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A Husker Recruiting Thought, & Will Huskers 2012-2013 Seasons Resemble 2001-2002?

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Will they keep it going?

Have to be honest-I don’t really follow college football recruiting as closely as I used to. I know this year was a better year for the expert, and I know that part of why Nebraska hasn’t done as well the last two years is that their top recruits have left the program early (Cody Green, Todd Peat, Tyler Moore, Aaron Green, etc, etc). The success or failure of a recruiting class will depend on how many of the top recruits max out.

I’m a little surprised that Nebraska as a state doesn’t have more than one signable player for Bo Pelini. I know it’s not 1985, and that you have to import players, but it goes back to what I raised in January: does Pelini have the mentality to develop blue collar players from small high schools and get the most out of them? You don’t have to be an elite athlete to start at linebacker in the Big 10. Go out to Tecumseh and find someone who can dominate on special teams, an area where you really lagged behind in 2012.

While Nebraska football has suffered more than its share of bad losses over the last ten years, 2001 Colorado and 2012 Wisconsin both have similarity in that, both the 2001 and 2012 teams overachieved due to favorable schedules: namely, hardest games at home (Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Texas Tech in 2001; Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State in 2012), traditionally good opponents having done years (Kansas State in 2001, Michigan State and Iowa this year). So, after a devastating loss to end the year, Husker fans should wonder if 2013 will feature results similar to 2002.

Record-wise, I don’t think Nebraska will have a year like 2002 in 2013, mainly because that team lost the talent and leadership of Eric Crouch, which covered up a lot of Frank Solich’s flaws. That year also featured a tougher schedule early, tougher than this team will face with five home games to start the year (thanks, Southern Miss). But the issue of complacency remains, and for all the work that Taylor Martinez has set about improving his game, his attitude has never said, “I lead from the front.” Also, this team’s best leader, Rex Burkhead, is sadly moving on.

So, will 2013 be a let down? My personal prediction is that Nebraska will be no worse than 9-3 after they play Iowa, barring major injury of course. But should fans expect 11-1? Even if Penn State falls off the face of the earth by next November, Michigan State and Iowa will improve, and UCLA has been revitalized under Jim Mora. It’s not going to be easy.

What will determine the Huskers success in 2013 is how hungry they are in spring practice. Watch the video below for a few examples of where the Huskers may be lacking.

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?

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

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.

Go Big Red vs. Go Blue: Why We’re Here

Charging Toward Indy?

I was excited to go watch Nebraska play against Michigan yesterday. Not in the same way I was before Nebraska played Texas in the “Red Out Around the World” (let’s not remember how that went), but because this was the biggest conference/division game of the season. If Nebraska lost, they’d have very little chance to win the Legends division. Unlike 2009 or 2010, the face-off for the division race wasn’t against the upstart Missouri Tigers, but a duel with the Michigan Wolverines, a program with a tradition and history equal to, and exceeding Nebraska’s in some areas. This was, after all, why Nebraska came to the Big 10, to annually go toe-to-toe with traditional powers for titles.

Observations of Michigan fans who made the trip to Lincoln: I saw so many #2 Charles Woodson jerseys , I could have puked. Even though Nebraska fans live in the past, you don’t see them wearing #15 Tommie Frazier jerseys. The best accessory by far was a couple of maize-striped, old football helmets I saw. Really, most Michigan fans geek it up in a classy way, without looking like the Notre Dame wannabes I observed last weekend. Of course, there was one fan who was clearly a Chicago stockbroker, who came in an overcoat and a 1930’s style hat, as if he were attending one of those baseball games that we now see on black-and-white reels.

In light of the reports of a ticket scam during the Wisconsin game, I pressed my luck in this game and bought my ticket on the street. Yes, I had a nervous moment when it took a second to scan at the gate, but it did scan. I have principal for buying tickets on the street: recognize the sharps. There are people who are selling tickets just to get rid of them, and there are people selling tickets to make a buck. The older and more tired the seller looks, the better the price. And this ticket happened to be two rows up from the 35 yard line on the Nebraska side, so it was my lucky day.

