Nebraska Football: Pelini’s Progress at Nebraska Little Different Than Callahan’s

DSC09255

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that seasons—and careers—turn on fine margins. Even coming off a number of bad losses, Nebraska was still just a few plays away from making that next step. One play going the wrong way in a championship game, keeping Nebraska from finally winning that elusive conference title.  A fumble by a wide receiver at the end of a critical game costing Nebraska a much-needed win. If both of those plays go the other way, the status of the Nebraska program looks very different.

Boy, that Bill Callahan guy was close, wasn’t he?

I know, the opening of this column sounds like Bo Pelini’s near-misses, against Texas (and Oklahoma, really) in the Big 12 title game, and last week’s loss to Minnesota. But Callahan, the man who has become a cartoon villain amongst many Nebraska fans, has a resume that looks eerily similar.

Conference title near-miss? In 2006, Nebraska faced Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Midway through the third quarter, the score was tied 14-14 and Nebraska had Oklahoma in a third-and-long inside its own five yard line. With the statistical advantage on both offense and defense, a stop for the Blackshirts on that play gives NU the ball with great field position, momentum, and a clear chance to get the conference title monkey off its back. A win in that game puts Nebraska back on the map in Callahan’s third season, potentially changing the trajectory of the program. A stop on that third down goes a long way towards that win.

Instead, Paul Thompson hits Jermel Greshman for a 35-yard completion and converts the first down. The Sooners end up with a 99-yard touchdown drive and squeeze the life out of Nebraska, 21-7.

A late-game wide receiver turnover costing Nebraska a much-needed win? Look back to 2006 again, when Nebraska faced no. 5 Texas. With 2:23 left in the game, Nebraska held a 20-19 lead and had the ball, looking to get its first win over the Longhorns since 1999. But Terrence Nunn, after hauling in a Zac Taylor pass, lost a fumble to Texas’ Aaron Ross.

Texas drove the short field for a field goal, and Nebraska’s last-second comeback fell short, leaving NU once again coming oh-so-close to a huge win.

Of course, the analogies aren’t perfect. Pelini’s loss to Texas in 2009 was probably closer to glory than Callahan’s loss to Oklahoma in 2006. Pelini’s loss to Minnesota this year is almost certainly worse than Callahan’s loss to the no. 5 rated Longhorns in 2006.

Most importantly, Pelini is not Callahan—although his “I haven’t forgotten how to defend the run” quote after the 2011 win over Wisconsin (from Huskers.com) might hang around his neck in the same way Callahan’s “I’m doing an excellent job in every area” quote did in 2007 (from the Lincoln Journal-Star). Pelini has never missed a bowl game—indeed, he’s never won fewer than nine games in a season. Up until last week, he had not lost consecutive conference games since 2009.

The point is that football seasons turn on fine margins. We remember Callahan’s four years at the helm in Lincoln as an unmitigated disaster. And, given how the 2007 season ended, there’s good reason to look back in horror at what unfurled under his leadership.

But the smoke from the blazing hulk of the 2007 can obscure how close Callahan came to turning the metaphorical corner at Nebraska. Much like Pelini, Callahan was fingertips (literally, with Nunn’s fumble) away from a career-defining moment.

The fact remains, though, that those moments never happened, that corner never got turned. Being close to greatness isn’t greatness, just as being part of an entourage doesn’t make you a star.

Callahan had four years of getting close before a seven-loss season (along with near-universal loathing for his boss, former athletic director Steve Pederson) cost him his job. Pelini has had seven years. He’s had the same agonizingly-close brushes with glory as Callahan—along with the hide-the-children debacles on national television.

What Pelini hasn’t had is a seven-loss disaster like Callahan did in 2007. Whether that’s enough to keep him for year eight is up to current athletic director Shawn Eichorst.

Nebraska Football: Fans Should Be Thankful For Clarity Provided by Minnesota Loss

DSC00345

photo and story by Patrick Runge

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Nebraska fans will be looking hard for something about which to be thankful. In the course of seven days, Nebraska fans saw their Cornhuskers go from an 8-1 team on the periphery of the College Football Playoff to (at best) the third-best team in the Big Ten West. In the process, Nebraska fans saw Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon set the FBS all-time record for rushing yards in one game—needing only three quarters to do so—and saw less-than-fleet Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner gash the Blackshirts for 133 yards on the ground.

So what can Nebraska fans be thankful for as they sit down to their turkey and trimmings?

Clarity.

Think about what would have happened if Jordan Westerkamp had hauled in Tommy Armstrong’s across-the-field throw for a touchdown to salvage an ugly win against the Gophers. Nebraska would have gone to Iowa City at 9-2, with a chance to win the B1G West with help. The struggles of 2014 would have been seen as a blip, rather than evidence of the program’s level.

