Pur-fection

27 Oct

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Do you remember back in the pre-BCS days – probably when it was called the “Bowl Alliance” or some nonsense like that – when margin of victory was important?  If memory serves, at least one of the computer polls in used margin of victory to help determine which team was best.  As a result, the Steve Spurriers, Bobby Bowdens, and other coaches of contending teams would make a point of trying for a late garbage time touchdown.  The way the computer saw it, 31-14 was a more impressive win than 24-14.  Heck, the same could be said for several writers and coaches filling out their Top 25 ballot every Sunday.  After some hand-wringing that coaches were sacrificing sportsmanship in the name of running up the score, margin of victory went away.

But the perception lives on.  We’ve been so conditioned to look at the margin of victory (and if the Vegas spread was covered), that anything failing to meet our expectations is reason for concern and complaining.  A 13 point win over a 3-3 team that just fired their coach?  Clearly Nebraska is no good, vastly overrated, and due for a blowout loss against a “real” team.

It’s time to embrace the NFL “just win” mentality.  Outside of Alabama, there are very few teams in college football with the talent and depth to steamroll opponents week in and week out.  What matters are the wins and losses.  There are no figure skating judges looking at degrees of difficulty or deducting points for sloppy education.  No, in the big picture of championship football – and that is the standard we all want, right? – the only thing that matters is if you won.

Obviously, the coaches, players, and you the fan all want perfection – or at least improvement – week after week.  But don’t confuse failure to meet a standard of play for a lack of success.  It’s okay to be critical of how Nebraska plays – and you better believe I’ll continue to be critical where needed – but at the end of the day the wins and losses are the most important thing.

And right now, Nebraska is a perfect 7-0.

So what did we learn?

Don’t worry about rankings or perceived snubs. Each week, the amount of Husker fans up in arms over Nebraska’s national ranking and/or perception seems to grow. They’ll wonder why teams with losses are ranked ahead of NU.  They bristle at the criticism that Nebraska is a sham that has not been tested.  They get fired up over a comment or tweet from some national pundit or talking head who discounts Nebraska’s first 7-0 start in 15 years.  Every employee at ESPN – down to the cafeteria guy serving Chicken Curry – hates Nebraska.  Heck, some of that disrespect is here at home. The lone AP voter in the state (the World-Herald’s Sam McKewon) has the Huskers at #11 in his poll. Only three other voters have Nebraska lower.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter.

Once more for emphasis: It. Does. Not. Matter.

Why, you ask? There are two key reasons: 1) Nebraska gets two prime time chances to prove itself against top competition. Even with the losses they’ve suffered, playing at Wisconsin and at Ohio State are big games against tough conference foes. Should Nebraska win one (or both) games, a lot of the perceived negativity will go away.

2) In the College Football Playoff world, rankings are irrelevant. Yes, it’s great to say that Nebraska is a Top 10 team (regardless of if you believe it or not), but NU’s ranking today, tomorrow, or next week has zero implication on their chances to win the Big Ten West, win the conference, or – dare to dream – make the Playoff.  I firmly believe that an undefeated team from a Power Five conference will ALWAYS make the playoff.

If you want to revisit this if/when Nebraska clinches the West, we can. But for now, sit back and enjoy a 7-0 start without getting caught up on snubs, slights, and stupid banter from an overrated pregame show.

It is time to fully embrace Terrell Newby. For much of his Nebraska career, fans have been slow – if not reluctant – to embrace Terrell Newby as NU’s feature back. There are many reasons for this, both in his control (his reputation as a “dancer” reluctant to run to contact) as well as things he couldn’t change (he followed one of the all time greats, and fan infatuation with other backs on the roster). He’s spent most of the last five years hearing about how fans and pundits (myself included) would rather give the ball to anybody else.

But I would hope that we can now recognize that Newby is deserving of our respect and praise. He has destroyed the old narrative that a player cannot improve between their junior and senior seasons. Newby is more decisive and shows greater acceleration through holes. Instead of running around would-be tacklers, the 2016 Newby is running through them. In the fourth quarter, when Nebraska has needed to burn clock and put away games, Newby has been a stop-him-if-you-can workhorse. You can discount the teams he’s owned in the fourth quarter (Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue) but respect the performance. More importantly, respect the player who never gave up and worked hard to improve himself.

The Blackshirts are improving.   All in all, this was one of the defense’s better games.  Purdue marched 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown on their first full possession (ignoring the “what are you doing?” halfback pass that was intercepted on the first play).  Early in the second quarter, Nebraska gave up an 88 yard touchdown.  After that, the Blackshirts locked down allowing just 128 yards on 46 snaps (2.8 yards per play).

In the stretch of almost three full quarters, Purdue was 3-11 on third down and 1-4 on fourth down.  The Blackshirts picked up two sacks, hurried the quarterback twice more, broke up six passes, intercepted a pass, stopped a fake punt, and allowed zero points.  Heck, after their first touchdown, Purdue only ran eight plays in Nebraska territory.

The most impressive part was the contributions at all levels of the defense.  The tackles clogged running lanes and allowed the linebackers to run free.  The linebackers made tackles all over the field.  The secondary turned in two interceptions, broke up a half-dozen passes, and should get credit for at least two of Nebraska’s sacks.

Discount the opponent if you wish, but this is a really good time for the defense to hit their stride.

So what don’t we know?

Where is the depth on the offensive line?  Do you remember Greg Austin? He was a left guard on the 2006 team who battled injuries for most of the year. He would limp on the field, block somebody to the best of his abilities, and limp back off when the possession was done. I remember seeing him hobble down the field after big gains, unable to keep up with his teammates. It was sad to watch a guy struggle that badly, and frustrating that a guy who could barely walk was apparently Nebraska’s best option.

