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Nebraska vs. Wisconsin: Game of Shadows

Throughout Nebraska’s game against Wisconsin on Saturday night, there was one constant flowing through my head. Both when Nebraska was down and when they were coming back, I kept wondering to myself, should a veteran team be struggling at home against a young Wisconsin team at home?

It goes back to the same issue that I raised after UCLA: Nebraska is a weak team psychologically. Wisconsin came in with a freshmen quarterback and built a seventeen point lead. Reading some of the comments by Dan Gilbert and by some of the things Wisconsin coaches told Todd Blackledge, they didn’t take Nebraska that seriously.

I’m not saying that Nebraska has the wrong head coach at the moment. There’s still trying to figure out who they are in the Big 10, and how to use a no huddle spread can work. They need to get bigger and deeper on defense. Thad Randle was the first defensive lineman to get injured and won’t be the last to miss a game this year. But not taking advantage of a Wisconsin mistake until the last possession shows this team isn’t where it should be. If there’s a down year for the Pelini regime, it’s likely going to be 6-6, and we should consider if he’s just a good game coach who can’t recruit. (To know what I mean by that last statement, see this post.)

Also Husker fans, you don’t want to hear this, but Rex Burkhead is down as Nebraska’s workhorse back. No, he’ll still be an effective back at points, and he’ll get a lot of carries late in games. But he’s taken too many hits, so don’t expect him to be Superman.

It is too bad Wisconsin and Nebraska won’t met at Camp Randall in late September. Not that Nebraska can’t make other rivals, but this series is darn competitive.

Huskers vs. Southern Miss: So It Begins

All in all, Nebraska’s opening game against Southern Miss was about what I thought it would be last December: a young, upstart mid-major, fresh off a huge upset that lead to a conference championship, would come into Memorial Stadium week one and would hang tough with the Huskers for an extended period. Ultimately, they would make mistakes, Nebraska would capitalize, and, best of all, the game would land in a prime ABC/ESPN slot.

But Martinez’s maturity and leadership still surprised me.

I don’t know if Nebraska’s going to be able to win the Big 10, but I do know with this offense, they’re going to have a great chance. No one in the Big 10 runs an offense with this many skill people and tempo, and teams in the league are going to have a tough time defending it. Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all had to lean on their star running backs in their first games; Nebraska lost theirs, and was fine.

This is really the first offense since 1999, or maybe even 1997, that is going to be the aggressor. Defensively, Nebraska may not have the depth just yet, but if they can score at will, they’ll be gunning for the Big 10 Title. Whatever the case, if this is going to be the best Nebraska team in over ten years, it will be as much because of leadership as it is talent.

Husker Heartbeat 2012

This Husker football year marks several firsts for me. It’s going to be the first full year since I got my blog, and the first year that I will be contributing to a site that provides Husker content. I don’t think the contributions I have to write will affect how I watch Husker football, but I could be wrong. Before when I’ve watched the Huskers play in the past, I take some mental notes, and process my own opinion. While I enjoy the columns and stories in the papers around here, they do not define my full countenance on the team.

The place of Husker football changed in 2005 after I returned to Nebraska from college in the greater Milwaukee area. That fall, I worked for Valentino’s in the bowels of Memorial Stadium and had a few fly-on-the-wall moments. Having not been to a home game since 2002, I’d forgotten a lot of the passion of being at game day, and over the next four or five years, game day became the highlights of my year.

Over these seven years, players have come and gone, but the question of “when will Nebraska be back?”, hangs in the balance. Indeed, the first teams that I remember where the teams of the nineties, and as I followed the teams through my growing up years, I came to believe that going undefeated in college football easy. I’m not sure when that dream got shattered: maybe in 2002, maybe when Solich was fired. But as I followed the team more closely, I came to realize that it was college football that changed, not Husker football. So many football programs get on TV and compete now, and the internet age has brought a level across the college football world.

So then, why does this wide-eyed twenty-something still put on his hobbit hoodie every Saturday September through November and go to Memorial Stadium or sit in front of the TV? This question drives me crazy, especially when I consider that I could be seventy years old and not see a Husker team better than the one that played the year I turned twelve.

Who knows. I can’t changed where I was born and what I came to like when I was a kid. Go Big Red.

My Husker Game Day: Part 3

(This is the the third post in a piece I wrote a few years ago about my experience going to Husker games: Part 1 and Part 2)

Washington 2011-Big Picture

Tunnel Walk is where the game starts for me. Highlights from the previous years, mingled in with a few highlights from this year, or last years game against a common opponent. It has been a bit sad in recent years; looking at the glory from the 1990’s which seems a million miles away. But times in college football have changed, and Nebraska’s had a rough patch. At least now, we’re a program that the state can be proud of.

