Badgers, Beat-downs, and Bo-gatory

19 Nov

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Thank you,

Feit Can Write

Well, that sucked.

Again.

In retrospect, it is probably very telling that when the score got to 17-3, one of the thoughts to go through my head was “I wish we could just call it right here.”  I’m guessing there may have been some folks on the sideline in all white who felt the same way.

We’ll get into the game itself down below and try to make heads or tails of what went wrong and why things stopped going right.  But let’s start by looking at the big picture.

There is no doubt that this is a “big picture” loss.  The kind of defeat that makes everybody – coach, player, fan, administrator, commentator – step back and look at what is going on.  The kind of defeat that makes people ask uncomfortable questions.  So with that in mind, here is my question:

During the game, I saw Derek Hernandez of NoCoastBias.com tweet that the Nebraska program under Pelini is in purgatory – or “Bogatory” as Hernandez called it.  Pelini’s teams are too good enough to get him fired, yet bad enough that they may never win – or even compete for – conference and national championships.  I’m not necessarily sure I agree that NU is some sort of nine win waiting room, but we can all recite the pattern:

Win the games you “should” win, even if the outcome is ugly or closer than the experts think.  Get a loss – or a big time scare – from a team that is nowhere close to NU in talent.  Tease fans with hope, progress, and potential.  Lose four games, including one or two embarrassing performances on a national stage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

I say these things not to attack Bo, his staff, or the players.  I respect the things he has done at Nebraska.  As much as some may want to deride him for it, he has brought in guys who represent Nebraska very well.  They get good grades, avoid the police blotter, and are good role models.  I see a coach who is growing more comfortable in his own skin, and is evolving as a leader, and starting to let his guard down with fans and media.  I see a coach who has a strong set of morals and values, and is using his platform to advocate for positive changes.

But thanks to ABC/ESPN’s dedicated “Bo Pelini Reaction Cam”, I also see a coach who wears his heart on his sleeve.  A coach who sometimes struggles to find the off switch when his buttons have been pushed by officials, poor execution, or mental mistakes.  When Bo was dressing down Daniel Davie on Saturday, my wife said “I wouldn’t want my son to play for him.”  That matters.

The national narrative of “once proud Nebraska” looking lost or getting blown out in big games matters.  More appropriately, the national narrative has shifted from the program and its proud tradition to the latest viral video coming out of north stadium.  I love the excellent job the Husker athletic department does in promoting their coach, but I wonder how many fans would rather their coach be known for 10 win seasons and close losses in big games instead of cats?

So how do we escape Bogatory?  I see three possible outcomes:

  1. Shawn Eichorst decides that the program has gone as far as it can under Pelini, and opts to make a change.  Honestly, I don’t see that happening if NU gets to 9-3 or 10-2 heading into the bowl game.
  2. Nebraska loses more than one of their final three games – or has another embarrassing loss – and Eichorst has a little more latitude to dismiss Pelini or request other changes on his staff.  This is very much in play.
  3. Bo get another vote of confidence from Eichorst, returns for 2015 (possibly with new staff members) and finally win the conference.  If you look at some of the pieces that will be in place for 2015, this is also a definite possibility.  Or I could write this same piece 12 months from now…

I still feel that in today’s college football, consistently winning nine or ten games is a level of sustained excellence that should not be taken for granted.  But the nature of NU’s losses is really starting to outweigh the goodwill created by the wins.

I like Pelini as a person, and want him to succeed as a coach.  But at the end of the day, it will take more than a strong APR, funny viral videos, clean arrest records, Jack Hoffman touchdowns, and cats held aloft for him to keep my support.

So what did we learn?

When the snowball starts rolling, Nebraska cannot stop it.  We can debate exactly when the momentum shifted and Wisconsin started to roll, but frankly it’s irrelevant to the bigger point.  Once Wisconsin snatched control of the game from the Huskers, there was very little anybody on the NU sideline could do about it.

