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Straight from the Cornfield, Episode 15

In this episode, I discuss Mike Riley’s equity at Nebraska, what it means that he has stuck by Mark Banker all these years, and the failed 2-point conversion against Northwestern.

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The Line Outside the Party of the Year

Straight from the Cornfield, Episode 14

In this episode, I bemoan the sad current state of Nebraska football, the lack of an edge against Northwesten, and breakdown Mike Riley’s post-game press conference. Spoiler: he and Shawn Eichorst are secretly angry dudes.

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.

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The last home game for these Blackshirts….

Are Nebraska Fans Too Sensitive to Getting Blown Out?

Since Nebraska’s embarrassment in the Big 10 Title Game, the issue of getting blown out has come up time and again with Husker fans. Some fans are probably just relieved that Georgia didn’t run Nebraska off the field until the fourth quarter. Hearing Nebraska fans howl, “We’re tired of blowout losses!” is a statement that I tired of, not because I like Nebraska getting blown out, but because it doesn’t mean that fans aren’t getting the program they paid for.

First, let’s ask a basic question: why do blowouts happen in college football? They can happen for a number of reason: one team simply has more talent than the other (AKA, most September non-conference games), one team has more experience than other (due to injuries or senior graduating, AKA Iowa this year) one team is a bad matchup for another team (a spread option against a Big 10 team, like Florida against Ohio State in the 2006 National Title Game), or one team is at the end of a string often of tough games and is simply exhausted (Michigan State at Nebraska in 2011, or at Iowa in 2010). Often, these reasons happen simultaneously.

I have from the list above, omitted coaching. Not that some teams are poorly coached, but in college football, fans tend to blame the coach above all else, because he’s the one they can go out and replace. Coaches do poor jobs, but let’s deal with these natural flows before we get there.

Consider this, Husker fans: you have a finesse offense. Personally, I don’t like to use that term, but it is true. It is an offense that is quirky, built to run outside, let the quarterback run when need be, and have linemen who can pull and move in space. Now, this offense gives you a key edge, namely, when you are down in games, you feel like you have a chance to come back. It makes you a difficult team to prepare for. Team make take your smallish offensive line lightly (the PSU black shoe effect, if you will), but unfortunately, if another team’s front is bigger than yours, you are left exposed if they play their hardest, which Ohio State did this year.

With the exception of Wisconsin this year, every team that has blown Bo Pelini out has been very good, except for the Washington team who beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl rematch. The teams that have blown Nebraska out? The worst was the 2009 Texas Tech team that went 9-4. The other teams were Missouri (10-4) and Oklahoma (12-2) in 2008, Wisconsin (11-3), Michigan (11-2), and South Carolina (11-2) in 2011, and Ohio State (12-0) this year. Of course that does leave the Wisconsin team this year.
What does all this mean, Husker fans? For one, it means you’re not doing any worse than you should. If you are getting blown out by good teams, it has less to do with your coach than it does with your players. And since 2010, Nebraska has beat five teams who won at least nine or more games: Oklahoma State and Missouri in 2010, Michigan State and Penn State last year, and Northwestern this year.

And consider Michigan State: this past year, their biggest loss was by 14 points, at home to eventual unbeaten Notre Dame. All their other losses were by a touchdown or less, and they are 6-6. The two years prior to this one, Michigan State went 22-5 and got blown out four times. They weren’t a better team this year, and one wouldn’t take a 6-6 team that didn’t get blown out over a ten-win season any day.

But still, getting outdone in such a public fashion hurts, and leads to the “fragile and soft” labels. The pain of those won’t go away, and yes, Wisconsin was the anamoly this year. There isn’t an excuse for getting manhandled on a neutral field by a team that would finish 8-6 with a third-string quarterback. It would have been an embarrassment if Nebraska had lost that game by a touchdown. What they should have observed was that Wisconsin, in spite of their record, didn’t loose a game by less than seven all year.

In line to get that perfect shot of the Huskers

In line to get that perfect shot of the Huskers

Huskers Loose, but Get Some Capital

A lot was at stake in the Capital One Bowl for Bo Pelini. Two nationally televised blowout losses going into the off-season make the workouts and film study longer, not to mention a discontent fan base. But, for the fifth time in six tries, Pelini’s Huskers came out of the tunnel and made plays, and even got a little chippy with it, a welcome sight after several despondent post-game pressers. For the first time perhaps since Colorado 2005, the Huskers played to raise their reputation. All that SEC-is-king material made for great bulletin board material.

But ultimately, the Huskers fell short, and while there was more buy-in on the field then there has been in years past (maybe more than at any other time under Pelini). They lost respectably to a better SEC, but Pelini still made one really questionable decision.

