Code Red Wolves

18 Sep

To my followers, family, Facebook friends, and anybody else who ends up here:

Thanks for stopping by!  I appreciate you taking the time read this.  But I’d greatly appreciate it if you read this fine article on HuskerMax.com, as I earn a fraction of a penny per page view – and I’m hoping to earn enough this year to buy my wife a steak dinner – and I’m guessing she’d rather go to Misty’s over Steak ‘n Shake.

Sincerely,

FeitCanWrite

A week ago, many people (myself included) were fretting over the direction and state of the Nebraska program after the ugly UCLA loss.  The failures of the team – tackling, talent, adjusting to UCLA’s counter punches were seen as signs that five years of Bo Pelini as Nebraska’s head coach have not yielded many positive results.

Fast forward a week to a nondescript non-conference game against a non-name opponent.  As halftime neared, it looked like the big storylines would be how the offense regained their stride and some new faces were getting extended looks on defense.  Then, my buddy Nate got a text from his dad, watching the game at home:  “Bo sitting on sideline getting his pulse checked.”  Another text came in after halftime:  “Bo was just taken to the hospital in ambulance!  Flu like symptoms!”  Suddenly, the California catastrophe was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

As you have likely gathered, I was at the stadium on Saturday.  If it wasn’t for friends texting me the news, I probably would not have known Bo was gone until after the game.  Except for a couple of hiccups (see below) it was business as usual on the field and from what I could see of the sideline.  The brilliant minds in Section 33 correctly assumed John Papuchis was running the team since he was on the field and Tim Beck was in the press box – but not until the obligatory Barney Cotton joke had been made.

But if this had happened 10-20 years ago (i.e. before text messages, Twitter, and everything else a smart phone can do became commonplace) the majority of the sellout crowd would have no idea the coach was gone.  And that reminded me of a quote I read in Lee Barfknecht’s column in the Friday Omaha World-Herald:

“That’s when I knew we had a program in place,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t dependent on one person being there. Whether it was a coordinator or a head coach or a quarterback, we still were able to deliver in big-time situations.

“I empower our coaches. I recognized I don’t have to be ‘in there’ all the time.”

That quote is from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio referring to the games he missed in 2010 after he suffered a heart attack following the Notre Dame game.

Sure, Arkansas State probably doesn’t qualify as a “big-time situation”, but I think we learned a lot about the strength of the program (and the dedication the players and assistants have for Pelini) by their reaction.

Does that program strength make Nebraska a Legends Division favorite?  Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt.

So what did we learn?

Bo’s departure rattled the offense more than the defense.  Coming out of halftime, Nebraska had a comfortable 28-3 lead, and was getting the ball to start the 3rd Quarter.  Unbeknownst to the Memorial Stadium crowd (or least those without Twitter or friends to text message them) Bo Pelini was in an ambulance heading to the hospital.  I’d be willing to bet that of all the things this Nebraska team is prepared for (gadget plays, extreme heat, starters being injured, the marching band refusing to yield, etc.) they were not prepared to worry about their coach’s health in the middle of a game.

What surprised me is that the defense seemed to handle the loss of their leader better than the offense.  While the offense put up some decent numbers in the 3rd Quarter (80 yards rushing and 30 yards passing) as well as a staggering 11 minutes of possession, there were two sacks allowed and two fumbles – one of which was recovered for a touchdown.  Meanwhile, the defense played great.  They held Arkansas State to zero first downs, 15 yards, and a lone field goal (the direct result of one of the fumbles).  I never would have predicted that.

Ameer Abdullah is a complete player.  A recap of Abdullah’s day:  30 carries.  167 yards rushing.  Two touchdowns.  Two receptions for another 39 yards.  A 21 yard punt return.  And you need to see what an excellent job he does picking up a blitz.  To be fair, Arkansas State’s defense is not going to be confused with Arkansas’s defense (hmm…after the Alabama game that might not be the best analogy…) but Abdullah is playing at a very high level – especially for somebody who was supposed to be a back-up all season.

