Tag Archives: Sports

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

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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.

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.

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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.

You Can’t Hide Your Illini

6 Oct

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*   *   *

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

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*   *   *

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

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

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

So what did we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what don’t we know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Players I Loved

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

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

5 Areas for Improvement

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

 

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