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Straight from the Cornfield, Episode 21

In this episode, I talk Huskers and Hawkeyes, Nebraska’s bowl prospects, how the LSU coaching situation relates to Mike Riley, Bo Pelini, and Nebraska, and Nebrasketball at Villanova.

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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.

Close of season Husker thoughts and assessment

It is disappointing to be writing this assessment on Thanksgiving Saturday, and not the first Sunday in December, like I would have the last two years. Still, the Huskers’ regular season is over, and I have compose my thoughts on it.

As I said in other posts, I thought Nebraska would end up going 8-4 or 7-5 this year, mostly because I thought they would get beat up physically in the Big 10. I was also terrified when, on the first weekend of the year, Gerry DiNardo used a dirty word to describe the Huskers’ performance against Tennessee-Chattanooga: sloppy. At 9-3, I personally have nothing to complain about overall, outside of few obvious spots. Surviving those injuries speaks a lot to coaching, and give hope to next year, when Nebraska should come back with more depth. The offensive line should benefit the most from the injuries this year, and I would expect that an experienced player will be starting at least four of the five offensive line positions in the fall. (I still think it will be another year until Nebraska gets a really deep, experienced offensive line that will all but guarantee a ten win season.)

On offense: In 2010 Nebraska ran a traditional, huddle based offense in the Big 12 where every other team ran the no-huddle spread. This year, they moved to the Big 10, the traditional offense league if there ever was one, and started running a no-huddle spread. Really, I didn’t think Nebraska’s offense looked that much different at the beginning of the year. The immediate improvement was that Nebraska began taking more shots down the field in their first few game, a glaring problem with their run-heavy offense a year ago. As the year went on and it became evident Taylor Martinez couldn’t be asked to read defenses, they began throwing short again, taking four yards when the corners played off and adding the outside wide receiver screens. What resulted was a Husker offense that rested on the toss play, the option and zone read plays, and straight ahead runs; on the drives where they were able to get long pass plays, they usually scored. While the offense isn’t an exotic spread, it at least didn’t look like the fake spread Nebraska ran last year.

The one greatest advantage Nebraska has with its new offense is the up-tempo style, increasing their number of plays per game, from 65.4 in 2010 to 70.2 this year. Ironically, total yards were down by around 8 yards a game, but considering Nebraska left an offensive league for a defensive one, that should be considered an improvement. Second half offense was a vast improvement from the previous year. In 7 games last year (half of the season) Nebraska’s offense scored seven points or less, including games against Idaho, South Dakota, and Kansas, teams Nebraska should have a physical advantage against. This year, Nebraska scored more points in the second half then they did in the first half seven times, and once equaled their second half total. The additional plays and hurry up undoubtedly saved Nebraska’s bacon against Ohio State earlier this year. Without the extra plays for Nebraska’s offense in that game, they might not get a chance to come back or win in regulation.

The one limiting aspect I see in the offense is that it seems content to rely mostly on Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead, particularly Burkhead. Yes, Burkhead is effective, and yes, he can carry the team, like he did against Michigan State and Iowa. But, it is dangerous for a team to be so tied down by one player, and not just because of the risk of injury. Pelini overusing Burkhead against Michigan State likely cost him the game against Northwestern, where Burkhead had 69 yards on 22 carries. Butkhead will also limit Nebraska because of his running style. While Burkhead does get a consist 4 yards per carry (keeping Nebraska in manageable down and distance) and the necessary yardage 3rd and short, he rarely provides long runs and too often runs into contact (his goal line fumble against Northwestern, for example.)

There is another problem with the Martinez-Burkhead heavy offense. Top high school recruits (which you do need to win the Big 10 and get to and win a BCS game, Huskers fans) want to see from a school that they can come in and play right away. This year, Nebraska had three freshmen running backs, and at no point, where they especially reliant on any of them in a significant game, save for Ameer Abdullah on special teams. Are they not playing because they aren’t ready? Perhaps. But if I’m a recruit who is my choice of the top programs, why would I want to go to a school that will play me as a freshmen, only to stick me back on the bench when they haven’t done enough to involve me? And if I’m a top running back, why would I want to go to a Big 10 school where I would get to run into an oversized defense 30 times a game and be worn out when I was drafted into the NFL?

On Defense: I think the Huskers did about as well as could be expected for a team that lost its top defensive tackle halfway through the season, and then another defensive tackle in a run first conference. Like I said, I expected this team to be especially beat up by the end of the year. The good new is, they’ll be deeper next year. Lavonte David once again was the natural playmaker in the back end, and Will Compton gradually emerged and improved as the season wore on, getting more of a chance to play now that Nebraska doesn’t have to play dime 80% of the time.

One thing I do feel I keep waiting for is one of these Pelini lead defenses to step up, and get a massive amount of turnovers, as his defense of 2003 did. This year, they had eighteen takeaways. What I would say in this instance is it gives that at least there could be a year in the future where Nebraska does get a huge advantage in turnover margin and wins 10 or 11 games.

