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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)

Is Husker Nation Travel-ed Out?

Today, I checked flights from Omaha to Orlando around the time of the Capital One Bowl on a whim, and surprisingly, there were now some flights for under $500. Guess some bigwig must have noticed Nebraska fans weren’t buying their allotment of bowl tickets.

If the Big 10 Title Game was under-attended last year, this year’s attendance poor showing by Nebraska and Wisconsin (two-thirds of last years attendance) makes the early woes of the ACC Title Game look trivial. Carrying low momentum into bowl season, numerous Big 10 teams are selling paltry amounts of their ticket allotments. Granted, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue are in worse bowls and/or have less momentum than a year ago, but still, the decline is startling.

Perhaps Jim Delany now questions adding a couple of East Coast outliers to his conference; just examining the travel habits of Nebraska fans, one of the country’s top traveling fan bases, should give the bowls attached to the Big 10 cause for concern.

Traveling fans are a huge part of the college football, both to bowl games and to opposing stadiums. I’ve made many of these trips myself, and while they’re memorable, they are also expensive and time consuming. The average tab for two from Omaha to Chicago runs around $1500-$2000; when my father and I went up from his apartment in Ames to go to Minnesota game last year, our expenses were around $300, but that was without hotel.

While fans in the past had short drives Lawrence, Manhattan, Columbia or Ames when Nebraska was in the Big 12, now Husker Nation has only two conference neighbors that are within a six hour drive. A large reason that Husker fans didn’t journey to Indianapolis was similar to why the NCAA had to go to pod seeding for March Madness: they were saving up for the bigger game. But beyond that, it’s clear from Nebraska’s huge presence in both Minneapolis and Chicago meant that fans now madk their plans further in advance, when costs were less. It also could indicate that traveling Husker fans are more likely to congregate at the easiest road game for them to get to with a surplus of tickets. This year, it was Northwestern, last year it was Minnesota, next year, it could probably be Purdue.

It will be interesting to see if schools like Minnesota and Northwestern start to follow the plan of Iowa State and make it harder for visiting fans to buy tickets to their team’s game without scholarship donations. This is doubtful; Northwestern is so bashful about their bowl ticket sales they don’t even release such data.

Looking at the Big 10, travel is even more of a concern for schools like Wisconsin and Ohio State, who look as if they will be giving up an annual road game in the Midwest to take a trip to Rutgers or Maryland. This arrangement will likely not hurt Nebraska, as they will only make the Rutgers or Maryland trip once every ten years, assuming the Big 10 stays at eight conference games as the SEC and ACC are doing. Still, with the Big 10 opening east coast offices, the question has to be asked, is it too much travel?

With the disappointment at the Big 10 Title Game coupled with the travel anxieties of Nebraska fans mean that Nebraska’s travel reputation will be taking a hit in the coming years? For the first few years of the Big 10, that’s possible, as Husker fans feel out the new locales. But after seven or eight years, Husker fans should once again rule the bowl scene. As I wrote last year, inevitably Nebraska will be getting drop in the Big 10’s bowl order to go to Phoenix and play a Big 12 team in what used to be the Insight Bowl. But super-conference are about the television eyeballs and not about fans waiting in long lines at Eppley Airport.

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