In this game, I observed most plainly what I saw in the season opener against Southern Miss: a team that executes on offense so different from the rest of the Big 10, it changes what fans demand. It was like watching a business forty years ago versus a business today with the benefit of technology. Throughout the first half, Michigan went up and down the field and dominated time of possession as they did a year ago. Meanwhile, Nebraska was getting nearly as many yards in less time and kept having the Wolverines rush to the line of scrimmage.

That leads me to ask: will it be good for the Big 10 if Nebraska rolls through November, winning four straight and ultimately taking the Big Ten title, zipping around Indianapolis as if they were the greatest show on turf? It might be. Of course, we’ll hear a lot of gripping about how the no-huddle isn’t fair to the defense, but eventually, it will just force schools like Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to go hire offensive coordinators from SMU and Houston to install quicker attacks and play more exciting football. Remembers, it’s not just Nebraska running this, it’s Ohio State, and they are trouncing Penn State and Nebraska with lesser personnel. Quarterback recruits want to play in passing offenses where they’ll get reps, and the no-huddle will give them more reps in-games.

Which leads to another quarterback observations: I get that guys who are number two quarterbacks transfer all the time, but seriously, both Ohio State and Michigan can’t do better? Last year, it was Joe Bauserman winging balls into the tenth row, this year Russell Bellomy. Due to my lack of twitter in Memorial Stadium (come on, Verizon), I missed some great Bellomauserman tweets. The Buckeye’s predicament was understandable last year, but seriously, Michigan, Dennard Robinson is a senior and runs all over. You shouldn’t have that for a backup quarterback.

As the seconds ticked off the clock, I left the flock of Husker fans leaving Memorial Stadium with a box of free popcorn under my arm, hoping to find a TV with the Notre Dame-Oklahoma game on it, and I settled on Jack’s in the Haymarket. Nebraska has just beaten every power team in the Big 10, and can be claimed among the best teams. They won’t be extremely disadvantaged in any game yet this year. This team isn’t great, but in 2009, Pelini took a team that had no offense that was 4-3 and won six of his last seven in an offensive league. This team has improved on defense much more than that team, and as long as they can not make a huge mistake at the wrong time, they’ll be on their way to Indy. Watching Sports Center in the middle of a chaotic post-game bar crowd, I think I can finally say that Husker fans are getting close to what they expect from their coach and team.

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.

Two Husker Games: Destiny a Scary Place

Late in Nebraska’s win over Southern Miss two weeks ago, I saw a tweet from one of my followers (not directly at me) telling Nebraska fans to calm down, and that Taylor Martinez had let us down before. Post-UCLA, it’s easy for me to say he’s right, although I don’t think I read the team wrong that day. Remembering how Kevin Cosgrove’s defenses failed to adapt to spread offenses, I dreamed of Martinez and company blurring past oversized Big 10 linebackers on their way to the end zone.

But I did overestimate the confidence issue for Nebraska.

Let me be clear about something: I am okay with the toolbox Nebraska football has now. Nebraska is a totally committed program that isn’t fooled by a bad product (example, Bill Callahan), and they’ll get serviceable recruits every year, along with a handful of elite ones. Playing the schedule they will in the Big 10 for the next ten years, they are probably going to average seven to nine years a year, minus a win or two, and I’m okay with that. I have no problem admitting that today, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, are a definitively better program than Nebraska, and Michigan is only a hair better and should be solidly in a class with those other programs by the end of this year. Nebraska can still go to bowl games every year, and make a major bowl now and then. If they go 7-5 this year, I doubt I’ll be as disappointed as most fans.

But here’s the part of Nebraska’s personality that I have a problem living with: one little thing goes wrong, and the whole team just shuts down. That drives me crazy, and two weeks ago, when the team was going up and down the field on Southern Miss, I really wanted to believe that that flaw had gone away.

