photo and article by Patrick Runge
Trap game (colloq.): A game where a team is favored to win, but whose chances to lose are increased due to external factors.
Nebraska football fans know that every year there are pitfalls on the schedule, traps where a team can stumble where it otherwise wouldn’t. Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska has seemed particularly vulnerable to trap games, so it is not unreasonable to scope out where the potential hazards lie in the 2014 schedule. Here are four potential stumbling blocks for the upcoming season.
Minnesota (Nov. 22)
After losing in Minneapolis last year, you would think that Nebraska’s attention would be fully focused on Goldie’s return to Lincoln. Minnesota’s 34-23 defeat of Nebraska was certainly a shock, but had much to do with the play of a clearly-hampered Taylor Martinez at quarterback. And the 2014 Gophers will be arriving in Lincoln without either quarterback Phillip Nelson or star defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. So, easy sailing, right?
As Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. The Gophers are in perfect position to be a classic trap game, wedged between Nebraska’s trips to play Wisconsin and Iowa. A depleted Minnesota team, which may well struggle in 2014, could easily be overlooked by a Nebraska team potentially chasing a conference title with two marquee road contests surrounding the game. And that, my friend, is the textbook definition of a trap game.
Rutgers (Oct. 25)
Bear with me on this one for a bit. Yes, I know that Rutgers was 6-6 last year. Yes, I know that Minnesota transfer quarterback Phillip Nelson has been dismissed from the team after an assault arrest. So there’s plenty of reason to think that the Scarlet Knights will be a soft target for Nebraska in 2014.
But keep in mind that Rutgers is a new opponent for Nebraska, with NU winning the only other game in the series 28-0. In 1920. At the Polo Grounds.
So there may be some unfamiliarity with the opponent. More importantly, though, is that Rutgers was really young last year. With a bulk of that talent returning, Rutgers could pose a greater challenge to Nebraska than most anticipate. And with Nebraska under Bo Pelini being dogged by inexplicable home losses in the past, it’s hard not to put the Scarlet Knights in the category of at least a potential trap game opponent.
At Fresno State (Sep. 13)
Many are pointing to Nebraska’s game against the Bulldogs as a real challenge for NU, which would almost by definition mean the contest is not a “trap game.” But that analysis comes largely from looking at Fresno’s stellar 2013 campaign, where the Bulldogs spent almost the entire year in the top 25 and were a BCS threat until the final weeks of the season.
Gone from the Bulldogs squad, however, is quarterback Derek Carr, and with Carr goes a great deal of Fresno’s threat. Comparing roster to roster, Nebraska should beat Fresno State comfortably.
So why is this a trap game? Because it is on the road, Nebraska’s first road game of the season, and bizarrely scheduled for a 9:30 p.m. central time kickoff. Those factors, combined with what looks to be a marquee matchup at home against Miami the following week, make the game at least potentially hazardous for Nebraska.
At Northwestern (Oct. 18)
The Purples are another team that is hard to put in the “trap game” category for Nebraska. Yes, Northwestern fell apart at the end of 2013, and looked pretty bad in doing so. And yes, Nebraska is 2-1 against Northwestern as a conference opponent.
But keep in mind that Nebraska could be—indeed, probably should be—0-3 against Northwestern. Last year, Nebraska needed the “RK III to 1” Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp as time expired to win. And in 2012, Nebraska was down 28-16 with 8:31 left to play, and looked absolutely dead to rights. An improbable 13-point comeback in the final minutes of the game was needed for Nebraska to pull out a 29-28 victory.
So from a talent standpoint, the Purples may not match up well against Nebraska. But on the road, against a team with the kind of track record that Northwestern has against Nebraska, this game has all the makings of problems for NU.