As I watch the memories, some of which I can recall as I kid and many I can’t, my blood starts to rush as I begin to think about the five year stretch between 1993 and 1997 when Nebraska won sixty of sixty-three games and three national championships. And I wonder if, in spite of the tougher conferences and the nemesis that is the state of Texas, that kind of dominance could still be possible. It is usually about this team that I see the team exit the locker room and start toward the field. And as I see the players pup themselves up with high fives from the fans, I feel the rush again, the ownership that whole state has in this team. And then they hit the field, and I know inside that anything is possible.

All games are different, depending on the opponent and the stakes. I don’t go to insignificant non-conference games anymore . The only two notable non-conference game for me were Bo Pelini’s first game against competent mid-major Western Michigan, and the 2007 season opener against Nevada, where I was lucky enough to find a $50 ticket four rows up on the forty yard line.

Then there are the average conference games, against the Baylors, Iowa States, Kansases, and, since the conference switch, Minnesota. These games are nice wins, and occasionally, a very embarrassing loss. (See Iowa State 2009). These are the majority of games that I go to. Occasionally, bigger stakes make the games more important (the K-State game in 2009 for the conference title), but most of the time there’s little tangible drama. These teams may have good enough players or a good enough coach to hang with the Huskers for a while, but ultimately, the crowd takes over.

Since 2010, I only go to the significant games. That year, I only home games I went to were Texas (ugh) and Missouri, and this past year, Washington (family in town) and Ohio State (my soggy story of the night) . I trimmed back how many games because, in my memory, the tougher games are the ones that stand out: the 2006 games against Texas was the most memorable game I attended at Memorial Stadium, win or loose (read the experience here). It’s so much work to go to a game, it’s almost not worth it to go in the stadium and watch anyone but Oklahoma, Texas, or Ohio State and Michigan now.

The game, I get lost in. After the kickoff, I rarely take photos of the action, shameful I know. But for the three-and-a-half hours in the stands, it’s just me and my team, as I’ve been abandoned in uniformity. Game day is really the only time that Lincoln becomes a crowd like a crowd you would find in a major city like San Francisco or Chicago, where you can just be anonymous and no one looks at you. It’s strangely freeing.

Attending a live games pull me in ways that are almost inexplicable. Unlike when I’m at home, I have to fight the urge to curse, and I can’t just go get up and walk into another room when it gets frustrating. Everything’s out there in front of me. The turmoil within always comes from the fact that this game will stay fixed in my mind for the better part of the next couple of years, and even though I’ll watch the highlights on YouTube, the nuances from the stadium will stick with me. The views of the players on the sidelines, the demeanor of the people around me. My brain will process everything.

During halftime, I usually get up and walk. When I was younger, I liked to walk around the stadium as much as I could, but not as much now that I’m familiar with all the nooks and crannies. Often times now, I’ll just find an empty space and sit against the wall with my legs stretched out and periodically check my radio for updates on other games. But I like to take the earbuds out and sit there distant from all the senses that I’m taken in, almost as if I’m napping.

But then I go back to my seat and watch the game. If Nebraska ends up winning, I’m on a high whose high by is determined how big the win is. It’s just a buoyancy that propels the rest of my day. If it’s a loss, I feel as if I’m trapped in a painting that I can’t get out of. Losses feel more like subtractions to me, little non-events and omissions where something I can’t define has left me.

Washington 2011-Little Moment

When I leave the game, and usually I stay to the end or near end (longer than I have to), I’ll take a round-about way to get to the one of the west gates, if I’m not sitting in the south stadium, which is closed off. Leaving is always a rush for me, and I like picking my way through crowds. I feel unnoticed even though I’m with people, and once, when I was going back down through a crowd of people who were trying to head up to their seats, someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind and noted how good I was at doing so.

I have a bad habit of cutting across streets when I’m not supposed to. I’ll do it a lot at the end of the I-180 bridge at 9th street, where occasionally there will be enough breaks in traffic (no one heads into downtown at the end of a Husker game), and dart back into the Haymarket, reversing my way back through the tailgaters who are still grilling and watching games as I go back to my car. On the way, I often stop at Jack’s for a drink (they’re less crowded) or grab a tea from Scooter’s or The Mill.

When I get to my car, I’m exhilarated. I hit the streets, and try to calculate the best way to get Highway 6. Usually, it involves going down to A via minor streets, then cutting back on Coddington to get on Highway 77 North to go back to Highway 6. This helps me bypass most of the heavier traffic, and once I pass the entrances from Highway 6 to the Interstate, I’m home free.

When I get home, I usually try to go to bed if it’s a night game, but I’ll check the scores quick on my computer. If not, I crash on the couch, grab on easy dinner if I don’t get something on the way, and watch other college football games, waiting for the perspective from the game highlights. By now, I’m very content, and while working on Monday has usually started to loom, I couldn’t be happier for the experience. Except if it was a loss, of course.

Comebacks on my Birthday: Reflections on this Past Years’ Nebraska-Ohio State game

On my birthday this year, I was sitting out in the rain and feeling miserable. Well, at least I was for a while. After a bit, I went home happy and dried off, but for a while, I was just wet and miserable.

