Oregon Statement

20 Sep

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As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

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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.

 

 

Improving Nebraska Football: A to Z

16 Sep

 

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*   *   *

During the off-season, there was an article in the Lincoln Journal-Star that stuck in my memory.  More accurately, it was a quote from Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst inside that article:

“Every single day (after the Iowa game) we talked about, ‘How are we going to make our program better? From A to Z,'” said Eichorst.  “When we got back from the bowl game, we did the same thing. ‘How can we make our program from A to Z better?'”

The Journal-Star article – a recap of a May speech by Eichorst and Mike Riley – is understandably short on specifics.

But the concept stuck with me:  If I was in charge of improving the Nebraska Football program from A to Z, what would I do?

Here are my recommendations, from A to Z.  Most of these are directed at the folks inside Memorial Stadium, but there are things for you and I to do as well.

A – Embrace your Alumni – A program like Nebraska as a ton of strengths.  One of the biggest ones should be its alumni base.  Their passion, involvement, and support (financial and intangible) can do amazing things to further the University and all of NU athletics.  Certainly, that applies to graduates of UNL, but I’m primarily focusing on previous players.

Let’s face it:  relations between former players and past coaching staffs have been strained – or even non-existent.  Yet, having a strong network of support from former Huskers (especially those in the League or involved with coaching) is huge.  To his credit, one of the first things that Mike Riley did as head coach was reach out to former letter winners with open arms.

I’d love to see Nebraska get to a place where alumni are not identified as a “Solich Guy”, a “Callahan player”, or a “Pelini recruit”, but as a “former Cornhusker.”

B – Be Bought In.  As divided as the Nebraska fan base has been over the past few years, I think we can all agree that we all want Nebraska to return to championship level success and prominence.  But when we talk about how that happens, the disagreements start.

Some folks don’t like the coaching staff or AD.  Some question if an offense can win if they don’t run the ball 65% of the time.  Other question the loyalty and passion of other fans.  And on and on.

Instead, how about buying in to the current staff?  I’m not advocating blind faith or ignoring red flags.  What I am saying is quit pursuing the joyless victory of being the first person to say “See, I told you it wouldn’t work”.

Come together to support the program we all claim to love.  Mike Riley’s vision – and execution – may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to call for firings after every loss.

C – Coach ’em up.  Obviously, the desire of every college football program is to sign a boatload of five-star talent, turn them loose, and watch the wins pile up.  But for most schools outside of Alabama, it’s not that easy.

Between injuries, suspensions, and attrition, schools often have to take some lemons and try to make lemonade.  The ability of coaches to instruct, train, and develop their players into contributors is vital.  This is an area where Nebraska has excelled in the past (Milt Tenopir, amongst others) and can excel again (Trent Bray, I’m looking at you).

D – Devaney.  Not the NU legend, or his namesake sports center, but new hire Billy Devaney.  Aside from having a mouthful of a title (Executive Director of Player Personnel and Special Assistant to the Head Coach), he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in talent evaluation and player development.  I’m intrigued to see how his role evolves and how he helps shape the roster.

If nothing else, it has to be a plus in recruiting to be able to tell a recruit “we have a former NFL GM on staff, and he loves your film”.

E – End early games.  I hate 11 am home games.  Everything is so sleepy.  Downtown Lincoln has no life before a game.  The students are notoriously late to fill in for the early kickoffs.  The energy in the stadium tends to be low.  For the recruitniks, it’s tough to get Johnny Fivestar into town – especially if he has a game the night before.  The actual W-L numbers may not fully back it up, but I greatly prefer afternoon or evening games to brunch affairs.

There is no way to completely end early games – they are a reality when your conference has multiple TV partners that want to fill programming slots.  That said, the best way to escape the Beth Mowins / Joey Galloway shift is to win.  You don’t see a lot of Ohio State or Alabama kickoffs before noon CST.

F – Focus on fervent fans.  Nebraska enjoys strong and passionate fan support.  From impacting games with constant, intimidating noise, or the flood of social media “encouragement” given to recruits, it is clear that football matters here.  We fans want this program to be successful.

The University, Athletic Department, and the football program – in my opinion – do a good job of acknowledging and recognizing fan support.  But there is always room for more.  One of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in sports deserves all of the love and appreciation NU can give.

What does that look like?  I’m don’t have any specifics at this time, but I’d challenge NU to give back more.

G – Sell the Good Life.  The perception still exists (especially with recruits) that all Nebraskans drive tractors, cows wander freely, and corn grows on every corner.  The reality is that Nebraska – and especially Lincoln – is a great place to live, work, and go to school.

I recall a brilliant idea proposed on the Sharp & Benning show:  fly recruits into Omaha and drive them past TD Ameritrade ballpark, Warren Buffet’s house, all of the Fortune 500 companies, and into Lincoln in Interstate 180, with its impressive view of Memorial Stadium, Pinnacle Bank Arena, the new Hudl headquarters, and the Capitol.  Then, casually note that the time of the trip is the same as it would take to go 15 miles in some cities.

H – Hometown Proud.  In a perfect world, Nebraska high schools produce a couple of legitimate 4 or 5 star recruits every year, and they accept Nebraska offers without so much as a visit to another school.  In addition, a large group of in-state kids decide to walk-on with several developing into starters.

In reality, the Cornhusker state rarely produces five-star talent, and sometimes those talented kids go to places like Stanford, Iowa, or Notre Dame.  The kids who may have walked on 20 years ago are now picking scholarships from Ohio, Wyoming, or one of the Dakota schools over paying their own way.  While I don’t believe in Nebraska signing every guy who dominates Class B, I completely understand that those hometown kids are the lifeblood of the program – and often the best leaders and hardest workers.

I – Invent and Innovate.  Much of success that Devaney and Osborne shared can be traced back to Nebraska being a college football innovator.  Nebraska was one of the pioneers of strength and conditioning, which gave them a big advantage on the field in the 80’s and 90’s.  Now, every school has a monster weight room, and the S&C playing field has leveled out.

Nebraska needs to find the next way to gain an edge over the competition.  The new Athletic Performance Lab certainly has the potential to give that edge.  But my money is on the analytics department showing a return on investment first.  The easy analogy is to the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s, but the ability to have strong data can be a game changer.

J – Find the next Janovich.  Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Andy Janovich.  Go back through Husker teams all the way to Devaney and you’ll find Janovich-type players:   The in-state walk-on who worked his way on the field, earned a scholarship, and became a stand out player and team leader.

Those guys are getting tougher to find as they’re opting for scholarships to Wyoming, Ohio, or one of the Dakota schools instead of a chance to walk-on in Lincoln.  But the heart and soul of the program will always be in-state kids who want it more.  This is where having a strong connection with the high school coaches in the state can help identify those guys.

K – Kick up the kicking game.  The good news is Nebraska traditionally enjoys success in one or more facets of the kicking game.  Be it an accurate place kicker, a punter with a booming leg, or a put ’em in the aisles return man, even the worst NU teams have had a special teams bright spot.

Unfortunately, the bad news is NU has had a nasty trait of turning last year’s strength into this year’s weakness.  2015 was a prime example as many components of the kicking game regressed.

Without getting sidetracked by Bruce Read’s salary, the ability to be strong in special teams can – and should – be a game changer.

L – Line of scrimmage.  I am a firm believer that football championships – especially in college – are won from the lines out.

As amazing as Tommie Frazier was, would he have been the same dynamic play maker if he played behind some of the lines from the Callahan or Pelini years?  Let’s just say that I have my doubts.

