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Straight from the Cornfield, Episode 24

In this Episode, I talk the current state of Nebraska football and the Foster Farms Bowl with UCLA.

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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.

What if Nebraska could play them every year?

Given the realignment  that college football has gone through and the rivalries that have gotten left behind by it, I began to think to myself, what is it college football should look like in an ideal universe? I thought that, in an ideal universe, every school would have a set of about six or seven teams that they played every year, the situation in most major conferences, as well as with Notre Dame. Then there would be about another three or four teams that you would play two out of every four to six years. And you should have at least a couple of once-in-twenty years, or lifetime opponents.

To experiment with this, I took the team of my heart, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and devised a such a schedule for them. Here are the six teams I think Nebraska should play every year.

Oklahoma-the classic game-yes, it has lost its luster from 1960-1980’s, but this was one of the most influential games of a generation. Let’s get this every year.

Colorado-Over my life and memory, Colorado was the opponent, other than Texas, that generated the most passion on the Nebraska side. While Colorado doesn’t have the passion for football that Nebraska does, when both schools are good, it’s a culture clash between the hippie Buffs and the conservative Cornhuskers.

Iowa-It is debatable how Iowa should be on this list, given that they haven’t met regularly since the 1940’s. But Iowa is only school that really has a strong following in Nebraska (almost a cult following in Omaha); Colorado is the only other fanbase who Nebraska fans intermingle with regularly.

Kansas-Notre Dame plays Purdue every year. Up until Nebraska joined the Big 10, Nebraska-Kansas was one of the longest rivalries in college football. It should go on.

UCLA-if Nebraska is going to be a national university, it needs to play a west coast opponent every year for its substantial California-Arizona fan base. Arizona State would also be a great fit in this spot, but nothing would match a bi-yearly date in the Rose Bowl.

Penn State-this rivalry, while not in plum recruiting territory, is more about the shared rural, family-first culture of both Penn State and Nebraska. They’re also the two teams who’ve kept virtually the same uniforms the past fifty years.

So there’s your six yearly opponents. Later, I’ll introduce some of the regular rotating rivals that I’d love to see Nebraska play

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