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B1G Friday Night Lights?

2 Nov

Jim Delany has announced that Big Ten schools will play six games on Friday nights, starting in 2017.  The Chicago Tribune broke the story, and their report has good information on what is known so far.

As for what is unknown, here are my thoughts and best guesses:

This is a perk / nasty side effect of the ginormous TV deals the league signed with ESPN and Fox.  What, you thought the networks were going to shell out all of that money and not ask for more?  That’s precious.  Consider these Friday night games a cost of doing business.

What games make the Friday night slot?  All we know so far is three of the games will be league match-ups and the other three will be non-conference games.  I doubt that the marquee match-ups move away from a prime Saturday time slot.  ESPN doesn’t gain anything by moving Ohio State – Nebraska from a Saturday night to Friday.  The same could probably be said for most of the league’s 2:30 games.

If I had to guess, the Friday slots will be primarily filled by the “Beth Mowins rejects” – the mid-level league games that would normally end up on ESPN at 11 am.  Think Indiana – Northwestern or Rutgers – Maryland.

Should Nebraska participate?  In the Tribune report, Teddy Greenstein notes that Michigan has refused to participate in Friday games – home or away.  I would suspect other schools may have similar agreements – or at least veto power before dates and times are announced.  The Tribune also reported that the conference will be “reluctant to ask schools with giant seating capacities to host” Friday games.  NU certainly fits that bill.

From a NU perspective, it’s hard to see hosting the average Friday night game being that enticing – especially now that NU has to publicly work to maintain the sellout streak.  And as always, there are recruiting implications to consider.  I imagine it would be tough to get a lot of recruits to campus on a Friday night.  My guess is with the right circumstances – such as the Friday of Labor Day weekend, or their annual Black Friday game – Nebraska could be convinced to host a Friday night game.

Will Nebraska participate?  Probably.  Nebraska is new enough where they may choose to play nice, and not take a hard-line like Michigan.  I can definitely see Nebraska being willing to play a Friday game on the road.  For the sake of calling my shot, I’ll predict that Nebraska’s game at Illinois next fall will be NU’s Friday debut.

As a Husker fan, how will this impact me?  Honestly, it’s too soon to tell.  From what I’m seeing, you should expect at least one of Nebraska’s games in the next three years to move to Friday.  My guess that it will be a road game that most of us would not attend in person.  For those with busy social calendars, fans of high school teams, or those not home from work, it will create some tough choices.  But my guess is the random Friday game will be an unexpected treat, opening up a weekend to do other things.

This also means one extra Saturday in the fall where you don’t have to worry about a wedding interfering with Game Day – and that is always a win.

Pur-fection

27 Oct

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

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

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK.

*   *   *

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.

You Can’t Hide Your Illini

6 Oct

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

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

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK.

*   *   *

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago, after (what was then) the ugliest and most painful loss of the 2015 season, I wrote this*.  Rereading it brings back all of the struggles and difficulties Nebraska was facing a year ago:  highly questionable play calling, horrible game and clock management, not utilizing talent correctly, abandoning the run, players with horrible attitudes, a secondary that couldn’t cover their own shadow, fourth quarter collapses, and other things that you and I have still managed to repress.

*And given that I used a song title last year, I’ll continue the theme this year with a horrible pun that I absolutely love.

A year later, the transition is dramatic.  Danny Langsdorf called another strong game, playing to the strengths of his personnel.  Clock management was not an issue.  Nebraska is running the ball – and sticking with it.  After what could have been a divisive week the team unity and focus seems to be strong.  I thought the secondary played one of their worst games of the season on Saturday and they held Illinois to 14-23 for 146.  The Illini had almost 100 more passing yards a year ago, despite ridiculously windy conditions.  Finally, Nebraska’s biggest transformation may be in how they are owning the fourth quarter.

Now let’s be clear:  everything is not magically fixed.  There are plenty of flaws to be found in this game and where the team is at today.  There is a ton of work left to be done and room for improvement.  Heck, another 5-7 season is not out of the question at this point.

But take a moment to acknowledge the progress that has been made so far.

So what did we learn?

The Huskers are literally limping into their bye week.   Thank goodness the bye week is in the middle of the season, instead of at the end like last year.  Here is a partial list of guys who did not play – or did not finish the game – on Saturday:  Nebraska’s best receiver, their NFL-caliber tight end, arguably their best running back, their fastest receiver, two starting offensive linemen, and it feels like I’m missing a couple more.

Depth continues to be a major concern for the Huskers.  There are a number of positions where the drop-off between starter and backup – in terms of talent, experience, or both – is dramatic.  There was a play in the 3rd quarter where the guys on the field resembled a lineup you might see in the 3rd quarter of a Red-White Scrimmage.

The bye week, and the opportunity to rest and heal it provides, could not come at a better time for this team.

