Tag Archives: Big Ten

2017 Big Ten Predictions

23 Sep

This is the first full weekend of Big Ten action, which means it is time for some predictions* on how the teams will finish in the respective divisions.

*Or, given some of my history with prognosticating, blind guesses.

For today, we’ll predict by division.  Throughout the season, we’ll do a power ranking 1-14.  Let’s dive right in with the East.

East

  1. Ohio State.  I know, I know.  They have looked pedestrian (by their standards) in the first few weeks, and they have a quarterback controversy brewing.  But…you pick against an Urban Meyer team at your own risk.  They’ll get it figure out, and when they do – watch out.  Plus, they get Penn State at home.
  2. Penn State.  Arguably the best offense in the league, but they have the hardest set of cross over games (at Iowa, at Northwestern, Nebraska) in addition to that trip to Columbus.  If they repeat as division champs, they will definitely have earned it.
  3. Michigan.  The Wolverines have Ohio State at home, but they drew the suddenly competent Purdue and perennial power Wisconsin, along with the boat rowers from Minnesota.
  4. Maryland.  The Terps made a splash with a convincing win at Texas, and it wouldn’t shock me to see them climb up into the top 3.  But until they beat one of the teams above them, they’ll be middle of the pack.
  5. Michigan State.  After a nightmarish 2016, the Spartans are back and…well, nobody really knows yet.  The only thing we really learned from their two non-conference games (35-10 over Bowling Green and 28-14 over Western Michigan) is they would be a title contender in the MAC.
  6. Rutgers.  I started out with a bit of a stunner, and let’s continue that down at the bottom.  Yes, the Scarlet Knights are a familiar 1-2, with the lone win coming against an FCS school.  But they have been competitive in those losses – including nationally ranked Washington.  More importantly, they have an ideal draw from the West to steal some conference wins:  at struggling Nebraska, at Illinois, and Purdue.  Win two of those – and probably the game against Indiana – and Rutgers could escape laughingstock status.
  7. Indiana.  The Hoosiers are a decent team, and in the West they might be middle of the pack.  But in the East, Indiana has two options:  pull some big upsets or wait for basketball.  You’re just under 50 days, Hoosier fans.

 

West

  1. Wisconsin.  Heading to Indianapolis at 11-1 or maybe 12-0 is a decent possibility for the Badgers.  Michigan is by far their toughest crossover game, but they have to come to Madison, as do West contenders Iowa and Northwestern.  Sconnie could have the division wrapped up by Veteran’s Day.
  2. Iowa.  Predicting the Hawkeyes second is more about my uncertainty about the rest of the division than my confidence in Iowa’s chances.  Iowa has two convincing wins and an OT comeback against Iowa State.  But their conference schedule is brutal:  Penn State, at Michigan State, at Northwestern, Ohio State, at Wisconsin, and at Nebraska.  Still, do you trust and of the other teams more?
  3. Nebraska.  This may be a homer pick, or maybe I’m scared off by a flaky Northwestern team and PJ Fleck’s hyper enthusiasm, but I’ll take Nebraska third.  Questions – and drama – abound in Lincoln, but if Mike Riley can get things settled, NU has the talent to compete.
  4. Northwestern.  The perennial trendy pick to win the division has already been blown out by Duke.  But maybe this is the year?  If so, we’ll know by November 1 as the Wildcats open at Wisconsin, followed by Penn State, at Maryland, Iowa, and Michigan State.
  5. Minnesota.  I’m going to have to pace myself on the P.J. Fleck “row the boat” references, so I’m not high and dry (sorry) by Week 8.  Fifth is a realistic spot for a first year coach building his cult…I mean culture.
  6. Purdue.  The surprise team of the West, the Boilers gave Louisville a scare and beat Ohio and Mizzou convincingly.  Will they finish out of the cellar?  I’d guarantee it.  Can they make some noise in the division?  Probably, but not enough to be a legit title threat.  By Thanksgiving, I may want to flip this pick with Northwestern.
  7. Illinois.  In Indiana, they have basketball to look forward to.  At Illinois?  Well, by falling on Jim Delany’s “Friday Night Lights” sword multiple times, they have a couple of extra Saturdays free.  So that’s something.

 

Big Ten Championship:  Give me Wisconsin 34, Ohio State 31 in a thriller.