On the other side of the ball, every great defense is anchored by a strong defensive line that shuts down the run and puts heat on quarterbacks.

Mark my words: when the lines are dominating, success will follow.

M – Memorial Stadium.  Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is one of the great cathedrals of college football.  As the Old Grey Lady moves closer to her 100th birthday, she’s never been in better shape.  Improvements, both big and small, have enhanced the game day experience for fans.

But as the watch-at-home experience continues to improve, it will be important for Nebraska to find new ways to keep Memorial Stadium as one of the great places to watch a football game.

N – Nike , Adidas, or Under Armour?  Much has been written and said about Nebraska’s current apparel and footwear contract with Adidas – and what should happen when that contract expires in June.

I don’t have a preference on the provider.  Instead, I want to be with a company that treats Nebraska differently than the majority of its clients, provides a top-tier deal, and can create uniforms and alternates that Nebraskans can be proud of.

O – Oregon.  Most of the things in this list should be considered long-term goals, if not core principles of the program.  This one is decidedly short-term.  NU needs to beat Oregon on Saturday.  Why?

Let’s start with Mike Riley.  There is a line of thinking that Riley left Oregon State because he’d never have the talent and/or resources to beat the Ducks in Corvallis.  So what would it say if he still can’t get it done at Nebraska?

Additionally, Oregon is going to be a big recruiting weekend, and an exciting victory in front of a raucous crowed sure never hurts.

Finally, while I think it can be shortsighted to paint the program’s narrative and direction based on a single game, I suspect other members of the media (both local and national) won’t have any issue with it – win or lose.

P – Put aside “P” named boogeymen.  Pederson.  Pelini.  Perlman.  Ask 100 Husker fans why the program has not won a conference title since 1999, and the odds are good that at least one of those three will be named.

Certainly, you can list off many things they did (or are accused of doing) that hurt the program.  Those three will always be polarizing figures who stir up emotional responses.  But how does that help us today or tomorrow?

It’s time to let go of the negativity.  Stop believing that people are (or were) conspiring to ruin the program, and come together to move forward.

Q – Quit losing.  Yeah, it is a simplistic answer.  But consider the deep-dive analysis of every nook and cranny of the program.  The hours of talk radio hot takes.  The message board and Twitter angst over the topic du jour…How much of that goes away if Nebraska wins 9, 10, or 11 games?

R – Recruit, recruit, recruit.  My interest in all things recruiting is rather minor.  I’ll read about the latest commits, look at their stars and other offers, but that’s about it.  I don’t watch their film and I mostly forget about them until they a) sign and/or b) start to contribute.

Mike Riley and his staff don’t have that luxury.  They appear to be organized, prioritized, and energized in everything they do around recruiting.  And they are not afraid to go after the big names.

Say what you will about stars, rankings, and the multitude of recruiting sites and services, but the numbers don’t lie:  there is a ceiling on any program’s success without multiple, high-end recruits.

S  – That’s what speed do.  College football is a speed game.  Yes, power in the trenches is vital, but the ability to run away from (or catch up to) the opposition wins games.  So many of Nebraska’s all-time great teams – and especially defenses – featured lightning fast guys flying all over the field.  This is part recruiting, part strength and conditioning, and part finding roles to get speed on the field.

T – Three hundred fifty and beyond.  The Memorial Stadium sellout streak will hit 350 games when Oregon comes to town.  But this summer, the AP confirmed what many have long suspected:  three times in 2015, NU asked “friends of the program” to buy up extra tickets at the last minute to keep the streak alive.

You may consider the streak a sham, but it’s continued existence is a lifeline to a time of prosperity and success.  It’s also a very tangible symbol of the passion Nebraska fans have for their team.

The streak is in serious jeopardy, but there are ways to protect it (another topic for another day).  Doing so should be a top priority of Shawn Eichorst.

U – Uniforms.  Hopefully by now, all of the staunch traditionalists (such as yours truly) understand that alternate uniforms aren’t going anywhere.  And since world peace is more likely than an alternate that appeals to the old school fans and the kids they are designed to impress, let’s hope they continue to make kids excited to wear the scarlet and cream – or white and chrome – without causing too much heartburn.  But I’m willing to settle for uniform numbers I can read from North Stadium.

V – Values.  The Athletic Department lists five core values:  Integrity, Trust, Respect, Teamwork, and Loyalty.  I tend to be cynical towards mission statements, core values, and other corporate buzz speech.

However, if the football program – and those associated with it – can live those values, I like their chances for success.

W – Weight Room.  I’ve been told by folks in the know that Strength and Conditioning does not win games – even if it usually gets blamed for losses.  It goes without saying that Nebraska’s strength and conditioning program is a vital part of if the program is successful or not.  Husker fans know the Boyd Epley story, and how Husker Power gave NU an edge in the 80’s and 90’s.

The challenge for Mark Philipp and his staff is building on Epley’s core principles to once again give Nebraska an athletic edge.  I have confidence they can get it done.

X – X Factor.  The Webster’s definition of an ‘X Factor’ is “a circumstance, quality, or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence”.

Throughout Nebraska’s history, the introduction of an X Factor has regularly been what propelled them from good to great.  It could be a coach (Bob Devaney), a player (Tommie Frazier), or a schematic concept (switching from a 5-2 defense to a 4-3 in order to get more speed on the field).

The challenge is identifying the X Factor and getting it to Lincoln.

Y – Youth Movement.  Here is a sobering thought:  Nebraska has starters who were not alive for the 1997 National Championship.  The coaches are currently recruiting kids who were not alive the last time Nebraska won a conference championship.

There is an entire generation out there with limited to no experience having Nebraska as a college football power.  The road back to championship football will be driven by kids who grew up viewing Boise State and Oregon as title contenders.  The challenge is getting these kids to understand what Nebraska was, and what it can be again.

Z – Zero Tolerance.  In addition to the tradition of on-field success, many Nebraska fans take immense pride in the program’s tradition of success off the field.  From Academic All-Americans to a program that has largely been free of scandal and wrong-doing, Nebraska is a program you can still be proud to support even when the on-field product is down.

That’s why I think it is important for UNL – and not just the athletic department or the football staff – has a very low tolerance for things that may harm NU.  We may have looked longingly at Baylor’s success the last few years, but I guarantee that nobody wants to trade places with them now.

I’m not willing to trade a handful of wins for a loss of integrity – even if “everybody else is doing it”.

Unforgettable Fresno

9 Sep

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As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

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*   *   *

I don’t know if the Guinness folks track it or not, but I would wager Nebraska set a record for largest attendance at celebration of life ceremony.  Sure, some of the 90,013 in the stands may have said they were there for a football game, but Saturday night was dedicated to the memory of Sam Foltz, a beloved native son, team leader, and future NFL punter whose live was tragically cut short this summer.

If you believe a person’s spirit can be seen and felt after they die, there were a number of signs that Sam was watching over us on Saturday.  The day started off with a rare earthquake that could be felt in Lincoln.  The rain that passed through before the game left the exterior of Memorial Stadium looking as if it was streaked by tears.  The setting sun cast a partial rainbow over the stadium as the red balloons from the first score rose up to the heavens.