The defense did an excellent job of damage control.  The offense lost four fumbles in the second half on Saturday.  The first one was lost at the 1 yard line and batted into the end zone where an Arkansas State player fell on it for a touchdown.  After fumble #2, the defense forced a three-and-out.  Fumble #3 gave Arkansas State 1st and 10 from the NU 15.  Three plays later, ASU had not gained a yard and settled for a 32 yard field goal.  The final fumble occurred with 20 seconds left on the clock and only resulted in a seven yard gain.  Obviously four turnovers is way too many, but knowing that the defense can have the offense’s back should provide some confidence going into conference play.

So what don’t we know?

Where is Jamal Turner?  For all of the weapons on Nebraska’s offense, most pundits agree that Jamal Turner is one of the fastest, most elusive, and potent game-breakers on the team.  So let’s look at his stats from Saturday:  zero catches, rushes, and returns for a total of zero yards.  Taylor Martinez’s lone incomplete pass was thrown in the general direction of Turner, but otherwise he spent the day as a blocker/decoy.  I understand there are a lot of skilled players and only one ball to go around.  I really do.  But surely there are ways that Turner can be placed in a position to make plays.  I’d start with putting him at the primary punt returner, as it could give him the ability to run in space, and it would allow your #1 running back to avoid injury.  And I’d use the Idaho State week of practice to install a Wildcat package for the former QB recruit.

How well do the new defenders know the defense?  We saw a lot of new faces on defense:  Zaire Anderson, David Santos, Mohammed Seisay, Todd Peat, Jr., and more saw snaps on Saturday.  Anderson, in particular, stood out to me – he showed good instincts, excellent speed, and tackled well.  But there were several plays where he didn’t appear like he knew where to line up:  Bo Pelini called a timeout on the second play of the game because he was out of position, and other players were often pushing and pointing him to the correct position.  I give Pelini and John Papuchis credit for playing speedy newcomers over guys that know the defense but haven’t proven they can make plays.  Yet, I wonder if a blown assignment will lead to big plays down the road.

Can Ron Kellogg throw?  I’m glad that Kellogg got to lead the offense on their final possession, but can we let the guy throw a pass in a game?  I understand that the game was well in hand, and the Imani Cross Wrecking Ball Show was succeeding in running out the clock and gaining big chunks of yardage.  But….where would you rather see Kellogg attempt his first pass in a game:  with a 29 lead against Arkansas State or on a critical 3rd down in a tie game at Ohio State?  Me too.  I’m sure Kellogg can throw just fine, but let the kid get comfortable (and confident) by completing a couple of passes when the pressure is low.

Where are my Keys?

At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season:  1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties.  Throughout the year, I’ll be tracking Nebraska’s progress:

Penalties Penalty Yds. 3rd Down Conv.   (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
So. Miss 2 30 80.0% 50.0% 1
UCLA 7 60 9.1% 45.0% -1
Arkansas St. 4 34 76.9% 37.5% -2
2012 Per Game 4.3 41.3 59.0% 44.0% -2
2011 Per Game 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1