Under the radar pick:  Michigan surprises everyone by rolling to a 42 – 10 win over the Badgers.

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Northern Illinois Reaction and Recap

19 Sep

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*   *   *

How do you sum up one of the most shocking losses in school history?

How do you accurately account for all of the things that went wrong?

How does a loss like this impact the big picture – for Mike Riley, Shawn Eichorst, and the program as a whole?

Frankly, I don’t know.  I’m still processing it.  So I’m going to pass on any sweeping proclamations, knee jerk reactions, scalding hot takes, or calls for anybody to be fired.

For now.

So what did we learn?

This is going to be a long year.  Think back on the time between the end of the Spring Game and the start of the season.  It was one of quietest and most drama free summers of recent memory.  The vast majority of the news was positive – big name commitments,  positive reviews about Bob Diaco’s defense, and several glowing reviews of Tanner Lee’s skill and potential.  Some folks refer to the summer months as the “Kool Aid Season”, and this year’s batch was as sweet and delicious as it had been in years.

And then the season started.

We’re just three weeks in, and have already endured two painful losses and a very close call, several key injuries, a defense that can allow yards (and points) by the bushel, an offense that is maddeningly inconsistent, and a coaching staff that seems to make a questionable decision every week.

Off the field that has a been a controversy about a coordinator not talking to the press after a game, a controversy about potentially losing the Black Friday game, angst over a contract extension signed a few months ago, and coaching seats that get hotter by the hour.  The athletic director – who prefers to stay out of the spotlight – has spoken publicly twice this week.  Fans are becoming divided on the future of the program.  And it’s technically still summer.

Let’s say Nebraska wins eight of their last nine games.  Even in what appears to be a best-case scenario, it still seems likely that the drama and division will continue to grow.

The offensive line is not good.  Nebraska finished with a total of 85 yards on 36 carries – an average of just 2.4 yards.  Tanner Lee was sacked three times, hurried on seven other plays, and finished with one of the weirdest stat lines you’ll see:  7 carries for -18 yards and 2 touchdowns.

In addition, three of Nebraska’s five penalties were against the offensive line.  I’d love to know which lineman graded out the highest, because I honestly have no clue who played the best – or, the least worst, if you prefer.

The defense came to play.  One of the biggest questions from the Oregon game was if the second half shutout was a fluke, Oregon taking their foot off the gas, or a turning point for Bob Diaco’s defense.

While not conclusive, the Blackshirts made a strong statement against NIU, holding them to just 116 yards (and zero offensive points) through three quarters.  Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t get the big stop they needed after Nebraska took the lead.  Northern Illinois flew 75 yards down the field in 2:28 to regain the lead.  But the defense certainly held their own.  The key – as with everything on this team – is consistency.

So what don’t we know?

Where are the substitutions on the offensive line?   I know Mike Cavanaugh prefers to keep the same five linemen on the field throughout the game, as he feels collective unit benefits from the continuity.  In theory, I agree with this approach.

But in real life, the approach raises more questions than answers.  How do you develop players and build depth?  When a player is clearly struggling to handle what the defense is throwing at him, doesn’t his presence weaken the entire unit?  And then there are injuries…

During the game, center Cole Conrad left briefly with an injury.  He returned shortly after, but could be seen limping in the fourth quarter.  Right tackle Matt Farniok apparently broke a bone in his wrist at some point during the game.  Yet, both played almost the entire game.

I’ve made my peace with Conrad, a former walk-on, starting over other highly touted recruits.  If he’s truly the best man for the job, he should play.  But the equation changes when a guy is hurt.  Is Cavanaugh telling us that a starter at, say, 80% health is still preferable over his backup?  If so, that raises some serious questions about depth and player development – especially of former four-star recruits.  If not, doesn’t that put more of a burden on the rest of the offense to compensate for an injured teammate?

Is DeMornay Pierson-El the best option at punt return?  Wow, that is sentence I never thought I would type.  But there is a part of me that wonders if that role is based more on what he did in 2014, than on what he’s done since.  Here are the numbers:

2014:  34 returns; 17.5 yards per return, three touchdowns.
2015, 2016, first three games of 2017:  32 returns; 7.2 yards per return, zero touchdowns.

In fairness, the 2015 and 2016 version of Pierson-El had to battle multiple injuries, as well as punt return schemes designed by Bruce Read.

