Sam Cotton, Nick Gates having to shush “Go Big Red” chants so the team could hear – on the road, BTN’s mobile app.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. 15 Yard Penalties.  The good news is Nebraska was only flagged for four penalties.  The bad news is all four were 15 yard personal foul / unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.  This needs to get cleaned up, pronto.
  2. Defensive Timeouts.  I thought calling two timeouts on defense in less than 30 seconds of game time was a nice tribute to the Bo Pelini era.  But maybe we can get things figured out during the first timeout and keep the second one.  Just in case.
  3. Tommy Armstrong, passer.  The raw numbers (18-29, with a TD and no picks) look pretty good.  But Tommy had arguably his worst passing day of the season.  He overthrew Jordan Westerkamp at least three times, costing him an easy touchdown and a shot at a second.  Early in the fourth quarter, Armstrong misread a coverage and threw what easily could have been a pick-six.  After a bad snap on a 3rd down play, Armstrong scrambled and tried to make something out of nothing, firing the ball across the field.  Just because Alonzo Moore made the catch, doesn’t mean it was a smart play.  Throw it away, punt, and get ’em next time.
  4. 3rd and long defense.  On a 3rd and 22, Northwestern managed to pick up 15 yards, finding a wide open receiver.  This is the second week in a row the opponent has taken a 3rd and impossible and set up a 4th and possible.
  5. Holiday Inn of Lakeville, MN.  You are in a suburb of a major metropolitan area that boasts the flagship university in the state, but you don’t carry the Big Ten Network as one of the 55 channels provided to guests?  Boo.


Taking A Stand (By Taking A Knee)

28 Sep

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Initially, I was going to include some thoughts on the kneeling protest by three Huskers in my normal post-game column.  But as the controversy grew and spun up separate storms, I felt that combining the two would do a disservice to the game, the protest, or both.

I’m also aware that some of you are reaching a saturation point with this story, so if you feel the need to click out now there are no hard feelings.  That said, I hope you’ll read on with an open heart and mind.

I’ll tip my hand early:  I support Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, and DaiShon Neal in their peaceful protest.  As an American, it horrifies me to watch videos of my fellow citizens being shot and killed by those who are supposed to protect us.  But I’ll freely admit my support is much more self-serving.

My wife and I have adopted three children.  Two are black and one is biracial.  It scares the hell out of me that I can raise my son the “right way”, teach him respect for authority and law enforcement, how to be a model citizen, and still have him at risk every time he walks out the door.  My boy is only four, but he’s already on track to be built like Barry, Rose-Ivey, or Neal – tall, lean, and muscular.

I plan to coach my children on exactly what to do if they are stopped by law enforcement.  Stand perfectly still. No fast movements.  Don’t reach into your pocket for your wallet or phone.  Do what you are told and end every response with “sir” or “ma’am”.  But it has become clear to me that in some parts of our great nation, my children could do everything perfect and still not come home.  That terrifies me.  I hope that is a fear you do not have for your own children.

So yes, I support Colin Kaepernick, Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, DaiShon Neal, and those who choose to peacefully protest to draw attention to this issue.  There are no quick or easy answers to the social and racial issues in our nation, but ignoring them or viewing them as somebody else’s problem is definitely not the answer.

So what did we learn?

You do not have to condone, agree with, or support the actions of Rose-Ivey, Neal, and Barry.   I have no desire to tell you how to think, act, or believe.  I know there are many who feel kneeling during the anthem is blatantly disrespectful – period.  There are a lot of arguments that can – and have – been made on how there are more appropriate times and places for a protest.  There are numerous statistics that have been offered to repudiate the stance these players are taking.  And there are those who simply would prefer sports to be a refuge free from social and political issues.

You are absolutely entitled to your beliefs and opinions.  As I mentioned above, this issue is close to home for me.  It’s possible that I might feel differently if my kids were as pasty white as I am.  From my perspective, all I would ask is you take a moment to honestly consider what they are protesting and truly put yourself in their shoes.  If you still disagree, that is okay.