Tim Beck changed he offense significantly since the Big 10 Title game, adding new formation (dual-protectors lined up directly behind the tackles in a three wide set) and tweaking old plays. The Burkhead-touchdown reception wrinkled Nebraska’s play action game, having running back go to the inside instead of the out. For the first time in a lot of years, the Husker offense seemed like it was more than a collection of random plays that were supposed to work, and the players looked they were executed a plan that made sense to them.

End of the matter?

Burkhead himself made sure that he wouldn’t be forgotten as a Husker. He ran with his trademark passion, but had the advantage of looking the healthiest he had perhaps been since the beginning of his junior year. The offense at times maximized its tempo, and made some lazy Dawgs run a little.

On defense, the passing yards given up weren’t great, but remember that Nebraska’s numbers in the secondary was helped a lot by the Big 10 conference oblivion to the forward pass. (Minnesota, similarly, was ranked in the top 25 nationally in pass defense.) The Blackshirts had good coverage on three of Aaron Murray’s touchdown passes; Murray’s TD at the start of the fourth quarter, a running throw that had to be laid over Will Compton, was a throw some NFL quarterbacks can’t make. Yes, there were mistakes, but there were several big plays that Georgia earned when Nebraska did everything right. Even the defensive line was active behind the line of scrimmage.

Which makes Pelini’s call to blitz Georgia on a third-and-twelve down by a touchdown baffling. A blitz on third-and-long in that situation basically said, if we go down, we go down swinging, not consistent with Pelini’s conservative, make-them-earn-their-chunks defense. While it looks bold, such a call demonstrates insecurity more than bravado. Yes, maybe even get a sack or an interception; backing Georgia up another eight yards would have meant a punt for the endline. But Pelini had already made his point when he blitzed on the first down of that drive; the smart call would have been to blitz one wisely, or drop everyone in coverage.

I’ve seen such insecurity a number of times in Big 10 teams in bowl games. The first time was when Ohio State kept blitzing Colt McCoy at the end of the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. On the play the Longhorns took the lead back, it was obvious that McCoy would find a hot read. Minnesota allowed a touchdown in a similar situation in their bowl game against Texas Tech this year. While it looks like you’re trying hard to stop the opponent, you’re not playing smart.

Thus, let’s count this as our official ingratiation into the Big 10, Husker fans: we’re aggressive on defense out of the fear of being embarrassed.

Nebraska had a real shot to win this game, more so than last year against South Carolina. The Gamecocks played with more intensity in the second half that day than Georgia did today. The Husker maximized more, but they still weren’t able to do enough. Like the rest of the Big 10, Nebraska watches an SEC team give half-effort versus their full-effort and still celebrate a double touchdown win.

So, how should this bowl game be remembered, Husker fans? Another loss, but one with not as many negatives as Nebraska’s bowl losses the last two years. Pelini showed that, with time to prepare, he could deliver a solid effort. But was this win just a product of time to prepare and desperation? Will Pelini, Beck, and the other coaches be changing every week in the Big 10 next season as much as they changed for this bowl game? Or will this just be shades of a B-coach rising for half-a-game when he had to turn down the heat? (Why Pelini isn’t a perfect fit at Nebraska)

Why Pelini’s SEC Interest is Keeping Nebraska Stuck in Neutral. And Why Certain Coaches Stay Under the Radar

Bummed Bo

Another end to a Husker season, another round of Bo Pelini-leaving-Nebraska rumors. This year, the rumor was less reliable than in years past (Football Scoop tweeted Arkansas was on the verge of hiring him), but still, Pelini was again linked to another high profile job. After Nebraska’s meltdown in the Big 10 Title Game, Pelini’s constant flirtations for the SEC causes begs the question if Pelini’s wandering eye is hurting the program. To judge that, one has to ask what Nebraska is and what works there, and what Bo Pelini is, and where he works.

Nebraska is an outlier, both from major cities and major recruiting hotbeds. Major changes in college football have gone against Nebraska: more games being on TV, fewer recruits wanting to come north because of the weather, more committed programs in the middle of college football. But to succeed at an outlier, you need to find a coach who gets the outlier. Consider Tom Osborne and Bill Synder: both grew up in smaller cities in smaller states and went to smaller, non-DI colleges. Both achieved long-term success by molding average players into stars. Who else fits that profile? Chris Petersen, who grew up around Sacramento and went to UC Davis, and Charlie Strong, who went to Central Arkansas, in his native state. Pedersen has stayed at Boise State (in a city that is the exact mirror of Sacramento), and Strong looks like he’s turning down Tennessee to stay at Louisville.

