Near (Southern) Miss

28 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

As I settled into my seat Saturday morning, my buddy Nate posed an interesting question:

What if the Miami game happened in reverse?

In other words, instead of Nebraska getting mounting an exciting fourth quarter rally to take the Hurricanes to overtime, what if Nebraska had gotten out to a comfortable lead and allowed the Canes to rally?  Would we still feel good about the game or would the fan base be more concerned with how it played out?

At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a good hypothetical question.  Little did I know that Nebraska was going to give us the opportunity to discuss it in a decidedly non-hypothetical situation.  This time, NU had the big lead, even while settling for field goals, but left the door open for the other team to make it competitive down to the final offensive play.

Let’s set aside the talent factor.  Miami is easily a better team than Southern Miss, and NU was playing with more able bodies in south Florida last week than they did in Lincoln on Saturday.  Instead, let’s take a look at the core question:  Do you want to be the team that falls behind and rallies or the team that squanders a comfortable lead?

From a team perspective, I think you learn more about yourself being the team that wages the furious comeback.  You learn who the leaders are, who can come through in the clutch, and you gain confidence from clawing your way back from the dead.  When you peter away a big lead, or fail to go for the kill, you hopefully learn some things too.  But most of the lessons there are negative – the feeling of unease when you settle for field goals, the “here we go again” vibe when a team scores in the second half, feeling like you need to do something heroic to avoid another collapse.

But from a wins and losses perspective, it certainly appears that you want to be the team with the lead as both comeback attempts fell short.

So what did we learn?

The fullback lives. You won’t believe this, but as I was driving to the stadium, I had a feeling that Andy Janovich would score a touchdown.  I was tempted to tweet it out, but did want to pull over to do so (don’t tweet and drive, kids).  Besides, even though Riley and Langsdorf have said they like to utilize fullbacks, it’s been almost a year since any fullback touched the ball.

Then in the second quarter, a beautiful thing happened:  Janovich running free down the middle of the field on the fullback dive.  The play drew some of the biggest cheers of the day (including a certain somebody freaking out in Section 33).  Later in the quarter, Janovich took a pass from Armstrong, and with the help of decleating block by Lane Hovey, picked up the longest reception of the day, 53 yards.

In the fourth quarter, the unthinkable happened.  Janovich took a handoff and trucked into the end zone.  For me, a card-carrying member of the Nebraska Fullback Cult, it was a euphoric moment.  But a holding penalty took it off the board.  Regardless, Nebraska showed a new weapon and gave its Big Ten opponents something else to prepare for.

It’s time for a change at I Back.  I like Terrell Newby.  I think he a talented player with a lot of potential.  I also shy away from putting backups on a pedestal – especially when they have very little on tape.  And let’s be honest:  Newby wasn’t bad on Saturday.  He had 18 carries for 79 yards.  Even with Janovich’s big day, Newby was the leading rusher.

But he wasn’t great, either.

Too often, Newby either missed holes or was too tentative to explode through them.  It felt like he wanted to bounce all of his runs outside instead of running between the tackles.  I understand that Newby’s playing time is because of his abilities in the passing game – both protection and receiving – as it is running.  Without question, Newby is strong in pass pro, but he was barely utilized as a receiving threat.  Nebraska ran a single running back screen play (which Southern Miss had covered so well that Armstrong didn’t even throw it) and a four yard swing pass, where Newby made a nifty one-handed grab.  Both of those plays were on the second offensive series.

I’m not saying that message board hero Mikale Wilbon should vault from (apparently) fourth string to starter, but I’d like to see Nebraska give opportunities to backs who will make plays on the ground.

Southern Miss did a great job of handing this game to Nebraska.  The Golden Eagles made a ton of mistakes in this game.  Wasted timeouts, stupid penalties, missed field goals, and more.  Certainly Nebraska takes the brunt of the blame for letting them hang around, but I guarantee Southern Miss is looking at this game as one they could have – if not should have – won.

Big Ten opponents likely won’t be as generous.

So what don’t we know?

How many more injuries can the defense take?  The Blackshirts are black and blue.  Vincent Valentine, Michael Rose-Ivey, Josh Banderas, and Jack Gangwish all sat out with injuries.  Nate Gerry was clearly not himself as he recovered from a mid-week illness.  Top reserve…er…I mean “starting” defensive tackle Kevin Williams left with an injury.

How bad was it?  On 4th and goal from the 13 midway through the fourth quarter, here were your defenders:  Dzuris, Maurice, Collins, Akinmoladun, Young, Weber, Gifford, Jones, Kalu, Gerry, and Cockrell.  That is just four Blackshirts on the field in a crucial situation.

What happened on third down in the red zone?  Eight times, Nebraska took the ball into the red zone.  Seven times they came away with points.  So far, so good.  But they only scored three touchdowns and settled for field goals four times, and had a fifth blocked.  Notably, on all three of NU’s touchdowns, they did not face a third down inside the Southern Miss 20 yard line.  When they did see third down in the red zone, it was followed by a field goal attempt.  So what went wrong on those third down plays?

There is no single answer.  The first two times, Armstrong threw to a receiver short of the sticks who failed to picked up the necessary yardage.  Armstrong took a sack the third time, and threw incomplete to Stanley Morgan, Jr. on the fourth.  NU gets a pass on the last try, as Terrell Newby was more concerned about centering the ball for Drew Brown than he was about picking up yards.