Yes, the struggles of 2014, not just the past week. Remember, this is the same Nebraska squad that needed a miracle play from Ameer Abdullah to avoid defeat at home against FCS McNeese State. The same Nebraska squad that was down 27-3 against Michigan State going into the fourth quarter, before staging a furious comeback—fueled by a punt return and a short drive led by backup quarterback Ryker Fife.

A win over Minnesota on Saturday—driven by a broken play, a blocked field goal, and a last-minute touchdown drive—would have allowed Nebraska to paper over the cracks for another year, allowed fans to tell themselves their team was something it was not.  A contender.

In seven years, Bo Pelini’s Nebraska teams have been to three conference title games. In 2009, an Ndamukong-Suh led Nebraska squad was one second away from beating Texas. In 2010, a freshman Taylor Martinez threw an interception that likely turned the tide in Oklahoma’s 20-13 victory.

And in 2012—well, Nebraska fans all remember what a 7-5 Wisconsin squad who finished third in the Leaders Division and went to Indianapolis only due to sanctions levied against Ohio State and Penn State did to that crew of Cornhuskers.

Two years removed from that title game, and Nebraska is on track (if oddsmakers are to be believed) for Pelini’s seventh four-loss regular season in seven seasons.

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst noted after Wisconsin’s 59-24 mauling of Nebraska in Madison, a Nebraska program ending the season at 10-2 or 9-3 would be hard-pressed to dismiss Pelini, even though that record really would not be indicative of whether Nebraska was a contender to win a division title.  The record would mask the true state of the program under Pelini at the end of the 2014 season.

But with a loss to Minnesota, the second loss on the bounce against the Gophers? With the oddsmakers favoring Nebraska to drop a second straight to Iowa, producing this year’s version of a four-loss season with a three-game losing streak?

Clarity. The loss to Minnesota provides clarity to anyone observing the Nebraska program as to what it is.

The question about what to do, of course, is open. Pelini thinks his program is on the right track, and on the verge of a breakthrough season. Pelini takes care of his players, runs a clean program, and gets his teams to bowl games each year. His quote after the Wisconsin game that “[a] lot of programs across the country would die to have won the amount of games we’ve won” (from Huskers.com) is accurate.

Of course, most programs around the country don’t have the investment in football, the tradition, resources, or fan base support Nebraska provides, but that’s another story.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of good reasons to retain Pelini’s services as Nebraska’s head coach, either positive (his winning record, his recruiting, the program he runs) or negative (the cost of a firing, the trauma to the fanbase, and the fear of the unknown with a new coach).

But at least after the Minnesota loss, those pros and cons can be debated by the Nebraska fan base—and ultimately by athletic director Shawn Eichorst—with a clear perspective as to where Nebraska’s football program currently lies, without a deceptive and unrepresentative win-loss record concealing the blemishes.

Clarity. If you’re looking for something to be thankful for about Nebraska football this holiday season, be thankful for clarity.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

DSC00045

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans, still smarting from seeing Melvin Gordon score again (and again, and again) on the Blackshirts, are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course, particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

No. 5: Kenny Bell (WR, senior)

Even as the school’s record-holder for touchdown receptions, Bell has been far from a dominant force in Nebraska’s offense this year. Much of that, however, stems from the run-heavy nature of Nebraska’s offensive scheme combined with quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s inefficiencies (which is the nicest possible way to say it) as a passer.

At the next level, though, Bell has the speed and hands to get drafted. He is currently projected as a fifth-round selection in next year’s draft. His desire and competitiveness—demonstrated by his ferocious devotion to blocking, if nothing else—should help him stick on an NFL roster next season.

No. 4: Vincent Valentine (DT, sophomore)

Valentine’s status on this list is a little bit of a projection, but there is plenty on which to base that speculation. For starters, his size (six-foot-two, 320 pounds) give him an idea frame as a run-stuffing defensive tackle. And this year, in his first full season as a starter, Valentine’s talent and athleticism have started to show through.

Placing him this high on the list, of course, is having faith that his skill level will continue to increase until the 2017 NFL Draft. But given his physical makeup and the improvement we’ve seen thus far, it’s a leap worth taking.

No. 3: Greg Hart (TE, redshirt freshman)

If Valentine’s inclusion on this list is a leap of faith, then including Hart on the list is a blindfolded jump off of a bridge. But there are reasons why such a jump might be worth it.

First of all, a big pass-catching tight end can be a game-changer for an NFL offense. Players like Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots and Jimmy Graham for the Saints have demonstrated how those types of players (and the matchup nightmares they create for opposing defenses) can change the entire construct of an offense.

Yes, Nebraska already has one of those on its roster in Cethan Carter. And Carter is certainly a talent, although injuries, offensive design, and poor quarterback performance have limited his contributions.

But Hart is an inch taller, and has a 40-yard-dash time almost a full tenth of a second faster than Carter. Obviously, we haven’t seen Hart on the field much. But we’ve seen precious little of Carter (much to the chagrin of Nebraska fans), so there’s a lot of speculation as to both players as to what they will look like as finished products.

