Consistently Inconsistent

23 Oct

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

Over the years, there have been a number of Husker losses that – for a number of reasons – felt somewhat like wins (1984 Orange Bowl, 1994 Orange Bowl, 2009 Big XII Championship, to name a few).

But I can’t think of too many Husker wins that felt like a loss.

Maybe that is due to my glass-half-full personality.  I like to think that I’m a pretty positive guy.  Or maybe it is because I have the dubious distinction of watching the goal posts come down in every Big XII North stadium, I don ‘t take too many conference road games for granted.  A win will always be a win for me.

So while Nebraska’s one point win over Northwestern is not one that I will rush to relive, you’ll excuse me if I refrain from pressing the program’s Panic button like a hyper four year old.  No, all is not well in Huskerland, but Saturday didn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before this season.

Three turnovers, costly penalties, and an offense that struggled to convert third downs?  Yep.  Seen it.

An impressive defensive performance, a career day from Taylor Martinez, a 100 yard day from Rex Burkhead’s backup, and a come from behind conference win?  Yep.  Seen that too.

For many fans, I think the biggest frustration is the lack of consistency – not knowing what to expect from week to week.  One week the defense holds Wisconsin to 56 rushing yards (they’ve put almost 1,000 in their last three games, btw).  But the next week the defense allows 371 rushing yards to Ohio State (Purdue held OSU to 152 btw).  One week Martinez looks like one of the best QBs in school history.  The next week he looks like one of the worst.  The only consistency is inconsistency, which is maddening for anyone who remembers the Osborne teams.

Ah Osborne, that pillar of consistency.  Milt Tenopir’s O line of big farm kids would pave the way for Turner Gill’s quarterbacks to run the option to perfection, pitching it to one of Frank Solich’s I-Backs, while Ron Brown’s split ends and wingbacks blocked everything in sight.  Dan Young’s kickers were automatic.  Charlie McBride’s defenses were mean and nasty (even if George Darlington’s DBs never turned to look for the dadgum ball).  For 25 years, this was the model.  And it worked pretty darn good:  9 wins each and every year, contending for the conference title, and a good-to-great bowl game.

But ever since November 23, 2001, the only known is the unknown.  When will Nebraska stumble against an average opponent?  Who will blow out Nebraska next?  How will our hearts be broken this year?  You don’t know.  I don’t know.  And the people who get paid 6 or 7 figures to know, don’t know either.

A win that feels like a loss is a good metaphor for this team and this season.  Where Nebraska has talent, they lack discipline.  Where they have discipline, they lack talent.  This team gets their best defensive and quarterback performances of the year, and trails by 12 midway through the 4th quarter.  Nebraska has their easiest road to a conference title in a decade.  Their biggest hurdle is themselves, and nobody knows if they are capable of clearing it.  At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if they win out, and I’m not sure it would shock me to see them lose three more games.

But at the end of the day, winning sure beats losing – no matter how it gets done, how little Nebraska deserves to win, or whatever flukes were involved in the victory.  And 5-2 beats the heck out of 4-3

(As a side note:  I firmly believe that the Nebraska – Northwestern game should a “trophy game”.  But instead of playing for a pig, bucket, axe, or gawd-awful trophy sponsored by Hy-Vee, both teams play for the right to be called “NU” for the next year.  Since Nebraska won, any use of “NU” below refers to the scarlet and the cream).

So what did we learn?

There is still some fight left in this Nebraska team.  Nebraska had several opportunities to fold, to quit, to give up – and I definitely got the impression that many fans and media members expected it to happen.  But this team decided to get out of their own way long enough to pull out a W.  Your guess is as good as mine on if it sparks a dramatic second half surge or if it is a brief positive blip in a season of missed opportunities.  But much like last year’s Ohio State comeback, it is good for this team to experience a come from behind win, as it provides confidence for the next time.