But his senior season as a returner has not gotten off to a great start.  Against Oregon, he broke a cardinal rule by fair catching a ball inside his own 10.  Later, he appeared upset with himself after calling for a fair catch late in the game with his team needing a spark.  Against Northern Illinois, he fielded a ball at the 7, fumbled a return, and appeared to be pressing.  His best return of the day was negated by a penalty.

I have nothing but respect for DPE, his abilities, his potential, and how he has come back from injuries that may have ended the careers of other players.  But I have a nagging feeling that if it wasn’t for a special season before those injuries, somebody else would be returning punts for NU.

How do we account for Tanner Lee’s struggles?   On the season, Lee is completing just 52.5% of his passes, with a upside-down TD:INT ratio of 5:7. None of this matches up with the expectations Husker fans had going into the season.  So what is going on?

To my eye, there are many factors at play.  From biggest to smallest, I would point towards:

  • A porous offensive line.  Lee has been sacked six times in three games, and has faced constant pressure.  Lee appears to get flustered by pressure, which leads to bad throws and interceptions.
  • Drops by his receivers.  I haven’t found a good source to count drops and “shoulda caught its” by backs and receivers, but it certainly feels like there have been several – and often at critical moments.
  • Over-aggressiveness.  Lee has a strong arm and the potential for pin-point accuracy. In the Arkansas State game, he had a couple of passes that went through a narrow window.  Against Oregon and Northern Illinois, those passes were knocked down or intercepted.  Additionally, Lee appears reluctant to throw the ball away when under pressure.
  • Mechanics.  I’m no QB coach, but it appears to my untrained eye that Lee occasionally throws off his back foot.  I’ve also noticed a tendency to stare down a primary target.

There are probably others that I’m missing, but those seem to be the biggest culprits.  The good news is, these are all things that can be corrected.

 

5 Players I Loved

  1. Caleb Lightbourn.  It certainly felt like a day where the punter should be the MVP, and Lightbourn delivered.  He averaged over 47 yards on six kicks, which played a big role in the shutout the defense pitched for three quarters.
  2. Antonio Reed.  Going solely off the stat sheet, one would think Reed played a pretty decent game (second on the team with 5 tackles, including one for loss).  But the stat sheet doesn’t tell you that Reed, who is battling injury, was essentially playing with one hand.  His recognition of Northern Illinois’ trick play prevented a big play.
  3. J.D. Spielman.  I really like this kid.  He made big plays in the passing game.  He had an impressive 50 yard kickoff return.  And he had the presence of mind to get Tyjon Lindsey to take a touchback after bobbling the opening kickoff.
  4. Khalil and Carlos Davis.  The twin defensive lineman made a big impact on the Northern Illinois offense.  Carlos had five tackles and part of a sack, and Khalil played his best game as a Husker with a half sack, another TFL, forced fumble, and a deflected pass.  The defense needs pressure on the quarterback and the twins delivered.
  5. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  DPE had one of his best games as a receiver, racking up 101 yards on eight catches.  It’s great to see him making big plays.

Honorable Mention:   Former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson carrying the American flag, Mikale Wilbon, yards after catch by the receivers, Tanner Lee scoring two rushing TDs, Stanley Morgan Jr., biased announcer Les Miles, all of the fans who held their balloons through halftime until NU scored.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  Yes, this is the third time I’ve called out the line in this piece.  But I believe it is warranted.  Any discussion about benching Lee is worthless until we see what he does with good protection.
  2. Tanner Lee.  That said, Lee needs to make some better decisions.  Throw it away or check it down to a back.  Stop forcing passes unless your receiver is the only one who can catch it.
  3. Receiver drops.  And speaking of the receivers, there were some very savage drops and passes that probably should have been caught.  It would be easy to point at some of the bigger moments – Spielman dropping a sure thing on 3rd and short; Connor Ketter short arming a wide open touchdown – and point to the inexperience of the players involved.  But if that is the case, the QB (and/or offensive coordinator) should not be putting those guys in that position.
  4. Lamar Jackson.  The young cornerback is here for two unfortunate plays.  The first was his attempt to shove a NIU receiver out of bounds after a catch.  The problem was the receiver was 4-5 yards in bounds, so the shove didn’t accomplish anything.  The second is an unsportsmanlike penalty that resulted from his frustrations boiling over.
  5. Memorial Stadium atmosphere.  11 am games suck.  We all acknowledge this.  The crowd is late to arrive, and slow to provide any sort of home field advantage.  On Saturday, it was obvious by halftime that the team was in trouble and could use a jolt.  Going into the fourth quarter, it was almost painfully silent.  Nebraska needs to do something to spark the crowd.  As my buddy Nate observed, “Wisconsin has ‘Jump Around’, and we have the Hy-Vee tailgate of the game”.  Nebraska can – and should – do better.