It hasn’t of course, and it probably won’t completely go away. But I’ll go back to what I wrote about in the immediately aftermath of the loss to UCLA: the second drive in the third quarter, Nebraska walks off the field after Kyler Reed drops a third down pass, and their body language goes from quite businessman to sad sack looser. While UCLA was the better team and was dominating the game, Nebraska, in spite of all its mistakes, was still in the game up until two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Remember when Zac Lee somehow muster two long plays after DeJon Gomes’ take-the-ball-away interception against Texas in the Big 12 Title Game in 2009? Neither does this team.

Roming for Greener Pastures?

Beyond these issues, there are specific areas in which Nebraska fans need to look at their team and say, “We should be better in this area”, mostly on defense. With Chase Rome bailing out on the team this week, a fan must wonder if Pelini has the Blackshirts headed in the right direction, a question unfathomable two years ago.

While some of last year’s deficiency can be chalked up to not having the depth to face the Big 10’s week-in-week-out physicality, in both the second game of last season and this season, Nebraska’s defensive line disappeared for long stretches. At least this year, the vanishing act didn’t happen against a team that would go 4-8 in the WAC. What’s really perplexing is why Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler, fifth year seniors who have started for two years and been significant contributors for three, are invisible on the line. Steinkuhler, who probably should have played offensive tackle, made one tackle against UCLA, at the end of a forty yard run. Wonder if Rome looked at Steinkuhler and thought, “There’s no way I’ll be used properly by these coaches.”

Pelini has been saying the right things about having depth on defense, but just rotating serviceable guys isn’t the answer. After Will Compton (24 tackles, 2 sacks through two games), no one on defense looks close to his potential. Of the players Pelini has been the primary recruiter, only his JUCO recruits (LaVonte David, DeJon Gomes) were raw athletes who could make plays. Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay complemented Kirk Ferentz and Brett Bielema in their pre-draft coverage for producing technically sound players who are close to their maximum ability. You can’t say the same about Pelini now, and that’s what he’ll have to do to hang in the Big 10. By the by, Rick Neuheisel lost his job at UCLA because the good players who could have helped the team as true freshmen (like Brett Hudley) got redshirted because of serviceable seniors. For Pelini, that player might just be named Vincent Valentine, who the coaches praised early in camp and then decided to redshirt so he wouldn’t get to complacent.

In a vlog before the season, I said that after two games, you should be able to judge the ceiling and floor of your college football team. After two games, I have to conclude there’s a huge gap between Nebraska’s ceiling and floor. The good thing is, they have a modern college football offense and most of the teams in the Big 10 wouldn’t be able to pile up the points like UCLA did. The bad thing is, the defense is beyond horrid, and it will look even worse after it’s been through the physicality of a Big 10 season. Best case scenario for this season: Nebraska scrapes some wins together, takes advantage of an easy November, and goes into their bowl game and off-season with momentum. Worst case: they get bludgeoned on defense, can’t keep the ball on offense, get embarrassed at home by Minnesota for the Gophers bowl-eligibility win (third time that’s happened to Pelini), and Nebraska fans settle for a nostalgia match-up in the Texas Bowl against Iowa State.

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.

College Football Week 1: Rise of the Tech-ola Crap, the Fall of Big Schools #2’s

Around the country, top teams struggled with lesser competition. I’m not even going to count Ohio beating Penn State and Nevada downing Cal in new Memorial Stadium-Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Georgia all struggled on some level to put away lesser, unheralded mid-majors at home. Pitt lost to FCS Youngstown State-by two scores at home, and Maryland barely got by William and Mary. Of course, Duke went out and crushed upstart Florida International, so who knows.

As I reflect on this phenomenon, I’d cite two reasons, beyond the Appalachian State effect. First there’s the super-conference effect: teams in every conference, not just the SEC are playing tougher conference schedules and can only count on so many carries from their stars in early season games (Rex Burkhead not coming back for Nebraska against Southern Miss, for example.) Depth has been depleted not just by scholarship reductions, but transfers. Two, all the mid-majors know they are going to have chances to move up, and need to showcase themselves in these games.