The defensive line came to play.  The defensive line has faced heavy criticism for most of the year:  not athletic enough, little pass rush, allowing big rushing numbers, minimal disruption and impact, etc.  But you would not know if from their play on Saturday.  The line accounted for almost 1/3 of the total tackles (21 of 65), and did a very good job in shutting down Northwestern’s running game.  Their play is particularly impressive when you consider the lack of depth –  I only see six defensive linemen/ends listed on the participation chart (Steinkuhler, Randle, Ankrah, Meredith, Martin, and Carter).

Nebraska must win next week to have a shot at the Legends division title.  If Nebraska loses to Michigan, NU would need three Wolverine losses to have a shot at a rematch with Wisconsin in Indianapolis.  While Ohio State might beat Michigan, I just don’t see Dennard Robinson and company losing two games against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Iowa.  Next week is a big game.  Husker fans need to come ready to make an impact for four quarters.

So what don’t we know?

Why did Nebraska punt to end the first half?  I get that a 63 yard field goal to end the half is a bad idea.  Assuming Maher has the leg (probably not), there is a decent chance of the kick being blocked and taken back for a score.  However, I don’t understand why NU didn’t run a play on fourth and four from the Nebraska 46 and 10 seconds left on the clock.  Run a sideline route to Bell or Enunwa to pick up the first down and get Maher into a 50-55 yard FG attempt.  Call a deep post to Reed or a screen to Turner.  Or the obvious choice:  a Hail Mary.  Surely the line could give Martinez enough time to chuck it 60 yards down field.  I know the Hail Mary doesn’t work that often, but with a bevy of capable receivers it is much more likely to score than a punt.

Will the Blackshirts make an appearance this week?  Let’s review the circumstances of this game:  the defense had given up 63 points and almost 500 yards in their last outing, was facing a mobile QB, and the offense/special teams committed three fumbles in the first half.  But aside from a big run, the defense stepped up to keep Nebraska in the game until the offense could get on track.  Personally, I’d like to see the Blackshirts get handed out this week.  Regardless of the inconsistent nature of the defense, ten Three & Out’s should warrant some new practice gear for the first team defense.  Besides, I’m a little concerned that the vaunted jerseys may not make an appearance at all this year, which would be flat out wrong.  Reward the D, and give them some extra motivation for the Michigan game.

How ugly would it have gotten had Nebraska lost?  After the game, I scrolled through Twitter and Facebook and was shocked by the negativity, defeatism, and proclamations of doom and gloom – with much of it coming from the media members (print and radio) who drive a lot of the conversation about the program.  I can’t imagine what it would be like if Nebraska would have blown this game.  Even with the win, it is still going to be busy week for the message boards and radio shows, and the local writers are going to take a lot of shots at Nebraska’s performance.

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
Idaho St. 9 104 45.5% 13.3% 0
Wisconsin 6 70 38.5% 26.7% -1
Ohio St. 9 75 35.7% 45.5% -3
Northwestern 8 62 21.4% 25.0% -3
2012 Per Game 6.4 62.1 45.1% 34.2% -9
2011 Per Game 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1

Once again, Northwestern is the statistical outlier for the Three Keys, as there is no way a team should win with those numbers – especially on the road.  Of course, last year, Nebraska had 6 penalties for 41 yards, converted a season-high 58.8% of 3rd downs, allowed 58.3% of 3rd downs, was +1 in turnover margin, and lost by three at home.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Taylor Martinez.  A pretty decent bounce-back from an ugly game at Ohio State (and getting crushed by the media for not spouting the clichéd answers they expect).  The passing numbers were very impressive (although he got away with a couple of potential interceptions), but two things really stood out to me:  a) the way he stepped up in the running game after Burkhead went down – becoming the best dual-threat QB on the field, and b) his leadership in overcoming penalties and mistakes.
  2. Defense.  Martinez had a pretty darn good game, but if not for how the defense put the clamps on Northwestern’s offense, this could easily have been another lopsided loss – especially with three early turnovers and Northwestern having great field position.  Say what you will about Northwestern’s offensive game plan (I’m guessing Coach Fitzgerald would do things differently if he could), but aside from a breakdown on Vendric Mark’s long TD run, the defense played a very solid game.
  3. Quincy Enunwa.  Big Q made six big catches, for 110 big yards.  Okay, two of those catches may not have been so “big”, but it’s worth nothing that all three of Quincy’s 30 yard receptions led to points.  Plus, he had his usual outstanding day blocking.
  4. Husker Fans.  Another impressive showing by the Big Red army.  You knew that Nebraska fans would turn show up in waves for the first Chicago road trip, and they did not disappoint.  But nobody expected the impact they would have.  In the fourth quarter, Husker fans were so loud that the Wildcats QB had to operate using a silent snap count.  That is unbelievable.  Take a well-deserved round of applause.
  5. Ameer Abdullah.  Rex Burkhead goes down early with a knee injury?  Once again, Abdullah steps up and contributes 117 all purpose yards.  However, the fumbled punt return cannot happen again.