Everywhere you looked there was a remembrance of Sam Foltz:  the SF 27 logo on the players’ helmets and compression shirts, and the sleeves of the coaches’ polo shirts. The Cornhusker Marching Band wore SF 27 pins on their uniforms, the banners in the student section, and t-shirts everywhere you looked.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to look forward to Foltz appearing on the big screens during pregame introductions as he listed his hometown as “Small Town, USA, Greeley, Nebraska”.  On Saturday, a different Sam (Hahn) proudly used “Small Town, USA” for his home in DeWitt.  Before the game, Drew Brown – Foltz’s best friend – was honored as the initial recipient of the Sam Foltz Scholarship.

And then it was time for the Tunnel Walk…

The first game after 9/11 (Rice) is one of a handful of home games I’ve missed since the early 90’s.  I have always heard the Tunnel Walk from that game, with the color guard and first responders coming out of the tunnel, listed as one of the most emotional moments in school history.  I can only imagine how powerful that must have been.  But the sight of Sam’s young nephews leading the team out of the locker room, and being hoisted up to touch the horseshoe by Brown and fellow specialist Spencer Lindsay, brought tears to my eyes.*

*Excuse me for a minute while I go on a quick sidebar rant…Don’t be one of those guys who uses some pseudo-macho phrase like “it was dusty”, “there was something in my eye”, “somebody was cutting onions”, or “my allergies flared up” to try to hide the fact that you had tears in your eyes.  

Losing exceptional young men like Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler SHOULD make you emotional.  Those two men seemingly had it all: intelligence, athletic ability, great personality, and limitless potential.  If our children grow up to accomplish half of what Foltz or Sadler did in their short lives, we should be overjoyed.  

There was no dust, allergens, or raw onions, in my section on Saturday.  I cried tears of sadness because an amazing young man’s life was cut short.  If you aren’t secure enough to admit the same, well, I feel bad for you.

Finally, there was the missing man punt formation.  A simple, yet moving gesture for a beloved teammate, and another chance for fans to show their love for Sam, their sympathy and support for his family and teammates who are still hurting, and to celebrate a life well lived.

Rest in peace, Sam.  You will be missed.

So what did we learn?

The temptation to draw sweeping conclusions from a single game should be avoided.   This is my annual reminder that you shouldn’t read too much into what you see if the first game of a season.  For example, I’d be willing to wager that Nebraska does not have another game this year with a run/pass ratio of almost 4:1.  That player who looked over-matched?  He’ll probably look a lot better in October.  Yes, there are some questions that are a little clearer today than they were a week ago.  But even so, know that this team will evolve and change over the next 11+ games – hopefully for the better.

There is a lot of potential in the linebacker corps and secondary.  The second and third levels of the defense stood out to me.  At linebacker guys like Dedrick Young, Marcus Newby, Chris Weber, Micheal Rose-Ivey, Josh Banderas, and Luke Gifford all showed flashes and were around the ball much of the night.  The depth at linebacker is a big plus for a team that needs to improve their defense.

In the secondary, Kieron Williams took his explosive play from special teams to the defense.  Joshua Kalu was lightning fast on his blitz, getting to the Fresno QB as he was completing his three step drop.  Chris Jones didn’t see a lot of balls thrown his way, but made a beautiful pass break up and closed the game with an interception.  Even though true freshman Lamar Jackson got picked on quite a bit, he played as well as (if not better than) some of the seniors did a year ago.  Throw in Nate Gerry and a healthy Antonio Reed, and I’m optimistic about where this group can go.

The fans know who they want as the starting I-Back.   Senior Terrell Newby got the start on Saturday, and picked up 56 yards on 11 carries.  I thought he ran much more aggressively than he did a year ago.  Newby was decisive, hit his holes hard, and didn’t shy away from contact.  I think Nebraska could do well with #34 getting most of the snaps.

However, I believe the fans want Devine Ozigbo to be the feature back in this offense – and soon.  There is a group in the fan base that have already dismissed Newby based on his 2015 season.  But on Saturday, there is also a definitive edge in the eye test:  as good as Newby played, Ozigbo was better.  He seemed faster through the hole, showed more power in breaking tackles and dragging the pile, and accumulated the stats (103 yards, 2 TDs) that one expects from a starter.

I’m not saying Ozigbo needs to be named the starter against Wyoming.  Newby’s play was good enough to keep that role for at least another week.  But that won’t stop the 90,000 offensive coordinators in the stands from demanding more of Ozigbo.

So what don’t we know?

What happened with the punt teams?   Between a blocked punt that resulted in Fresno State’s lone touchdown, and zero punt return yards with an explosive return man on the sidelines, it was not a banner evening for Bruce Read’s punting teams.  Let’s first take a look at the blocked punt.  With a true freshman punting in the shadow of Sam Foltz’s legacy, it was a smart call by Fresno State to go after him.  To my eye, it looked like a miscommunication on who was blocking whom.  While those sorts of mistakes happen – especially in the first game of the season – I can hear many of you citing Read’s salary as a way of saying mistakes shouldn’t happen.

As for punt return, my initial thought was to either blast Read or question Pierson-El’s health.  However, after giving it some thought, I think the decision to have Jordan Westerkamp pay homage to fair catch legend Santino Panico was smart.  Consider:  Fresno State’s punter was not all that great – he averaged just 35 yards on six kicks – which limits return opportunities.  Additionally, the damp conditions were not conducive to catching punts in heavy traffic.  I’m underwhelmed by his abilities as a returner, but Westerkamp clearly has the best hands on the team.

Now, if you want to make a case that if Nebraska isn’t going to try to return punts, maybe they should put some effort into blocking a punt of their own, I’ll certainly listen to that argument.  There appeared to be a couple of times where a block – or at least a rushed kick – was a possibility.  Just because you’re choosing not to mount a return, it does not mean you have to be a passive participant in the play.

Did Riley and Langsdorf purposefully limit Armstrong’s attempts?  Armstrong’s passing numbers (5-10, for 108 yards and a TD) were straight out of 1991.  Were those few passing attempts a fluke – or an orchestrated effort to keep the ball out of Tommy’s hands?

From what I saw, Armstrong had a pretty good day passing.  Yes, half of his passes fell incomplete, but most of those were on target and placed where the receiver could bring it in.  Aside from a screen play that was going nowhere, there were no bad throws or balls that could have been intercepted.

Maybe the coaches believe that with Armstrong, interceptions are a simple numbers game.  Coming into the season, Armstrong averages an interception every 24 attempts, so by keeping him under 20 attempts, he is less likely to turn the ball over.  That is certainly a theory (but not one that I believe).  Of course, intentionally limiting your quarterback’s throws is a curious strategy with multiple big time WR recruits in the building.

Or maybe Langsdorf was getting good production on the ground from his line and backs, and rarely found himself in 3rd and long situations (just four by my count).  Let’s not read too much into this off of one game.

Does anybody know what is – and what is not – targeting?   For the third straight game, Nebraska had a defender ejected for targeting.  Luke Gifford’s hit on Fresno State’s QB certainly fell under the definition of roughing the passer, but I did not view it as a flagrant shot made with malicious intent.  Nebraska fans can rightfully look at hits in other games that are much more obvious, but are not flagged (notably, the hit on Torii Hunter, Jr. in the Texas – Notre Dame game Sunday night).  Heck, one can usually find multiple examples of helmet to helmet contact in the same game that go uncalled.

The folks over at Corn Nation put out a good piece on the by-the-book definition of targeting, but good luck trying to grasp all of the nuances of the rule, or the various ways a player can be considered “defenseless”.  The easiest way to summarize the rule is this:  if in doubt, call it.  And if it gets called on you, you should probably start walking towards the locker room.