[COLOR=#FF0000][I]Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog ([URL=”http://www.feitcanwrite.com”%5Dwww.feitcanwrite.com%5B/URL%5D). Follow him on [URL=”http://www.twitter.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DTwitter%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D or on [URL=”http://www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DFacebook%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D.

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Ah, Duck

15 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.

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*   *   *

So….that didn’t exactly go as planned, did it?

The good news, if you want to see it, is in the big picture this loss doesn’t really hurt Nebraska.

Nebraska wasn’t ranked, so the loss just puts them lower in the “Others receiving votes” wasteland.  Only the most rabidly passionate fans believed Nebraska would make it to the College Football Playoff, so I think we all can accept that is not going to happen this year.  The big prize for the year – a West Division title, and a shot at that elusive conference championship – is still in play.

I know it is jarring to consider Nebraska in these terms, but this is where the team is.  No amount of complaining, denial, or anger is going to change that.  And with that uplifting lede, let’s dive in….

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s offense must do a better job of helping the defense.  As you know, Oregon scored six first half touchdowns.  While you may choose to blame Bob Diaco’s defense for that, I’m here to tell you that Danny Langsdorf’s offense didn’t exactly help the situation.  Take a look at what the offense did in their drives following Oregon scores:

1st half drives following Oregon Touchdowns
Plays Yards Result Time of Poss
1 0 INT 00:12
3 3 Punt 01:35
4 75 TD 01:34
3 4 Punt 02:33
3 -5 INT 00:53
3 7 Punt 00:39
17 84   07:26

I’m not suggesting that Nebraska must answer every single score with a score of their own.  But I wonder if Langsdorf shares that opinion.  It certainly appears as if his reaction to the other team scoring is to try to score, and quick.  Heck, even the lone touchdown drive covered 75 yards in just four plays.

I can understand feeling like the offense needs to score every time out, but I also see value in a slower, grind it out drive that gives the defense a chance to catch their breath and make adjustments, slow momentum, and establish a field position edge.  It may not be as exciting as a quick strike answer, but in the long run it may be more effective.

There was improvement in the defense.  Aside from the obvious improvement from the first half (42 points) to the second half (0 points), there were some signs of growth from the Arkansas State opener.  In one of Oregon’s first quarter drives, they ran the bubble screen that Arkansas State used to gain a billion yards.  That play was stuffed for no gain, and Oregon mostly stayed away from it.  I saw some good examples of the defense “rallying” to the ball.  On one play, I counted seven defenders surrounding a ball carrier on the sideline.

Obviously, there is still much improvement needed – finding a way to pressure the quarterback would be a great place to start – but there were some positives to take away.

Mike Riley’s teams do not quit.   Raise your hand if at halftime you thought Oregon was going to hang 70 on Nebraska, and beat them by 50.  But the Huskers came out after half and did their best to save face.

And while I suspect my counterparts in Oregon are railing on the Ducks for taking their foot off the gas too soon / playing too conservatively in the second half, I think the second half result was more about the Huskers continuing to fight hard than Oregon coasting in.

I’m in no way suggesting that we as fans should be pleased with “only” losing by seven points.  Nor am I trying to carve a moral victory trophy out of the giant turd the Huskers dropped in the first half.  As poorly as NU played in the first half, they probably deserved an Ohio State style ass kicking.  That they refused to let it happen tells me a lot.

So what don’t we know?

How will Diaco’s defense look against a non-spread team?   We’re still way to early in the season for sweeping generalizations, but the early results suggest that pass-happy spread teams are bad for the Blackshirts.

This is another spot where the second half shutout can be encouraging to Nebraska fans.  Very few of the teams remaining on Nebraska’s schedule will throw it as much as Arkansas State and Oregon did – especially in the West division.