This is not a decision that came about lightly.  I have seen many people referring to these players as selfish, attention-seeking, or simply parroting the behavior of some NFL players.  I can’t speak for Rose-Ivey, Barry, or Neal, but I suspect that is wildly inaccurate.  According to an interview with Michael Rose, Sr on “Sharp and Benning”, Rose-Ivey’s process included talking to his parents, Coach Riley, and finally the entire team.  I suspect that along the way, Rose-Ivey was warned of the backlash he would face.

The decision to kneel put a ginormous spotlight on those players – and in several cases, put a target on their backs.  In his statement on Monday, Rose-Ivey spoke of death threats.  On “Sharp & Benning”, the elder Rose talked about how his youngest daughter lost a close friend because her parents would no longer allow the friendship to occur.  Knowing how risk-adverse NFL teams are, do you think kneeling helps or harms the draft prospects of these three Huskers?

Let me put it another way:  I’d guarantee there are more than just three players on that team who feel strongly about black men and women being shot by law enforcement officers across the country.  But only three players chose to kneel.  My hunch is that has much more to do about conviction of beliefs and the strength to take a stand than the desire to be in the spotlight.

It is possible to support Rose-Ivey as well as the military, law enforcement and others.   I would hope this goes without saying, but you don’t have to choose sides.  It is absolutely possible to love America and still want it to be better.  You can (and in my opinion, should) support law enforcement while acknowledging that there are officers on the streets unworthy of the badge.  You can dislike the manner and/or venue in which Kaepernick and others protest, but respect their right to do it.  You can (and should) be thankful for the freedoms our military has provided and protected, and still want those freedoms readily available for every man and woman in our great nation.  Conversely, it is certainly possible to not support these athletes without being a racist or a bigot.

So what don’t we know?

What should you do?   I won’t tell you to support what Rose-Ivey, Barry, and Neal are protesting for.  I definitely won’t tell you to support their method for protest.  I would hope that I don’t need to remind you of their right to protest.  This is a complex, emotional issue that hits on a several core beliefs that you and I hold dear.

I would ask you to do this:  try to consider why these young men are doing what they are doing.  I suspect the majority of people reading this are similar to me (white males born and raised in a state that is, according to census data, almost 90% white).

You may believe that all of these deaths were justified, that if the folks involved had complied – or had obeyed the law – they would still be alive.  You may believe that nothing is worth disrespecting the flag of our great nation.  You may think that “Black Lives Matter” is a joke, or that things like white privilege, institutional racism, and profiling are manufactured excuses.  You may choose to believe any number of other things that are decidedly not politically correct.  You may choose to cite statistics regarding race and crime in an attempt to deflect or negate the message.  All of this is definitely your right.


I would ask you to picture yourself as a young, black male in America.  Imagine what life is like when the notion that you could be stopped by police, comply in a non-threatening manner, and still be shot is a real possibility.  If you are unable (or unwilling) to do that, try this:  imagine how you would react if a large black male approached you on the street.  Now, how would your reaction change if that black male was decked out head to toe in team-issued Adidas gear?

What comes next?  Where does this protest go from here?  As you likely know, at Nebraska home games the national anthem is played while both teams are in the locker room.  So it is highly unlikely that the player protest will continue inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Beyond that, you’d have to look at Nebraska’s four remaining road games, as well as possible matchups in the Big Ten Championship and/or a bowl game.  Will the Star Spangled Banner be played while the teams are out on the field?  If so, do Rose-Ivey, Neal, and Barry continue to kneel?  Do other players join them?

Outside of game day, what will come of the prospective meeting between Rose-Ivey and Governor Pete Ricketts?  Will it be an actual conversation where tough issues are discussed and solutions are proposed?  Or will it be nothing more than a photo opportunity?  I am optimistic.

Is there any impact inside the locker room?   Mike Riley has talked about respect for one another being a core value of the team.  So far, any comment or reaction from other players has been to support their teammates.  But with 140 guys on the team from multiple backgrounds, the odds are very strong that at least one guy disagrees with the issue, the manner of the protest, and/or the attention that is being drawn away from the team’s 4-0 start.