Now look at Pelini. Pelini went to a large Catholic high school in Ohio, then to Ohio State, a major program in a state with lot of FBS-ready talent. He’s friends with Bob Stoops, who turned down his alma mater (Iowa) and instead found longevity at Oklahoma, surrounded by the best high school football talent state in the country, Texas. Pelini worked for Michigan alum Les Miles, who has now twice turned down his alma mater to stay in talent-rich Louisiana. Pelini knows he’s got a rawer deal then Miles and Stoops by the players who sign for him.

Husker fans, why do you think Nebraska’s seniors laden defense got completely worked by Wisconsin on Saturday night? Kansas State’s defensive talent is no better, and the Wildcats were shutting down offensive juggernauts in the Big 12. Reason: Pelini had a fire when he first came to Nebraska, and the players then had the motivation to embrace discipline after the Bill Callahan-debacle. After an initial burst with Callahan’s recruits (and Ndamukong Suh), Pelini was left with a bunch three-to-four star recruits who needed coaching. For stretches in 2009 and 2010, Nebraska had to play perfect on defense just to stay in the games, including two against Oklahoma. After nearly three years of having to win without any mistakes, Pelini was exhausted from coaching up Prince Amukamara and Phillip Dillard, and had no energy to develop Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley.

Consider also how Pelini’s post-game press conference demeanor has changed: in his first few years, there were times after losses he looked like he wanted to fight a reporter. Now, he looks relieved after wins and despondent after losses. Watching this change, I have wondered if he’s the kind of coach who burns bright for a couple of years, but burns out after seven or eight years because he’s all motivation and no innovation. He has innovated: changing Nebraska’s offense after the 2010 season gave the program a huge edge coming into the Big 10. But again, look at the defense, where Pelini puts in most of his time. There isn’t one star, sure-fire high NFL draft pick on that unit.

This leads to the question of whether or not Turner Gill would have been a better hire than Pelini. Indeed, some have written that Gill should have replaced Osborne as head coach in 1997. (Perhaps Osborne forgot how Bob Devaney choose him as Nebraska’s next head coach over many of his veteran assistants). At the time, Pelini was a hotter commodity and Gill had only a 7-17 record at Buffalo, but that wouldn’t have been a determent to a Husker fan base who remembered Gill for his playing days and his work with Tommie Frazier, Scott Frost, and Eric Crouch. As Osborne and Gill were such good friends (Osborne was the best man at Gill’s wedding), it may not have been the ideal situation for Osborne to hire a coach he was so close to. But given Gill’s steady hand, he may have been the better fit long-term.

Pelini’s not headed to the SEC if he continues to have looses like he did on Saturday. But in any case, fans have to wonder if his heart is in his job 100% and how many sorry press conference they may have to endure.

Husker-Fall: Where Have all the Good Players Gone?

We’ve all been there at one point or another. We work hard for a promotion at work, study for a degree, or take steps to accomplish a goal. We invest hours, days, weeks, and months in a single minded focus, and then, when we are a stone’s throw from the summit, we abandon the quest and thoughtlessly leave the hard work for nothing, telling ourselves we didn’t care about that goal to begin with. That’s what happened to Nebraska football on Saturday night: a team that had begun to move the attitude of the fanbase from pessimism to optimism once again surpassed their own disappointments.

It wasn’t just a loss; this Nebraska team looked like it was a mid-level program playing a paycheck, body-bag road game ten years ago, before such teams believed they had chances against top teams. It wasn’t like the 70-10 Texas Tech loss or the 76-39 Kansas loss, bad losses by bad teams. It wasn’t like the 63-36 fall from grace at Colorado, where Eric Crouch had a great statistical game while Nebraska’s defense was impotent against Chris Brown and Bobby Purify. This was a good team that had come back on the road showing no character in the battle for a conference title. At points, it appeared as though Nebraska could have allowed 100 points or more.

Failing in games, even big ones, is explainable at times, but not here. Nebraska had two weeks to set the rotation while the opposition banged with Ohio State and Penn State. A healthy and rest Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah weren’t given the chance to help Nebraska get out of the hole they’d dug. As soon as they got down, Nebraska choose to let Martinez throw on every down, the same way they had last year in Madison, the results shockingly more disastrous. Usually, Tim Beck is conservative to a fault.

But the defense is more liable. There is no way any team with an inexperienced quarterback should be able to run on you when you can sell out to stop it. It’s one thing to get shredded by Brett Hudley or Braxton Miller, athletes you have to account for. Making it easy on Curtis Phillips is another story. At least Nebraska was able to limit Hudley and UCLA for most of the second half; Montee Ball and James White were never limited.