Where was the screen game?  In basketball, when a shooter is off, they often are able to get back on track with some easy shots like layups or free throws.  When Tanner Lee was struggling with accuracy, and Oregon’s pressure was getting more aggressive, it seemed like some short passes to the running backs might be a good way to get him going.  Instead, only one ball was caught by a back – a four yard gain by Mikale Wilbon.

Will there be a hangover?   This week’s game against Northern Illinois has the potential to be really good – or really bad.  Between any lingering effects from a frustrating loss, the sluggish nature of 11 am kickoffs, and a team looking ahead to the conference season, Northern Illinois could put a scare into the Huskers – especially if the defense continues to struggle.

Or, the Huskers, coming off a strong and focused week of practice, jump out early and put the game away early in the 3rd quarter; allowing the reserves to get some snaps.  I know which one I pick.

 

5 Players I Loved

  1. Tre Bryant.  A fourth quarter knee injury kept him from fully living up to the “All Day Tre” moniker, but 107 yards on 20 carries provided some much needed offensive balance in a game where NU threw 41 times.
  2. Luke Gifford.  Gifford is one of those players who just has a knack for the ball, and seems to always be around the action.  There were not a lot of bright spots in the defense’s performance, but Gifford was one of them.
  3. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  On Nebraska’s first drive of the second half, Tanner Lee proved that Stanley is his favorite target, as four straight throws went towards #8.  The last two accounted for a huge 4th down conversion and a statement touchdown.  Morgan added another touchdown catch on the next NU drive, and finished with team highs in catches (7) and yards (103), becoming the first Husker to open a season with 100 yard receiving games.
  4. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  DPE was just behind Morgan for receptions (4) and yards (67), including a highlight reel grab over the top of an Oregon defender.  His catch on the first drive lit the spark for a big second half.
  5. Nebraska fans.  Did you see all of the red?  For a fan base well known for showing up on the road, that was an impressive performance.  It was fitting that Saturday’s game was the anniversary of the legendary Nebraska takeover of Notre Dame’s stadium.  Kudos to all who made the trip.

Honorable Mention:   Eric Lee, Jerald Foster, Caleb Lightbourn, Aaron Williams, Matt Farniok, Matt Farniok’s hair, JD Spielman, Luke McNitt, Oregon’s duck stomping cancer logo

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Pass rush.  Want to know how Justin Herbert managed to be 21-25 for 313 yards and 3 TDs – in the first half! – on Saturday?  The stat sheet has the answer:  zero sacks, zero QB hurries, and clear passing lanes.  That puts the defensive backs in a situation where they need near perfect coverage, which for a young and inexperienced group, does not end well.  How little was Herbert pressured?  If Autzen Stadium had a grass field, Herbert’s uniform would have ended up as brightly white as it started.
  2. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  If I could describe Nebraska’s day in one word, it would be inconsistent.  And nobody personified that inconsistency more than Pierson-El.  His first touch was a punt that he fair caught at the five.  95 yards later, he made that crazy, over-the-top catch.  In the second quarter, he had a false start penalty that turned a drive-extending 4th and 1 into a punt.  Speaking of punts, you could see DPE immediately regretting his decision to fair catch a 4th quarter punt, with NU in big need of a spark.
  3. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  On Nebraska’s first offensive play, Lee found Morgan 20 yards down field and put the wall in a great position for the catch.  Instead, the ball bounced off Morgan’s hands, his face mask, and into the arms of a Duck defender.  Above, we talked about Stan’s big day – 7 catches for 103 and 2 TDs.  But his first half was a very forgettable one catch for five yards.
  4. Tanner Lee.  Let’s be fair:  prior to Saturday, Lee’s last road start was November 21, 2015, at SMU, in front of what had to be a raucous crowd of 14,954.  So I think we can understand somewhat if nerves played a role in a day with four interceptions and a completion percentage under 50%.  While interceptions 1 and 4 were not Lee’s fault, no one will argue that Lee struggled throughout most of the game.
  5. Destro helmets.  By now, the shock factor from anything Oregon wears should be long gone.  But whenever they wear a shiny chrome helmet, as they did on Saturday, I cannot help but think of Destro from the G.I. Joe cartoons of my childhood.  And in finding that Destro image, I realized that almost every Oregon uniform is a homage to a one of the many great G.I. Joe characters.

 

An (Arkansas) State of Panic?

8 Sep

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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.