Assuming there is some level of disagreement within the team, how does that play out?  It is handled face to face?  Is there an unwritten “agree to disagree” policy in place?  Or in the worst case scenario, do snide comments get made to the media creating factions in the locker room?

I have faith in Riley, the coaches, captains, and other team leaders to keep the peace and maintain focus on football goals.

5 People I Loved

  1. Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, & DaiShon Neal.  Even if you disagree with their message, or how they chose to present it, I would hope you can respect their passion and desire to put their names (and reputations) on something they believe in – something that @HuskerTroll69 isn’t willing to do.
  2. Mike Riley.  I really respect how Mike Riley has handled this.  We have no idea where he stands on the cause these three Huskers are protesting – or how they are protesting – but he has clearly created a culture of respect within the team.  His quotes about the team being a “melting pot” and college as a time where “you gain a whole new awareness of the world as you go, and you start to form those opinions that are going to make you who you are for the rest of your life” are very enlightened.  These are the things that recruits – and especially their parents – notice.
  3. Nebraska Fans.  To those who have supported the three players vocally or on social media, I commend you.  To those who disagree, but have kept your comments civil, I applaud you too.  It’s okay to have differences in opinion – especially on complex issues like this.  Being able to express yourself without name calling or disregarding the other side is a good thing.
  4. Local media.  This has been a controversial issue with lots of land mines.  There is an unlimited potential for hot take artists to run wild.  But the local media – print and radio in particular – have done an excellent job of providing perspective, opinions from all sides, and fostering a mostly civil forum where we can discuss, debate, and agree to disagree.  There are a lot of talented people in the Nebraska media, and they have done excellent work this week to provide a constructive conversation.
  5. Sam Hahn, Drew Brown, Zack Darlington, & Nick Gates.  A discussion about the Star Spangled Banner before the Northwestern game would be incomplete without mentioning how four Husker players stepped in to assist with holding a large American flag over the field.  I know it is easy to draw a distinction between the presumed patriotism of these four and the perceived disrespect shown by the other three, but I find that too simplistic.  Instead, give proper credit to these Huskers for doing what Nebraskans love to do – step up to lend a helping hand without being asked, or without seeking credit.


5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Human decency.  Death threats?  Racial slurs?  Suggesting players be lynched?  I struggle to find any scenario where that would be remotely acceptable in a civilized society – let alone in reaction to a young man kneeling in prayer.  My cardinal rule for social media is this:  if I wouldn’t say it to their face, I’m not going to tweet it at them.
  2. Hal Daub.  Between the quotes attributed to him by the Lincoln Journal-Star, calling for Rose-Ivey, Barry, and Neal to be kicked off the team, and his immediate denial in the Omaha World-Herald, the NU Regent did not come off looking very good.
  3. National Anthem decorum.  A big part of the controversy has been the perceived disrespect to America and the flag caused by athletes sitting or taking a knee when the anthem is played.  I get it.  I’ve seen a lot of crappy behavior by fans over the years.  People sitting, talking, not removing their hat, using their phone, or otherwise being oblivious and disrespectful.  There are many members of Husker Nation who could use a friendly reminder on how to act during the anthem.
  4. Pete Ricketts.  The Governor called the protest “disgraceful and disrespectful”, and suggested that raising their fists in the air – a symbol of the black power movement – would be a better alternative.  Credit to Gov. Ricketts for agreeing to meet with Rose-Ivey and discuss the issue.
  5. Northwestern parachute guy.  The BTN broadcast showed a person who parachuted onto Northwestern’s Ryan Field with an American flag behind him.  It was a cool scene – at least until he landed and the flag was drug across the blotchy sandpit Northwestern calls a football field.  I don’t know if the parachutist was a military member or a private citizen, but I’m more bothered by the Stars and Stripes being drug across the ground than I am about three guys taking a knee.


Oregon Statement

20 Sep

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That was fun.