The defense gave up big plays and touchdowns.  The offense went three and out.  The defense gives up another score.  The offense turns it over.  The defense manages to get a turnover.  The offense gives it right back.

We can debate on if it is the job of the coach, the team leaders, or individual players to stop a small snowball from become a crushing avalanche.  But it is crystal clear that nobody on the Nebraska bench knows what to do when the snowball gets going.

The Huskers did not want to fight for Freedom, and they may never be free.  About the only good thing to come out of the latest B1G trophy – an unappetizing blend of self-important conceit and generic statuary – is the opportunity to mock both the ridiculously pompous Freedom Trophy while also taking a back-handed swipe at the poor effort displayed by many Husker defenders.

Also, considering the way Wisconsin has owned Nebraska in the Big Ten (the Badgers are 3-1, with an average score of 51 – 26 in the four games), Nebraska is as likely to hoist a National Championship trophy as they are the Freedom Trophy.

If you are a Bo-liever, you probably should avoid most Husker media this week.  It doesn’t matter where you go – Twitter, message boards, sports talk radio, newspaper, the corner cafe – there is an open season on Pelini and his staff right now.  Much of it is justified, some of it is not.  But for the ardent supporters of Bo, you should know that you are not going to convince anybody to join your camp this week.  As it is, you’ll likely endure a lot of grief for your opinion.

So what don’t we know?

Is Melvin Gordon that good?  The short answer is no.  Don’t get me wrong, as I pointed out in my two pieces on Ameer Abdullah’s now unlikely Heisman campaign, Melvin Gordon is a damn good back, and is easily one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the nation.  But is he 408 yards good?

Without getting into Nebraska’s defensive scheme, their adjustments (or lack thereof), or their level of effort as the score increased, Melvin Gordon is not the all time legend that he appeared to be.  Gordon is a very speedy back with a gift for eluding and breaking tackles.  He does his damage when the first guy cannot make a tackle.  When the second and third guy can’t stop him either, he’s going to look legendary.

Certainly, Husker fans should tip their cap to very talented player who has owned the artists formerly known as Blackshirts.  But I’ll still take a healthy Ameer Abdullah over Melvin Gordon on any given Saturday.

What was NU’s plan on offense?  Initially, the plan appeared to be a run-heavy mix of a seemingly healthy Abdullah and Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  But eventually that went away as Wisconsin started pinning their ears back and trying to disrupt NU’s backfield (it worked).  There was a series where it appeared as if Nebraska’s offensive strategy was to chuck it deep for Kenny Bell, pray for a flag on the defense, and repeat until NU was in field goal range.

Other than that?  I can’t really say what NU was trying to do on offense.  Maybe it was tough to get a feel since NU spent so many drives digging out of first down penalties, but they sure seemed to be lacking an identity.

Where were the backups on the offensive line?  The official participation chart says that Ryne Reeves, Chongo Kondolo, and Givens Price played, but I don’t remember a drive with all three in the game – especially when the outcome of the game was still in question.

I’m not saying that three reserve linemen are the difference between 24 points and 42 points, but considering the spark provided by those guys, it might have helped.

Four Downs and Four Losses

In my opinion, there are four key areas where Nebraska has fallen down in the last few years.  Their inability to be successful (or, at times, competent) in these areas often factor prominently in the four losses that Pelini teams have every year.  I believe that to avoid another four loss season, Nebraska needs to win at least two of these four downs every game.