Ten years later history is repeating itself. Nebraska’s offensive line is really banged up. Right tackle David Knevel could not finish the game due to injuries. Left tackle Nick Gates arguably should not have finished the game. The current line is chock full of walk-ons, some of which have their own injuries.

Look: I get that throwing a freshman in at tackle is much different from having a frosh play running back or receiver. It takes time to develop an offensive lineman, and apparently youngsters Jalin Barnett, Michael Decker, and Christian Gaylord aren’t there yet. But…are those guys worse than Nick Gates at 70%? Is the gap between sophomore walk-on Cole Conrad and redshirt sophomore Barnett (a highly touted four-star recruit) that big? With two season defining games coming up, wouldn’t it be good to rest an injured player and give valuable reps to a youngster?

Can Nebraska win in Madison? Of Nebraska’s four wins over Wisconsin, only one has occurred in Madison – 50 years ago in 1966. Since joining the Big Ten, the Huskers are 0-2 in Madison, with a combined score of 107-41. The 6 pm kickoff (and the full day of tailgating beforehand) will make it tough on the Huskers.

Personally, I so no reason why Nebraska cannot win. Yes, NU’s injury situation is dicey, but I’m sure Badger fans would tell you the same thing. It really comes down to the (on-field) issues that have plagued this program for years: turnover margin, penalties, and third down. If Nebraska can win in those categories, they can win anywhere.

Is Wisconsin a “must win” game?  On the surface, it’s odd to think that an undefeated team playing a team with two losses is anywhere close to “must-win” territory. However, that may be the case for Nebraska – especially for their plans of winning the Big Ten West. Right now, Wisconsin has two conference losses, and Nebraska (obviously) has none. But a loss to Wisconsin puts the Huskers’ title hopes on a tight rope with Wisconsin owning the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Considering that Wisconsin closes out their schedule with Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota, the Badgers may not lose another conference game. The Huskers would have to win at Ohio State and at Iowa (while avoiding slip ups against Minnesota and Maryland) to win the West.

This game may not be a true “must win”, but a NU victory gives the Huskers a healthy lead going down the stretch.

The best thing I saw on Saturday: The two F/A-18 Super Hornets flying over Memorial Stadium. I love pregame flyovers, they can make even games against Purdue feel special. I wish they occurred more often.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  A young Husker fan losing his lunch in the North stadium concourse at halftime.  Aside from being a somewhat apt metaphor for how many fans viewed the first half, I felt bad for the little guy – and his dad.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Brandon Reilly.  With Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter injured, Reilly has embraced the role of “go-to receiver”.  His four catches for 73 yards led the team, and he contributed some key plays.
  2. Caleb Lightbourn.  After the punt game woes at Indiana, you could hear some whispers of criticism about the true freshman who was thrust unexpectedly into a starting job. The addition of a rugby kick was a great way to boost his confidence.  He responded with a 43 yard average on four kicks, with three landing inside the 20.
  3. Kieron Williams.  Frankly, I was tempted to put him on here for his celebration after rushing the passer on Purdue’s fake punt (a sweet cross-over dribble, fade-away jumper combo).  But his pass break up, tackle for loss, and two interceptions are certainly deserving.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  if a big play is happening on defense (or special teams) the odds are good that Kieron is in the middle of it.
  4. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  DPE operates so well in space.  It’s what makes him an elite punt returner, and it’s why Danny Langsdorf should keep the quick slant route in the playbook.  Give Pierson-El the ball in the middle of the field, set up a couple of blocks, and let him do the rest.  Additionally, Pierson-El is becoming a skilled perimeter blocker.
  5. Josh Banderas and Dedrick Young.  Nebraska’s linebackers combined for one heck of game.  Banderas led the team with 13 tackles, and Young was right behind him with 11.  Bando is playing some of his best ball as a Husker and Young just keeps getting better and better.

Honorable Mention:   Terrell Newby, Mick Stoltenberg, Nate Gerry, Sam Cotton, Stanley Morgan, Alonzo Moore, Tommy Armstrong, Tre Bryant, 70 degree days in late October

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Red Zone Scoring.  The good news is NU was 3-3 on red zone scoring chances.  The bad news is two of those were field goals.  The horribly ugly news is that it took a 51 yard field goal to salvage points from a first and goal on the 10 yard line.  13 points in three red zone trips may not be enough to get it done the next two weeks.
  2. Offensive Line.  I get the injuries.  I saw that Purdue played most of the game with eight or nine guys in the box.  I know that Nebraska was able to exert some of their fourth quarter dominance to seal the game.  But nobody can – or should – be happy with the performance of the offensive line.  The level of play needs to be much higher in the next two games.
  3. Husker Fans. The stadium vibe was rather relaxed on Saturday. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good portion of the game, I never got the sense that sellout crowd 352 had a strong desire to get overly involved. I would describe the atmosphere as “an 11 am BTN game” where the prevailing attitude of fans toward the team was “Please don’t make me have to work today.” Additional demerits to fans attempting to start the wave during what was then a three-point game.
  4. Purdue Fans. Did Purdue bring anybody to the game? The visiting team section was quiet and appeared to have as many people wearing red as black and gold. Before, during, and after the game, I saw as many fans wearing Iowa gear as I Purdue clothes (two of each). I get this is not a prideful time in the Boiler Nation, but couldn’t you find a couple of hundred people to put on a black shirt and feign interest?
  5. Ed Cunningham.  I joked that if I had $1 for every incorrect, inane, or ignorant thing Ed said during the NU-Purdue telecast I could pay for my ticket. By randomly scrolling through Twitter during TV timeouts, I got up to about $20 – a number I’m sure I could double if I watched the game at home. There are announcers Husker fans dislike because of a perceived bias. And there are announcers who just aren’t very good. Mr. Cunningham falls in the latter category.
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