Twice, Bo Pelini has had an emotional game that mattered to the heart of fans, this and Texas 2010. In both situations, his team laid inexplicable eggs. Now, many fans are offering to drive Pelini to Arkansae or Auburn, and it’s fair to talk about firing him. You just can’t look inept in such a big spot, when you have these weapons on offense and so much experience on defense. Now Iowa State 2009 and that game’s eight turnovers have a companion piece.

Two years ago, when Nebraska lost the final Big 12 Championship Game to Oklahoma, I did think they’d get a look at a conference title like this for a long time. Well, two years later, they got one and couldn’t pull it off. They may never get as close aswhen officials put a second back on the clock for Texas. Next year, Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller will be eligible for the game, and in retrospect, Nebraska really wishes the Buckeyes had taken their postseason ban last year.

To the other team in red, I’m not even going to acknowledge your championship that you received because Nebraska didn’t show up. You are my programs biggest enemy as of right now, and I want to play you every year until we beat brains in 70-0.

What really summed up last night’s loss is Bo Pelini’s press conference, where the coach spoke in a beleaguered manner and offered up no explanation for the lopsided loss. It as if he want to go to sleep and dream of being at LSU or Oklahoma, or another program whose talent would offset many of the mistakes he made as a coach. Because he makes a lot.

But whether Pelini stays or goes, Husker nation will be left to deal with the continued fallout. While Nebraska columnist rerun their letters of woe today, the other side’s media never talked down their team to begin with, the gamers who kept fitting even when they lost close. After so many close comebacks, Nebraska destroyed the fans’ new found belief that their team could overcome their mistakes. It’s like 2001 all over again-an 11-0 start to the brink of glory, then a giant fall off the cliff.

What is it good for?

What is it good for?

Simple Crystal: Huskers-Hawkeyes, & Looking Ahead to the Badgers

In his book Desperate Networks, Bill Carter recounts the story of how The Apprentice came to be on NBC. Mark Burnett was developing the show in the early 2000’s, he pitched it to ABC. At ABC, Lloyd Braun, then president of the network, loved the show and wanted to buy it before Burnett the room; unfortunately, due to the cost of the show, he had to take it up the chain of command at Disney. Disney management, misinformed on how the new brand of reality TV worked, didn’t understand that they had to commit to an entire run of episodes and made an embarrassingly low offer to Burnett. So Burnett pitched the show to NBC, who, like ABC was wowed in the room. We know the rest of the story.

On the field Saturday, Nebraska and Iowa were two teams who played mediocre games on offense. The difference was, Nebraska could buy their way out of their mistakes.

This was the game that Nebraska fans feared was coming. On a short week, Nebraska faced its only its second 11 A.M. kickoff of the season, against a team with nothing to loose. After throwing the wide receiver screens that Husker fans dream of the previous week, Tim Beck went back to an ultra-conservative, 33% passes, 67% runs. Iowa limited Nebraska’s offense to the max; neither Kenny Bell or Jamal Turner had a catch. But after a season of his team overcoming his loss, Rex Burkhead came off the bench and bailed out his teammates, setting them up for the conference title game they’ve striven all season to get to.

There was a lot of irony in this game. Iowa holding Nebraska to 259 yards of total offense, their lowest of the year. Good stretches of red-clad fans in Kinnick Stadium, a sign some Hawkeye faithful bailed on the team. Brett Maher, after failing to nail teams deep, nailed Iowa inside the five and hit two very good punts into the wind. But in the end, both teams turned out to be the teams they were meant to be. Iowa found a way to loose down the stretch, and Nebraska put Alonzo Whaley’s interception on the close win highlight reel next to his own recovery of Montee Ball’s fumble and Jamal Turner’s two go-ahead touchdowns.

Sealed deal

So, after this close win against a genuinely terrible team, the question of just how good Nebraska is seems most valid, even more so when they were beating average teams like Northwestern and Michigan State. Are they as good as Pelini’s 2010 team? My guess is this team is slightly better. Of course, there is the issue of which team was better healthy. But I would say this team is guided by a more even keel; the 2010 team had seven game where they failed to score after halftime, and faded down the stretch. Going into the Big 10 Title, this team has better momentum and hasn’t gone downhill after a peak in late October/early November.

Which leads to the question, has this team peaked? While I thought that was the case going into the Big 12 Title Game two years ago, I don’t think that’s the case this time. This was a more conservative game plan, given the wind and what Nebraska is going to play for next week. Don’t kid yourself, Bo Pelini playing for the Big 10 Title Game. Over the last two weeks, Ameer Abdullah has had only 32 carries, and even Burkhead’s carries were limited when he came back.