Big Ten Power Rankings – week of 10/24

27 Oct

We’ve crossed the half way point in the season, so it’s time to start looking ahead to the division races, and who can make it to a bowl game.  As always, I make no apologies if you feel your team is too high (or too low), but feel free to let me know in the comments.

  1. Michigan.  Ohio State’s loss means the Wolverines move up to the penthouse.  More importantly, it means Michigan can afford a slip up in one of their remaining non-Buckeye games.  Path to Indy:  Win out, beat Ohio State, or hope for a second OSU loss.
  2. Ohio State.  All is not lost for the Buckeyes, who still control their destiny to win the East and yes, make the Playoff.  But they cannot afford to make any more mistakes.  Path to Indy:  Win out or beat Michigan and pray the Wolverines drop a game.
  3. Wisconsin.  The Badgers stayed alive in the West race by knocking off Iowa.  Next up is another do-or-die game against the Huskers.  Very little that the Badgers do is pretty, but for the most part it is effective.  Path to Indy:  Beat Nebraska and hope the Huskers trip one more time.
  4. Nebraska.  Don’t hate on me for having unbeaten NU fourth.  The Huskers get two straight opportunities to prove themselves worthy of a promotion, starting with a trip to Madison.  The Huskers can all but wrap up the West with a win.  Path to Indy:  Beat the Badgers.
  5. Penn State.  Unfortunately, I never published last week’s rankings so you’ll have to trust me that I said “PSU is coming off a bye week, and gets to host Ohio State who played a physical overtime game against Wisconsin.  I’m not going to call the upset, but it would be tough to script a better scenario”.  Regardless, a big win for PSU.  Path to Indy:  Win out, and hope for Michigan to lose twice.
  6. Northwestern.  The Wildcats are silently playing some good football, rattling off three straight conference wins.  But their road gets much tougher, starting with a trip to Columbus to face an angry bunch of Bucks.  Path to Indy:  Just keep winning and pray Nebraska loses twice.
  7. Iowa.  This is the point in the rankings where we have teams with chances of winning the division should be categorized as “mathematically possible, realistically improbable”.  Iowa is a great example.  With only two losses, they could technically still win the West, but considering the losses are to division foes ahead of them (Northwestern and Wisconsin) it means the Hawkeyes have to root for every upset.  Meanwhile, the Hawks get the week off to get ready for a tough stretch run.  Path to Indy:  Win out, let chaos reign.
  8. Minnesota.  The Gophers also have two losses (Penn State and Iowa), and have yet to play most of the teams in front of them (Wisconsin and both NU’s).  But when you allow Rutgers to score 18 more points than they did in their previous four games combined, I wouldn’t go making any hotel reservations.  Path to Indy:  Win out, hope everybody else loses.
  9. Maryland.  The Terps are also technically alive, with games to come against Michigan and Ohio State.  But let’s be realistic, their focus should be on getting bowl eligible.  Path to bowl game:  beat Indiana or Rutgers.
  10. Indiana.  Since their dramatic win over Sparty, the Hoosiers have dropped three straight and will need to kick-start the offense if they want to go bowling.  Path to a bowl game:  find three wins in their remaining five games.
  11. Purdue.  In their first game post-Hazell, the Boilermakers showed some fight, but could not hang with the Huskers at home.  I think the Boilers are good enough to sneak out at least one more win.  Path to a bowl game:  Like Indiana, they need three wins in five games, but Purdue has a much tougher schedule.
  12. Michigan State.  I really, really, really want to have the Sputtering Spartans lower than 12, but Michigan State’s last win (at Notre Dame, five weeks ago) is better than either of Illinois’ two wins (Murray State and Rutgers).  Path to a bowl game:  Surprisingly still open, but as MSU needs to win four out of five (including at least one over Michigan or Ohio State) it is not likely.
  13. Illinois.  It’s hard for me to justify a lot of words on a team whose best win is over FCS Murray State.  Path to a bowl game:  Hope four of their next five opponents don’t show up.
  14. Rutgers.  The Knights broke 30 points for the first time since September 17 – a day when #12 Michigan State beat Notre Dame, Indiana and Maryland were undefeated, and Northwestern improved to 1-2.  This  week allows me to use one of my favorite Lee Barfknecht one-liners:  “Rutgers is idle – and should remain that way.”  Path to a bowl game:  Not out of the question, but they would need to win out against Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, and Maryland.

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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