Florida, if you wanted an easier week one opponent, you should have scheduled a Big 10 team. But let’s not scorn Michigan-they took on the challenge of Alabama and there isn’t as much shame in being humbled by the nation’s best program and coach happens. The serious causaulty is that Dennard Robinson got hurt again. And speaking of the ‘Nard Dawg, shouldn’t Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez be even more commended for sliding and getting help with his passing game in light of Robinon’s constant injuries?

Big 10 teams exhausting lead backs in Week 1. Le’Veon Bell, Damon Bullock, and Montee Ball all needed to tote the rock more than thirty times to lead their teams to victory. Meanwhile, Nebraska lost their workhorse back Burkhead and thrived on offense. With all these teams exhausting their running backs with big games still to come, it could be long years in East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City. Iowa has the most to be concerned about, with their losses at tailback in the off-season. But Michigan State and Wisconsin have new quarterbacks who should help shoulder the load as the season goes on.

The biggest assistant coaching gain and loss may have been on display in the Georgia Dome Saturday night, as Clemson’s defense, now under the leadership of Brent Venables, stopped Auburn’s offense, now minus Gus Malzahn. Nothing made me happier last year than watching Clemson revive their tradition behind a funky offense with Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins; with Venables, they could shoot into the stratosphere.

It’s only one loss, but the slow trot toward exile begins at PSU. The Nittany Lions are going to get every teams best shot, as teams know they are down. And judging by Bill O’Brien’s press conference, he doesn’t have the personality of an elite recruiter. Ouch. With games at Virginia, and home against Temple and Navy, Penn State is going to struggle to get a win in September.

Final point: great to see Erin Andrews hosting on Fox, but seriously, could ABC or Fox have a competitive game to switch to at least?

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.

The Final Nebraska-Iowa State Game: A Moment that still Hangs

As I watched the extra point team set up, I knew it was going to be a fake. It almost wasn’t fair. Iowa State could every play out of the back of the playbook to win, and they’d look amazing doing it, and Nebraska would have to eat that loss for the next forty years or so.

In 2006, my parents rented an apartment that was within walking distance of Jack Trice Stadium, and since this was going to be the final Iowa State-Nebraska game for a while, I got tickets in the south end zone, ten rows up. This treated us to a bad view at times, and we always had to turn our heads to see the replay board. (Leave it to Iowa State to put in a huge video board the year after Nebraska leaves the conference.)

The view from our seats

Going into the game, I knew Nebraska might be at risk for a let-down, given back-to-back-to-back games against Texas, Oklahoma State, and Missouri. Also, quarterback Taylor Martinez and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard would be sitting out the game with injuries. In chasing the school single game rushing record a week ago, running back Roy Helu had twenty-eight carries, and wasn’t as sharp in the early going. Compound that Iowa State would be at max motivation to get a sixth win for bowl eligibility and because it was Nebraska, this was a smoldering pot.

Having beaten Nebraska 9-7 in Lincoln a year ago (a game that old men told me was the worst Husker football game they had ever witnessed) and Texas two weeks prior, the Cyclones had confidence Unlike many big play-dependent Big 12 offenses, they took what the Blackshirts gave them and didn’t get impatient. Jack Trice Stadium provided the perfect encasement for pesky team; while it wasn’t as loud as I remember it four years ago (that game was at night), the Cyclone Crazies have their way of getting things going, and frankly, it gets louder than the average Memorial Stadium crowd last five years.