But the main reason I don’t think Nebraska has peaked is that Pelini has saved his defensive juice. Each of the last two years, Pelini has built special game plans for the teams he thought he would need to beat to win his division title, Missouri in 2010 and Michigan State in 2011. Even with a veteran defense, Pelini hasn’t throw out that one special defensive game plan this year, even for Michigan. That send a powerful unspoken message to the players: our goals is a conference title, period.

If Burkhead doesn’t get at least 35 touches in the Big 10 Title Game, I’ll be rather surprised. The indoor environment, a negligible factor for the power-running Badgers, really helps Nebraska, who opted to throw the ball 14 times in the wind yesterday. Even though Wisconsin has improved since the two teams played on September 29th, there’s no question that Nebraska is the better team, with the better quarterback by far. But between the two teams, Wisconsin plays with the better mojo. If the Badgers turn a Husker turnover into points quickly, it could set them up for a long day.

Tthe biggest variable is what will Wisconsin choose to do on defense. Last time around, the Badgers played an aggressive zone, figuring that Martinez would eventually make mistakes and Nebraska’s offensive line would let up, which it did at times. Yesterday, Iowa did a great job of clogging the middle of the field, even Nebraska tried to spread the field. Wisconsin, if they mix up their defense, has a shot to really confuse Nebraska.

But, as we saw yesterday and throughout the season, Nebraska has the talent to buy their way out of their mistakes.

Good Show: Huskers Ahead of the Curb, & a New Trophy Game?

Kickoff after Huskers had taken a 31-0 lead in the third quarter.

When I was out on the street looking for a ticket to the Nebraska-Minnesota game yesterday, I disciplined myself. I told myself to wait up until the last possible minute, going against every instinct in my being that screamed “Secure your seat now!” My restraint paid off, and I paid only twenty to a cool guy who sold me one of his season ticket, ones that had been in his family since the early 1980’s.

In spite of the excitement of seeing Osborne lead the team out on the field one final time, the game was a wash. BTN might as well have shown the replay of last years’ Nebraska-Minnesota game, although they would have had to take some of the shimmer of the field from the Minnesota sun. Even though Minnesota managed to win the games they were supposed to this year, they still aren’t in the same class as the top of the Big 10 as athlete-wise. But this one of Nebraska’s two regional series, and that’s a good thing, even if it’s one-sided. Like Iowa State, I feel a more personal connection to the Nebraska-Minnesota game because I spend a lot of time traveling in that state. If these two schools end up playing for a trophy, I would suggest the trophy be named the Siouxland Prairie Dog and be a mounted prairie dog common to the region of southwest Minnesota, southeast South Dakota, and northeast Nebraska.

You’d get fired up to play for this, right?

At least, Jerry Kill  has given his fan base hope by going with freshmen quarterback Phillip Nelson, a lesson the some of the most experienced coaches in the Big 10 can’t figure out. Remember back in spring and summer when we kept hearing about how groomed Andrew Maxwell was to take over at Michigan State for Kirk Cousins? Now the fourth year junior who can’t beat a BCS team at home will have to fight it out with Goldie next week to get bowl eligibility. How about James Vandenberg at Iowa? The senior wasn’t even pulled when the Hawkeyes were out of the reach of the Wolverines. Mark Dantonio and Kirk Ferentz, at some point over the next two years, will again have to replace the stiff, two-year, punch the clock starters. Meanwhile, Kill rolled the dice in starting Nelson, and with the extra bowl practices this year and another year as the starter, he has hope to develop Nelson into a good starter by his third year.

Not unlike the decision Bo Pelini made in 2010 to go with Taylor Martinez over the incumbent Zac Lee.

Besides the fact that Nebraska has better players, Nebraska beat Minnesota because they had more ways to. Not wanting to rush back Rex Burkhead or burden Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah, Tim Beck lined up a fullback out wide and threw wide receiver screens to Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner. Yes, Nebraska puts their offense on a running back, but today it was time to set up the rotation. Bucking Big 10 conservatism, Bo Pelini went for a score on the goal line with two seconds to go in the half. It didn’t work, but the point was made: I take situational chances. It’s not as great as Osborne’s glory days. If you watched Braylon Heard struggle behind the second-string offensive line and Ron Kellogg has passes clank. Like a lot of teams, Nebraska’s a couple of huge injuries away from disaster. Thankfully, a running back who gains four yards a carry consistently is easier to replace than a quarterback.

Right now, Nebraska’s at a different level organization-wise than other programs in the Big 10. They average 30 points per game versus BCS level competition pretty consistently, and most programs can’t get that unless their running back carries the ball thirty times a game. For the record, I do think that Nebraska will struggle against Iowa more than people expect. Not greatly, perhaps just a second quarter stretch where Nebraska can’t get the field position it needs in 14-6 game. But all Martinez, Pelini, and company have to do is set up the rotation, and they have enough weapons to do that.

