NU vs. NU: They Played A Game Too?

29 Sep

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My apologies – I, like many of you, have been so caught up in the discussion around the three Husker players who knelt during the national anthem that I forgot to actually write about the game.  It turns out, after the national anthem concluded Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois they did play a football game.  That’s not to discount or discredit the silent protest by three Husker players, but to not so subtly let you know that we’re going to keep our focus* on what happened between the opening kickoff and the end of the game.

*As an aside, I do have several thoughts and opinions on the coverage, controversy, and conversation over the three Husker players who took a knee during the national anthem.  I encourage you to read them here.  Now back to your regularly scheduled column.

As is our custom for the Northwestern game, the winner gets to be referred to as “NU” for the remainder of the column.

So what did we learn?

Don’t panic over losing two fumbles in the end zone.   It was shaping up so well.  Nebraska took the opening kickoff and was flying down the field.  Terrell Newby broke loose and was about to score from 50 yards when he fumbled the ball stretching for the pylon.  In the second quarter, Devine Ozigbo was trying to score from a yard out and had the ball stripped away by a Wildcat defender.  I know the natural instinct is to freak out about ball security and squandering scoring opportunities.  But you shouldn’t lose sleep over either play.

Newby tried to make a hustle play and it backfired.  Sure, you can look at the play through hindsight and say he should have tucked it and gone out of bounds at the three.  But that is not realistic.  I want players who refuse to step out of bounds to avoid contact.  I want players who will make every effort to get into the end zone.  As an example, look at the touchdown Newby scored in the second quarter.  He twisted, spun, displayed the balance of a gymnast, and made it into the end zone.  Are you telling me that level of effort is any different from the play he fumbled on?

As for Ozigbo, it was an unfortunate set of circumstances.  You could certainly argue that his forward momentum had stopped.  But how often do you see a back squirt through the scrum into the end zone – or as we saw earlier this year, be pushed and pulled in by your teammates?  If the refs had a quick whistle and Ozigbo appeared to score, we would be understandably upset.  This is the flip side to that play.

Bottom line – I have a hard time faulting a player for a fumble when they are giving max effort trying to get into the end zone.

Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf trust Armstrong and the offensive line.  It was one of those “am I seeing this correctly?” moments:  second drive of the game, 4th down and 1, from your own 30 yard line and Nebraska lines up to go for it.  If NU gets stuffed, you are all but giving Northwestern points.  I assumed Nebraska would do the old routine where you line up, try to draw ’em offsides, call a timeout and punt it away.  Instead, Armstrong lined up under center, took the snap and plowed forward for two yards and a first down.

Aside from bucking every tenet of “conventional coaching wisdom”, the decision to go for it in that scenario showed that Nebraska’s coaches have extreme confidence in the offensive line to get a push and in their senior QB to get the necessary yardage.  What makes that decision even crazier is on the preceding 3rd and 1, Ozigbo was stuffed for no gain.  On the subsequent first down play, Ozigbo lost a yard.

Keep an eye on this as the season goes forward.  If Riley feels that he can get a yard or two whenever he needs it, we may see more 4th down attempts from all over the field.

Northwestern should hire a graduate from the real NU to take care of their field.   Did you know that Nebraska offers a major in Turfgrass & Landscape Management through the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources?  Clearly, our friends in Evanston do not.

Early in the week, I felt the concerns over Northwestern’s field – particularly the length of their grass – were overblown.  Then I saw the field and realized they were growing the grass long to attempt some type of Gene Keady comb-over to hide the numerous bald spots.

How bad was it?  My yard is composed of 65% weeds, 30% grass, and 5% toys and other crap my kids leave out.  I think I’ve mowed once in the month of September.  And I’d put my lawn up against the Ryan Field “turf” any day.

So what don’t we know?

Do we need to worry about bad snaps again?   In years past, Nebraska centers have struggled with getting the snap properly placed.  It felt like Tommy spent the majority of a season snagging snaps aimed at his helmet or a random point two yards to his right.

Through the first three games, there were no glaring issues between Dylan Utter and Armstrong.  But on Saturday, there are multiple snaps that sailed high, wide, or both.  A couple of them cost NU yards and/or stalled drives.

I don’t know if it was a fluke thing, a result of the first road game, playing on Northwestern’s bomb crater of a field, or if Utter was distracted by the chrome facemasks.  But here’s hoping it is a one game thing.

Why do Nebraskans insist on getting married on Saturdays in the fall?   I missed the majority of the game as we were attending the wedding involving a family friend.  Thanks to the fine folks at BTN, I was able to watch a rerun late Sunday night, but I’ll honestly never understand why Nebraska natives get married in the fall.

I’m sure the bride didn’t care for people asking if there would be a place at the reception where they could watch the game.  And when I was leaving to take my youngest two kids back to the hotel (around the end of the 3rd quarter) there had to be 20+ guests in a separate room from the reception watching the game on TV.

