Hurri-Can’t Believe They Broke My Heart Again

22 Sep

Thanks for stopping by!  While I am very grateful for those who take the time to read my work, I would greatly it if you read this one on HuskerMax.com.  

Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

Thank you,

Feit Can Write

In 1984, Nebraska plays for the win and loses in heartbreaking fashion.  Twenty-one years later, Nebraska plays for the tie, goes to overtime, and then loses in heartbreaking fashion.  Some things just never change.

If you’re like me, you went through a full spectrum of emotions during the four-plus hours of the game.  Excitement.  Shock.  Frustration.  Denial.  Anger.  Bargaining.  Depression.  Acceptance.  Gallows humor.  Excitement.  Shock again.  Confidence.  Jubilation.  Nervousness.  Anguish.  Devastation.  And that was just the first quarter.

This loss stuck with me much longer – and much harder – than the BYU defeat.  On the surface, that seems counter-intuitive.  For three-fourths of the game, Nebraska played BYU well enough to win.  They led for a large portion of that game, all the way up to the final second when a 1-in-100 play beat them.  They “deserved” to win that game.

Miami, on the other hand, rarely felt competitive.  For over 56 minutes, Miami led by anywhere from seven to 24 points – and it often felt like much more.  And that is the difference.  From the 8:04 mark of the first quarter, when Miami went up 14-0, through the 11:14 mark of the fourth, when they increased their lead to 33-10, Miami had complete control of the game.  The odds of a NU rally were about as likely as a snowstorm (or a sellout crowd) hitting Sun Life Stadium.  You had given up.  I had conceded defeat.  The only drama was how bad the final margin would be.

But the damnedest thing happened:  Miami either couldn’t or wouldn’t put Nebraska away, and the Huskers started clawing their way back.  With each score, each stop, each swing of momentum, you started to believe just a little more.  Somehow, someway, Nebraska took a blowout loss and turned it into a tie ball game with 33 seconds left.  Miami, down two starters in their secondary, thought it would be best to kneel on it and go to overtime.

Could they actually do this?

I went into the overtime very confident.  Nebraska was rolling, Miami was reeling, and the Huskers have been very good (and/or very lucky) in overtime games.

Then that first play happened.

The gut punch of the interception, followed by the needless cheap shot penalty, took my breath away and collapsed my hopes in an avalanche of four letter words.  Even though Al Golden did his best to try to screw it up (wow – for a while I was convinced that he felt he needed a touchdown), a Miami victory was a foregone conclusion.

And that is why this loss hurt so badly.  I can live with BYU winning on a Hail Mary.  You can nitpick pass rush and coverage, but ultimately you have to tip your cap to a team that made an amazing play.  But with Miami, there was an unmistakable feeling that the Huskers gave away a victory they had fought to earn.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska has some James Bond in them.  You know how in every James Bond movie, the bad guy has Bond captured and facing certain death, but leaves before the deed is done?  Bond pulls off some improbable escape from his captors and comes back for a dramatic final fight scene?  For the most part, this is Nebraska Football in the last 12 months.

Teams get a “comfortable” lead on Nebraska and take their foot off the gas.  Nebraska hangs around, albeit sometimes in comedic fashion, before a furious fourth quarter rally to put a serious scare into their opponents who thought they had the game won at halftime.  The only flaw in the analogy is Nebraska hasn’t finished their comebacks and ends up getting snuffed out by a bad guy right before the credits roll.

It doesn’t matter who is leading these kids – Bo Pelini at Michigan State last year, Barney Cotton against USC in the Holiday Bowl, or Mike Riley down in Miami – they have shown time and again that they will scratch, claw, and fight until you finish them off.

I get that this falls in the “moral victory” column for most Husker fans, who would rather see the Big Red actually win these games – or at the least, not get embarrassed for three quarters.  While I agree with that, possessing the John McClane “Die Hard” gene is rather important until the talent, coaching, and/or execution can help the good guys come out on top.

Nebraska’s day can be summed up in Tommy’s interceptions.  Tommy Armstrong threw three interceptions on Saturday.  Each one provided a microcosm of how the game went.

Interception 1:  31 seconds left in second quarter, Nebraska down 20-3.  Nebraska is driving for a desperately needed score before halftime.  Second and 10 from the Miami 14.  A miscommunication between Armstrong and Stanley Morgan, Jr. causes the pass to sail out of bounds.  The Hurricane defender makes an amazing play on the ball and while twisting in air manages to tiptoe a single foot in bounds.
The message:  Nebraska’s best efforts would be turned away through a combination of NU screw ups and Miami making plays.