  • Turnover Margin:  Good news:  In the first 22 minutes of the game, the Huskers were +3 in turnovers and were ahead 17-10.  Bad news:  Over the remaining 38 minutes, the Huskers were -4 in turnovers and were outscored 49-7.  Good news:  The Huskers forced a season high four turnovers, and scored 17 points off of those turnovers.  Bad news:  The Huskers were -1 on the day, and allowed 28 points off their five turnovers.  LOSS.
  • Penalties:  The stats will tell you that NU only had one more penalty for the same amount of yards.  But those stats won’t show you that four of NU’s seven penalties came on the first play of an offensive drive.  Those drives resulted in one touchdown, one interception, and two punts.  LOSS.
  • Punt Returns:  Wisconsin’s punting game was so awful (a 26.3 yard average) that De’Mornay Pierson-El was only able to return one kick (for 14 yards).  Maybe that was due to the threat of Pierson-El, so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here – although is should be noted that Wisconsin only had to punt three times.  WIN.
  • Game Management:  During the first half, I could not figure out why the offense was routinely snapping the ball with less than five seconds on the play clock.  NU never burns clock like that in the first half.  As things really started to snowball in the second half, I started to understand.  That is the nicest thing I have to say about how this game was “managed” after the first quarter – and it doesn’t account for 56 unanswered points, 408 rushing yards, an inept offense, and a defense that looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.  LOSS.

Final tally:  Three rather emphatic losses means one very ugly loss.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Sam Foltz.  With no exaggeration, Foltz was NU’s MVP.  His eight punts averaged 46.9 yards, and his 70 yard bomb to the 1 yard line was instrumental in setting up Nebraska’s final touchdown.  Plus, he showed some nice wheels on his fake.  That said – and I say this with zero disrespect to Foltz – it is almost always a red flag when the punter is in the top spot.
  2. Kenny Bell.  Bell has long been a favorite, so I was very happy to see him earn the school record for receiving yards.  He deserved something good to happen against the Badgers after his epic (and absolutely clean) block in the 2012 Championship Game was flagged.
  3. Zaire Anderson.  Zaire got off to a great start, forcing one fumble and recovering two as the (then) Blackshirts showed they could match up with the Badgers.
  4. Joey Felici.  I’ve been wanting to recognize the special teams efforts of the senior from Millard South, as he is almost always one of the first guys on the scene during a kickoff.  With a strong solo tackle on Saturday, this seemed like a good time to do it.  Joey has not had quite the same career that his dad Tony did (an all-conference pick and, in my opinion, the best to ever wear #46), but every true Husker fan can root for a second generation, walk-on, special teams stand out.  Give #31 some love on Senior Day.
  5. Mauro Bondi.  Bondi’s return from a broken clavicle was a welcome surprise.

Honorable Mention:  n/a

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Defense.  408 yards to a single player?  Unacceptable.  The second and third quarters were littered with sloppy tackling, poor execution, embarrassing efforts, and bad play.  Feel free to place some blame on the scheme, lack of adjustments, and a game plan that was anything other than “make Wisconsin’s crappy quarterbacks beat you with the pass” – I won’t argue that.  Top to bottom, that was one of the worst defensive efforts I’ve seen.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  As best I can tell, Wisconsin figured out that the Purdue Boilermakers are Tommy’s personal Kryptonite.  So following Wisconsin’s win against Purdue, they opted not to clean any of their equipment so Armstrong would be confronted by the stench of the Boilermaker every time he went on the field.  Either that, or NU’s quarterback is in a serious sophomore slump.  Fumbles, poor throwing mechanics, holding the ball too long, Armstrong had a very long day.
  3. Ameer Abdullah.  Initially, he looked like the Ameer of old, but as the game wore on it became obvious that he was operating at about 60-70%.  Granted, his 70% is still really good, but between his fumbles and struggles in pass protection, Abdullah had one of his worst games as a Husker.
  4. Terrell Newby.  Hopefully Newby knows that with Abdullah set to graduate, he has an amazing opportunity to become the feature back in 2015.  But Newby has struggled in big games, with critical fumbles last year against Michigan State and Saturday against Wisconsin.  That is not what you do if you want more opportunities in big games.
  5. Empty Seats.  There were a lot of empty sections in Camp Randall Stadium.  With two top 25 teams squaring off for control of the division, how was this game not sold out?  Did the weather scare off some fans, or did the hundreds of Husker horror stories from the 2011 trip to Madison keep NU fans away?

 

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