Honorable Mention:  Kenny Bell, Ben Cotton, P.J. Smith, Taariq Allen, Braylon Heard

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Ball Security.  The Husker fans were right to give a Bronx cheer to Abdullah after he successfully fair caught a second quarter punt.  Nebraska was a muffed away form re-issuing a scholarship to Santino Panico at halftime.  Nebraska’s ball security (or lack thereof) will likely be the difference between a Legends division championship and a four loss season.
  2. Dropped Interceptions.  How many potential interceptions did Nebraska drop?  Three?  Four?  This team is not good enough to pass up that many opportunities.  It goes back to one of the biggest weaknesses of this defense:  who will step up and make a play?  I think the secondary should spend some time running drills with Coach Fischer.
  3. Stupid Penalties.  I can live with some penalties, especially when they happen due to aggressive, hard-nosed play.  But a cheap-shot hit 30 yards away from where a teammate is recovering a fumble?  Ineligible man downfield?  Lining up in the backfield?  Twice?  You just can’t have it.  And by the way – only Nebraska could be penalized five yard for a sideline “warning”.
  4. Kyler Reed.  A rough day for Kyler.  He did have two nice catches, but fumbled after the first one.  Also, he was confused on a big fourth down, essentially blocking his own tackle, which led to Martinez getting stuffed for a big loss.  I’m confident in his ability to bounce back.
  5. ABC/ESPN.  As most of you know, fans watching the game on TV missed the first five minutes while Purdue fell apart at Ohio State, losing in overtime.  After the game ended, ESPN still needed to have a lengthy interview with Urban Meyer, a half-dozen replays, a check-in with John Saunders, and some commercials before getting us to Evanston.  I could understand if there was just one channel, but ESPN/ABC have what, a dozen different channels that they could have moved the NU game to?  At the minimum couldn’t they shift the feed for the Nebraska markets?  And one other thing – somebody needs to tell the spotter for the “Worldwide Leader” that Nebraska’s three year starting QB isn’t on the punt team, and probably didn’t commit the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, before you show him on TV.
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3 Responses to “Consistently Inconsistent”

  1. Derek Johnson October 24, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Dave, I’d qualify your feeling of a win feeling like a loss. I would say that, when you watch Nebraska play Northwestern, it’s pretty obvious that Fitzgerald is an exceptional coach with less than average players, going against a team with better player but an inadequate coach. I say this with no disrespect-I believe Fitzgerald is one of the top 5-10 coaches in CFB. Over the course of the game, you do wonder if Nebraska would be better off loosing. because there’s nothing worse than being stuck with a mediocre coach for ten years who’s just good enough not to get fired. (ALA, Maryland under Ralph Friedgen.) This doesn’t mean Pelini’s a bad coach, but he has the potential to get worked by some of the smarter coaches in the Big 10.

    • Feit Can Write October 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      I agree with you on Fitzgerald – I think he’s a great coach, possibly the best in the conference.

      It definitely doesn’t hurt that he was smart players, as they are less likely to make a lot of mental errors.

      It goes back to the age-old question: Would you rather have a great coach with average players or an average coach with great players? To be honest, I’m not sure where I fall, as you can cite examples on both sides.

      • Derek Johnson October 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

        I’d always take a coach who can recruit over coach first, because often the bad recruiters end up leaving the program worse than they found it.

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