Insides of the Stadium

Huskers vs. Nittany Lions: The Goal Line Fumble Dissected, Frame by Frame. Almost There…

Free

While it occurred with more than seven minutes to go, Matt Lehman’s goal line fumble was critical to the outcome. The immediate outcry was obvious: many Nebraska fans brought up Penn State’s McCloskey reception in 1982 that appear to be out of bounds and were complaining that ABC kept showing the play. (That controversy generates big advertising dollars, Husker fans.) Then this morning, the Penn State sites were full of articles claiming conspiracy and saying that the Big 10 doesn’t want Penn State to be successful because of the Sandusky scandal. Given that many Penn Staters read the Sandusky report and said we needed to “wait for the facts”, it is hardly a surprise that even Penn State journalists rushed to play the conspiracy card.

When I watched the play live, I couldn’t see what happened, although I thought that it was more likely than not that Lehman had scored judging by where the ball came loose. When I watched the replay the first time, I wasn’t as quick to think it was a touchdown, which admittedly was what I wanted to hear. After watching the replay a few times, I judged a couple of things. Lehman moved the ball within his hands from where he caught as he extended toward the goal line. If you watch his hands from where he caught it to the goal line, he carries it loosely. While his hands and the ball seemed to be moving forward, the ball seemed to jiggle and rotate in a way that was not consistent with the way his hands were moving, as if he was fumbling the ball forward. It seemed that Lehman’s grip on the ball was on the back third of it, and you could see a lot of the rotating ball outside of his grasp. The image of the ball was before his hands, not in his hands. I wouldn’t have argued had the call been overturned, but as I sat there and watched the play, I feared the overturn, but I feared that the evidence to overturn the call was not complete.

To me, this is an instance where 98% of the evidence to overturn a call was there, but it just wasn’t enough to change the call because of the slight bobble. The right call was made, if a fumble begins at the first bobble of a football and if the bobble continues through to the ball’s dislodging via contact with another player. I will concede something else: if the play had been called a touchdown on the field, it likely would have stayed a TD as well. Let’s not forget something else: when a fumble occurs, officials more often than not will swallow the whistle, because it’s harder to make a non-fumble a fumble than it is to make a fumble a non-fumble. Nebraska got a huge break, as the official were erring on the side they were trained to air on.

The Big 10 is not out to get Penn State. The NCAA leveled severe penalties against PSU, not the Big 10. Given the conference’s lack of quality (and depth of quality teams behind Ohio State), they need Penn State to be viable so that all the TV screens in Pitt and Philly keep watching Penn State and the Big 10 and not ACC or Big East football, aside from the fact sports conspiracies just don’t exist (NBA included).

To Penn State fans who are arguing, I’d point out that you lost more on that play than Nebraska gained. If Penn State had scored, Nebraska fans don’t panic. There’s seven minutes to go, and the Huskers have the wind at their back, only needed a field goal to tie, and a team that’s built to come from behind. The game wouldn’t have been over for them. In addition, Penn State got two more possessions when they were behind by only a score. This wasn’t the final decision maker in a game you lost by 9. This was game between two teams that were pretty evenly matched and swung on many key moments. That play wasn’t even close to the only deciding factor, and it just happened late in the game.

Matt McGloin’s behavior in the post-game press conference was horrible, as well as his actions on the field. He should have been flagged for taking his helmet off on the field after he was called for the safety (he also took his helmet off after the Lehman fumble). Couple with his tweet of the play, I’m guessing there are a lot of NFL teams taking him off there draft boards.

Unfortunately, this may not be the final officiating controversy Nebraska finds itself in this season. While I don’t think the Big 10 will put in the fix for the Huskers in the Big 10 Title Game, consider the following: Wisconsin looses their last two games and is 7-5, a reasonable assumption, given that Brett Bielema may save Montee Ball’s carries for the Title Game. Everyone assumes the Big 10 wants Nebraska to win as the conference has had enough bad publicity and doesn’t want to see a 8-5 team in the Rose Bowl. Not saying it will happen, but fans will put the dots together.

Compared to what we’ve seen, this Nebraska comeback wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the ones on the road at Northwestern or Michigan State. When Nebraska’s offense took the field after Penn State turned the ball over in the end zone in the fourth quarter, I had to remind myself that this was the first time Nebraska had lead in regulation since the Michigan game two weeks ago, other than the six most important seconds against Michigan State. As the teams went in at halftime, there were some signs that hadn’t been there in the previous weeks. There was the argument on the sidelines between Pelini and Stafford; another exchange showed a despondent Will Compton talking to his head coach on the bench. It’s no wonder that Pelini said at halftime that he thought it might take until the fourth quarter for his team to make up the deficit.