You’ll win a lot of games with numbers like this, but the only way you’ll win by 29 is if your defense really steps up after turnovers.  Check.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer Abdullah.  Any of the five in this list could have easily been in the top spot, but I’m going with Abdullah.  I raved about him already, but he earned the top spot here – even with the “fumble” on the punt return (from Section 33, it looked like it hit him, but I assume he has been coached to get on the ball if it touches him.  Since he made no effort to cover the ball, I assume it didn’t hit him).  One thought:  how do you feel about Nebraska’s chances to win the Legends Division if Abdullah can do half of what he did on Saturday (83 yards rushing, 19 yards receiving, and one TD)?  Yeah, I’ll take it too.
  2. Taylor Martinez.  Assuming they have gotten over the second half of the UCLA game, Martinez’s critics will likely point to his two lost fumbles and a throw over the middle (off his back foot!!!) that missed a wide-open Jamal Turner and should have been intercepted.  Hopefully those critics will recognize the pass blocking failures that led to those two fumbles, acknowledge the incompletion was the only one of the day (70.9% completion percentage for the year, FYI), and see the good decisions he made with the ball.
  3. Kenny Bell.  A very complete game for Mr. Bell.  A great catch for one TD, a wonderful run for his second TD, two nice kickoff returns, and a strong day blocking.  Bonus points for his non-TD catch where he went out of bounds with a full head of steam, hurdled the fence, and did the impossible:  he got the West stadium fans to stand up and cheer.  The best part:  he’s only a sophomore.
  4. P.J. Smith.  The defensive star of the game recorded a sack and had a team-high nine tackles, but it was his interception that made the biggest impact.  Arkansas State was driving down the field, getting chunks of yards, and raising the blood pressure of 85,000 Husker fans.  But Smith read the ASU trick play on a key 3rd and 5, stepped in front of the receiver, and made a play.  The interception took some of the wind out of ASU’s sails, and helped the defense settle in.
  5. Offensive Line.  Any time Nebraska puts up 300+ yards rushing, there will be a spot on this list for the O Line.  The line play was strong, especially on the left side where Abdullah frequently found daylight behind Seung Hoon Choi and Brent Qvale.  I didn’t get a very good look at the second sack, but the first one was due to a tight end not making a strong block.  Finally, it should be noted that center Justin Jackson did an excellent job getting his snaps up.

Honorable Mention:  Quincy Enunwa, Eric Martin, C.J. Zimmerer, Daimion Stafford, Brett Maher

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Defensive Line.  I know all of the external factors – a switch to more 3-man, and all Defensive End fronts, the mid-week loss of Chase Rome, injuries to some of the other players, and an Arkansas State spread that primarily ran away from middle of the field – but I continue to be underwhelmed by the performance of the defensive line.
  2. Defensive Timeouts.  There is a part of me that understands and appreciates that a defensive timeout to get players aligned properly, adjust a coverage, or discuss the defense can be very beneficial – especially if it helps to prevent a big play.  And yet there is a part of me that knows there will come a time where it would sure be nice to have all three timeouts in the final minutes instead of having burned one 32 seconds into the half.
  3. Late Arriving Fans.  It was one of those perfect storms – an 11 am kickoff against a no-name school following a painful loss – and it showed.  Outside the stadium it was a buyer’s market, and with a few minutes left before kickoff there were noticeable pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium.  Now, before anybody starts knocking the students for the large gap at the top of their section, consider this:  if the rest of the stadium seating was “first come, first served” the tops of all of the sections would have been empty too.  A tip for season ticket holders who plan to skip the Idaho State game:  Don’t let those tickets go to waste.  Sell ’em for less than face (preferably to Husker fans who otherwise don’t make inside the Stadium) or donate them to the charity of your choice.
  4. Goal Post Nets and Advertising.  I’m unabashedly old-school, and I have always loved how Nebraska was unapologetically old-school too.  Case in point:  for as long as I can remember, Nebraska never bothered to raise a net behind the goal posts on field goals, extra points, and even warm-ups.  Fans in those sections knew to keep their head up for kicked balls.  And if you caught the ball, you were to throw it back down to a ball boy or ref.  In the last few years, Nebraska has been raising a net prior to kicks.  I never saw why – if it was a liability thing if a fan took a ball to the head, or if somebody had taken off with a game ball.  While I was disappointed in this, I took comfort that Nebraska was one of the few “big time” schools who avoided selling advertising on the net – such as the Allstate hands “catching” a kick.  On Saturday, there was a CenturyLink logo in the net of the North goal post.  Boo.
  5. ESPN 2 Announcers.  In fairness, I did not watch the game on TV, nor have I caught a replay yet, but from everything – and everybody – I’ve heard the crew of Beth Mowins, Joey Galloway, and Lewis Johnson was dreadful.  This isn’t a knock on female play-by-play announcers, but rather on ESPN for sending the bottom of the barrel.  How do I know they were bad?  The two people I know who care the least about football commentating – my wife and my mom – both went out of their way to tell me how painful it was to listen to the game.
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