As I promised previously, I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations about how Nebraska is “back” after beating Oregon.  No posturing about how returning to the Top 25 validates the Mike Riley hire.  I’m even going to pass on taking a shot at how the Niketown Ducks’ latest fashion emergency was beaten by one of the most classic and timeless uniforms in college football.  If you need all of that, I’m sure you can find it.

Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the slice of college football nirvana that we were treated to on Saturday.  A beautiful, sunny day.  A ranked team with serious name recognition in town.  A milestone game in the vaunted sellout streak.  A crowd that intended to be a factor from the moment they walked in and choose not to sit down.  A back and forth game featuring big plays, tense moments, lead changes, and more two point conversion attempts than some folks see in a lifetime.

It was a great game made better by the fact the home team won, and came from behind to do so.  A game that, as good as it looked (and sounded) in high def, was even better in person.  It was the rare “big game” that lived up to the hype.

So forgive me if I limit my speculations on if a four point win means Mike Riley’s luck in close games is turning, or if Nebraska is suddenly the favorite in the Big Ten West.  I want to savor a victory that you’ll remember for years to come.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s Special Teams can really be special.   Bruce Read and his troops had themselves a big game on Saturday.  Freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn averaged a Foltz-ian 47 yards on five punts – improving his best performance by 15 yards.  De’Mornay Pierson-El had a key 42 yard punt return to set up a key touchdown before halftime.  None of the four kickoffs Oregon returned made it past the 25 yard line.  As a result, Nebraska’s average starting field position was 10 yards better than Oregon.

But the clear star of the special teams show was how the Huskers defended Oregon’s two point conversion attempts.  After Charles Nelson strolled in for two after the Ducks’ first touchdown, the Huskers did an outstanding job of reading, defending, and shutting down the next four two point conversions Oregon tried.  Meanwhile, Drew Brown was a perfect five for five on his PATs.  That was clearly the difference in the game.

I strongly believe no other Nebraskan has a salary as widely known – or as heavily scrutinized – as the $450,000 Bruce Read is paid.*  And while he may not have justified his paycheck, I would hope he earned a week or two off from scrutiny.

*Seriously – Without Google, can you tell me the salary of any of Nebraska’s other assistant coaches?  What about Mike Riley? Or Tim Miles?  Darin Erstad or John Cook?  Governor Ricketts?  Warren Buffett?  Any of them?  I can’t, and I’m guessing most of you can’t either.

Mike Riley and company seem to enjoy playing their old Pac 12 friends.  Watching the reactions of Riley, Mark Banker, and the other former Oregon State assistants leaving the field, you could tell this was more than just another victory.  Riley’s reputation at Oregon State was “good guy, good coach, zero resources”.  Playing just down the road from a school that had everything they wanted and more only accentuated that point as the Ducks regularly whipped up on the Beavers.  They’d never say it, but my guess is there is some sweet vindication in being able to knock off their old rivals when the stakes were even.

I know it is an incredibly small sample size, but Nebraska is 2-0 against the Pac 12 under Riley against two above average teams (Oregon and UCLA).  That bodes well not only for Nebraska’s west coast recruiting efforts, but for a little bowl game they have out in Pasadena.

Nebraska fans can bring the noise.   In case you didn’t hear, it was loud inside Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon.  From Oregon’s first snap until the final seconds ticked off the clock, there was almost constant noise.  I guarantee you’ll find lots of folks who will tell you it was the loudest the stadium has ever been.  And while I’m not ready to make that pronouncement*, this was the first game I remember where the crowd was in full roar from the time the ball was spotted until the snap.

*For me, the “loudest game” discussion really needs to be broken down into three categories: Before 1998, 1999 – 2012, and 2013 to present.  Why those dates?  The addition of the skyboxes in West Stadium (1999) and East Stadium (2013) not only brought thousands of additional voices into the building, but those big walls do a nice job of keeping sound in.  

My memory says the 1994 Colorado game was the loudest I’ve experienced.  Yet I’d guess that in terms of decibels there have been at least a dozen louder games, simply due to more bodies and acoustics.  While we’re on the subject, I’ll go with Oklahoma 2001, and Oklahoma 2009 or Miami 2014 as the loudest from the other eras.