So in guessing between the two, I’m going to lean on the player with the better measurables.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah (IB, senior)

Does it seem that long ago when Abdullah was considered a Heisman candidate and looked to be establishing something special in his senior campaign? After an injury against Purdue, combined with Nebraska’s humiliation at the hands of Wisconsin, Abdullah’s performances seem to have been lost in the shuffle.

But Abdullah is still a remarkable talent, with balance, speed, and deceptive power combined with a low center of gravity that should make him an interesting prospect at the next level. Currently viewed as a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Abdullah should hear his name called on the draft’s second day and factor heavily into an NFL squad’s future plans.

No. 1: Randy Gregory (DE, junior)

One of the very few silver linings of Nebraska’s evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday was the fleeting thought that it looked so bad it might convince Gregory to stick around for his senior campaign. After all, the wishful thinking goes, the defense looked so bad that it might hurt Gregory’s stock with NFL clubs.

Fat chance. Not only is Gregory a first-round projections, many analysts see him going in the first few picks of the draft. Given his combination of size, speed, length, and instinct, it’s not hard to see how he draws comparisons to Jadaveon Clowney and Javon Kearse (according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com). Gregory looks to be the highest-picked Nebraska player since Ndamukong Suh went no. 2 overall to the Detroit Lions in 2010.

Which makes Saturday’s defensive embarrassment against Wisconsin all the sadder for Nebraska fans, as it likely is a waste of Gregory’s remarkable talents in scarlet and cream.

Nebraska Football: Epic Collapses Now The Defining Trait of Pelini’s Husker Program

IMG_0776

photo and story by Patrick Runge

“It should not define our program. It’s one game.”

- Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck, after NU’s 59-24 loss to Wisconsin in 2014. (As quoted in the Grand Island Independent)

“It’s one game today … I never look back.”

- Nebraska head football coach Bill Callahan, after Nebraska’s 2004 season ended at 5-6, breaking NU’s 35-year streak of bowls. (As quoted in USA Today)

Nebraska fans had a sickening feeling of déjà vu on Saturday as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon racked up 408 yards on the ground—breaking the NCAA single-game rushing record in three quarters—as the Badgers scored 56 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 59-24.

The last time Nebraska faced Gordon was in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game, when Gordon torched Nebraska for 216 yards on nine (!) carries en route to a 70-31 humiliation of NU.

It seemed like a long time had passed since that debacle in Indianapolis, though. The recruiting struggles of 2010 and 2011 were behind Nebraska, and NU had the athletes to compete at the highest level. Bo Pelini, after a tumultuous offseason, had matured and put the embarrassing collapses behind him.

This was the year Nebraska turned the metaphorical corner, it seemed. In year seven of Bo Pelini’s tenure in charge of the Nebraska program, 2014 was the year Nebraska returned to the national relevance fans have ached for since 2001.

Heck, Nebraska fans were even getting ready to cheer for Miami, to help NU’s strength of schedule and bolster the Huskers’ argument to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. If there’s anything that will tell you how desperate Nebraska fans were to bask in the glow of a nationally-competitive football program, that’s it.

At 17-3, those dreams were intact. Then, Gordon ripped off a 62-yard touchdown run. And the meltdown was on. Again.

“And it’s not like it only happens to us. Look across the country. It happens.”

- Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, at his weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game (as quoted by Huskers.com)

With all due respect, coach, no it doesn’t. No one has ever given up 408 yards to one opposing player—certainly not in only three quarters of game time. The teams at the level at which Nebraska aspires to achieve—teams that are regularly in the discussion for conference titles, and now for inclusion in the four-team College Football Playoff—don’t get humiliated on a regular basis.

How regular? Well …

2014 Wisconsin 59, Nebraska 24 (NU led 17-3)
2013 UCLA 41, Nebraska 21 (NU led 21-3)
2012 Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31
2012 Ohio State 63, Nebraska 38 (NU led 17-7)
2011 Michigan 45, Nebraska 17
2011 Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17 (NU led 7-0 and 14-7)

 

In case you were curious, that means in six games against marquee opponents over the past four years, Nebraska was outscored 326-148, after having leads in four of those games.

So, no. It’s not just one game, Coach Beck. Quite honestly, since 2011 collapses like the ones against Wisconsin on Saturday have pretty much been the defining characteristic of the Nebraska program.

“We’ve won a lot of football games since I’ve been here, a lot of football games. A lot of football programs across the country would die to have won the amount of football games we’ve won.”

- Pelini, defending the state of the Nebraska program in a post-game interview after the Wisconsin loss on Saturday (as quoted by ESPN)

Is it fair to define Pelini’s program by the ugly losses? Isn’t he right to point out that under Pelini Nebraska has never won fewer than nine games? Is that really fair on Pelini?