Regardless of what went wrong, the Huskers have too good of an offense, and too many weapons to settle for five field goal attempts.  Early in the ESPN telecast, color analyst Rocky Boiman was discussing the success NU has had in the red zone this year when he had an interesting quote:  “Offensive numbers are not hard to come by.  Everyone’s going to get a lot of yards.  It’s being efficient in the red zone.  Can you get touchdowns instead of field goals?  That’s what separates the good teams from the great teams.”

How bad is the pass defense?  Let me share a telling example of how much the pass defense is struggling:  early in the fourth quarter, Southern Miss is driving, thanks in part to a 53 yard reception to 11 yard line.  Nebraska stuffs a run on first down.  On second down, the coverage is strong and Mullens has to throw it away.  On third down, he throws a little out and his receiver fights his way for nine yards.  But there is a flag.  Holding on Southern Miss.  Instead of 4th and 1 from the two yard line, NU opts for 3rd and 20 from the 21.  Mullens hits a receiver on a slant for a 21 yard touchdown that gave life to the Southern Miss rally.

When your defense is better off taking 4th and 1 over third and long, that is a problem.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Andy Janovich.  Like I would put anybody else in the top spot.  Aside from his offensive prowess (121 totals yards), he had another strong day blocking in the run game, and on special teams.  I’m not sure what my favorite moment was: the first run that nobody saw coming, seeing him outrunning his blockers on his big gains, or that beautiful spin move on the nullified touchdown.  Dear Danny Langsdorf:  more, please.
  2. Freedom Akinmoladun.  The redshirt freshman (I type that to remind myself how young he is) is a budding star in this team.  He had two big sacks, including one that allowed the clock to run out.  I’m a big fan of this kid, and am excited to see what his emergence does for Maliek Collins and the rest of the defensive line.
  3. Run defense.  Twenty three carries.  Eleven yards.  The longest play was a 17 yard touchdown that never happens if the defense is close to full health.  Panic about pass defense all you want, but I still like NU’s chances with this run defense.
  4. Tommy Armstrong.  Another strong game for Armstrong, throwing for 368 and two touchdowns, and running for 63 and another score.  He has been impressive leading the offense, and added a highlight reel hurdle and another terrific block.  I’d like to see him get better at not taking sacks, but otherwise there is not much to complain about here.
  5. Jordan Westerkamp.  When De’Mornay Pierson-El was injured, I heard a lot of people wonder what NU would do without their “best offensive weapon”.  All I could think was “DPE is a nice receiver, but have you forgotten about Westerkamp?”  Clearly, Armstrong hasn’t (they’re roommates, if you hadn’t heard).  A career high 11 catches for 118 and a touchdown, including several big third down receptions.  Throw in a sideline tightrope punt return for a big day.

Honorable Mention:  Chris Weber, Kevin Maurice, Marcus Newby, downfield blocking by tight ends and receivers, Drew Brown, Brandon Reilly, Stanley Morgan Jr’s yards after contact.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Pass Defense.  Like I could put anything else in the top spot.  Another day, another 300 yard passing performance allowed.  There’s not much more to say on the subject.
  2. Clock Management.  Two key blunders on Saturday.  The first was right before half.  Armstrong hits Westerkamp for a big gain.  The clock stops for the first down, but instead of calling one of their three timeouts, Nebraska let 4-5 seconds run off before the next play was snapped.  Considering Drew Brown kicked his field goal with one second left (after a lightning quick catch, drop, timeout play), NU almost cost themselves points.  In the fourth quarter, NU had the ball up eight points.  On one play, they snapped it with 11 seconds on the play clock.  After a USM player was injured, the play clock reset and the game clock started – a great chance to take 35 seconds off the clock.  Instead, Armstrong snapped it with 30 seconds left.  When the game comes down to the final possession, that is inexcusable.
  3. Alex Lewis.  Two things have been rather apparent in the first four games:  a) Nebraska is most successful running the ball to the opposite side of the only lineman whose job was secure going into fall camp, and b) the senior captain is usually good for two penalties a game.  One question:  if (per his Facebook rant) Lewis no longer plays for Nebraska his penalty yardage shouldn’t count against the Big Red, right?
  4. Red Zone trick plays.  Second and eight from the 14, Nebraska does a direct snap to Devine Ozigbo, who flips it to Jamal Turner, who scrambles for three yards when his intended receiver – Tommy Armstrong – is covered.  For those keeping track, it is the fourth straight week Langsdorf has called a gadget play in the red zone.  It’s also the fourth straight week that those plays have done very little.  Here’s an idea:  instead of spending time practicing “trickeration”, work on your weaknesses – like consistency in the running game, or what you do on 3rd down after your trick play does nothing.
  5. Booing “injured” players.  Picasso Nelson came up lame with 5:27 left in the game, stopping the clock.  A smattering of boos rained down, thinking that he was faking injury.  A few minutes later he was back in the game, and went down to the turf again.  Was he faking?  My guess is no.  It was a deceptively warm day and he played a lot of snaps.  Also, it’s worth noting that neither play really had an impact.  Both times, the clock restarted – with a fresh 40 second play clock – after he left the field.  Nebraska fans, you’re better than this.

[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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