This win wasn’t a comeback for Nebraska so much as it was a series of little moments between two pretty evenly matched teams. Nebraska won because, quite simply, Nebraska had more ways to win, was at home, and forced Penn State into poorly timed mistakes. In a way, this may have been the most important of Nebraska’s come from behind wins because you know that the crowing from Columbus will start the second Ohio State beats Michigan. At least Penn State can’t claim they beat Nebraska, in spite of the fumble that may not have been.

As we saw last year with Penn State, this series is bound to be a chippy affair year in and year out. After their comeback came up short in Happy Valley, Penn State has to be steaming about letting the Huskers off the hook. Three out of the next four years, Nebraska and Penn State will met in their penultimate games of their seasons, except in 2014 when Nebraska will open their home conference schedule against the Nittany Lions.

Nebraska burned through a lot to be 5-1 after a daunting stretch of conference games: Ameer Abdullah’s 35 touches today were a lot to ask, and Rex Burkhead may have to come back. But Pelini deserves a lot of credit for going to Imani Cross in short yardage situations, and bringing Braylon Heard off the bench. Burkhead was ridden into the ground last year, and let’s hope there’s still something left with both him and Burkhead. But Abdullah does do a better job of getting out of bounds; part of Burkhead’s physical breakdown now was that he sought out contact, a death knell to a running back’s career in the Big 10.

So Nebraska’s through with the toughest part of their schedule. All they have left are Minnesota, who already has their bowl eligibility in hand, and Iowa, still reeling. We’ve seen Pelini stub his toe against teams like this before, so yes, there’s some reason to be cautious, especially playing at Iowa on a short week in an early game (I do know it’s Iowa). This team has relied on magic for the past couple week, even when they’ve been good. Perhaps for the next couple of weeks, they can just be good.

The Rise: Does the Big 10 Need Nebraska to Whip Everyone?

Looking in…

Steve Spurrier’s success at Florida in the 1990’s had an impact that went beyond the Gators. Yes, the fun-and-gun was one of the first passing offenses that began to take football by storm in the late 1990’s, but Spurrier’s penchant for running up the score began to raise the standards of many of the schools in the SEC, getting good coaches fired and raising the level of play in the conference to where it is today.

Yesterday in East Lansing, Husker fans saw a piece of how they may just shape the Big 10 going forward. While it wasn’t a huge win, going on the road and beating a consistent Michigan State team they hadn’t lead all day was again a sign of how Nebraska’s basketball-on-grass offense is pushing them to the front of the pack.

There haven’t been that many times  in the past ten years when Nebraska fans have been overtly optimistic. At points in 2003, fans saw the potential if they could only get better players, but that staff was soon scrapped to satisfy Steve Pedersen’s ego. Then there was the 2006 off-season, post-Alamo Bowl win over Michigan, where Husker fans hoped Zac Taylor could get them a conference title, and of course, the glow of the 33-0 Holiday bowl shutout of Arizona. The Pelini years have been good, don’t get me wrong, but now that Pelini’s gone 4-1 in a huge stretch in the Big 10, fans have reason to believe the team can be viable for years to come.

To his credit, Pelini hasn’t rested on his defensive laurels, and instead, has innovated offensively. When the Huskers moved to the Big 1o, Pelini could have justified keeping a grind-it-out, milk-the-clock offense. Instead, he brought in the spread, and now, a fan base that used to go cold at the first sign of trouble begins to believe their team can comeback when they are down two score with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. That wrinkle is how a coach buys multiple years in a place.

But the Huskers remain a paradox in and off themselves. While they deliver in the clutch, they wouldn’t even be in that position if not for penalties and turnovers getting the better of them. Yesterday, starting field position was again an issue, with only Nebraska drives starting past their own 31, and their own 42 and 45 respectively. But the bottom line is, the team doesn’t give up. They are built to come back in games, and if they are this good, imagine how good they could be if they actually got some turnovers in their favor.

Saturday was a good-to-great moment for Nebraska football. They came in off a big win, primed for an upset against a so-so team that was better than their record. There’s no question that Nebraska could have squashed Sparty in Lincoln. But the game was in East Lansing, and the Spartans got the game they needed from Le’veon Bell and their defense to stay in it. Nebraska just had a little more.

It maybe a bit premature to say that Bo Pelini is going to get coaches fired in the Big 10. Really, Urban Meyer is more likely to get coaches fired in the Big 10, with his aggressive recruitership alongside his offense. But both Meyer and Pelini bringing this exciting offense to the Big 10 is a good thing, and if they keep coming back or blowing out good teams, it’s going to be a rough go for the rest of the league.