Maybe not. But fair ain’t nothing but a four-letter f-word. And fair or not, the one thing Nebraska is known for on a national stage are the six ugly, face-on-a-rake losses Nebraska has endured on a national spotlight since 2011.

It’s year seven of Pelini’s time at the helm in Lincoln. There’s no more rebuilding from the Callahan legacy. There’s no more disruption from a conference shift. There’s no more recovering from a bad recruiting cycle early in his career.

This is Pelini’s program. It’s his team, with his players and his culture. And in six of the biggest games since 2011—four of which his teams have held leads—his teams have been outscored by a combined 178 points.

So what now? While questions have been raised after Saturday’s debacle, Pelini’s job is in no serious jeopardy. If Nebraska wins its next two games—and yes, Nebraska has enough talent to win out—NU will end the season at 10-2. The state nearly came unglued when Frank Solich was fired with a far worse record than Pelini’s. So absent an epic meltdown on Pelini’s part—like we saw against Iowa last year—Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst is unlikely to consider any change at the helm.

“I believe this program is on a good track. It’s on the right track.”

- Pelini on the status of the Nebraska program, from the weekly press conference after the 2014 Wisconsin game.

In some ways, it’s a trap. Pelini’s teams have delivered good seasons, never less than nine wins. But they’ve never delivered great seasons, with a conference title or a truly marquee win for Nebraska fans to hang their collective hat on. The only time Pelini’s job was ever truly in jeopardy wasn’t for the wins and losses, but for Pelini’s immature and boorish behavior at the end of last season. Assuming he’s not foolish enough to repeat that behavior, his record is such that he’s unlikely to be fired.

So what do Nebraska fans, so desperate to see NU return to what they see as its rightful place as a major player in college football, do now?

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

- Hebrews 11:1 (King James Version)

Yes, I know Nebraska football is not religion—although in this state, some may be forgiven for mistaking the two. But at this point, the principle is the same. Pelini, absent a post-Iowa presser like last year, isn’t going anywhere unless his team completely implodes. So Nebraska fans have two choices. The first is to hope Nebraska starts losing on an epic level that will force Eichorst’s hand to make a change. But that kind of toxic karma will do no good for either the fans who would engage in those dark arts or for the kids currently in the program who are putting their bodies on the line every Saturday for the Sea of Red.

The other option is to have faith—blind faith, to be sure, given Pelini’s history and his statements at the post-Wisconsin press conference that he has “no idea” why Nebraska keeps collapsing under his watch like it does—that Pelini is right about Nebraska being on the right track and on target to start winning conference and national titles.

Is it rational? Not based on the evidence of things seen.

But it’s all you’ve got left to hold on to, Husker fans.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Top 5 Surprises for the Huskers This Year

DSC00253

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans had an idea of what to expect coming into the 2014 season, but have received a few surprises along the way. As with any season, unexpected twists and turns have popped up, changing expectations from where they were in the summer.

Here are five of the biggest surprises Nebraska fans have seen as the 2014 season has unfolded.

No. 5 – Gregory’s Return?

Last week, Nebraska fans were buzzing at the possibility of defensive end Randy Gregory returning for his senior season in 2015. Fueled by comments from head coach Bo Pelini that “we’re not going to lose any of them” (referring to the defensive line, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star), Nebraska fans had a glimmer of hope to see Gregory next year.

After all, many outlets (such as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang) have Gregory as a top-five pick overall in next year’s NFL draft. While Pelini later said he wasn’t implying he knew anything about Gregory’s return next season (according to Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal-Star), the seed was at least planted that Nebraska might get another year out of the phenomenal defensive talent of Gregory.

No. 4 – Tommy’s Consistency, In A Bad Way

In many ways, quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s numbers don’t look all that different in 2014 than they did in 2013. Take a look:

Completion % TD INT Yards/Att Rating
2013 51.9 9 8 7.4 124.31
2014 53.0 13 8 7.9 131.45

 

While Armstrong has played in nine games this year, the same number as in 2013, it’s hard to make a straight comparison of his statistics. Many times last year, Armstrong played only part of a game, being spelled by Ron Kellogg. This year, the job has been almost exclusively Armstrong’s.

Going into his nineteenth game, it’s not unreasonable to have expected improvement in Armstrong’s performance at quarterback.

No. 3 – Kicking Conundrum

As observed long ago by a smart and particularly handsome analyst, Nebraska has been “Kicker U” recently, producing an inordinate amount of accurate and reliable placekickers. That history has spoiled Nebraska fans a little, leading them to think field goals in college football are near automatic.

Not this year. True freshman Drew Brown is 9-14 in field goal attempts—fairly average nationwide, but perfectly dreadful based on Nebraska’s recent high standards. And while Brown’s (relative) struggles have yet to cost Nebraska a game, seeing NU with anything less than a stellar kicking game is a little jarring.

