Another Bad(ger) Break

12 Oct

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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.  

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Feit Can Write

Goodness.  Nebraska just keeps coming up with new and inventive ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The season so far has been a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown runs up to kick the ball, only to have Lucy pull it away and punch him in the groin as time expires.

Chalk it up to whatever you want:  coaching, players who don’t know how to win, bad schemes, poor play calls, horrible luck, injuries, parity, curses, lack of talent, karma, a super secret conspiracy to destroy the football program – frankly, none of it matters now.

We’re here:  halfway through this season in a position that is unfamiliar to anybody under the age of 60.  Two wins and four painful, gut-wrenching losses.  We can (and will) discuss and dissect the things the players and coaches can and/or should* do to turn things around.

*Choosing to the have wind at your back for the fourth quarter seems like a good place to start, but that’s just me.

What I’m more interested in is how we the fans choose to react.  As I see it, there are a handful of distinct options:

  • You can call for changes.  Fire somebody (or as I sarcastically wrote, everybody).
  • You can be angry.  Would this be happening if we fired Bo?  Or Frank?  Is any loss unacceptable to you?
  • You can check out.  The fans I saw leaving with 8:43 left in the game likely fall into this group.
  • You can blindly support the team.  Be the embodiment of “we all stick together in all kinds of weather” or Kevin Bacon’s character in Animal House screaming “ALL IS WELL!!!
  • You can be depressed.  Did anybody else need a couple extra drinks Saturday night?
  • You can laugh it off.  Embrace the suck.  The gallows humor from my friends during the second half of the 2007 Okie State game is one of my favorite memories of that horrible season.
  • You can understand how close, yet so far this team is.  11 points from a sparkling record, but it would still be fool’s gold.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent some time in each one of these.

And that’s okay.  Unless you’re getting AARP mailers, you haven’t been through this before.  This is unexpected territory and nobody can find a map.  You get to react how you react.

Just allow others to react how they need to react – even if it doesn’t agree with you.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s rush defense is legit.  I’ve been waiting to see what Nebraska’s improved rush defense would do against a team that focused on power football, like Wisconsin.  The results were impressive.  Forty-five rush yards at halftime, 147 for the game – with over 20% coming on a single 32 yard carry.  Certainly, injuries to Corey Clement (did not play) and Taiwan Deal (left in first quarter) certainly helped NU’s cause.  (Side note – had things worked out differently, Jordan Stevenson probably would have received a lot of carries).

But make no mistake, the Blackshirts made an impact.  When Wisconsin chose to run on first down, the odds were good their next play was going to be 2nd and 8 or 9.  If I would have told you at the beginning of season that Wisconsin ran for under 150 and Joel Stave threw it 50 times, you’d pretty much guarantee a Nebraska victory, right?   Unfortunately, as good as NU’s rush defense is, their pass defense is just as poor.  That said….

The pass defense was better.  Allow me to condition this statement right out of the gate.  “Better” in no way means “fixed”, “competent”, or “acceptable”, but progress was made.  Nebraska recorded a season high twelve pass break ups (four each by Josh Kalu and Marcus Newby).  Newby excelled in coverage and Jonathan Rose played better.  The front four was able to generate some pressure, which helped rush some throws.

Let’s be clear:  the pass defense is still at an alarming and unacceptable level.  It is pretty much inexcusable to allow 322 yards to Joel Stave (just his second career 300 yard game), including 42 on three plays in the final minute.  But in the first three quarters, you could see some progress.  Bottom line:  I’ll continue to take my chances against Big Ten West quarterbacks with this defense.

Nebraska blew three chances to ice the game.  After Wisconsin’s kicker doinked a field goal attempt off the upright, Nebraska needed to get a single first down to win the game.  NU ran three plays and made three critical errors:

  • 2nd & 7, before the snap.  The clock was stopped from a Badger timeout, but when Nebraska came up to the line Wisconsin only had ten guys on the field.  D’Cota Dixon came sprinting on the field late while Tommy Armstrong appeared to hold the team at the line of scrimmage.  I don’t know if Armstrong thought he was milking the game clock, making his pre-snap reads, or wanted to be Nebraska Nice in waiting for Dixon, but he should have snapped it with Wisconsin out of position.
  • 2nd & 7, after the snap.  Armstrong hands the ball off to Cross, who runs to the right, and is tackled for no gain.  But check out this Vine of the play:  it sure looks like Cross has some good blocking to the left (side note:  It’s really fun to watch Janovich block.).  I can’t definitively say that’s where the play should have been run, but I will say that Cross probably gets seven yards if he follows his fullback.  And to rub salt in the wound, the Wisconsin player you see flying into make the tackle is none other than D’Cota Dixon, the Badger who was late getting on the field.
  • 3rd & 7.  The play call – a fullback dive – is exactly what should have been called at Illinois last week.  But it was the wrong call here.  Look:  I am a card-carrying member of Fullbacks Forever, and have been driving the Andy Janovich bandwagon since the Idaho State game in 2012.  But a dive to my man Jano was not the right call in that position.  Get your dynamic quarterback, who a few minutes ago picked up a 3rd & 15 with his legs, and let him win the game.  Run the same QB sweep off the left side that had worked big the first two times NU ran it.

