Oregon Statement

20 Sep

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As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

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*   *   *

That was fun.

As I promised previously, I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations about how Nebraska is “back” after beating Oregon.  No posturing about how returning to the Top 25 validates the Mike Riley hire.  I’m even going to pass on taking a shot at how the Niketown Ducks’ latest fashion emergency was beaten by one of the most classic and timeless uniforms in college football.  If you need all of that, I’m sure you can find it.

Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate the slice of college football nirvana that we were treated to on Saturday.  A beautiful, sunny day.  A ranked team with serious name recognition in town.  A milestone game in the vaunted sellout streak.  A crowd that intended to be a factor from the moment they walked in and choose not to sit down.  A back and forth game featuring big plays, tense moments, lead changes, and more two point conversion attempts than some folks see in a lifetime.

It was a great game made better by the fact the home team won, and came from behind to do so.  A game that, as good as it looked (and sounded) in high def, was even better in person.  It was the rare “big game” that lived up to the hype.

So forgive me if I limit my speculations on if a four point win means Mike Riley’s luck in close games is turning, or if Nebraska is suddenly the favorite in the Big Ten West.  I want to savor a victory that you’ll remember for years to come.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s Special Teams can really be special.   Bruce Read and his troops had themselves a big game on Saturday.  Freshman punter Caleb Lightbourn averaged a Foltz-ian 47 yards on five punts – improving his best performance by 15 yards.  De’Mornay Pierson-El had a key 42 yard punt return to set up a key touchdown before halftime.  None of the four kickoffs Oregon returned made it past the 25 yard line.  As a result, Nebraska’s average starting field position was 10 yards better than Oregon.

But the clear star of the special teams show was how the Huskers defended Oregon’s two point conversion attempts.  After Charles Nelson strolled in for two after the Ducks’ first touchdown, the Huskers did an outstanding job of reading, defending, and shutting down the next four two point conversions Oregon tried.  Meanwhile, Drew Brown was a perfect five for five on his PATs.  That was clearly the difference in the game.

I strongly believe no other Nebraskan has a salary as widely known – or as heavily scrutinized – as the $450,000 Bruce Read is paid.*  And while he may not have justified his paycheck, I would hope he earned a week or two off from scrutiny.

*Seriously – Without Google, can you tell me the salary of any of Nebraska’s other assistant coaches?  What about Mike Riley? Or Tim Miles?  Darin Erstad or John Cook?  Governor Ricketts?  Warren Buffett?  Any of them?  I can’t, and I’m guessing most of you can’t either.

Mike Riley and company seem to enjoy playing their old Pac 12 friends.  Watching the reactions of Riley, Mark Banker, and the other former Oregon State assistants leaving the field, you could tell this was more than just another victory.  Riley’s reputation at Oregon State was “good guy, good coach, zero resources”.  Playing just down the road from a school that had everything they wanted and more only accentuated that point as the Ducks regularly whipped up on the Beavers.  They’d never say it, but my guess is there is some sweet vindication in being able to knock off their old rivals when the stakes were even.

I know it is an incredibly small sample size, but Nebraska is 2-0 against the Pac 12 under Riley against two above average teams (Oregon and UCLA).  That bodes well not only for Nebraska’s west coast recruiting efforts, but for a little bowl game they have out in Pasadena.

Nebraska fans can bring the noise.   In case you didn’t hear, it was loud inside Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon.  From Oregon’s first snap until the final seconds ticked off the clock, there was almost constant noise.  I guarantee you’ll find lots of folks who will tell you it was the loudest the stadium has ever been.  And while I’m not ready to make that pronouncement*, this was the first game I remember where the crowd was in full roar from the time the ball was spotted until the snap.

*For me, the “loudest game” discussion really needs to be broken down into three categories: Before 1998, 1999 – 2012, and 2013 to present.  Why those dates?  The addition of the skyboxes in West Stadium (1999) and East Stadium (2013) not only brought thousands of additional voices into the building, but those big walls do a nice job of keeping sound in.  