Milt Tenopir would be proud of the last four Husker drives.  When word came out about legendary line coach Milt Tenopir’s passing, I said the best way for Nebraska to honor him would be to have the team rush for 300+ yards.  While that didn’t happen, the team did the next best thing:  they dominated the ball in the second half.  Look at these two drives:

  • 18 plays, 75 yards, 10:42 of possession.  Touchdown.  A drive for the ages.  18 plays???  Almost 11 minutes of possession???  And by the way, Nebraska took the lead with the score.
  • 11 plays, 59 yards, 5:49 of possession.  Touchdown.  This drive opened up with seven straight runs.

Those are numbers straight out of Milt Tenopir’s heart.  You can picture the old coach getting a little misty eyed watching his boys control the line of scrimmage for most of the second half.  And just like in Milt’s day, those two drives played a huge role in the last two drives of the day:

  • 2 plays, 70 yards, 0:54 of possession.  Touchdown.  First play: a run up the middle for seven yards.  Second play:  an offtackle run for 63 yards and a giant nail in the coffin.
  • 2 plays, -1 yard, 1:14 of possession.  End of game.

Rest in peace, Milt.  You will be missed.

One of the Big Ten’s “sleeping giants” may be waking up.   Illinois is often described as a “sleeping giant” program – one with resources, deep pools of in-state talent, and the biggest obstacle to success being themselves.  Think Missouri prior to Gary Pinkel.  The Illini have talent within their borders, the ability to recruit Chicago, and are the only big time public school in the state.  Big Ten membership gives them money for anything they might need, namely coaches buy-outs and new training facilities.  All that is left is for the administration to care, and to find the guy who can build something sustainable.

There is a chance that Lovie Smith may be that guy.  His first team may be 1-3, but you can see his blueprint coming together already:   build from the lines out, make your name on defense, and play physical football.  Illinois is clearly a couple of years away talent-wise, but Lovie has the NFL cred that is valuable in recruiting.

Don’t be shocked if in the next few years Illinois gets out of their own way long enough to become a contender in the West.

So what don’t we know?

Does NU win this game a year ago?   Walking out of the stadium, enjoying the glow of victory, a thought crossed my mind:  Trailing by six headed into the fourth quarter, would the Huskers have won this game a year ago?  Obviously there are a lot of factors that make it tough to compare and impossible to know for sure, but my gut says Nebraska loses this game.

For me, the only question is how Nebraska would have lost.  Do promising drives end with interceptions, with a pick-six to ice the game?  Maybe the Huskers reclaim the lead, but Illinois proceeds to march down the field and win in the final minute.  Is the spot on the 4th and 1 carry by Newby marked short (or overturned on replay) stalling all momentum?

Was the reaction to the National Anthem protests a distraction?  The offense got off to a slow start, only scoring 10 points in the first three quarters.  Meanwhile, the defense had issues with soft coverage and softer tackling.  As Husker fans tried to understand why this was happening (without giving any credit to the Illinois defensive line) one of the theories tossed out was the national anthem protest was a distraction.  Or more specifically, the reaction by media, fans, and elected officials was a distraction.

To that, I say:  Bull.

Yes, that protest – and the various reactions it spawned – were the hot topic of conversation across the state all week long, and across all mediums.  But aside from Michael Rose-Ivey having a conversation with the Governor, and a few extra questions during the team’s media availability, I truly believe it was a non-issue in the locker room.  You may doubt the validity (or the sincerity) of Riley’s team being a “melting pot”.  I’m willing to guarantee multiple players on the team did not care for the protest, but I’ll also guarantee that the culture of respect is fully in place.

Who knows how it would have played out if Rose-Ivey knelt in Riley’s first year – or in one of Pelini’s last two seasons.  My guess is it would not be nearly as seamless as we’ve seen so far.

Can Nebraska clean up their sloppiness?   Your Huskers are 5-0, but not without their flaws.  The good news is, three of the biggest warts are things they can control.

  • Red zone turnovers.  Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity pointed out that five of Nebraska’s six turnovers  occurred inside the opponent’s 15 yard line.  Since I consider Drew Brown to be automatic inside 35 yards, red zone turnovers cost the Huskers at least three points every time.  Protect the ball and get your points.
  • 15 yard flags.  It says something about how sloppy this team can be that picking up two 15 yard penalties in a game is a major improvement.
  • Quarterback decision-making.  Tommy Armstrong is trending in a bad direction with his decision making.  His one interception was a ball under thrown into triple coverage.  He deserved a second INT when he was flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right and threw a lob back to the middle of the field.

It’s actually rather impressive that Nebraska has made it to 5-0 as sloppy as they can be.  But unless those things get cleaned up – or at least drastically reduced – they will lead to losses.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  The defensive intensity in the second half.  In the first half, Illinois had 169 yards on 24 plays (an average of 7 yds per play).  But in the second half, the Blackshirts raised their game allowing just 101 yards on 20 plays (5 yards per play).