So what don’t we know?

Why does Nebraska continually give their opponents the wind for the fourth quarter?  I ranted and raved last week about how Nebraska choosing to take the wind for the third quarter instead of the fourth, was a contributing factor in the loss to Illinois.  A week later, the same thing happened again.  Wisconsin won the toss and deferred.  NU took the ball for the first half.  Wisconsin took the ball for the second half and NU had the choice of which goal to defend.  Nebraska (Mike Riley?  Bruce Read?  A captain?) opted to have the wind at their back for the third quarter.  And for the second straight week, Nebraska’s opponent took advantage of having the wind behind them in a last-minute, game winning drive.

I have yet to hear a good reason for why Nebraska continues to do this.  I understand the “conventional wisdom” is to take the wind for the third and jump on your opponent.  But Nebraska isn’t doing that.  The Huskers scored just three points in the third against Illinois, and was shut out in the third by the Badgers.

Furthermore, when four of your first five games have come down to the final seconds on the game, shouldn’t you see that as a trend worthy of bucking convention?  Do you think this game plays out differently if Sam Foltz’s three fourth quarter punts (43, 36, and 47 yards) are better with the wind at his back?  Do you think Wisconsin’s kicker makes a 46 yard game winner into the wind?  I’ve been light in my criticism of this staff’s decision making, but I cannot see a good reason to intentionally go into the wind again this year.

When will De’Mornay Pierson-El going to be full-go?  I completely understand that the coaches want to be cautious with Pierson-El as he returns from his foot injury, but I also know that the offense was a rather flat and stagnant on Saturday.  He took the opening carry on the fly sweep, got stuffed for a three yard loss, and never ran it again.  He had two receptions for 31 yards but did not seem to be a primary target.

And every time Wisconsin punted, Jordan Westerkamp was back to return the kick.  I’ve got nothing against Westerkamp as a punt returner, except that he’s not the dynamic returner that Pierson-El is (was?).  The last two weeks, Westerkamp has shifted from punt returner to mustachioed Santino Panico impersonator.  Maybe that is a direct result of the windy conditions the last two weeks, or maybe it’s by design.  I’d just like to see how Pierson-El’s presence impacts what other teams do.

Was it worth it to burn Stevenson’s redshirt?  There was a lot of buzz last week around burning the redshirt of touted freshman running back Jordan Stevenson as a kickoff returner.  Many wondered if it was a waste to play a kid halfway through the season, especially if he’s not going to get many carries with Newby, Cross, Ozigbo, and Janovich sharing the load in the NU backfield.

Stevenson’s first game was a rather inauspicious debut:  one return for 14 yards and three other kicks downed six yards deep in the end zone.  So putting him on the field was a mistake, right?

Wrong.  I’m firmly of the opinion that if the coaches are clear on a player’s role and he still wants to play, he should.  I believe that Stevenson can help out a ho-hum kickoff return unit.    Besides, I liked what I saw on that one return:  he ran backwards as the ball was approaching so he could sprint to catch it – think of how an outfielder catches a fly ball with a runner tagging at third.  When it caught it, he was moving quickly and his speed showed even on a 14 yard return.