I completely get – and support – the rationale behind the rule.  Nobody wants to see players getting hurt, and the long-term impact of concussions is a cause for concern.  But as long as the rule is as subjective as it is, targeting will continue to be a source of controversy throughout the game.

The best thing I saw on Saturday There were a lot of contenders, most of them in the “Sam Foltz Tribute” category.  But the thing that I will always remember is how the Fresno State players reacted during the missing man punt formation.  The Bulldogs – both on the field and on the sidelines – were clapping, cheering, and waving their arms.  Coach Tim DeRuyter’s decision to decline the delay of game penalty earned him the undying respect of Husker fans everywhere.  The Fresno State Bulldogs showed a ton of class.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday All of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.  Individually, I can see how they might happen:  Zack Darlington spins the ball because he’s excited to be in the end zone for the first time since his junior year of high school.  Dylan Utter takes out a defensive player he’s been battling all game after the whistle.  Aaron Williams makes a big hit on the goal line and flexes his muscles.  Taken one by one, they can be chalked up as an overly exuberant player caught up in the moment.  Taken as a whole, it points to a team that still struggles with composure and decision-making.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Nebraska’s running backs.  NU played four backs – Newby, Ozigbo, Tre Bryant, and Miakle Wilbon – and each of them looked really good running the ball.  Ozigbo certainly had the stats and the most impressive runs, but I liked what I saw from each of the other backs.  This group is deep, and aside from Newby, they are young.
  2. Kieron Williams.  I’ve been a big fan of his work on special teams.  Kieron has a great knack for using his speed to put himself in position to make plays.  If he can apply that to his work in the secondary….look out.  Also, a tip of the cap for changing his jersey number from 27 to 26 in honor of Sam Foltz.
  3. Drew Brown, Caleb Lightbourn, Zack Darlington, and Spencer Lindsay.  Brown had a close relationship with Foltz, and it was obvious when he received the memorial scholarship that he was missing his dear friend.  Lightbourn and Darlington had arguably the toughest roles on Saturday – they were the guys who took over Sam’s kicking and holding jobs.  Oh by the way, it was the first time either of them had played in a college game.  They did great in their debuts, and I’m sure Foltz was proud of them.  Finally, it was cool that fellow specialist Spencer Lindsay was able to kick his first career PAT during this game.
  4. Ross Dzuris.  One of the big questions is if the defensive ends can generate a pass rush and be a disruptive force.  Dzuris answered the bell with two sacks and another tackle for loss.  If he can get off to a strong start, it should create opportunities for Freedom Akinmoladun on the other side.  Bonus points for twirling his sweet ‘stache in the starting lineup video.
  5. Alonzo Moore.  Raise your hand if you predicted Moore would lead the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.  Throw in his two carries in the sweep game, and Moore had the best game of his NU career.  Had he managed to haul in the sideline pass that Armstrong placed perfectly, Moore probably would have earned the top spot.

Honorable Mention:   Tommy Armstrong, Jr., Nick Gates, Sam Hahn, Dylan Utter, Tanner Farmer, David Knevel, Joshua Kalu, Dedrick Young, Luke McNitt, Run defense, Chris Jones, Sam Foltz’s nephews

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Fullback reps.  Let me get this straight:  you commit to the ground game so hard that you run it 51 times with nine different ball carriers, but your fullback can’t get a single rep?  Heck, I’d guess that on 90% of the offensive snaps NU did not have a fullback in the game.
  2. That spread-out PAT formation.  For each PAT, Nebraska started with just the long snapper, holder and kicker in the middle of the field.  The rest of the players were lined up outside of the hash marks before trotting into a traditional kicking formation.  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  Yes, Darlington managed to sneak his way in for a very inconsequential two point conversion, but how many times can you truly attempt that in a season?  Twice?  I thought the swinging gate formation my high school used for PATs was stupid, and this version is not any better.  Critics of Bruce Read and/or his salary, feel free to add this to your list of grievances.
  3. Defensive Tackles.  When Mick Stoltenberg opened the game with a big solo stuff, I was optimistic that the tackles would have a breakout game.  Instead, the tackle play was rather anonymous.  Yes, they allowed the linebackers to run free and make plays, but I would like see a little more noise from the big boys – especially in collapsing the pocket.
  4. FanXP.  Feel free to file this under #FirstWorldProblems, but Memorial Stadium’s normally outstanding Wi-Fi connection was non-existent on Saturday.  Considering the (relatively) slow demand for season tickets, anything that negatively impacts the fan experience needs to be corrected ASAP.  I’m going to be a little more critical of the fan experience this season.
  5. First National Bank.  Late in the first quarter, fans in the top rows of the northeast corner of the stadium held up a dozen or so large panels that made up a big billboard for FNB.  I’d estimate these panels were held up for a good 10 minutes.  How ticked off would you be if somebody asked you to block your view, all for an advertisement?  I’m surprised some of those panels didn’t “accidentally” get caught in the wind and sail right over the wall.

 

One personal note:  Five years ago, my first column – a recap of the 2011 opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga –  was published on HuskerMax.  I will forever be grateful to David for the opportunity, as well as Joe and the other admins for everything they do in making this site special.  I am especially thankful for those of you who take the time to read my work, and provide compliments or critiques.  I appreciate it more than you know, and I look forward to another fun season.

2016 Nebraska Predictions

2 Sep

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK

*   *   *

Time to gaze into the crystal ball and make some predictions about the coming season.  Some of these are virtual locks to happen, but I am going to go out on a limb a couple of time.

Feel free to hold these against me throughout the season – assuming I don’t retract this post first.

Let’s start out with a doozy:

This is Keith Williams’ final season in Lincoln*.  He is a hot, hot, hot commodity, as witnessed by the parade of NFL talent coming to work out with him this summer.  It’s no secret that the receivers are the best position group on the team – and maybe in the conference.  Williams has made a name for himself on the recruiting trail too.

So where does he go?  I don’t see him moving on for a coordinator or head coaching job – every portrait of him paints him as a guy who truly loves the technical craft of being a wide receiver.  But I could see a big name college making a big push for him as a receivers coach, with a combined sales pitch of a big, big raise and easier access to talent.  The other possibility I see is Williams getting a job with an NFL team

*I wrote the previous two paragraphs prior to Williams’ August DUI arrest. While that third offense probably decreases the likelihood of another school poaching him away, it does increase the possibility that Williams does not return due to his legal issues.  I don’t necessarily he gets fired by Mike Riley or Shawn Eichorst; rather forces from outside the athletic department play a role.

Nebraska does not lose five games by less than a touchdown.  To be clear, I’m not saying that the Huskers won’t lose five games.  But if they do, they won’t all be last second heart breakers like BYU, Miami, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern.

Nebraska has a 1,000 yard rusher.  In 2015, Terrell Newby led the team with 786 rushing yards, the first time since 2008 that a Husker has failed to reach 1,000 yards in a season.  Assuming Riley holds true to his goal of finishing in the top three in rushing in the conference, this should be easy to obtain.  The big question is which of the backs gets the necessary yards.  I’ll put my money on Devine Ozigbo, but I think Newby could definitely get it done too.

The elusive 1,000 yard receiving season remains out of reach – for now.  Nobody has ever gone over 1,000 receiving yards in a season at Nebraska.  Jordan Westerkamp came the closest, racking up 918 a year ago.  But I doubtful that Westerkamp can match his yardage numbers from 2015.  That’s not a knock at Westy – arguably the best receiver to play at Nebraska – but more of a compliment towards the other receiving options on the team.  There are lots of guys deserving of targets, but only one ball to go around.