Remember those amazing ball control drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters that won the game?  Don’t forget the defense’s role in that.  After giving up a 74 yard field goal drive to get the score to 16-10, Illinois had three more possessions.  The Illini gained just 18 yards on 10 plays, with no first downs.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  Two of Nebraska’s best receivers being taken to the locker room with injuries.  Get better soon, boys.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Terrell Newby.  After an injury to Ozigbo and a fumble by Wilbon, the much maligned Newby was asked to be a workhorse in the second half.  And did he respond.  He gained 143 on 27 carries, and scored two touchdowns.  He also caught two passes for 26 yards.  Newby is probably the least respected NU I-Back since Dahrran Diedrick or Josh Davis, but he has been a much improved player in 2016.
  2. Sam Cotton.  Speaking of much maligned Huskers, let’s take a minute to appreciate the youngest member of the Cotton clan.  Watch any clip of a Nebraska back running, and you’ll likely see Cotton somewhere in the frame blocking his man, setting an edge, or chopping down opposing players.  And I have a hard time thinking of a better catch by a Husker than his fingertips grab of a Tommy Armstrong missile for a big first down.
  3. Kevin Maurice.  The stats (2 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 hurry) don’t really show it, but the “Space Cowboy” has been playing at a very high level of late.
  4. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  When you see him blocking defensive backs to the sideline, or making big catches on third down, it is tough to remember that he is just a true sophomore.  This kid Stan has a bright future – and with Westerkamp and Carter out, a big opportunity to increase his role.
  5. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  I love watching him return punts.  The way he moves in space, accelerates, and finds creases cannot be taught.  I like seeing him getting touches in multiple facets of the game (returns, receptions, and rushes).  Finally, his work as a perimeter blocker was equally impressive.

Honorable Mention:   Trey Foster, Jordan Westerkamp, Joshua Kalu, Michael Rose-Ivey, Dedrick Young, Freedom Akinmoladun, Ross Dzuris’s old-school black cleats, Corey Whitaker

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Tackling.  As impressive as the overall defensive performance was, I’d love to see how it would have looked if the first (or even second) defender would have made the tackle.  Far too often, an Illinois player was bouncing off two or three guys before going down.
  2. Loose coverage.  The secondary spent most of the game playing way off the Illinois receivers.  It was not uncommon for there to be an 8-10 yard cushion between Chris Jones, Kalu, or one of the Williams boys and the receiver.  Illinois gained a lot of yards on basic pitch and catch throws that could have been avoided with tighter coverage.
  3. Option Football.  Let’s set the stage:  3rd & 2 from the Illinois 5.  NU is down six and on play 14 of their marathon drive.  Settling for a field goal is not an option.  So what play does Danny Langsdorf opt for when he needs two yards?  An option to the left.  Armstrong had to pitch the ball early and Newby was fortunate to get a yard.  Hopefully, we all know by now that I love me some option football.  But that was not the right time or situation for Nebraska to run their first option of the year.  From the execution, it looked like they could use a little more work.
  4. Referee Don Capron’s Microphone Etiquette.  Dear Don – I’m not sure how long you’ve been a referee for major conference football, but here is a pro tip for you:  After you explain a penalty or other procedural thing, you will want to always – ALWAYS – turn off your microphone before blowing your whistle.  Otherwise, you end up rupturing eardrums, shattering eyeglasses, and pissing off every dog for 30 miles.  And you really don’t want to do it three times because 90,000 of the greatest fans in college football will boo the crap out of you.
  5. Mike Rozier’s headwear.  It’s always great to see the former Heisman Trophy winners back in town, but I was a little bummed to see Mike Rozier in a black ball cap.  I’m not expecting him to break out his glorious two-tone suit and matching hat, but getting Rozier in a ball cap is like being served chicken nuggets at a five-star restaurant.

 

NU vs. NU: They Played A Game Too?

29 Sep

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

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

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK.

*   *   *

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.

 

Taking A Stand (By Taking A Knee)

28 Sep

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*   *   *

Initially, I was going to include some thoughts on the kneeling protest by three Huskers in my normal post-game column.  But as the controversy grew and spun up separate storms, I felt that combining the two would do a disservice to the game, the protest, or both.

I’m also aware that some of you are reaching a saturation point with this story, so if you feel the need to click out now there are no hard feelings.  That said, I hope you’ll read on with an open heart and mind.

I’ll tip my hand early:  I support Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, and DaiShon Neal in their peaceful protest.  As an American, it horrifies me to watch videos of my fellow citizens being shot and killed by those who are supposed to protect us.  But I’ll freely admit my support is much more self-serving.

