Derek Johnson Muses

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Where Pelini Should Have Succeeded

Last year, Terrence Moore was a Blackshirt who impressed. He wasn’t elite, but he’d made the most of what he was-a former three star player who redshirted, stayed with the program, and became a very solid contributor who finally had a chance to start when Jared Crick got hurt. Bo Pelini got the most out of him. Up until this year, there were points in the careers of Cameron Meredith, Eric Martin and Will Compton where I’d thought Pelini had gotten the most out of them. Funny how that works.

Pelini had a number of seniors who had been contributors since they were freshmen or sophomores-Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkulher, Eric Martin, Will Compton, Sean Fisher, PJ Smith, along with JUCOs Joseph Carter and Damion Stafford, and Courtney Osborne on the bench. Mel Kiper Jr. notes that one of the things that has separated the players that Bret Bielema and Kirk Ferentz have sent to the NFL is their polish, that their respective coaches got the most out of what they had. The same cannot be said of Pelini with these players; you can’t be as horrid as Nebraska was at time this year on defense when you have experienced player, not one of whom has maxed out. Compton at times has been Nebraska’s “playmaker”, and Martin somehow had 16.5 tackles for losses. Smith looks like he had the most growth potential, but never reached it.

Why does all this matter? It matter because, when a fan base talk about firing a coach, the reason they would is because he hasn’t succeed when he has had the material to do so. If you have so many defensive players who haven’t developed and you are a defensive coach, that’s an area where you should do better.

There is an irony to it-all these players being freshmen on the iron wall, Ndamukong Suh-lead defense that stood up to the spread offenses of the Big 12, carrying the offense-less Huskers. If only all these guys would have molded their attitudes and work ethics after Jared Crick’s than Suh’s, as Suh’s displays of lawlessness since he entered the NFL shows what kind of a leader he must have been at Nebraska. Matt Slauson blasted Suh a year ago for two incidents at Nebraska and said Suh “wasn’t well liked”. Slauson didn’t say when those incidents occurred, but it’s fair to question the legacy Suh left for the Blackshirts when you see their fall.

But the Blackshirts struggles stretch beyond anything Suh has done and any of the recruited players Pelini has or hasn’t developed. Where Pelini has failed is to find chip-in walk-ons to contribute. Even the bad Cosgrove defenses have had overachieving guys who have played key roles, like Stewart Bradley and Ben Eisenhart. And give Cosgrove some credit (yes, I just wrote that) for developing Tyler Wortman and Matt O’Hanlon, the latter of whom made more timely plays than anyone else on Nebraska’s 2009 defense. Other than nickle/dime back Justin Blatchford, there isn’t a single, rounded out walk-on senior among the 2012 Blackshirts.

When you are a major college coach at a northern school that doesn’t have a lot of FBS prospects, it’s understandable if you are thin at certain positions like corner or wide receiver, positions where athleticism matters. But if you can’t find linebackers or safeties via your walk-on program, there’s no excuse. Iowa State had two three-year starter, all-conference caliber, senior linebackers. Kansas State’s 1998 11-2 was built on linebackers, and its resurgence the past year rest strongly with safety Ty Zimmerman. Wisconsin has good linebackers, as has Iowa over the years. In 2009, I was watching a game with a couple of guys who were remarking about how inconsistent Sean Fisher was linebacker. In three years, Pelini couldn’t find a better player to put in than Fisher.

But the good news for Husker fans: Pelini lost all those eight starters, and in spring and fall practices, will be able to hold essentially open tryouts for starting positions. Unlike the last two year, Pelini likely won’t have to replace multiple defensive. Of course, given that Pelini was so “loyal” to bad players man not give the good players incentive.

DSCN9395

The last home game for these Blackshirts….

Huskers vs. UCLA: Same Old

Last week was supposed to be the end of it. Last week was supposed to be the first Nebraska team since 1999 that had no issues of self-confidence. While the Golden Eagles weren’t 2004 USC, the Huskers faced some adversity against Southern Miss and answered by being aggressive. Yes, the defense was weak, but Nebraska choose to be the pursuing lion rather than the tortoise who shrinks at the first sign of trouble.

The tortoise didn’t emerge until two UCLA defenders took out Martinez and his running back on the zone read late in the second quarter and was in full shell-shock when Kyler Reed dropped a catchable pass on third down on Nebraska’s first full drive in the third quarter. It showed again when, after Ameer Abdullah’s 36 yard run at the start of the fourth quarter put Nebraska in field goal range,

Over the past twenty hours, I’ve been trying to reconcile the Husker team I saw a week ago with the one that played last night. Two most obvious reasons for Nebraska’s performance are they underestimated a team who no one was quite sure how good they would be under their new no-college-experience coach, and there’s a huge dichotomy between Nebraska’s home and road confidence, a common factor in college football. Was I wrong in my assessment? I was rather eager, and granted, when I watched Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State lean on their lead backs while Nebraska won easily by sharing the load among skill players, I was really to be opportunistic, and certainly, in the Big 10, Nebraska’s going to have a shot spreading linebacker-rich Big 10 teams out and tempo-ing it up.

Just look at how Nebraska’s defense did yesterday against a high-tempo team.

Be grateful for one thing, Husker fans: yesterday could have been the worst your defense will play all year. The Big 10 doesn’t have a reputation of lighting up the scoreboard, and with the way teams like to ground and pound, it’s likely that a Big 10 team won’t get the number of possessions needed to embarrass Nebraska the way UCLA did.

That leaves the issue of mental toughness, and just how tough this team is. I tweeted at Dirk Chatelain after his story that Bo Pelini’s all out blitz on the 3rd and 3 that yielded UCLA’s go ahead touchdown was a sign of a low inner-scoreboard, that he had no confidence in his players to sit back and make plays. The ultimate sign of maturity should be overcoming the kind of adversity that Nebraska faced on Saturday, winning a game that you could have been down by two touchdowns or more in the second half. But maybe that was the price that Bo Pelini’s paying for getting more aggressive, is that, at some points, you run the risk of loosing your confidence and getting humbled even worse than you already were.

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.

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