Front and center for recognition should be the Nebraska students in the Boneyard section.  They were in their seats a solid 20 minutes before kickoff, led most of the chants and noise, and kept the stadium’s energy going through the black hole that is the gap between the 3rd and 4th quarters.  And that DJ Khalid banner was a masterpiece.  Take a bow (and a lozenge) Boneyard.  You did good.

So what don’t we know?

Can these Huskers make it to Madison without a loss?   With Nebraska now at 3-0, and once again ranked in the Top 25, many fans are predicting they will be 7-0 when they play Wisconsin at the end of October.  But can it happen?

Certainly, the schedule sets up nicely as Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue isn’t exactly the same as playing Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State.  So far, those teams are a combined 5-5, with as many losses to FCS schools and wins over Power Five teams (1).  The Huskers will likely be favored in all four games.

But let’s be painfully blunt for a second:  three of those teams beat Nebraska last year, and the fourth (Indiana) is showing signs of escaping the B1G basement.  The better Nebraska’s record is, the bigger the bulls-eye they’ll have on their backs.  And it starts this week in Evanston. Northwestern has looked really bad in their two losses, but when the Battle For NU is on the line, they come to play.

Rolling into Madison with a perfect 7-0 record is a definite possibility.  But don’t pretend that this team can just walk on the field against a team we perceive to be inferior and come away with a win.  It’s not 1999 anymore, and this team (and this coaching staff) has yet to prove they can get to that level.

Is Tommy running too much?   Through three games, Tommy Armstrong has recorded 39 carries.  A year ago, Tommy had 37 carries through his first five games.  This years, Armstrong is second on the team in rush attempts and yards, and is tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns.

Clearly, it is effective.  Five of his 16 carries on Saturday resulted in a first down.  Armstrong’s 34 yard touchdown run was the game winner.  Some may argue it is efficient, as increasing Armstrong’s carries likely means a decrease in his passing attempts, which in theory reduces his chances for interceptions.

However, I worry about his workload and the toll it will take over the course of the season.  More accurately, I’m concerned about what I perceive to be a big drop-off between Armstrong and the other quarterbacks on the roster.  Put it this way:  if the ailment that took Tommy out of the game was something more severe than cramping, would you still be penciling Nebraska in for a 7-0 start?

How would Nebraska fans react if the Huskers went for two as often as Oregon did?  You know that peculiar spread out formation that Nebraska lines up in for PATs?  The one where they have the snapper, holder Zack Darlington, and Drew Brown in the middle and everybody else outside of the hash marks?  Can you imagine if two or three times a game they decided to go for two?

Maybe you’d be okay with it if they made enough of them to come out ahead – or at least break even – from what a boring old PAT would provide.  But I suspect Nebraska fans would enforce a strong “Rule of 2”:  If a coach went for – and did not make – two two point conversions in quarter number two, he’d have approximately two minutes to escape the stadium at halftime before the angry mob caught up with him.