No. 2 – Failure to Launch

Sure, Ameer Abdullah has been fantastic (unless the opponent was an M-State, be it Michigan or McNeese). But much was expected of the other I-backs in the stable, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.

While both have a yards/carry average that is respectable (5.19 for Cross, 4.67 for Newby), neither of them have really been able to make a splash and grab the kind of attention Nebraska fans had hoped for. Certainly, in comparison to Abdullah at his best, most running backs will struggle.

But as Nebraska fans saw with the offensive struggles against Purdue in Abdullah’s absence, it’s not unfair to say that the contributions of Cross and Newby at this stage are a little underwhelming.

No. 1 – A Star is Born

There’s little doubt that freshman receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has been the best surprise Nebraska has found this year. Almost single-handedly, Pierson-El has turned a weakness into a strength in the punt return game. He’s beginning to be worked into the offense as well, looking as if he has claimed the starting third wide receiver position.

And if Abdullah is going to be limited against Wisconsin, Pierson-El may provide a crucial playmaker and weapon, forcing Wisconsin to respect the deep part of the field and opening running lanes for Armstrong, Cross, and Newby.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

DSC00027

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans well remember the Huskers’ last trip to Madison, which resulted in a 48-17 shellacking at the hands of the Badgers. So as they prepare for the return trip (and with echoes of Wisconsin’s 70-31 humiliation of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championships still ringing in their ears), Nebraska fans will be looking for how NU can win on Saturday and stay on track for a return trip to Indianapolis.

Here are three X-factors fans should  be looking for to key a Nebraska victory on Saturday.

Ameer Abdullah

According to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said that he “anticipates” I-back Ameer Abdullah to play against Wisconsin, but said that he did not practice with the team during the week. That’s far less definitive than Pelini was earlier, when he said he anticipated Abdullah to be close to 100 percent for the Wisconsin game.

So what does that mean? The likelihood is that Abdullah is going to be limited by the knee injury that kept him out of the game against Purdue two weeks ago. How limited? That’s the big question. If he is significantly limited, then we saw a glimpse of what Nebraska’s offense looks like sans Abdullah.

If he is able to provide something close to full fitness, though (or if Pelini is playing games with Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson), then Abdullah has the chance to be the difference in the game on Saturday.

Cethan Carter

Pelini has been optimistic that tight end Cethan Carter would be back for the Wisconsin game, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. Even though his contributions offensively have been sparse (two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown), Carter’s presence provides Nebraska with a downfield threat that no other tight end on the roster can give.

Carter’s absence (along with the injury to Kenny Bell early in the first quarter) may have been a big part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles against Michigan State. If Carter is back, Nebraska may have an unexpected weapon added to its arsenal as it travels to Madison.

Tim Beck

Against Purdue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he made the same mistake he made against Michigan State by overloading and over-complicating the offensive game plan. Nebraska’s offense has demonstrated the ability to be very effective against elite-level athletes, putting up 41 points and 456 yards against Miami.

Wisconsin’s defense is no. 5 nationally in rush defense and no. 3 nationally in pass defense. If Nebraska is going to beat the Badgers in Madison, Beck’s game plan and preparation will have to be top notch to get NU over the hump and stay on top of the B1G West.

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Five Things For the Cornhuskers To Improve During the Bye Week

DSC00174

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans endured (that’s really the correct term for it) a sloppy 35-14 victory over Purdue to see NU head into its second bye week at 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. But with the meat of its conference schedule ahead of it, how Nebraska performs in the final three games of the regular season will determine if NU breaks out of its four-loss rut and makes a run at a conference championship.

So what has to happen in this bye week to get Nebraska ready for its final gauntlet? Here are five things the Cornhuskers should be looking to improve.

Ameer Abdullah’s Knee

It’s not exactly rocket science to diagnose that a healthy Ameer Abdullah would do wonders for Nebraska’s chances against a suddenly-resurgent Wisconsin. According to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Abdullah had a mild knee sprain and head coach Bo Pelini is “optimistic” about his return for Wisconsin.

Nebraska fans should hope his optimism is well founded. Imani Cross and Terrell Newby are nice replacement options, but neither is the kind of game-changer a healthy Abdullah is when on the field. And with Wisconsin in the last few weeks looking like the Badger crew we thought we would see at the start of the season, Nebraska might need that game-changer to escape Madison with a win.

Drew Brown’s Foot

True freshman Drew Brown missed a makeable field goal in each of Nebraska’s last three games, putting him at a less-than-stellar 9-of-14 in field goals for the season. In each of the contests, the misses ended up making no difference in the outcome. But that doesn’t mean the time won’t come this year where Nebraska’s hopes for a conference title will rest on a kicker’s foot.

It’s difficult to replicate game conditions and game pressures in a bye week, of course. But Nebraska will certainly go into this off week hoping to find some confidence in its placekicking game.