My wife and I have adopted three children.  Two are black and one is biracial.  It scares the hell out of me that I can raise my son the “right way”, teach him respect for authority and law enforcement, how to be a model citizen, and still have him at risk every time he walks out the door.  My boy is only four, but he’s already on track to be built like Barry, Rose-Ivey, or Neal – tall, lean, and muscular.

I plan to coach my children on exactly what to do if they are stopped by law enforcement.  Stand perfectly still. No fast movements.  Don’t reach into your pocket for your wallet or phone.  Do what you are told and end every response with “sir” or “ma’am”.  But it has become clear to me that in some parts of our great nation, my children could do everything perfect and still not come home.  That terrifies me.  I hope that is a fear you do not have for your own children.

So yes, I support Colin Kaepernick, Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, DaiShon Neal, and those who choose to peacefully protest to draw attention to this issue.  There are no quick or easy answers to the social and racial issues in our nation, but ignoring them or viewing them as somebody else’s problem is definitely not the answer.

So what did we learn?

You do not have to condone, agree with, or support the actions of Rose-Ivey, Neal, and Barry.   I have no desire to tell you how to think, act, or believe.  I know there are many who feel kneeling during the anthem is blatantly disrespectful – period.  There are a lot of arguments that can – and have – been made on how there are more appropriate times and places for a protest.  There are numerous statistics that have been offered to repudiate the stance these players are taking.  And there are those who simply would prefer sports to be a refuge free from social and political issues.

You are absolutely entitled to your beliefs and opinions.  As I mentioned above, this issue is close to home for me.  It’s possible that I might feel differently if my kids were as pasty white as I am.  From my perspective, all I would ask is you take a moment to honestly consider what they are protesting and truly put yourself in their shoes.  If you still disagree, that is okay.

This is not a decision that came about lightly.  I have seen many people referring to these players as selfish, attention-seeking, or simply parroting the behavior of some NFL players.  I can’t speak for Rose-Ivey, Barry, or Neal, but I suspect that is wildly inaccurate.  According to an interview with Michael Rose, Sr on “Sharp and Benning”, Rose-Ivey’s process included talking to his parents, Coach Riley, and finally the entire team.  I suspect that along the way, Rose-Ivey was warned of the backlash he would face.

The decision to kneel put a ginormous spotlight on those players – and in several cases, put a target on their backs.  In his statement on Monday, Rose-Ivey spoke of death threats.  On “Sharp & Benning”, the elder Rose talked about how his youngest daughter lost a close friend because her parents would no longer allow the friendship to occur.  Knowing how risk-adverse NFL teams are, do you think kneeling helps or harms the draft prospects of these three Huskers?

Let me put it another way:  I’d guarantee there are more than just three players on that team who feel strongly about black men and women being shot by law enforcement officers across the country.  But only three players chose to kneel.  My hunch is that has much more to do about conviction of beliefs and the strength to take a stand than the desire to be in the spotlight.

It is possible to support Rose-Ivey as well as the military, law enforcement and others.   I would hope this goes without saying, but you don’t have to choose sides.  It is absolutely possible to love America and still want it to be better.  You can (and in my opinion, should) support law enforcement while acknowledging that there are officers on the streets unworthy of the badge.  You can dislike the manner and/or venue in which Kaepernick and others protest, but respect their right to do it.  You can (and should) be thankful for the freedoms our military has provided and protected, and still want those freedoms readily available for every man and woman in our great nation.  Conversely, it is certainly possible to not support these athletes without being a racist or a bigot.

So what don’t we know?

What should you do?   I won’t tell you to support what Rose-Ivey, Barry, and Neal are protesting for.  I definitely won’t tell you to support their method for protest.  I would hope that I don’t need to remind you of their right to protest.  This is a complex, emotional issue that hits on a several core beliefs that you and I hold dear.

I would ask you to do this:  try to consider why these young men are doing what they are doing.  I suspect the majority of people reading this are similar to me (white males born and raised in a state that is, according to census data, almost 90% white).

You may believe that all of these deaths were justified, that if the folks involved had complied – or had obeyed the law – they would still be alive.  You may believe that nothing is worth disrespecting the flag of our great nation.  You may think that “Black Lives Matter” is a joke, or that things like white privilege, institutional racism, and profiling are manufactured excuses.  You may choose to believe any number of other things that are decidedly not politically correct.  You may choose to cite statistics regarding race and crime in an attempt to deflect or negate the message.  All of this is definitely your right.

But…

I would ask you to picture yourself as a young, black male in America.  Imagine what life is like when the notion that you could be stopped by police, comply in a non-threatening manner, and still be shot is a real possibility.  If you are unable (or unwilling) to do that, try this:  imagine how you would react if a large black male approached you on the street.  Now, how would your reaction change if that black male was decked out head to toe in team-issued Adidas gear?