But don’t worry, I predict Nebraska has a 1,000 yard receiver within four seasons.

The Huskers throw fewer interceptions than 2015.  This one is (hopefully) a gimme, as matching the 21 picks from a year ago requires averaging 1.6 INTs a game.  Again, if Riley and Langsdorf stick to the ground game, this should be a slam dunk.

Nebraska still ends up negative in turnover margin.  As noted above, I think the Huskers cut down their interceptions thrown.  And I’m hopeful the defense can get some more turnovers too.  But they’ve been negative for so long, I don’t see a dramatic turnaround in one year.

Nebraska qualifies for a bowl game (without having to rely on their graduation rate).  To accomplish this, Nebraska needs to find six wins in their schedule.  Assuming Tommy Armstrong stays healthy, I feel confident in six wins.  But I’m not willing to predict nine (or more) wins until I see this team play a few games.

Move over “did you know they’re roommates?”, there’s a new go-to factoid.  Did you know that Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp are roommates?  If you’ve watched any Nebraska game over the last few years, I guarantee you’ve heard this tidbit before as announcers love to sprinkle in little nuggets of information not found in the box score.

While we’ll continue to be reminded of how the QB and the WR live together*, it will be overshadowed by a new “did you know?” fact:  punter Caleb Lightbourn can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute.

*And the announcers never mention their other roommate, tight end Trey Foster.  Poor Trey.  Your name is a symbol of your status as a third wheel.

Normally, I’d link to the video, but I’m so confident that you’ll hear about (and probably see) this accomplish every week that I’m not going to bother.

What about you?  What predictions are you willing to make?

2016 Husker Preview – Reasons for Pessimism

1 Sep

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint). 

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK

*   *   *

The Kool Aid is flowing fast and freely around the Nebraska football program.

Just months after getting a backdoor bid into a bowl game that allowed them to finish 6-7, some pundits are predicting Nebraska to win the Big Ten West.  Others* are saying Nebraska is a legitimate contender for the four team playoff.

*That one of those “prognosticators” is a character from a Dr. Pepper commercial should probably be at the top of this list.

Nebraska football in the 21st century has been an ongoing Peanuts cartoon.  Charlie Brown, wearing his Nebraska jersey, is confident that he can kick the ball through the uprights of their season.  But before the ball goes sailing towards championship glory, it is pulled away and Nebraska ends up flat on his back.

So how will Lucy Van Pelt pull the ball away this year?  Here are some things to watch out for:

Tommy Armstrong

At his best, he’s a dynamic playmaker who can beat you with his arm and his legs.  But far too often he beats his own team with bad throws and horrible decisions.  His touchdown to interception ratio got worse from his sophomore to junior season.  Husker fans will probably be dancing in the streets if he throws fewer than one pick per game this year.

Nebraska’s greatest chance for success in 2016 rests in Armstrong’s hands.  Do you trust him to take care of it?

Quarterback depth

Here’s the harsh truth about Tommy Armstrong:  as frustratingly inconsistent as he has been, he is still the best quarterback on the Nebraska roster.  And it is not even close.

Let’s take a quick look at the quarterback depth chart:

  1. Armstrong.
  2. Ryker Fyfe.  In his lone start – the rock bottom 55-45 loss at Purdue – he threw four interceptions and rushed for negative 35 yards.
  3. Patrick O’Brien. The true freshman has a ton of recruiting hype, but zero collegiate snaps (unless you count the Spring Game where he looked like a high school kid playing against college guys).
  4. Zack Darlington. He will take some snaps – as Drew Brown’s holder.
  5. A.J. Bush.  He could push for the starting job – at Iowa Western Community College.

Arguably the best quarterback on the team – Tulane transfer Tanner Lee – is ineligible to play in 2016.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Nebraska is a nine win team with Armstrong under center.  If Armstrong gets hurt early in the season, do you have confidence that anybody else can guide this team to a winning record?  I have doubts.

Danny Langsdorf’s play calling

We all saw the success Nebraska had running over UCLA in the bowl game (and hopefully you saw that UCLA had apparently attended a Bo Pelini clinic on rush defense).  We all heard Mike Riley state that he wants Nebraska to be “top three” in the conference in rushing.  But I fear that is going to be easier said than done.

Aside from not having a go-to back, an unproven line, and a coaching staff perceived to favor the forward pass, there is the notable fact that the best position group on the team is the wide receivers/tight ends.  Do you trust Danny Langsdorf to stick to the run when none of the backs can consistently get four yards, and he sees Jordan Westerkamp, Cethan Carter, and a host of talented receivers perimeter blocking in vain?

Turnovers

This one is short and painfully simple:  The offense turns the ball over WAY to often – twice per game in 2015.  Meanwhile, the defense does not take the ball away nearly enough – a hair over one per game.  Frankly, I’m surprised the 2015 turnover margin (-15) wasn’t bigger.

I’d like to be able to say I see a dramatic change on the horizon for the offense or defense, but I wouldn’t wager on it.

Inexperience

Sneak a peek at the current depth chart.  Looking at the top two for each position, I count 28 guys who are sophomores or younger.  Several guys will get their first game experience, start, or both against Fresno State.  How many of these guys will shine under the bright lights, and how many will freeze?  Are they prepared – mentally and physically – for 12, 13, or more games?

The inexperience is most glaring on the lines.  While Nick Gates and Dylan Utter are technically returning starters, both will be playing new positions on the line – along with three other new starters.  The defensive side is a little better, despite losing four players with eligibility left.  Ross Dzuris, Freedom Akinmoladun, and Kevin Maurice saw a lot of snaps last year, but they only have nine career starts.  Combined.

With conference games starting in less than a month, the kids will need to grow up fast.

The schedule

Remember last year how Nebraska did not have a week off until after Week 11?  The good news is this year’s schedule offers a week for rest, recovery, and fall weddings five weeks into the season.  The bad news is the slate may be more challenging than last year.  This year, the Big Ten goes to a nine game conference schedule.  This means trading South Alabama for another Big Ten East foe.

Looking over the schedule, there is a definite possibility that Nebraska may not win away from home this year.  Look at the road slate:

  • Northwestern – They were a 10 win team a year ago, and always play NU tough.
  • Indiana – Definitely NU’s best chance for road success, but the Hoosiers are starting to get things going, and could use a statement win.
  • Wisconsin – To put it politely, Madison has not been kind to Nebraska.
  • Ohio State – When Nebraska plays the Buckeyes, its realistic to think they might be 8-0 and ranked #1.  Maybe we can play this game in Columbus, Nebraska…
  • Iowa – Regardless of if you consider Iowa a rival, I can guarantee that they want to beat Nebraska – especially if they can repeat as division champs.

Nebraska had a losing record at home in 2015.  They can’t afford to do that again in 2016.

Take one more look at the schedule.  Objectively, knowing this team finished 6-7 a year ago, how many no-doubt, 100% guaranteed wins are on the schedule?  If your answer is more than “seven”, you probably should lay off the Kool Aid until Signing Day.

Distractions

The 2015 season was derailed early by a series of close, heartbreaking losses and some lingering drama from players loyal to the old coaching staff.  After a year to implement their system – and flush out guys who weren’t buying in – everybody should be on the same page this fall.  Right?

Don’t count on it.

The tragic death of Sam Foltz – arguably one of the most proven and valuable players on the team – will have a big impact.  Everybody deals with grief and loss differently, and some people can be blindsided by it at unexpected times.  Then there is Keith Williams and the fall out from his drunk driving case.  Between the time away from practice during fall camp, the four game suspension, and any court proceedings during the season, some level of distraction is all but guaranteed.