And it would probably be less if said coach was making, oh I don’t know, four fiddy a year.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  Without a doubt, it would be the large bouquet of flowers that Oregon left at the 27 yard line in memory of Sam Foltz.  It was an absolute class gesture that will not be forgotten by Nebraskans.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  Here’s how good Saturday was, I can’t think of a darn thing to put here.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Caleb Lightbourn.  You can argue that Armstrong had a bigger impact in Nebraska winning this game, but Lightbourn was my MVP on Saturday.  Every time he went back to kick, Nebraska needed to flip the field, or hopefully slow the Oregon offense by putting them in a hole.  And every time, the true freshman who two months ago was a lock to redshirt delivered.  A 47.2 yard average, three kicks inside the 20 and zero touchbacks on a day with almost no wind.  I got a little choked up when he pointed up to the sky as he ran off the field.  I know Sam would be damn proud of that performance.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  The senior quarterback seemed to will Nebraska to victory.  He made plays with his arm, with his feet, and most importantly, with his head.  While Oregon QB Dakota Prukop was sliding or running out of bounds, Armstrong was running into contact.  Armstrong was excellent on play-action passes, using the success of the ground game to get his receivers open.  Aside from an overthrow on a backwards lateral that gets credited to him as a fumble, Armstrong played a very clean game and kept the Huskers in the game.  The leg cramps gave his performance a strong Willis Reed vibe, which is always instrumental in gutsy comeback victories.
  3. Devine Ozigbo.  Nebraska came out of halftime down six, and frankly, it didn’t feel that close.  There was a feeling of dread that the Ducks were going to take control of the game and put Nebraska away.  The Huskers took the second half kick at the 25 yard line.  They then marched 75 yards in seven plays to take the lead – and set a tone for the second half.  It was no coincidence that five of those seven plays were runs between the tackles by Ozigbo.  Aside from being the poster boy for the “Run The Ball” movement, Ozigbo continues to be the best back on the NU roster.
  4. Ross Dzuris & Freedom Akinmoladun.  For a long time, NU has been unbalanced at defensive end.  One guy might have a good game (i.e. Randy Gregory), but the guy on the opposite side would be rather pedestrian (Jason Ankrah).  That’s why I was really impressed by the play of Dzuris and Adkinmoladun.  Dzuris had another strong game, recording a sack and stopping several big plays before they got started.  Had he not forced a fumble, Freedom would have recorded a sack to go along with his five tackles.  But I continue to be impressed by his motor and speed off the edge.  He’s getting better and better each week.
  5. Michael Rose-Ivey.  We can talk about what Rose-Ivey is not:  he’s not the fastest guy, the strongest guy, or the most physical guy.  Instead, let’s talk about what Rose-Ivey is:  one of the most instinctive linebackers to wear a Blackshirt.  His ability to diagnose plays and get in position to make a tackle is unmatched on the team.  I wish he could have stayed healthy throughout his career.

Honorable Mention:   Cethan Carter, Jordan Westerkamp, Kieron Williams, Nate Gerry, Bryan Reimers, the dozens of yellow penalty flags the Boneyard threw when Oregon was penalized, Graham Nabity, De’Mornay Pierson-El, every fan who stood and yelled.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Rush defense.  Let’s get the caveats on the table first:  Oregon runs a complex offense with a lot of misdirection and option reads that is probably tough to prepare for.  They run that offense with a ton of speedy ball carriers that your average scout team can’t replicate.  And when those things click, big plays are going to happen.  But all of that said, 336 rushing yards is way too much.  There were several times that NU defenders looked confused or out of position to make a play.
  2. Lateral throws.  I know it’s easy to second guess the backwards lateral that Oregon recovered and turned into a touchdown.  But with the combination of a quarterback with occasional command issues, a running back seeing some rare action, and a speedy defense inside the 15 yard line, that doesn’t seem like a great choice.  I was especially surprised to see it attempted (and failed) again in the 4th quarter.  If you want to get the ball to a back out in the flat, I’d suggest either throwing it forward or making sure the back is somebody with really good hands (i.e. Newby).
  3. Jet sweeps.  Remember when we first heard about Riley’s vision for the offense?  How the jet sweep was a key component?  And remember how giddy you got when you pictured Pierson-El streaking around the edge with the ball in his hands?  That has yet to materialize.  For a myriad of reasons, the jet sweep is more of a once a game gimmack than an offensive staple.  And more puzzling, I’m not sure DPE has gotten positive yards running the play yet.  Might be time to try other things.
  4. Fourth Down defense.  Oregon went for it on fourth down three times.  The first attempt (4th & 3) resulted in a 23 yard gain to the NU 2 yard line.  The second attempt (4th & 2) resulted in a 41 yard touchdown run.  Thankfully, on the third and final attempt (4th & 18) the Blackshirts were able to get a stop.
  5. JoJo Domann.  I thought the impossible was going to happen.  Not NU beating a ranked team at home, but making it an entire game without committing a single personal foul.  They made it three and a half quarters before Domann crashed into an Duck after (or right at) the whistle.  Should the sellout streak ever end, I suspect the personal foul streak will live on.



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