What comes next?  Where does this protest go from here?  As you likely know, at Nebraska home games the national anthem is played while both teams are in the locker room.  So it is highly unlikely that the player protest will continue inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Beyond that, you’d have to look at Nebraska’s four remaining road games, as well as possible matchups in the Big Ten Championship and/or a bowl game.  Will the Star Spangled Banner be played while the teams are out on the field?  If so, do Rose-Ivey, Neal, and Barry continue to kneel?  Do other players join them?

Outside of game day, what will come of the prospective meeting between Rose-Ivey and Governor Pete Ricketts?  Will it be an actual conversation where tough issues are discussed and solutions are proposed?  Or will it be nothing more than a photo opportunity?  I am optimistic.

Is there any impact inside the locker room?   Mike Riley has talked about respect for one another being a core value of the team.  So far, any comment or reaction from other players has been to support their teammates.  But with 140 guys on the team from multiple backgrounds, the odds are very strong that at least one guy disagrees with the issue, the manner of the protest, and/or the attention that is being drawn away from the team’s 4-0 start.

Assuming there is some level of disagreement within the team, how does that play out?  It is handled face to face?  Is there an unwritten “agree to disagree” policy in place?  Or in the worst case scenario, do snide comments get made to the media creating factions in the locker room?

I have faith in Riley, the coaches, captains, and other team leaders to keep the peace and maintain focus on football goals.

5 People I Loved

  1. Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, & DaiShon Neal.  Even if you disagree with their message, or how they chose to present it, I would hope you can respect their passion and desire to put their names (and reputations) on something they believe in – something that @HuskerTroll69 isn’t willing to do.
  2. Mike Riley.  I really respect how Mike Riley has handled this.  We have no idea where he stands on the cause these three Huskers are protesting – or how they are protesting – but he has clearly created a culture of respect within the team.  His quotes about the team being a “melting pot” and college as a time where “you gain a whole new awareness of the world as you go, and you start to form those opinions that are going to make you who you are for the rest of your life” are very enlightened.  These are the things that recruits – and especially their parents – notice.
  3. Nebraska Fans.  To those who have supported the three players vocally or on social media, I commend you.  To those who disagree, but have kept your comments civil, I applaud you too.  It’s okay to have differences in opinion – especially on complex issues like this.  Being able to express yourself without name calling or disregarding the other side is a good thing.
  4. Local media.  This has been a controversial issue with lots of land mines.  There is an unlimited potential for hot take artists to run wild.  But the local media – print and radio in particular – have done an excellent job of providing perspective, opinions from all sides, and fostering a mostly civil forum where we can discuss, debate, and agree to disagree.  There are a lot of talented people in the Nebraska media, and they have done excellent work this week to provide a constructive conversation.
  5. Sam Hahn, Drew Brown, Zack Darlington, & Nick Gates.  A discussion about the Star Spangled Banner before the Northwestern game would be incomplete without mentioning how four Husker players stepped in to assist with holding a large American flag over the field.  I know it is easy to draw a distinction between the presumed patriotism of these four and the perceived disrespect shown by the other three, but I find that too simplistic.  Instead, give proper credit to these Huskers for doing what Nebraskans love to do – step up to lend a helping hand without being asked, or without seeking credit.

 

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Human decency.  Death threats?  Racial slurs?  Suggesting players be lynched?  I struggle to find any scenario where that would be remotely acceptable in a civilized society – let alone in reaction to a young man kneeling in prayer.  My cardinal rule for social media is this:  if I wouldn’t say it to their face, I’m not going to tweet it at them.
  2. Hal Daub.  Between the quotes attributed to him by the Lincoln Journal-Star, calling for Rose-Ivey, Barry, and Neal to be kicked off the team, and his immediate denial in the Omaha World-Herald, the NU Regent did not come off looking very good.
  3. National Anthem decorum.  A big part of the controversy has been the perceived disrespect to America and the flag caused by athletes sitting or taking a knee when the anthem is played.  I get it.  I’ve seen a lot of crappy behavior by fans over the years.  People sitting, talking, not removing their hat, using their phone, or otherwise being oblivious and disrespectful.  There are many members of Husker Nation who could use a friendly reminder on how to act during the anthem.
  4. Pete Ricketts.  The Governor called the protest “disgraceful and disrespectful”, and suggested that raising their fists in the air – a symbol of the black power movement – would be a better alternative.  Credit to Gov. Ricketts for agreeing to meet with Rose-Ivey and discuss the issue.
  5. Northwestern parachute guy.  The BTN broadcast showed a person who parachuted onto Northwestern’s Ryan Field with an American flag behind him.  It was a cool scene – at least until he landed and the flag was drug across the blotchy sandpit Northwestern calls a football field.  I don’t know if the parachutist was a military member or a private citizen, but I’m more bothered by the Stars and Stripes being drug across the ground than I am about three guys taking a knee.