My birthday is October 8. Nebraska was hosting Ohio State, in a game that I had looked forward to for over a year. Nebraska would have played Kansas State, had the Big 12 stayed as it was, but now, they were playing one of the big boys. My dad had gotten the two of us tickets to the game, aisle seats about forty rows up in south endzone, a section west of the student section. What was as bad as the first half was that there were a bunch of guys who were sitting in the row adjacent to our seats. They were told to move by one of the security guys in orange vests, then by an uniformed cop. Thankfully, they left at halftime.

When Nebraska was down 27-6 in that game, all I could think of was that Kirk Bohl of the Austin-American Statesman would be writing a column talking about how the Huskers were in over their heads in the Big 10. Here was the dilemma of being a Nebraska die-hard the past ten years-taking the scorn of not living up to the expectations was next to impossible. The first people had begun to leave the game when Ohio State got the ball for the second time in the third quarter. In my head, I had myself begun to calculate mentally when exactly I would want to leave stadium sure that the game was out of reach; thankfully, I never picked the time.

Same day two years earlier, I had been sitting in the Joyo Theater contemplating the exact same thing on a third down play early in the fourth quarter as Nebraska was down 12-0. As that game worn on, I was almost gleeful. While Nebraska was down 12-0 entering the fourth quarter, I comforted myself with the notion that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Nebraska’s last two losses to Missouri. The defense had manhandled Missouri upfront; the only points Missouri had managed were hard earned. I thought well, we won’t win the Big 12 North this year, but hey, Missouri’s defense is tough. But as Nebraska’s defense began dropping interception, I started to think that Missouri had just been lucky up to that point.

So as I was thinking about leaving, Zac Lee’s threw one up to Niles Paul, shocking me that he actually got the ball more than fifteen yards from line of scrimmage. When Paul caught the ball and stumbled into the end zone, the theater erupted. It had felt as if the Huskers were down by four touchdowns, but after that touchdown, it felt like they were ahead. As it felt like they could literally do no wrong, they stormed back to win 27-12, and as Roy Helu scored the games’ final touchdown, I turned to my Dad and whispered, “Best birthday ever”.

Two years later, as Ohio State took the ball again in the third quarter, the feeling that Nebraska would once again be the sorry program who lived in the nineties took over, and in this game, Nebraska looked even more over matched on the lines. And to think that this could be the weakest Ohio State team Nebraska played in the next ten years, who could steal Nebraska’s coach at the end of the season? The results when I walked out of the gate would be unbearable.

The third down where LaVonte David stripped Braxton Miller felt so surreal; I wasn’t celebrating it at first, because I thought they might rule Miller down on replay because David came away with the ball after the fact. But seeing it again, I could tell that David had wrestled the ball away, like an unwilling hand-off. I didn’t feel that sensation of an instant turnaround, but when Taylor Martinez scored a touchdown on the second play after the fumble, having set up the Buckeyes perfectly for the middle keeper, I felt Nebraska had a chance.

In retrospect, many of the similarities between the Missouri comeback and the Ohio State comeback exist, although I didn’t think of them during the game. I didn’t see it until I watched the game again, but it was when Joe Bauserman came into the game on third down that the crowd really came back to life. When Bauserman threw a pass ten yards out of bounds on third down, I began to think Nebraska had a realistic chance to comeback, a thought that I finished when Quincy Enumwa caught the long touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez with 2:21 left in the third, cutting the deficit to a touchdown. That series of plays was two plays in the Missouri game-Ndamukong Suh’s interception of Blaine Gabbert, followed by Niles Pauls’ second touchdown pass two plays later. The longer gap in the Ohio State game really had be holding my breath and thinking maybe.

Obviously, more fortuitous things came up in the Ohio State game, given that Nebraska was down three touchdowns. If Braxton Miller doesn’t get injury, it severally hurts Nebraska’s chances, and if Ohio State doesn’t have an interim coach, they could have had the leadership to withstand the bleeding. But both games signified the making of Nebraska’s season that year: the win at Missouri was Nebraska’s ticket to the Big 12 title game (and their first win in Columbia in eight years), and the win against Ohio State was Nebraska’s first Big 10 win, a win that kept Nebraska among the top 25 for the year, and most importantly, the biggest comeback in school history. If Nebraska had lost the Ohio State game, they would have gone done in the bowl pecking order, and this off-season would be even worse.  After ten years of watching Nebraska fail to come back after several things didn’t go their way in a game, it was rewarding to see them come back, especially against one of the nation’s elite programs.

At the end of the game, the rain was over and my dad and I went to the car, stopping by The Mill for a smoothie and tea. I was still wet, but it was a night that you could believe in magic, if you really wanted to. I can’t wait to see who Nebraska is playing Saturday, October 8, 2016. Or if they get a Thursday night game on October 8, 2015.

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