Tommy Armstrong’s Rapport

When you see a quarterback throw a horrific interception—or two—it’s easy to point the finger at him and ask what in the world he is seeing. But many times, a throw is made before a receiver makes a cut or a move. If the quarterback and receiver are thinking two different things—in other words, if the receiver zags when the quarterback expects him to zig—then you can end up with some pretty horrific throws into a waiting defender’s arms.

According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Armstrong’s two interceptions against Purdue came from receivers running the wrong routes. That’s certainly possible, and Armstrong is not solely to blame for his struggles. But if Nebraska is going to survive the three-game gauntlet before it (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa) and win the Big Ten West, Armstrong and his receivers must be on the same metaphorical page.

Mark Pelini and Ryne Reeve’s Snapping

Against Michigan State, the center-quarterback exchange problem was blamed on renegade clapping by Spartans defenders, mimicking Nebraska’s snap signal. But “clap-gate” doesn’t explain the ongoing problems with the exchange against Rutgers and Purdue. Botched snaps cost Nebraska points and set up opposing scores. Against Rutgers and Purdue, those mistakes did not make a difference in the final outcome. Against better opponents, like Nebraska will be facing to end the season, those mistakes almost certainly will make a bigger difference.

According to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star, the snap issues are “mystifying” and not showing up in practice. That might make fixing the problem in the bye week challenging, but it is an issue that simply must be solved if Nebraska wants to return from Madison with a victory.

Tim Beck’s Preparation

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck gets credit for being honest, sometimes to his own detriment. According to Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Beck said that he “confused” the offense by giving them too much to work on, rather than simplifying the message and making adjustments throughout the game.

Sound familiar? It’s the same mea culpa he gave after the Michigan State game to explain Nebraska’s sluggish offensive performance.

I remain a little skeptical that being over-prepared is the primary culprit for Nebraska’s offensive woes post Michigan State. Outside of Ameer Abdullah’s brilliance and a solid half of play from Tommy Armstrong against Northwestern, Nebraska’s offense has looked disjointed and out of rhythm since returning from East Lansing.

Nebraska fans certainly hope, though, that a simplification of preparation during the bye week will be the tonic for NU’s offensive struggles.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Most Surprising Cornhuskers in 2014

DSC00069

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska fans have been pleasantly surprised by a number of players in 2014. While stars like Randy Gregory, Ameer Abdullah, and Kenny Bell have been (in the immortal words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green) who we thought they were, some Cornhuskers have either stepped up performances from previous years or come completely out of the blue to become stars.

Here are five Cornhuskers who have given Nebraska fans far more than they expected this season.

No. 5: Greg McMullen

Sure, we knew Randy Gregory was a beast at defensive end. So when Gregory went down early in the season, Nebraska fans were rightfully concerned at what his absence would do to the defensive line.

But throughout this season, Greg McMullen has more than held his own on the other end of the defensive line. He’s eighth on the team in tackles with 27, four in tackles for loss with 5.5, and third in sacks with 2.5. Gregory is quite rightly getting the lion’s share of praise, but McMullen’s contributions this year have been quietly critical for Nebraska.

No. 4: Trevor Roach

In fall practice, Nebraska lost three defensive players—nickel back Charles Jackson, middle linebacker Michael Rose, and safety LeRoy Alexander—either to injury or to suspension. As the season has unfolded, it’s become clear that Rose’s loss has been the most damaging for Nebraska.

The Blackshirts have struggled at linebacker, in large part due to a lack of production from the middle linebacker position. Josh Banderas, who had an lost the position last year as a true freshman, has struggled again this season.

Up stepped senior Trevor Roach, particularly against Michigan State, and demonstrated that knowledge of the defensive system and being in the right place can make up for some athletic deficiencies. Roach and Banderas are now neck and neck for the starting middle linebacker position, as Roach has struggled some after his breakout performance against the Spartans.

But the fact that Roach is in the conversation with Banderas at all is, at least to some, quite a surprise.

No. 3: Maliek Collins

Much like with Gregory and McMullen, many thought that Vincent Valentine was going to be the key cog of the interior defensive line for Nebraska. And while Valentine has played very well, Maliek Collins has excelled at defensive tackle as well.

Collins has the same number of tackles (24) as Valentine, and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 6. Against Rutgers last week, Collins spent a good portion of the game in the Scarlet Knights’ backfield, disrupting any attempt of a comeback.

Much like at defensive end, the unexpected performance of the “other” guy has been a large part of why Nebraska’s defensive line has been so effective in 2014.

No. 2: Nathan Gerry

Last year’s experiment with Gerry as a linebacker didn’t work out so well, with Gerry not being able to produce well enough stay on the field.  But Gerry’s move this year to safety has paid dividends. He has been all over the field, is second on the team in tackles with 23, and leads the team in interceptions with three (and that’s not counting the totally bogus one taken away from him against Miami).