 

Oregon Statement

20 Sep

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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.

 

 

Improving Nebraska Football: A to Z

16 Sep

 

Hello loyal readers, family members, Twitter/Facebook e-migos, and those who blindly click on hyperlinks!

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

Why should you CLICK THIS LINK and read this fine piece of Feit Can Write content on a site that is not feitcanwrite.com?  Well, to put it bluntly, I get paid cash money for the views I get there.  I like cash money (even if it is more like coin money).  My beautiful wife and three adorable children appreciate it when I earn cash money and spend it on them.

As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

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During the off-season, there was an article in the Lincoln Journal-Star that stuck in my memory.  More accurately, it was a quote from Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst inside that article:

“Every single day (after the Iowa game) we talked about, ‘How are we going to make our program better? From A to Z,'” said Eichorst.  “When we got back from the bowl game, we did the same thing. ‘How can we make our program from A to Z better?'”

The Journal-Star article – a recap of a May speech by Eichorst and Mike Riley – is understandably short on specifics.

But the concept stuck with me:  If I was in charge of improving the Nebraska Football program from A to Z, what would I do?

Here are my recommendations, from A to Z.  Most of these are directed at the folks inside Memorial Stadium, but there are things for you and I to do as well.

A – Embrace your Alumni – A program like Nebraska as a ton of strengths.  One of the biggest ones should be its alumni base.  Their passion, involvement, and support (financial and intangible) can do amazing things to further the University and all of NU athletics.  Certainly, that applies to graduates of UNL, but I’m primarily focusing on previous players.

Let’s face it:  relations between former players and past coaching staffs have been strained – or even non-existent.  Yet, having a strong network of support from former Huskers (especially those in the League or involved with coaching) is huge.  To his credit, one of the first things that Mike Riley did as head coach was reach out to former letter winners with open arms.

I’d love to see Nebraska get to a place where alumni are not identified as a “Solich Guy”, a “Callahan player”, or a “Pelini recruit”, but as a “former Cornhusker.”

B – Be Bought In.  As divided as the Nebraska fan base has been over the past few years, I think we can all agree that we all want Nebraska to return to championship level success and prominence.  But when we talk about how that happens, the disagreements start.

Some folks don’t like the coaching staff or AD.  Some question if an offense can win if they don’t run the ball 65% of the time.  Other question the loyalty and passion of other fans.  And on and on.

Instead, how about buying in to the current staff?  I’m not advocating blind faith or ignoring red flags.  What I am saying is quit pursuing the joyless victory of being the first person to say “See, I told you it wouldn’t work”.

Come together to support the program we all claim to love.  Mike Riley’s vision – and execution – may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to call for firings after every loss.

C – Coach ’em up.  Obviously, the desire of every college football program is to sign a boatload of five-star talent, turn them loose, and watch the wins pile up.  But for most schools outside of Alabama, it’s not that easy.

Between injuries, suspensions, and attrition, schools often have to take some lemons and try to make lemonade.  The ability of coaches to instruct, train, and develop their players into contributors is vital.  This is an area where Nebraska has excelled in the past (Milt Tenopir, amongst others) and can excel again (Trent Bray, I’m looking at you).

D – Devaney.  Not the NU legend, or his namesake sports center, but new hire Billy Devaney.  Aside from having a mouthful of a title (Executive Director of Player Personnel and Special Assistant to the Head Coach), he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in talent evaluation and player development.  I’m intrigued to see how his role evolves and how he helps shape the roster.

If nothing else, it has to be a plus in recruiting to be able to tell a recruit “we have a former NFL GM on staff, and he loves your film”.

E – End early games.  I hate 11 am home games.  Everything is so sleepy.  Downtown Lincoln has no life before a game.  The students are notoriously late to fill in for the early kickoffs.  The energy in the stadium tends to be low.  For the recruitniks, it’s tough to get Johnny Fivestar into town – especially if he has a game the night before.  The actual W-L numbers may not fully back it up, but I greatly prefer afternoon or evening games to brunch affairs.

There is no way to completely end early games – they are a reality when your conference has multiple TV partners that want to fill programming slots.  That said, the best way to escape the Beth Mowins / Joey Galloway shift is to win.  You don’t see a lot of Ohio State or Alabama kickoffs before noon CST.

F – Focus on fervent fans.  Nebraska enjoys strong and passionate fan support.  From impacting games with constant, intimidating noise, or the flood of social media “encouragement” given to recruits, it is clear that football matters here.  We fans want this program to be successful.

The University, Athletic Department, and the football program – in my opinion – do a good job of acknowledging and recognizing fan support.  But there is always room for more.  One of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in sports deserves all of the love and appreciation NU can give.

What does that look like?  I’m don’t have any specifics at this time, but I’d challenge NU to give back more.