Bo Pelini and crew are one step closer to their goal of a Big 10 crow, and the schedule is softening slightly. Penn State is a better team now than was expected, but Nebraska gets them at home. Fans should still be concerned about Pelini throwing in a charity loss to Minnesota or Iowa, but as we saw on Saturday, this crew can match anyone, and pretty soon, they’re going to get their best player back. Yes, Burkhead the Beast may return soon, but it says a lot to the leadership of this team that they’ve won all these games without him. That’s something to believe in.

Overpaid Kirk Ferentz Gets Fired and…It’s a Bigger Waste? What About Bo Pelini?

“Kirk Ferentz is overpaid!” I’ve heard this blurted out so many times, the persistence is to the point where I feel like I have to support Ferentz. This year however, there’s some justification for Hawkeye outrage, with home embarrassments by Central Michigan and Penn State, and, if they loose at Indiana on Saturday, Iowa faces the likelihood that they won’t make the postseason for only the second time since 2001. On the flip side, Iowa isn’t all that much different than in years past when they’ve struggled. Considering the changes on Ferentz’s staff and how many freshmen are playing, 4-4 is what Iowa is.

For as many complaints as there are about Ferentz’s annual salary, Iowa fans and media are quick to justify the lavish expense. We’re in the middle of nowhere Iowa, we have to pay more to keep Ferentz from going to the NFL. But Ferentz’s current contract, not his annual salary, deserves the most criticism. Ferentz had already been criticized for making too much when he was being paid more than $10 million to go 32-19 between 2006 and 2009 (and those were his good years). Iowa then signed him an ten year contract in 2009 after going to 11-2. In light of how Charlie Weis’ ten year contract kept Notre Dame from firing him in 2008 (Weis will still be receiving checks from South Bend through 2015), giving any coach a contract longer than seven years is asking for trouble, unless it’s at a school like Oklahoma or Texas who easily out-recruit their rivals. Overpaying a coach is only worth it if the school can get out of the contract when it needs to.

(Update: After publishing this piece, I went back and lookead at the scores from Iowa’s 2009 season. The only win against a ranked team was at Penn State by 11. They beat Northern Iowa and Arkansas State by a combined 4 points and edged a 5-7 Michigan team at home by 2. You get what you pay for, Hawkeyes.)

But let’s play around with a scenario. With his contract the way it is, Ferentz will more than likely stay at Iowa through the 2017 season (gulp), giving him nineteen season at Iowa. Hypothetical scenario: Ferentz had bottomed out in 2006 and 2007, won a total of eight game combined, and was fired. Let’s also assume that Iowa had to buyout one other football coach between 2008 and 2017, not unreasonable. Suppose Ferentz’s buyout would have cost Iowa $5 million ($3 million was what Nebraska had to pay Bill Callahan in ’07, and his contract wasn’t as good as Ferentz’s at that time), and the other coaching buyout was $4 million. $9 million just to make two coaches go away? Of course, Iowa would have paid a new coach much less than it pays Ferentz now, but still, it is considerable. If you factor in the damage to ticket sales and attendance that would come with a bad hire, the damage for such action would raise that number from just that figure, plus the damage to the football program’s continuity.

Let’s not forget one crucial factor in this debate: college coaches are already underpaid in light of the revenue they bring in. Iowa’s football revenue in tickets (about $34 million, from seven games and tickets priced at $70 each) and TV revenue ($25 million, reasonable assumption given the Big 10’s packages) is probably around $60 million. Ferentz doesn’t even make 10 percent of that.

Nebraska fans, you could be facing this issue in the near future as well. Bo Pelini looks like he may just win the Big 10 this year and command an extension himself. Like Ferentz, Pelini has NFL experience, and there are always his ties to LSU that keep Husker nation on edge. Giving him a ten year-contract would be different given his age, but NU shouldn’t go down that road. If he finishes 11-2, negotiations should start at six years, $3 million per, and be willing to go as high as $3.5 million over seven years. An eighth year wouldn’t be a killer, but should be avoided.

What the Ferentz debate is really all about is if it’s worth it to keep a coach if you’re going to bowl games every year, which Iowa has every year but one since 2001. (Even in 2007, the Hawkeyes were bowl eligible.) Oregon State stuck by Mike Riley after he had two loosing season in a row and now they are winning again. On the other hand, Auburn canned ten year-coach Tommy Tuberville after one 5-7 and got the highs and lows of Gene Chizik. The question is this: do you want bowl games every year, or do you risk the big hire?

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