Finally, there is Mike Riley’s job security.  In no way do I consider him on any type of “hot seat” entering the season.  But what if the team comes home from Ohio State with four (or more) losses?  It would take a lot to insulate the team from the angst and drama that would go along with another disappointing season.

2016 Husker Preview – Reasons for Optimism

1 Sep

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint). 

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK

*   *   *

The off-season is always an optimistic time for the college football fan.  Everybody is undefeated, and the world is filled with positive, glass overflowing stories of why this year will be better than last year.

Yes, coming off of a disappointing 6-7 season, pretty much anything is going to be an improvement.  But the key is knowing where to be optimistic and where to be realistic.

So where should you be optimistic of the 2016 Husker team?  Let’s count the ways:

Nebraska has excellent front line talent.

For better or for worse, the roster looks very different from the day Mike Riley took over.  After shaking out some non-contributors and other who didn’t buy in to the Riley way, the depth in some positions is paper-thin.  But I really like Nebraska’s top end talent.

Look across the top 22:  The number of guys with legitimate NFL potential is much higher than the number of “this is the best we can do?” guys.  To put it another way:  talent-wise, I’d put Nebraska’s starters up against anybody in the Big Ten, and especially the West.  Some of these are names you know (Westerkamp, Carter, Gerry, and others) and some are going to be new (Stoltenberg, Knevel, Farmer, and more).

The challenge obviously is with keeping guys healthy and depth.  Until I see something different on the field, I still believe there is a decent gap between the 1’s and the 2’s at a majority of positions.  But I expect that gap to decrease and younger guys get more reps and more comfortable with NU’s system.

Tommy Armstrong

I get it.  With Armstrong, it is much easier to focus on the negative than the positive.  And he has done things over the years to earn that negativity, but here is why you should be optimistic on #4:

  • He is going to be a four-year starter.  While a lot of that has to do with NU’s QB depth and development, being a four-year starter is huge advantage in terms of experience and poise.
  • It is his second year in the Riley/Langsdorf system.  Tommy should be more comfortable in what he is doing, and know how to execute the offense better.
  • Along the same lines, Riley and Langsdorf know how to use Tommy better than they did a year ago.  Armstrong is not Sean Mannion, but that doesn’t mean he can succeed in Langsdorf’s offense.  NU’s coaches know his strengths and weaknesses, and can call plays that put him in a position to be successful.
  • He is surrounded with talent. Armstrong’s receivers are likely the most talented group in school history.  Nebraska has four capable running backs to take the pressure off the passing game.  Finally, his offensive line should be improved, giving him more time to operate.  With the talent around him, the hope should be that Armstrong is able to thrive in the “game manager” role.
  • The defense should be improved.  Nobody inside the program would say this, but last year I often got the sense that Armstrong felt he needed to score on every position because the defense wasn’t always capable of stopping other teams.  How many of his interceptions were the result of him trying to force a throw or make something out of nothing.  If Tommy has faith the defense can hold a team to 20 points of less, I think he’ll be more inclined to play it safe on offense.

Should you expect Armstrong to be an All Big Ten quarterback?  Probably not, but if he can protect the ball and make plays with his feet, Nebraska can improve greatly.

 

The coaching is improved.

From everything you see and hear, John Parrella is a major upgrade over Hank Hughes.  Parrella is an energetic, passionate teacher who has the NFL experience to command attention.  Additionally, he is a native son, NU alumnus, and proud caretaker of the Blackshirts tradition.  But the improvements go beyond Coach Parrella.

I’m a firm believer that, top to bottom, this staff has better teachers and developers of talent than the previous staff.  We saw some of that last year with the surprising success of Trent Bray’s linebackers, the receiver play, and other individual positions.  I’m excited to see the technical growth and development after another spring and fall camp working with these coaches.

Riley and his staff rightfully took their lumps for some…um…curious decisions during games.  But if you look at the course of the season, the decision-making got better as the season went on (with a notable exception against Iowa).  In what should not be surprise to anybody, the Big Ten is a vastly different league than the Big Ten.  More importantly, the expectation level, pressure to succeed, and everything else is much higher at Nebraska than at Oregon State.  The firing of Hughes should show that Riley and company are serious on winning – and winning now.

The “Year Two” jump

It happens frequently in college football: In the first season after a coaching change, a team struggles and puts up a bad record. In year two, everything seems to click and dramatic improvement occurs.

There is a lot of logic for why this occurs so often.  In the second year, the players who didn’t transfer out should be fully bought in to the new staff and the system they run.  Schemes and concepts that were new a year ago should now be second nature. Especially on defense, less thinking almost always equals faster play.

Additionally, the coaches are more comfortable with the players they inherited, have two classes of their own in the system, and have first hand knowledge of what it takes to be successful at their new school/conference.

While I think expecting a Year Two jump on the level of Bob Stoops at Oklahoma is beyond optimistic, it’s very reasonable to believe NU will be noticeably improved in many areas – including their overall record.

Surely, Nebraska’s luck in close games will change, right?

If you lived through 2015 season – especially the seven losses – you probably don’t need a reminder of how Nebraska fared in games decided by a touchdown or less.  Let’s just say it was not good.

To me, “luck” is a coin flip – those moments where you can’t predict which way a football will bounce when it hits the ground.  Sometimes you catch the Hail Mary.  Sometimes your opponent catches it.  The best you can do is hope that the football gods eventually bring you good fortune.

But a lot of Nebraska’s close losses came down to things that NU can control:  calling a better play, properly managing the clock, having presence of mind on the field to not audible into a pass or commit a stupid penalty.  Experience can be an excellent teacher, and the 2015 Huskers went through an advanced course in bad experiences.

Hopefully they learned from it.

History says Huskers must get tough at the top – A rebuttal

29 Aug

In today’s Omaha World-Herald, longtime columnist Lee Barfknecht lays out his case for how Nebraska – particularly the football program – can return to national prominence.  In Barfknecht’s opinion, it all boils down to a single word:

Toughness.

Having read this column a couple of times, I think it all boils down to a single word:

Bull___.

I know that over the years, Lee has proudly embraced his title of “Nebraska writer Nebraska fans love to hate”.  But I’ve never hated him or his work.  Actually, quite the opposite.  I tend to appreciate his experience, his no-nonsense approach, and the cutting wit he unleashes at anything – or anybody.  But this is not his best work.

The most passionate of Husker fans usually don’t care for his words and actions – all stemming from an infamous vote in the 1997 AP Football Poll – but he usually makes good points and delivers them with a strong – if rough around the edges – style.

But this is not one of those times.

For ease of showing you why, I’ve pasted the original World-Herald column below, along with my comments.  Lee’s words are in bold.  Mine are not.

*   *   *

People who know what I do for a living occasionally ask if I’m going to write a book about Nebraska football. It’s true that I’ve seen a few things.

Before I start laying the snark on thick and heavy, let me state this:  I would read this book.  For all of his quirks, Lee has a talent for taking old stories from the barroom to the page without losing their humor or timing.

I sat across from Bob Devaney at his desk in the old South Stadium and shared a few end-of-the-day cocktails while discussing “world events.” (Hey, when they name buildings for you, you can bend the rules about no alcohol on campus.)

As we go through this column, we’re going to play a game I like to call “Lee Barfknecht Bingo”.  When Lee uses one of his tried and true tropes, you can mark a space off on your card.  We’re going to start the game off with a two-fer:  Lee references the length of his career, and Lee waxes nostalgic for the old-school journalistic access he used to have.  Keep watching those Bingo cards, because we’re likely to have a winner today.