G – Sell the Good Life.  The perception still exists (especially with recruits) that all Nebraskans drive tractors, cows wander freely, and corn grows on every corner.  The reality is that Nebraska – and especially Lincoln – is a great place to live, work, and go to school.

I recall a brilliant idea proposed on the Sharp & Benning show:  fly recruits into Omaha and drive them past TD Ameritrade ballpark, Warren Buffet’s house, all of the Fortune 500 companies, and into Lincoln in Interstate 180, with its impressive view of Memorial Stadium, Pinnacle Bank Arena, the new Hudl headquarters, and the Capitol.  Then, casually note that the time of the trip is the same as it would take to go 15 miles in some cities.

H – Hometown Proud.  In a perfect world, Nebraska high schools produce a couple of legitimate 4 or 5 star recruits every year, and they accept Nebraska offers without so much as a visit to another school.  In addition, a large group of in-state kids decide to walk-on with several developing into starters.

In reality, the Cornhusker state rarely produces five-star talent, and sometimes those talented kids go to places like Stanford, Iowa, or Notre Dame.  The kids who may have walked on 20 years ago are now picking scholarships from Ohio, Wyoming, or one of the Dakota schools over paying their own way.  While I don’t believe in Nebraska signing every guy who dominates Class B, I completely understand that those hometown kids are the lifeblood of the program – and often the best leaders and hardest workers.

I – Invent and Innovate.  Much of success that Devaney and Osborne shared can be traced back to Nebraska being a college football innovator.  Nebraska was one of the pioneers of strength and conditioning, which gave them a big advantage on the field in the 80’s and 90’s.  Now, every school has a monster weight room, and the S&C playing field has leveled out.

Nebraska needs to find the next way to gain an edge over the competition.  The new Athletic Performance Lab certainly has the potential to give that edge.  But my money is on the analytics department showing a return on investment first.  The easy analogy is to the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s, but the ability to have strong data can be a game changer.

J – Find the next Janovich.  Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Andy Janovich.  Go back through Husker teams all the way to Devaney and you’ll find Janovich-type players:   The in-state walk-on who worked his way on the field, earned a scholarship, and became a stand out player and team leader.

Those guys are getting tougher to find as they’re opting for scholarships to Wyoming, Ohio, or one of the Dakota schools instead of a chance to walk-on in Lincoln.  But the heart and soul of the program will always be in-state kids who want it more.  This is where having a strong connection with the high school coaches in the state can help identify those guys.

K – Kick up the kicking game.  The good news is Nebraska traditionally enjoys success in one or more facets of the kicking game.  Be it an accurate place kicker, a punter with a booming leg, or a put ’em in the aisles return man, even the worst NU teams have had a special teams bright spot.

Unfortunately, the bad news is NU has had a nasty trait of turning last year’s strength into this year’s weakness.  2015 was a prime example as many components of the kicking game regressed.

Without getting sidetracked by Bruce Read’s salary, the ability to be strong in special teams can – and should – be a game changer.

L – Line of scrimmage.  I am a firm believer that football championships – especially in college – are won from the lines out.

As amazing as Tommie Frazier was, would he have been the same dynamic play maker if he played behind some of the lines from the Callahan or Pelini years?  Let’s just say that I have my doubts.

On the other side of the ball, every great defense is anchored by a strong defensive line that shuts down the run and puts heat on quarterbacks.

Mark my words: when the lines are dominating, success will follow.

M – Memorial Stadium.  Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium is one of the great cathedrals of college football.  As the Old Grey Lady moves closer to her 100th birthday, she’s never been in better shape.  Improvements, both big and small, have enhanced the game day experience for fans.

But as the watch-at-home experience continues to improve, it will be important for Nebraska to find new ways to keep Memorial Stadium as one of the great places to watch a football game.

N – Nike , Adidas, or Under Armour?  Much has been written and said about Nebraska’s current apparel and footwear contract with Adidas – and what should happen when that contract expires in June.

I don’t have a preference on the provider.  Instead, I want to be with a company that treats Nebraska differently than the majority of its clients, provides a top-tier deal, and can create uniforms and alternates that Nebraskans can be proud of.

O – Oregon.  Most of the things in this list should be considered long-term goals, if not core principles of the program.  This one is decidedly short-term.  NU needs to beat Oregon on Saturday.  Why?

Let’s start with Mike Riley.  There is a line of thinking that Riley left Oregon State because he’d never have the talent and/or resources to beat the Ducks in Corvallis.  So what would it say if he still can’t get it done at Nebraska?

Additionally, Oregon is going to be a big recruiting weekend, and an exciting victory in front of a raucous crowed sure never hurts.

Finally, while I think it can be shortsighted to paint the program’s narrative and direction based on a single game, I suspect other members of the media (both local and national) won’t have any issue with it – win or lose.