My memory says the 1994 Colorado game was the loudest I’ve experienced.  Yet I’d guess that in terms of decibels there have been at least a dozen louder games, simply due to more bodies and acoustics.  While we’re on the subject, I’ll go with Oklahoma 2001, and Oklahoma 2009 or Miami 2014 as the loudest from the other eras.

Front and center for recognition should be the Nebraska students in the Boneyard section.  They were in their seats a solid 20 minutes before kickoff, led most of the chants and noise, and kept the stadium’s energy going through the black hole that is the gap between the 3rd and 4th quarters.  And that DJ Khalid banner was a masterpiece.  Take a bow (and a lozenge) Boneyard.  You did good.

So what don’t we know?

Can these Huskers make it to Madison without a loss?   With Nebraska now at 3-0, and once again ranked in the Top 25, many fans are predicting they will be 7-0 when they play Wisconsin at the end of October.  But can it happen?

Certainly, the schedule sets up nicely as Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue isn’t exactly the same as playing Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State.  So far, those teams are a combined 5-5, with as many losses to FCS schools and wins over Power Five teams (1).  The Huskers will likely be favored in all four games.

But let’s be painfully blunt for a second:  three of those teams beat Nebraska last year, and the fourth (Indiana) is showing signs of escaping the B1G basement.  The better Nebraska’s record is, the bigger the bulls-eye they’ll have on their backs.  And it starts this week in Evanston. Northwestern has looked really bad in their two losses, but when the Battle For NU is on the line, they come to play.

Rolling into Madison with a perfect 7-0 record is a definite possibility.  But don’t pretend that this team can just walk on the field against a team we perceive to be inferior and come away with a win.  It’s not 1999 anymore, and this team (and this coaching staff) has yet to prove they can get to that level.

Is Tommy running too much?   Through three games, Tommy Armstrong has recorded 39 carries.  A year ago, Tommy had 37 carries through his first five games.  This years, Armstrong is second on the team in rush attempts and yards, and is tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns.

Clearly, it is effective.  Five of his 16 carries on Saturday resulted in a first down.  Armstrong’s 34 yard touchdown run was the game winner.  Some may argue it is efficient, as increasing Armstrong’s carries likely means a decrease in his passing attempts, which in theory reduces his chances for interceptions.

However, I worry about his workload and the toll it will take over the course of the season.  More accurately, I’m concerned about what I perceive to be a big drop-off between Armstrong and the other quarterbacks on the roster.  Put it this way:  if the ailment that took Tommy out of the game was something more severe than cramping, would you still be penciling Nebraska in for a 7-0 start?

How would Nebraska fans react if the Huskers went for two as often as Oregon did?  You know that peculiar spread out formation that Nebraska lines up in for PATs?  The one where they have the snapper, holder Zack Darlington, and Drew Brown in the middle and everybody else outside of the hash marks?  Can you imagine if two or three times a game they decided to go for two?

Maybe you’d be okay with it if they made enough of them to come out ahead – or at least break even – from what a boring old PAT would provide.  But I suspect Nebraska fans would enforce a strong “Rule of 2”:  If a coach went for – and did not make – two two point conversions in quarter number two, he’d have approximately two minutes to escape the stadium at halftime before the angry mob caught up with him.