Interception 2:  13 seconds left in the third quarter, NU down 30-10.  The Blackshirts force a rare three and out, and take over deep in their own territory.  On the second play of the series, the ball is knocked up in the air and falls right into the hands of a Miami defender who is sitting on the turf.
The message:  If you didn’t know that this was not going to be Nebraska’s day, this should have been your sign.

Interception 3:  First play of overtime, tied at 33.  Armstrong is flushed out of the pocket and forced to improvise.  He sees a receiver running alone in the corner of the end zone, but cannot get the ball over the defender, who picks it off and tries to run it back.  After he’s stopped, a NU player commits a costly unsportsmanlike penalty.

Riley and Langsdorf will need Armstrong’s legs to win the West.  Despite Nebraska’s 1-2 start, I believe this team can still win the Big Ten West.  As we talked about last week, Nebraska’s defensive philosophy is not great for the pass happy teams on its non-conference schedule, but should be ideal for the games that decide if NU can break their conference title drought.

Offensively, the inconsistent play of the line and backs is still a concern.  NU never established themselves on the ground, and many of Armstrong’s passes were on roll outs designed to get him some extra time.  Plus, Armstrong’s running ability helped convert several first downs and helped buy time for his receivers to get open.

I don’t like the idea of Armstrong carrying the ball 15+ times a game, but he should be encouraged to tuck it and run a little faster or more frequently than he has been so far.  And he should definitely be encouraged to slide or run out of bounds to limit his contact.

So what don’t we know?

Could NU have forced a second overtime without the Alex Lewis personal foul?  It is very easy to blame Alex Lewis for this loss.  His unsportsmanlike penalty on the oddly-named Corn Elder set Miami up with a first down on the 12 yard line.  From that spot, Al Golden could have sent his kicker out for a rather easy 29 yard field goal and won right away.  That Golden chose to run three plays before kicking a 28 yard field goal shows why he’ll be fired this year – but that is something for a Miami writer to dissect.  The question here is, if Lewis keeps his frustrations in check, would Nebraska have forced a second overtime?

Probably not.  Heading into overtime, Miami had seven chances in the red zone.  They scored six times.  The lone stop was a Joshua Kalu interception on a very nifty play.  Yes, the Blackshirts played some of their best defense in the red zone, holding Miami to four field goal attempts.  But kicker Michael Badgley looked automatic on his first four kicks.  My guess is even if Nebraska stuffed Miami on three straight downs from the 25, he still would have drilled a 42 yard game winner.

The penalty was a killer – and a mistake unbecoming of a senior captain – but it didn’t cost Nebraska the game.

Why did this team win convincingly last year, but almost lose convincingly this year?  Flash back a year to Miami’s visit to the Midwest.  Nebraska won by 10, but the margin was wider than the score indicated as Miami got a touchdown in the final 30 seconds.  A year later in Miami, Nebraska was almost on the receiving end of an emphatic defeat.  So what happened?

Without playing one of my remaining Bo Pelini Comparison Cards, we’ll note that offensive styles, defensive schemes, and other intangibles may have played a different – but I have a hard time believing that it’s worth more than seven points in favor of Pelini.  Talent certainly plays a key role, as three stars of the 2014 game (Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory, and Josh Mitchell) are gone.  Of course, it’s worth noting that Miami had seven players drafted this year, so they lost some talent too.  Location may factor in as Memorial Stadium was ringing all night long while Sun Life Stadium was a sauna.

But I think the biggest difference between 2014 and 2015 was the way the teams started out.  Miami had a strong game plan to attack Daniel Davie and Brad Kaaya – who is better than he was in 2014 – executed it very well.  Meanwhile, Nebraska stalled out their first quarter drives with dropped passes and penalties, putting them in an early hole.

Where is Mikale Wilbon?  On Saturday, Terrell Newby ran 14 times for 82 yards – an average of 5.9 per carry.  Take away his 23 yard long run, and his average dips down to 4.5 yards per carry.  Still good, but not outstanding for a team that struggled to establish a ground game.  Meanwhile, talented freshman Mikale Wilbon never saw the field.