P – Put aside “P” named boogeymen.  Pederson.  Pelini.  Perlman.  Ask 100 Husker fans why the program has not won a conference title since 1999, and the odds are good that at least one of those three will be named.

Certainly, you can list off many things they did (or are accused of doing) that hurt the program.  Those three will always be polarizing figures who stir up emotional responses.  But how does that help us today or tomorrow?

It’s time to let go of the negativity.  Stop believing that people are (or were) conspiring to ruin the program, and come together to move forward.

Q – Quit losing.  Yeah, it is a simplistic answer.  But consider the deep-dive analysis of every nook and cranny of the program.  The hours of talk radio hot takes.  The message board and Twitter angst over the topic du jour…How much of that goes away if Nebraska wins 9, 10, or 11 games?

R – Recruit, recruit, recruit.  My interest in all things recruiting is rather minor.  I’ll read about the latest commits, look at their stars and other offers, but that’s about it.  I don’t watch their film and I mostly forget about them until they a) sign and/or b) start to contribute.

Mike Riley and his staff don’t have that luxury.  They appear to be organized, prioritized, and energized in everything they do around recruiting.  And they are not afraid to go after the big names.

Say what you will about stars, rankings, and the multitude of recruiting sites and services, but the numbers don’t lie:  there is a ceiling on any program’s success without multiple, high-end recruits.

S  – That’s what speed do.  College football is a speed game.  Yes, power in the trenches is vital, but the ability to run away from (or catch up to) the opposition wins games.  So many of Nebraska’s all-time great teams – and especially defenses – featured lightning fast guys flying all over the field.  This is part recruiting, part strength and conditioning, and part finding roles to get speed on the field.

T – Three hundred fifty and beyond.  The Memorial Stadium sellout streak will hit 350 games when Oregon comes to town.  But this summer, the AP confirmed what many have long suspected:  three times in 2015, NU asked “friends of the program” to buy up extra tickets at the last minute to keep the streak alive.

You may consider the streak a sham, but it’s continued existence is a lifeline to a time of prosperity and success.  It’s also a very tangible symbol of the passion Nebraska fans have for their team.

The streak is in serious jeopardy, but there are ways to protect it (another topic for another day).  Doing so should be a top priority of Shawn Eichorst.

U – Uniforms.  Hopefully by now, all of the staunch traditionalists (such as yours truly) understand that alternate uniforms aren’t going anywhere.  And since world peace is more likely than an alternate that appeals to the old school fans and the kids they are designed to impress, let’s hope they continue to make kids excited to wear the scarlet and cream – or white and chrome – without causing too much heartburn.  But I’m willing to settle for uniform numbers I can read from North Stadium.

V – Values.  The Athletic Department lists five core values:  Integrity, Trust, Respect, Teamwork, and Loyalty.  I tend to be cynical towards mission statements, core values, and other corporate buzz speech.

However, if the football program – and those associated with it – can live those values, I like their chances for success.

W – Weight Room.  I’ve been told by folks in the know that Strength and Conditioning does not win games – even if it usually gets blamed for losses.  It goes without saying that Nebraska’s strength and conditioning program is a vital part of if the program is successful or not.  Husker fans know the Boyd Epley story, and how Husker Power gave NU an edge in the 80’s and 90’s.

The challenge for Mark Philipp and his staff is building on Epley’s core principles to once again give Nebraska an athletic edge.  I have confidence they can get it done.

X – X Factor.  The Webster’s definition of an ‘X Factor’ is “a circumstance, quality, or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence”.

Throughout Nebraska’s history, the introduction of an X Factor has regularly been what propelled them from good to great.  It could be a coach (Bob Devaney), a player (Tommie Frazier), or a schematic concept (switching from a 5-2 defense to a 4-3 in order to get more speed on the field).

The challenge is identifying the X Factor and getting it to Lincoln.

Y – Youth Movement.  Here is a sobering thought:  Nebraska has starters who were not alive for the 1997 National Championship.  The coaches are currently recruiting kids who were not alive the last time Nebraska won a conference championship.

There is an entire generation out there with limited to no experience having Nebraska as a college football power.  The road back to championship football will be driven by kids who grew up viewing Boise State and Oregon as title contenders.  The challenge is getting these kids to understand what Nebraska was, and what it can be again.

Z – Zero Tolerance.  In addition to the tradition of on-field success, many Nebraska fans take immense pride in the program’s tradition of success off the field.  From Academic All-Americans to a program that has largely been free of scandal and wrong-doing, Nebraska is a program you can still be proud to support even when the on-field product is down.

That’s why I think it is important for UNL – and not just the athletic department or the football staff – has a very low tolerance for things that may harm NU.  We may have looked longingly at Baylor’s success the last few years, but I guarantee that nobody wants to trade places with them now.

I’m not willing to trade a handful of wins for a loss of integrity – even if “everybody else is doing it”.

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