And it would probably be less if said coach was making, oh I don’t know, four fiddy a year.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  Without a doubt, it would be the large bouquet of flowers that Oregon left at the 27 yard line in memory of Sam Foltz.  It was an absolute class gesture that will not be forgotten by Nebraskans.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  Here’s how good Saturday was, I can’t think of a darn thing to put here.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Caleb Lightbourn.  You can argue that Armstrong had a bigger impact in Nebraska winning this game, but Lightbourn was my MVP on Saturday.  Every time he went back to kick, Nebraska needed to flip the field, or hopefully slow the Oregon offense by putting them in a hole.  And every time, the true freshman who two months ago was a lock to redshirt delivered.  A 47.2 yard average, three kicks inside the 20 and zero touchbacks on a day with almost no wind.  I got a little choked up when he pointed up to the sky as he ran off the field.  I know Sam would be damn proud of that performance.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  The senior quarterback seemed to will Nebraska to victory.  He made plays with his arm, with his feet, and most importantly, with his head.  While Oregon QB Dakota Prukop was sliding or running out of bounds, Armstrong was running into contact.  Armstrong was excellent on play-action passes, using the success of the ground game to get his receivers open.  Aside from an overthrow on a backwards lateral that gets credited to him as a fumble, Armstrong played a very clean game and kept the Huskers in the game.  The leg cramps gave his performance a strong Willis Reed vibe, which is always instrumental in gutsy comeback victories.
  3. Devine Ozigbo.  Nebraska came out of halftime down six, and frankly, it didn’t feel that close.  There was a feeling of dread that the Ducks were going to take control of the game and put Nebraska away.  The Huskers took the second half kick at the 25 yard line.  They then marched 75 yards in seven plays to take the lead – and set a tone for the second half.  It was no coincidence that five of those seven plays were runs between the tackles by Ozigbo.  Aside from being the poster boy for the “Run The Ball” movement, Ozigbo continues to be the best back on the NU roster.
  4. Ross Dzuris & Freedom Akinmoladun.  For a long time, NU has been unbalanced at defensive end.  One guy might have a good game (i.e. Randy Gregory), but the guy on the opposite side would be rather pedestrian (Jason Ankrah).  That’s why I was really impressed by the play of Dzuris and Adkinmoladun.  Dzuris had another strong game, recording a sack and stopping several big plays before they got started.  Had he not forced a fumble, Freedom would have recorded a sack to go along with his five tackles.  But I continue to be impressed by his motor and speed off the edge.  He’s getting better and better each week.
  5. Michael Rose-Ivey.  We can talk about what Rose-Ivey is not:  he’s not the fastest guy, the strongest guy, or the most physical guy.  Instead, let’s talk about what Rose-Ivey is:  one of the most instinctive linebackers to wear a Blackshirt.  His ability to diagnose plays and get in position to make a tackle is unmatched on the team.  I wish he could have stayed healthy throughout his career.

Honorable Mention:   Cethan Carter, Jordan Westerkamp, Kieron Williams, Nate Gerry, Bryan Reimers, the dozens of yellow penalty flags the Boneyard threw when Oregon was penalized, Graham Nabity, De’Mornay Pierson-El, every fan who stood and yelled.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Rush defense.  Let’s get the caveats on the table first:  Oregon runs a complex offense with a lot of misdirection and option reads that is probably tough to prepare for.  They run that offense with a ton of speedy ball carriers that your average scout team can’t replicate.  And when those things click, big plays are going to happen.  But all of that said, 336 rushing yards is way too much.  There were several times that NU defenders looked confused or out of position to make a play.
  2. Lateral throws.  I know it’s easy to second guess the backwards lateral that Oregon recovered and turned into a touchdown.  But with the combination of a quarterback with occasional command issues, a running back seeing some rare action, and a speedy defense inside the 15 yard line, that doesn’t seem like a great choice.  I was especially surprised to see it attempted (and failed) again in the 4th quarter.  If you want to get the ball to a back out in the flat, I’d suggest either throwing it forward or making sure the back is somebody with really good hands (i.e. Newby).
  3. Jet sweeps.  Remember when we first heard about Riley’s vision for the offense?  How the jet sweep was a key component?  And remember how giddy you got when you pictured Pierson-El streaking around the edge with the ball in his hands?  That has yet to materialize.  For a myriad of reasons, the jet sweep is more of a once a game gimmack than an offensive staple.  And more puzzling, I’m not sure DPE has gotten positive yards running the play yet.  Might be time to try other things.
  4. Fourth Down defense.  Oregon went for it on fourth down three times.  The first attempt (4th & 3) resulted in a 23 yard gain to the NU 2 yard line.  The second attempt (4th & 2) resulted in a 41 yard touchdown run.  Thankfully, on the third and final attempt (4th & 18) the Blackshirts were able to get a stop.
  5. JoJo Domann.  I thought the impossible was going to happen.  Not NU beating a ranked team at home, but making it an entire game without committing a single personal foul.  They made it three and a half quarters before Domann crashed into an Duck after (or right at) the whistle.  Should the sellout streak ever end, I suspect the personal foul streak will live on.

 

 

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