Look:  I’m not implying that Wilbon is a more complete back than Newby (he’s not), a better runner (too soon to say), or could have helped out in the screen game (maybe).  Who knows, maybe Wilbon puts up similar rushing numbers to Imani Cross (four carries for 11 yards, with a long of eight).  But I would have liked to see if he could have provided an offensive spark when Nebraska was struggling to consistently move the ball.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Tommy Armstrong passing.  The raw numbers (21 of 45, three interceptions) aren’t that great, but make no mistake that Armstrong’s passing is what made this comeback attempt viable.  He found eight different receivers and made some huge pressure throws on 3rd and 4th down.
  2. Tommy Armstrong running.  Yep, I was so impressed with Armstrong’s performance that he gets two spots in the top five.  And frankly, you could easily argue that Armstrong’s running ability was the true reason Nebraska erased a 23 point deficit.  His scrambling ability kept so many plays alive, and this option keeper on 3rd and 13 was something the greats of the NU option would appreciate.  The only reason running is second best is the 21 yard sack that took NU from a 3rd & 8 where you consider going for it on 4th down to 4th and 29 that hurts field position.  Throw it away, Tommy!
  3. Wide receivers.  Knock this group for the drops if you want.  Personally, I think drops are part of doing business through the air, just like fumbles are for an occupational hazard for an option team.  Regardless, the performances by Jordan Westerkamp, Stanley Morgan, Brandon Reilly, and company were impressive.  They took some big, big hits – and some cheap shots too – and bounced back.
  4. Drew Brown.  Raise your hand if you had any confidence in Brown’s chances when he lined up for a 49 yard field goal in the second quarter.  Kicking off grass in thick air at sea level is tough enough, without factoring in that Brown has struggled with kicks over 40 yards throughout his young career.  But he knocked that ball through with plenty of room to spare.  Add in three touchbacks, and Brown has his season going in the right direction.
  5. Freedom Akinmoladun.  There wasn’t a ton to love defensively, but I continue to be impressed by the play of Freedom.  He had six tackles (second best on the team) and recorded the lone sack of Kaaya.  This team is in desperate need of a pass rush and Akinmoladun is the best at providing it.

Honorable Mention:  Joshua Kalu, Dedrick Young, Andy Janovich, Stanley Morgan – kick returner, Jordan Westerkamp – punt returner, third down defense

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Penalties.  The final penalty of the day gets the headlines, but there were 11 other flags for 85 yards that killed drives and made life more difficult for the offense.  The only positive spin I can put on it is to note that this team always seems to find an obscure and rarely heard infraction to commit – such as “roughing the snapper” and being lined up more than five yards from the free kick line on a kickoff.
  2. High snaps.  Seriously, what is the deal with the snaps come soaring out of Ryne Reeves’ legs?  I can understand if a quarterback likes his snaps up by his chest instead of down at his waist, but I doubt there is any tactical advantage to aiming for your quarterback’s face mask.  There were multiple times where a running play was slow to develop because Armstrong’s first movements were reaching up to snag the ball before handing it off.   Aside from being a turnover or 15 yard loss waiting to happen, the plays with high snaps usually resulted in little yardage because the defense had extra time to react.  It’s time to get this fixed.
  3. Pass rush and pass defense.  Nebraska’s secondary struggled mightily for most of the game.  But it’s not all their fault.  The defensive line is generating next to no pass rush.  Only one sack (by Akinmoladun) and zero hurries by anybody else.  The base pressure isn’t doing much, and designed blitzes aren’t getting home in time.  As a result, quarterbacks have time to pick apart NU’s secondary.  There is room for improvement in the secondary, but the boys up front need to help out – even if it’s just getting their hands into passing lanes.
  4. Maliek Collins.  In addition to the defensive line as a whole, I think it’s appropriate to ask for more out of Maliek Collins.  He had a nice solo stop midway through the 4th quarter, which was one of the first times the announcers said his name all day.  I see him getting double teamed and/or held often, but he hasn’t been the disruptive force that I’ve been expecting.  He needs to be more of an impact player.
  5. Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore.  Folks ask me why I like going to games when I can watch every game from my recliner in full HD.  There are a lot of reasons, but announcer teams like Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore are high on the list.  Mispronounced names (I’ll give you a pass on Akinmoladun, but do your homework on Kalu and others), beating dead horses (apparently, Nebraska players have zero exposure to heat and humid), and Captain Obvious commentary are, frankly, par for the course.  But Mark Jones’ short sleeve dress shirt was either a shout-out to his high school chemistry teacher or a subtle troll at Nebraska fans by dressing like a Mormon missionary.

[COLOR=#FF0000][I]Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog ([URL=”http://www.feitcanwrite.com”%5Dwww.feitcanwrite.com%5B/URL%5D). Follow him on [URL=”http://www.twitter.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DTwitter%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D or on [URL=”http://www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DFacebook%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D.

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