I watched Tom Osborne come within a whisker of using the F-word to describe “that dadgum Sports Illustrated guy” writing a story that Osborne was sure to dislike.

I don’t want to doubt a man’s journalistic integrity, but raise your hand if you think Osborne has ever come close to cursing – let alone an F-bomb.

And I’ve seen grown men cry when I went to the Minnesota locker room after Nebraska beat the Gophers 84-13.

There are plenty more tales. But if a book ever comes, be prepared for a big chapter on a topic almost never addressed:

How in the world did Nebraska get good at football in the first place?

Actually, that topic has been addressed in several Nebraska Football books over the years, but whatever.

That’s not a knock.

It’s important to call out the one sentence in your column that is not a knock.

It’s a compliment to the ingenuity, work ethic and toughness — especially the toughness, which we’ll address later — it took to overcome a virtual automatic disqualifier to success: being a small-population flyover state with a wide geographic area.

Nebraska, from the chancellor’s office on down, took football seriously from the beginning, and it thrived. The Huskers won 77 percent of their games from 1900-40, and finished the 1940 season in the Rose Bowl, the school’s first postseason trip.

What followed was two decades of darkness, notable for lackluster administrative commitment to the sport after World War II and shaky coaching hires.

NU posted three winning seasons in 21 years, and won 37 percent of its games. That’s a level of misery an old Kansas State fan could identify with.

I hope some of the other program historians (Mike Babcock, I’m looking in your direction) weigh in on if that 21 stretch of misery was truly due to “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport”.  Furthermore, how would you quantify what a “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport” looked like 60 -70 years ago?  Is Lee basing his thesis of “lackluster administrative commitment to the sport” solely on “shaky coaching hires”?  Or is there more to it?  And if there is more there, what lens is he viewing it with – one from post-war NU or one from the arms race era of college athletics?

In big-boy college athletics, I’m a firm believer that coaches win games while administrations clear the way for championships. That’s why I love what Nebraska Athletic Director Tippy Dye declared as he searched for a new football coach in 1962.

Dye’s goals were for Nebraska to be No. 1 nationally, and to hire the best coach in the country, regardless of name or location. Boosters, community leaders and his boss were in lockstep with him.

No argument here on administrations “clearing the way” for championships, or an AD whose stated goal is to be number 1.  Unless somebody can point me to a quote that says otherwise, I’m pretty sure the current athletic department leadership at Nebraska has stated they want to win championships – just like every other AD since Tippy Dye.

Dye picked Devaney, coming off four conference titles in a row at Wyoming.

The former amateur boxer and assistant to Michigan State legend Duffy Daugherty whipped Nebraska into shape immediately, going 9-2 his first season to start a staggering 40-year run of success. What followed were five national championships between Devaney and Osborne, his hand-picked successor.

But since Osborne’s successor, Frank Solich, led NU to the 1999 Big 12 title and the 2001 national title game, this program has lost its championship mojo.

I sure hope Lee doesn’t try to boil the failures and shortcomings of the program since 62-36 into a single point, because that would be ignorant, misleading, and/or lazy.  There are a host of reasons – both internal and external –  why Nebraska has fallen from a championship-level powerhouse to an “Others Receiving Votes” school.  You definitely cannot do all of those reasons justice in a 1,500 word column.

That brings us to today’s topic, just six days from the 2016 opener:

Will the Huskers ever get good enough to win championships again?

No excuse exists for a school that spends the time, energy and money on football that Nebraska does to go 16 seasons without a conference title. That goes double when you play in the woefully average Big 12 North and Big Ten West.

First off, what the hell does “woefully average” mean?  A division can be average, or woeful, but not both.  And what about the short-lived Legends division?  Personally, I always considered the Legends to be spectacularly mediocre.  But I digress…

Yes, the Big XII North and Big Ten West have been – woefully or not – average over most of the last 16 seasons.  But let’s not pretend like the Big 8 was a grueling gauntlet for most of the Devaney/Osborne years.  Personally, I believe that in the conference championship game era, a division title is equivalent to a conference title in the pre-BCS era.  You played one really good team (Oklahoma), and few above average teams (Colorado and Missouri or Okie State) and bunch of nobodies (Iowa State, K-State, Kansas, etc.).  How is that different from the path NU took to win the Legends in 2012? Or the Big XII North in 2006, 2009, or 2010?  It’s not.

Swallow hard before you read the following:

A suggestion:  World-Herald editors may want to consider printing this disclaimer before the next click-bait column they publish.

Nebraska has the third-longest conference title drought among the 14 Big Ten schools. Only Indiana and Minnesota (both 1967) are more barren. You are known by the company you keep.

On the surface, this is a great and damning stat that helps set the stage for the point that Lee is about to make.  But when you look a little deeper, this stat is fluffed up bull.  For example, look at some of these memorable championship seasons:

  • Four of those teams (Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue) shared their championship with another team.
  • That Northwestern championship squad (2000) was so great they ended up in the Alamo Bowl where non-conference champ Nebraska narrowly defeated them 66-17.
  • As for the other B1G newcomers, Maryland won a 9-team ACC in 2000.  That is a legit championship, unlike Rutgers:  The 2012 Scarlet Knights were one of four teams (in an eight team Big East) who finished 5-2, which technically made them co-champs with Cincy, Syracuse, and Louisville.  Louisville was the conference’s BCS representative, mainly due to beating Rutgers head to head.

Are any of these “championships” more impressive than being one second away from defeating Texas in Dallas in 2009?  I get that in sports, titles are the ultimate decider for an argument, but there are a lot of apples being compared to oranges here.

We all realize the landscape of college football has changed dramatically the past 20 years. Many of the competitive edges Nebraska used to hold — in strength training, nutrition, facilities, TV appearances, academic support — are gone or dwindling.

Translation:  “I acknowledge these things may have as big of an impact as what I’m about to mention, but they don’t fit my narrative so I summarily dismiss them.”

So is something else: toughness.

When is somebody in charge at One Memorial Stadium Drive going to throw open a window and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” instead of tweeting mushy motivational sayings?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a window at One Memorial open.  Do they lift up?  Crank out?  Maybe the issue is not with toughness, but an inability to open the windows.  Somebody get Maintenance and Facilities on the phone!

Also, mark off the Bingo square for “veiled shot at Shawn Eichorst”.

Nebraska has long achieved athletically in ways the outside world never thought possible. Two major reasons were the guts to hold people accountable and sheer determination.

It took toughness from Francis Allen to turn Nebraska into a national championship gymnastics school.

It took toughness from Dave Van Horn and his Husker baseball team to perform a College World Series miracle while playing at decrepit Buck Beltzer Stadium.

It took toughness from Terry Pettit to build a national championship volleyball empire from scratch, and more grit from John Cook to demand more excellence going forward.

It took toughness from Connie Yori to turn Husker women’s basketball into a top-15 program nationally, arguably NU’s most underrated success story. Why she isn’t still in charge makes little sense.

I’m not touching the Yori issue, but otherwise the answer is clear:  to win championships you simply need to hire legendary coaches!  Feel free to mark off “overly simplified solution to complex problem” on your Bingo card.

It took toughness from Bill Byrne to hire strong-minded coaches with successful pedigrees, to modernize Nebraska’s facilities despite roadblocks from old-guard boosters, and to set expectations for what turned into the Golden Decade of NU athletics (1992-2001).