Gerry’s move to safety certainly had the promise of success. But particularly with a mostly-anonymous season from Corey Cooper, Gerry’s performance in 2014 has been a crucial and pleasant surprise for Nebraska.

No. 1: De’Mornay Pierson-El

You’re not shocked at this one, are you?

True freshman Pierson-El was a ways down the pecking order in terms of punt returns. Indeed, it wasn’t until Pierson-El flashed his brilliance against Fresno State that Nebraska truly realized what a weapon it had on its hands.

Now, Pierson-El is so intimidating opponents that they are punting short and out of bounds (like Northwestern), giving Nebraska free yardage without the risk of turnover or injury, or kicking off to Ameer Abdullah (like Rutgers) with predictable results.

Pierson-El is just starting to be integrated into Nebraska’s offense, including the amazing return of Black Flash 41 Reverse where he threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong.  But there’s little doubt that the true freshman who only got into his first game against Florida Atlantic in garbage time is becoming one of Nebraska’s biggest offensive weapons.

Stats from CFBStats.com.

Nebraska Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for the Month of November

DSC00060

photo and story by Patrick Runge

“And it’s hard to hold a candle

In the cold November rain.”

- Guns ‘n Roses, “November Rain”

Nebraska football fans will be putting away their Halloween candy (in more ways than one) and preparing for the November end-of-season stretch run that will define whether 2014 was a success or a failure. Trips to Wisconsin and Iowa highlight the challenges of the month, but four potential pitfalls await Nebraska as it tries to find a way back to Indianapolis.

So let’s take a look at how we should expect Nebraska to fare in its final four games of the regular season.

Nov. 1: Purdue

Nebraska’s November is no picnic, but at least it has a bit of a soft start to the month. Purdue has been struggling to rebuild under Darrell Hazell, but currently sit at 3-5 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have shown some fight in the last few weeks, knocking off Illinois in Champaign and putting up game efforts in close losses to Michigan State and Minnesota.

So Purdue may not be the automatic win that Nebraska fans anticipated at the start of the season. But anything less than a comfortable win—particularly off the back of a sloppy performance against Rutgers—should make for an uncomfortable bye week.

But Nebraska’s sloppy play against Rutgers is bad news for Purdue, as Bo Pelini should have his teams full attention in practice this week. A sharp Nebraska should be more than enough to comfortably handle Purdue

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 45, Purdue 13

Nov. 15: at Wisconsin

Reports of the Badgers’ demise may have been a bit premature. After B1G fans were ready to write off Wisconsin as a legitimate conference title contender, the Badgers undress Maryland in Madison, 52-7, in a game that might not have been as close as the score indicated.

Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is the nation’s no. 2 rusher (one spot better than Ameer Abdullah), and if the Badgers can get any kind of a passing attack going they can be dangerous. Couple that with a stingy defense and the house of horrors that is Camp Randall, and Nebraska looks to have a tall order facing it.

But Wisconsin does too. For its offense to work, Wisconsin must have some semblance of a passing attack, and Nebraska’s defensive line should be effective enough to pressure the Badgers’ quarterback (whichever one they roll out) into mistakes. Look for Nebraska, with the advantage of an off week to prepare, to take advantage of a Wisconsin team in transition and notch an important road win.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 20

Nov. 22: Minnesota

The Gophers know who they are and, more importantly, who they are not. Minnesota will come to Lincoln with a ground-and-pound attack and hope to shorten the game and wear the Blackshirts out, like it did in Minneapolis last year.

But Nebraska has more going, both on offense and on defense, than it did a year previously. A clearly hampered Taylor Martinez will not be the albatross around Nebraska’s offense this time around, and the memory of last year’s upset should be more than enough to keep NU focused and ready.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 31, Minnesota 17

Nov. 28: at Iowa

Before the season started, this dope thought that Iowa would beat Nebraska on its way to a B1G West division title. Then came losses to Iowa State (!) and Maryland, along with less-than-convincing wins against the rest of its schedule. Laboring to beat Northern Iowa, Ball State, and Purdue does little to inspire confidence that the Hawkeyes are even close to a team ready for a division title.

Add into the mix an unsettled situation at quarterback and a rushing attack that is far less potent than imagined, and Iowa looks to be a far cry from what it was expected to be at the start of the season. With games against Minnesota and Wisconsin before facing Nebraska, it’s hard to guess what Iowa’s record will be on the day after Thanksgiving. But a more complete Nebraska team, with a trophy to win back, should be enough to get the job done for NU.

Fearless Forecast: Nebraska 24, Iowa 14

Nebraska Football: Early Odds for the Cornhuskers’ Team MVP

DSC09822

photo and story by Patrick Runge

Seven games into the season, Nebraska football fans have taken a good look at the roster and have an idea of the team’s most valuable players. Some are established stars, some are newcomers making a name for themselves, and others are unexpected contributors. But here are five Cornhuskers who are staking a claim as this year’s MVP, along with those players’ odds of actually getting that accolade at the end of the year.