Plus, there is the Badger in the room.  Stevenson initially wanted to go to Wisconsin, and it was only due to an admissions issue that he fell into Nebraska’s lap.  You can’t blame a kid for wanting the opportunity to stick it to the Badgers.  He may have only had one opportunity on Saturday, but making a right or wrong decision after one game is short-sighted.  Let’s revisit this in November.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Andy Janovich.  That run.  Shades of Rathman and Makovicka as he flew down the field.  My section was jumping and hugging and high-fiving like the Westerkamp Hail Mary.  Throw in two tackles on special teams, and a full days of lead blocking, and Jano had another huge day.
  2. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins.  The middle of NU’s defense can be so good when the two big tackles are in there at the same time.  Both had some big moments, highlighted by a sack from Valentine and TFL by Collins that stopped a Wisconsin drive.  Personally, I think Jason Peter should call Vincent Valentine “soft” every week.
  3. Marcus Newby.  Defense Newby played his best game as a Husker.  Four tackles, including one for loss, while battling some nasty leg cramps in the second half.  Newby originally came on the scene as a 3rd down pass rush specialist, but really stood out in pass coverage.  He blanketed Wisconsin backs and tight ends all day long.  His strong play has made the loss of Michael Rose-Ivey a lot less painful.
  4. Sam Foltz.  In a Big Ten field position slug fest, Foltz is the guy you want to have on your side.  His average was “only” 43.8 yard, but he dropped two punts inside the Badger 20 – one of which was downed at the one.  The pride of “Small Town U.S.A.” was not affected by the strong south wind the way Wisconsin’s punter was.  I wonder when they’ll let him run one…
  5. Imani Cross.  Third and two early in the third quarter, Armstrong hands it off to Cross, who trucked a Badger and picked up six yards.  After the play, Cross was extremely fired up and got a huge ovation from the crowd.  Cross only has six carries for a modest 21 yards, but I love seeing the excitement and passion.

Honorable Mention:  Chris Weber, Memorial Stadium crowd, Dedrick Young, Stanley Morgan, Alonzo Moore, Offense Newby, Cethan Carter.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Turnovers.  Plain and simple:  this defense NEEDS to get some takeaways to stop drives and boost confidence.  The Huskers dropped multiple interceptions in the first quarter alone.  I wonder how Stave reacts if he throws two first quarter picks – including one that Gerry likely takes to the house.  I see some guys attempting to rip the ball out, but Wisconsin did not put the ball on the turf all day.  Ne
  2. Chongo Kondolo.  The guard had a rough day.  He arguably was the player flagged for illegal formation that took a 35 yard Armstrong keeper off the board.  On the same drive, NU ran a middle screen to Pierson-El with Kondolo as the lead blocker.  The play gained 12, but easily could have been more with some better blocking.  Another penalty for holding took away a big 3rd down completion to Carter.
  3. Penalties.  Nebraska hit the penalty trifecta.  A questionable pass interference call against Byerson Cockrell set up Wisconsin’s first touchdown.  NU’s nine penalties for 98 yards included a boneheaded late hit, offsides flags on offense, defense, and special teams, and an unsportsmanlike call against the nicest coach in America.  I won’t say that the refs missed several holding penalties, but if they still played in the old school tear-away jerseys, Maliek Collins probably would have gone through eight or nine shirts.
  4. Tommy Armstrong passing.  Tommy went 11 for 28 on Saturday, and I’m a little surprised it was that good.  He sailed passes, threw behind guys, and the ESPN announcers spent most of the day ragging on his mechanics.  While he didn’t throw an interception, there were a couple of forced passed that probably should have been picked off.  Pretty soon, I think teams will let him throw as many deep balls as he wants until he starts converting them.
  5. Sirius.  I’m a fan of having the Alan Parsons Project song as the soundtrack to the Tunnel Walk.  But if you hear those synthesized notes playing in the fourth quarter, you might as well head for the exits because a loss is coming.  Don’t believe me?  Off the top of my head, here are the times I remember “Sirius” being played in the fourth:  Texas 1998 (snapping the 40+ game home winning streak), Texas 2002, BYU 2015, Wisconsin 2015.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember it being played late in the 2013 Northwestern game.  Next time, play Black Betty.

[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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One Response to “Another Bad(ger) Break”

  1. Mark Danahy October 12, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    All of you journalist are treating the truth here with a lot of PC. The truth is that since T.O. we haven’t had a head coach that was a good fit for NU. The AD’s have let the school and fans down. Frank was given the job for his loyalty. He was not qualified. Callahan was just settled on after a crappy search and his style of football was not a fit for the Big 12 or the Big 10. Pelini was needed to fix the defense but was lacking as a head coach. He was proven to be as immature as they come too. Now we are back to hiring another west coast coach that has never had to worry about the weather that much. Hence, the importance of having the wind in the final quarter. It doesn’t register with these coaches. Throwing long pass after long pass against a 30 mph wind doesn’t register with these guys. Ball control and good old north and south football doesn’t whet their appetite so we aren’t going to do it!! This is another blunder by the AD. And you, me and the fans, and the school are going to suffer. You would think that a lot of thought would have gone into this last hire. A lot of thought probably DID go into this last hire. I’ll admit that Riley is a great human being. But, that said, his style of football and his experience in the conditions faced everywhere in the country except on the West coast or in a dome is near zero. This brand of football is just no good. It may be entertaining, but it doesn’t work when you go up against a tough football team here in the middle of the country. Riley should be given a Nobel Peace Prize but not the reins to Nebraska football. Now we are stuck, AGAIN!!!!!!

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