I was not aware that Byrne hired Francis Allen, Terry Pettit, and Tom Osborne.  Good to know.

One of Byrne’s favorite things as athletic director was to tell his coaches, “You need to think about how to win a national title, and I’ll do everything I can to help.” It wasn’t a threat. It was about building a championship mindset.

Is anybody in NU’s athletic administration doing that today? The scoreboard in most sports says no.

The key part of that last sentence is the disclaimer “in most sports”.  Let’s ignore the National Championship the Volleyball team won as well as other conference championship teams – those don’t help Lee make his point.

Bingo card alert:  “Lee takes a direct shot at Eichorst”.  Is Lee implying that Eichorst is not offering to help his coaches win titles?  Or is question of “Is anybody in NU’s athletic administration doing that today?” a passive aggressive swipe at Eichorst for not doing a sit-down interview with Lee every month?  If you answer yes, feel free to also mark off “Lee is bitter because Eichorst prefers to not do interviews”.

And then there’s perhaps the toughest dude of all — Osborne.

Nebraska football always has been a far more fragile entity than the general public would believe, or want to know. It took Osborne, calm on top and paddling like crazy underneath, to keep what Devaney resurrected on track.

I’d love to know more about this statement.  If Lee does ever write that book, he should make it about this.

When it came time to put in the work necessary to play championship football, neither Osborne nor his staff and players took shortcuts.

The veracity of this statement really comes down to if you consider Prop 48 usage, some questionable disciplinary decisions, alleged steroid, and other rumors to be “shortcuts” or not.  Let’s just say that several of our former Big 8 rivals rolled their eyes at that claim.

Big Eight coaches used to discuss the dread they had seeing “Nebraska” on the schedule. It wasn’t the losses that bothered them most. It was the relentless effort the Huskers played with, and the physical beating inflicted that often lingered into the next game.

About a month after Osborne won the 1994 national championship, I asked if his quiet nature and strong Christian faith were ever at odds with the ruggedness his teams exhibited. He said no.

“You don’t win football games with choirboys,” Osborne said. “You’ve got to be tough to play. There’s no reason you can’t kick the tar out of somebody on the field and respect them off of it.”

First off all, that is a tremendous question to ask – and an even better answer.  It shows that Barfknecht is an excellent journalist (or at least he was in 1995).  And it helps show just how competitive the stoic Osborne was.

That culture has vanished since self-described genius A.D. Steve Pederson uprooted the Devaney-Osborne-Solich tree.

Bill Callahan’s West Coast offense was all about finesse and playing for field goals. Bo Pelini, despite his bully routine, put zero fear into opposing coaches. His teams tackled poorly, were fundamentally unsound and cracked in the biggest games on the brightest stages.

That Bingo card is really starting to fill up.  Mark down “Lee takes a shot a Bo Pelini”, “Lee takes a shot at Steve Pedersen”, and “Lee takes a shot at Bill Callahan”.

Now, we’re one year in with Mike Riley, an extremely nice man who went 6-7 and got outcoached by Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, who is 3-30 against FBS foes.

Check off “Lee makes a back-handed compliment”.  Also, in doing this exercise, I’ve really noticed just how little Lee cares for the Riley hire.  Clearly, he thinks that Eichorst could have – and should have – done better, but I don’t recall who he suggested NU pursue.  Probably Nick Saban.

And we’re four years in with A.D. Shawn Eichorst, also a very nice man whose Student-Athlete Experience policy is noble.

No, you cannot mark off “Lee makes a back-handed compliment” twice.

But a lot of the benefits and goodies that go to athletes today look to me like he’s spoiling children to get them to like him. Good luck finding many success stories where the teenagers are empowered and the adults (coaches) are hamstrung.

Check off “Lee makes a ‘get offa my lawn!’ statement”.  Maybe the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab can implement a test to gauge an athlete’s ability to walk to school, uphill, through a driving blizzard.

I cannot recall if Lee is on the bandwagon for paying athletes since colleges and the NCAA make billions off of their efforts.  I hope not, because that paragraph where he mocks Eichorst for doing everything in his power to give a piece of Nebraska’s profits to the student-athletes would make him a championship-level hypocrite.

So where is the toughness?

Good question.  Maybe the NAPL can set up a test for this.  Or maybe analytics guru Tucker Zeleny can develop an advanced metric for toughness – along with measuring an athlete’s “heart” and ability to be “clutch”.

Big Ten Network analysts asked that at a recent Husker practice, calling the workout “Pac-12 style.” That’s Riley’s old league, known far more for finesse than power. The Big Ten is sausage-ball, made at the line of scrimmage.

Absolutely.  Nebraska has depth issues at a number of positions – specifically on both lines – but Riley should spend every practice doing full contact scrimmages and Oklahoma drills before embarking on the first nine game schedule in a “sausage-ball” league.  Brilliant!

Toughness isn’t an issue at Michigan. Ask tight end Jake Butt about playing for coach Jim Harbaugh.

“He forces us to be tough,” the senior All-America candidate said. “When you practice for four hours and you’re smashing into each other, you don’t have any choice but to be tough.”

And how does Michigan A.D. Warde Manuel support Harbaugh’s methods and madness?

“He has free rein,” Manuel said. “I want Jim Harbaugh to be Jim Harbaugh.”

Warde, good on you for putting out a quote that will be trotted out every time Harbaugh does something crazy.

Toughness isn’t an issue at Ohio State. All-America middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan said the Buckeyes’ fall camp is no place for the weak or timid. All involved are utterly accountable to coach Urban Meyer — every play, every day.

“The sense of urgency we have comes from the tradition we have at Ohio State,” McMillan said. “Failure isn’t an option. They put us through the ringer.”

Depth isn’t an issue at Ohio State either.  When you can put 14 guys in the NFL and still be a preseason Top 10 team, you clearly have a talent level that most teams do not enjoy.  Also, how exactly does Urb hold players “utterly accountable”?  If he’s doing something with accountability that NU is not, this would be a good time to pass that along.

Toughness isn’t an issue at Michigan State or Wisconsin, either. Those schools have taken the former Nebraska way of doing things and successfully made it their own.

Where does all this leave Nebraska?

Having to respond to a widely read column that provides no answers or ideas other than a vague concept impossible to measure?  Much like his bizarre crusade to improve Nebraska Basketball by retiring Tyronn Lue’s number, this column is little more than an excuse for Lee to lash out at NU’s administration.  Friends, that is a final box on our Bingo card!

After 40 years of quality football, 20 years of darkness, then 40 more years of championship-caliber play, the Huskers are about to complete another 20-year period of failing to strike fear in opponents. You see it on the field, and I hear it in the press boxes.

Whether NU will soon pivot toward another long period of success remains a mystery. What is clearer is the road this school has taken to get there. It starts at the intersection of toughness and accountability.

I still don’t know what point Lee is trying to make with “accountability”?  Is he trying to say that Eichorst should fire Riley if the team is not three wins better – er, tougher – than they were in 2015?  I doubt that is the case, since a) Lee regularly writes about how schools on the coaching change carousel rarely exit, and b) it would ignore how Eichorst held Pelini accountable by firing him.

Furthermore, how does Lee account for the discrepancy between his poster child of toughness – Osborne the coach – versus a man who hired many of the coaches responsible for the poor championship “scoreboard” Lee chastises Eichorst for – Osborne the Athletic Director?  Pelini, Tim Miles, and Darin Erstad were all hired under Osborne’s watch.

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