Sam Foltz: 20-1

I know, I know, he’s a punter. But hear me out.

Field position is a huge, and frequently ignored, factor in winning football games. And in games where Nebraska has struggled, Foltz’s punting has gone a long way towards keeping Nebraska in the game.

Take McNeese State for example. In the second half, as Nebraska labored to beat the FCS Cowboys, NU had to punt five times. The Cowboys’ starting field position after those punts? Their own 22, own 2, own 33, own 5, and own 10. Those are long fields, which made it harder for the Cowboys to score and put a real scare into Nebraska.

Foltz did the same against Michigan State, as Nebraska punted seven (!) times in the first half. The Spartans’ starting field position was their own 20, own 20, own 13, Nebraska 31, own 19, own 16, and own 23. Other than one big return, the Spartans had a long field to cover, making it harder for them to score. Had they not, Michigan State could well have been ahead at halftime far more than “just” 17-0, making Nebraska’s near-miracle comeback a non-entity.

Foltz won’t be Nebraska’s MVP this year. But given his contributions, he should be in the conversation.

Tommy Armstrong : 10-1

It is hard to know just what to think of Armstrong. On the one hand, Armstrong has struggled to take the reins of Nebraska’s offense. His completion percentage of 53.5 percent is problematic, almost to the point of being a liability. And whether it is Armstrong’s decision-making or offensive game planning, he has not (at least prior to Northwestern) run the ball enough to take attention away from Ameer Abdullah. In essence, the argument against Armstrong would go, at best Nebraska is succeeding with Armstrong as a passenger—and at worst, in spite of Armstrong.

But the fact remains that Nebraska is 13-2 with Armstrong as a starter, and both of those losses came to Michigan State. And while “he’s young” falls a little flat as a defense of a quarterback with 15 starts, it is fair to say that Armstrong is improving. His completion percentage against Northwestern (62.1) may be signs of things to come. And the toughness and leadership he’s shown at the end of games, leading Nebraska to a near-Lazarus moment in East Lansing and helping to put a pesky Northwestern team away in the second half, certainly suggests Armstrong’s intangibles are critical to NU’s toughness and resiliency.

De’Mornay Pierson-El: 8-1

Can a guy who touches the ball less than 15 times in a game truly be a difference-maker? True freshman Pierson-El may be providing us an answer. After his coming out party against Fresno State, Pierson-El’s electric punt return game has turned a huge liability for Nebraska into a huge asset. Pierson-El’s punt return against Michigan State was the crucial element in Nebraska’s oh-so-close comeback. And the fear of Pierson-El led Northwestern to kick away from him on punts—and even kickoffs—ceding field position to Nebraska without any risk of turnover or injury.

And now Pierson-El’s role on offense is growing, including a reprise of the Black 41 Flash Reverse where Pierson-El threw a touchdown to Armstrong last week. Given Nebraska’s struggles with injuries at receiver, combined with Pierson-El’s playmaking ability (and, at least to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his ability to intimidate), he could end up making a remarkable difference.

Randy Gregory: 9-2

Gregory has missed nearly two full games out of seven for Nebraska. He draws cut blocks and ends up being taken out many times. Fair questions can be raised about his motor and ability to give maximum effort throughout a game.

And yet Gregory, with his combination of size and speed, is the most disruptive defensive force Nebraska has seen since Ndamukong Suh. He has six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season, even after missing nearly two of the seven contests. He can chase down opposing ball carriers from the back side of a play. He can, almost single-handedly, collapse his side of an offensive line.

Nebraska’s defensive line as a whole has performed well this season. But at least some of the credit to that performance has to be the extra attention a weapon like Gregory gets from opposing game plans.

Ameer Abdullah: 3-1

It would be tempting to be a contrarian and try to find a way not to pick Abdullah. After all, Abdullah was a non-factor against Michigan State, with only 45 yards of rushing. He had gaudy numbers against Northwestern (146 yards rushing and four touchdowns), but almost all of that came in the second half against an overmatched defense. Even against McNeese State, Abdullah was held to just 54 yards rushing and one touchdown.

But he had a receiving touchdown at the end of the game against the Cowboys, too, and that one was pretty good. That play single-handedly saved Nebraska from the prospect of overtime against an FCS team, and the possibility of a hugely embarrassing home loss. It was reminiscent of Abdullah’s fourth down conversion against Northwestern in 2013 which set up the Hail Mary victory. That run by Abdullah, I will maintain, is the most impressive demonstration of individual brilliance I have ever seen on a football field.

Yeah, Abdullah has been held quiet when Nebraska struggles. But in some ways, that’s the definition of a team’s most valuable player. So with five weeks left to go in the season, Abdullah is the odds-on favorite to be the 2014 team MVP.

Stats from CFBStats.com.