Nebraska’s let down combined with the Cyclones advantages were what lead to a game that was frustratingly to close. Helu’s questionable fumble at midfield which couldn’t be overturned on replay, a 57-yard field goal made with the wind, a missed holding call on a long pass on Iowa State’s long third quarter touchdown drive, Niles Paul coming out of the end zone on the ensuing kickoff and fumbling the ball, a missed offensive pass interference call on Iowa State’s tying touchdown (the same officiating crew later called sixteen penalties on Nebraska later that year at Texas A&M), DeJon Gomes dropping an interception that could have set up a go-ahead field goal in regulation, and Cody Green not seeing an open Kyler Reed on a third down which could have set up a game tying field goal, albeit against the wind. All the while, I’m sitting in the midst of the Crazies and thinking it was almost unfair. But football isn’t fair, and neither is life for that matter.

So a long time after I turned my Dad and said “This finally feels like a Nebraska-Iowa Sate game” (third quarter), Austen Arnaud was kneeling down, and Bo Pelini and I thought Paul Rhoads would do something in overtime. Then came the overtime, which was played right in front of where I was sitting. Nebraska scored in two plays, Iowa State scored in three, again picking on one of Nebraska’s scrub corners.

Then came the extra point I knew would get faked. When I saw the holder get up and throw the ball, my first thought was, our guy is going to get to make a play on it. That guy, Eric Hagg, jumped, grabbed the ball, and fell over the back of the Iowa State tight end. Smack, game over, 31-30 Nebraska win. I went wild and high-fived the three or four Nebraska fans who were within arms reach, as the Iowa State fans just stood there stoned-faced. I went home whooping and celebrating, and wondering where Niles Paul would be taking Eric Hagg to dinner.

My view of Hagg's pick

When I watched the play again, I saw that Collin Franklin was open for a second. Courtney Osborne and Prince Amukamara were the defenders assigned to that side, and they both rushed the kicker straight on. If the Daniel Kuehl had thrown a strike in front of the Franklin, they would have won. Based on the alignment, Osborne was the player who should have covered Franklin, and judging by the replay, Kuehl likely had an option to kick if Osborne or Amukamara were standing back in safe. It me made wonder, if Pelini kept said in his press conference they thought something was up with the extra point, why he didn’t make sure one of them was back?

Even if a mistake was made by John Papuchis, Nebraska’s special teams coach at the time, Nebraska beat Iowa State on that play for the same reason they’d beat Iowa State 16 out of the last 20 times: they had better players. When you watch the play from behind the Iowa State line of scrimmage, Kuehl looks overwhelmed and makes a desperation heave on the run. (Indeed, Rhoads asked a lot of Kuehl, a backup kicker, to complete the game winning pass. If a backup quarterback or a player who had played quarterback was the holder, it would have been a better bet.) Kuehl could have run that play ten times in practice and converted it every time, but it wasn’t against Nebraska’s defenders. Hagg covered a lot of ground in a short period of time to make the interception, from the middle of the fiend to the outside of the hashmarks, and he still had time to judge the ball in the air. His speed to the ball is the most impressive thing about the play

On my walk back to the apartment after the game, I wondered why Rhoads didn’t just leave his offense out on the field . If he really thought his best chance of winning was by getting two points right away, why not let Arnaud throw the pass? Why did even need to go for two? Keep playing, and the pressure mounts on Nebraska. Intriguingly, the three top columnists that covered this game closely took three perspectives on Rhoads’ decision: Steve Sipple supported the fake, Tom Shatel thought there was no need to go for two, and Sam Keeler thought Rhoads should have left his offense on the field for the try. It was a Liar’s Poker situation: if the right thing was to go for it, then was faking the kick the right option? And if throwing a fade against Anthony West, who couldn’t have covered a fullback, was the most likely option to covert, was it still the best option to win the game?  Judging by Rhoads’ decisions in overtime this past season against Iowa and Oklahoma State, he may have decided to be patient in overtime because of that play.

For Nebraska, the faked extra point was the closest they came that year to not playing in the Big 12 title game. I still think a lot about that game,  mainly because there were so many little things that could have kept it from being decided at that moment. And nearly a year and a half later, I still don’t know if it was the right call for Iowa State, or if Nebraska was lucky or good. I’m just glad my team was on the right side that day.

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