There is of course, the question of the two huge losses on the road. Of the two, I would say Wisconsin would be the one Husker fans should be the most frustrated by. Yes, the Michigan loss was bad, but that was on the road, against a team that was peaking and embracing the style of their new coach. Nebraska had just been through an emotional game against Penn State and then had to make another long road trip it was poison. Michigan was also able to do what Ohio State was unsuccessful at: limit the number of plays Nebraska’s offense got. Nebraska only had 25 plays in the first half, and with the turnover on the kickoff, were down to touchdowns to start the second. At that point, the playbook was limited, and they were on the road.

The Wisconsin loss, yes, I think Husker fans should be upset with in certain regards, although it should be said that Wisconsin is a better team, with a better quarterback, and two running backs better than Rex Burkhead. But it is a game where Nebraska went on the road, with huge expectations and a national spotlight on them and in the moment, they looked a lot smaller. They never really made up for that loss in Madison all year, and there was a moment in that game, when Martinez threw his first interception, that I felt like once that one wrong thing happened, a dozen more would follow, a pattern with Nebraska that had begun at Colorado in 2001 and continues to this day. It’s sad that Nebraska didn’t have a moment great than that loss for the rest of the year.

But at least in both those games, you can look at Nebraska and say, they didn’t have the talent to compete. That was not the case when they played Northwestern at home. In that game, they were hurt by a couple of things. One, they weren’t used to the week-in, week-out grind of the Big 10 (Nebraska played an even worse game against Iowa State last year and won that one.) Two, the aforementioned wear on Burkhead from the Michigan State game, yielding their Dave Wannstedt-depend-on-one-back-getting-40-carries offense impotent. Situational self-destructing to keep Northwestern ahead, like the fumbles in scoring territory and the long TD pass when they were only down 14-10. But the worst was allowing Northwestern’s final drive, made up of 13 running plays. Not being able to stop an undersized spread team from running the ball on you when you have to get it back, at home no less, is how you go from being a team that has a shot at a BCS game against your bitter old conference rival to a berth in the Capitol One Bowl against a South Carolina game who also has a bad home loss.

One stat I waited until the end of the year to check was penalties, especially since Pelini’s teams seemed to commit a lot of them, and they were a huge story last year. I knew this year would be less than last years, although that wouldn’t be saying much. The total through 12 games was 76 penalties, or an average of just under 6.5 per game. Versus a year ago, the Huskers committed 109 penalties in 14 games, or an average of 7.8 per game. So a notable improvement. I don’t recall Husker fans complaining as hard about penalties this years as they did last year, but perhaps that has something to do with the penalty disparity. Last year, the Huskers were penalized 46 more times than their opponents, an average of a little more than three per game, and they were also penalized on average thirty more yards per game than their opponents. This year, Nebraska’s opponents were penalized 71 times, 5 times fewer than Nebraska, and their per game penalty average of 5 yards. Thus, the lack of animosity.

It is worthy of note that this was Bo Pelini’s least penalized Nebraska team. In addition to the school record 109 penalties from a year ago, Pelini’s 2009 team previously set the school record for penalties with 100 (7.1 ppg). His first season in 2008, the team had 94 penalties (7.2 ppg). Definite improvement, I’m sure we can credit better Big 10 reffing.

One last thought on penalties: I don’t recall anyone complaining about penalties much in Pelini’s first two years, other than a little at the beginning of his first year. Kind of surprising given that in 2009, Nebraska did indeed set the school record for penalties, which yielded not a peep from the media. Just saying it is interesting.

I didn’t notice it until after the Penn State game, but for the first time, I thought Bo Pelini lacked some fire in his post game press conference. Then I thought back to the game at Wisconsin, after which I was surprised that Pelini looked like he didn’t want to fight a reporter. There were two things I made of it: one, the strain of moving conferences probably took its tool on Pelini. Eleven new opponents means more film study. Additional travel, different routines, always trying to judge a new opposing sidelines. (In addition to the events and uproar surrounding the Penn State game itself). Second, Pelini’s now four years into his coaching career at Nebraska, the longest he’s stayed at one place consecutively. I’m not criticizing him for moving around, I am just simply stating the fact, I think he’s realizing he’s in this for the long haul and that there are no shortcuts.

Looking over the college landscape and seeing how many coaches end up wining a national title in their first, second, or third year over the last decade (8 out of 12 national title coaches have), I wondered if it’s possible for a coach who has been at a job for more than five or six years to win a national title. While there are exceptions, I think the optimum situation where a team can win a national title is when a talented team at a school with resources gets an ambitious coach who gives them a significantly better system and game plan than they had before. It’s only way to get the new entitled high school athlete to buy and work together. Pelini’s already past year four at Nebraska, a school that has better than average resources and commitment.

Am I saying that players are already turning Pelini out or that he’s past his prime as a coach? No, but what I am saying is he’s past the initial bump that he gets from players who buy into the new coach. It may even be a sign he’s thinking even more seriously about going to an SEC school with better resources, and we all know LSU won’t keep Les Miles forever.

All in all this was a nice year. 9-3 is good; I hoped for better, but I’ll take 9-3 in this conference. Meanwhile, I’ll hope for a bowl game against a coach who might be looking for revenge against a Nebraska team he might have a better shot at this time around.

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