Engaged couples:  I assume you want the complete and undivided attention of your guests on your special day.  Nobody wants their wedding day soured by friends and relatives in a bad mood because NU turned it over five times and lost on a last second play.  And do you really want to make Grandpa pick between coming to your wedding and his tickets in West Stadium that he’s had since Nixon was in office?  Are you sure you’ll come out on top?

Nick and Danielle, I wish you a lifetime of love and happiness.  To everyone else, remember:  there are 40 other Saturdays in the year without a Nebraska game.  Pick one of those.  Please.

What is Bruce Read’s secret to defending field goals?  With another missed kick on Saturday, Nebraska opponents have now made just two of six field goals this season.  I’m not really sure what Bruce Read is doing schematically to confound and confuse opposing kickers, but it is working.  There doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming surge at the line, extreme pressure off the edge, or safeties sitting back working voodoo dolls.

Heck, Oregon was so intimidated by NU’s field goal defense that they chose to go for it on fourth down multiple times instead of attempting kicks.  Northwestern tried a fake field goal, which was also shut down.

I don’t know about you, but a 33% success rate on field goals is probably worth $450,000 a year.  Seriously, how much would you pay to go back and have any two Texas field goals sail wide left?

The best thing I saw on Saturday: Four Huskers (Sam Hahn, Zack Darlington, Drew Brown, and Nick Gates) stepped up to help Northwestern with a giant American flag being displayed before the game.  Setting aside the other (and completely separate) thing with the players who knelt during the anthem, this was a very cool thing to see.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday: Northwestern’s purple M*A*S*H tent where they took injured players for evaluation away from the prying eyes of opposing teams, sideline reporters, and degenerate gamblers.  Are you really that paranoid about your opponents getting an edge – or possible HIPAA violations – that you need to quarantine guys who sprain their ankle?

I do know this:  somewhere in Kansas there is another purple-clad Wildcat who is ticked off that he didn’t think of it first.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Blocking Receivers.  The receivers and tight ends put on a perimeter blocking clinic.  From the first carry of the game until the final carry, the receivers were locked in on their man with the apparent goal of pushing them into Lake Michigan.  While I can think of an example from every single receiver and tight end who played, special recognition goes to Stanley Morgan, Jr. He was a complete beast all night long.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, runner.  Armstrong racked up a career high 132 yards on just 13 carries.  He was fast, decisive, elusive, and Northwestern had no answer for him.  His running ability opened up a lot in the passing game.
  3. Mikale Wilbon.  Remember the guy who looked so good in the 2015 opener that fans wanted him to start for most of the season?  He’s back.  I don’t know if Wilbon has been coming on in practice (my assumption), if he got an opening due to the fumbles by Newby and Ozigbo, or if his expanded role was due to being Chicago kid playing close to home.  Regardless, he made the most of his opportunities and earned more touches down the road.
  4. Dedrick Young.  With all due respect to the other guys on the roster, Young may be the most complete linebacker on the team.  He is instinctive in run support, a sure tackler, and is getting enough pass break ups to earn an honorary degree from Lockdown U.
  5. Offensive Line.  There will always be a spot here for the O-Line when NU rushes for more than 300 yards.  I really like knowing that in the final game of Milt Tenopir’s life, the Huskers rolled up their first 300 yard day of the season.  Rest in peace, Milt.

Honorable Mention:   Kevin Maurice, Cethan Carter, Aaron Williams, Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones, Alonzo Moore, Sam Cotton, Nick Gates having to shush “Go Big Red” chants so the team could hear – on the road, BTN’s mobile app.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. 15 Yard Penalties.  The good news is Nebraska was only flagged for four penalties.  The bad news is all four were 15 yard personal foul / unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.  This needs to get cleaned up, pronto.
  2. Defensive Timeouts.  I thought calling two timeouts on defense in less than 30 seconds of game time was a nice tribute to the Bo Pelini era.  But maybe we can get things figured out during the first timeout and keep the second one.  Just in case.
  3. Tommy Armstrong, passer.  The raw numbers (18-29, with a TD and no picks) look pretty good.  But Tommy had arguably his worst passing day of the season.  He overthrew Jordan Westerkamp at least three times, costing him an easy touchdown and a shot at a second.  Early in the fourth quarter, Armstrong misread a coverage and threw what easily could have been a pick-six.  After a bad snap on a 3rd down play, Armstrong scrambled and tried to make something out of nothing, firing the ball across the field.  Just because Alonzo Moore made the catch, doesn’t mean it was a smart play.  Throw it away, punt, and get ’em next time.
  4. 3rd and long defense.  On a 3rd and 22, Northwestern managed to pick up 15 yards, finding a wide open receiver.  This is the second week in a row the opponent has taken a 3rd and impossible and set up a 4th and possible.
  5. Holiday Inn of Lakeville, MN.  You are in a suburb of a major metropolitan area that boasts the flagship university in the state, but you don’t carry the Big Ten Network as one of the 55 channels provided to guests?  Boo.

 

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