Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17

DSC00045

Nebraska suffered its first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion, falling in overtime 23-17 to Wisconsin in Madison. After being behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Nebraska scored twice to tie the game, but ultimately was not able to answer Wisconsin’s overtime touchdown. So, for Nebraska fans looking back on the game against Wisconsin …

The Good

Breaking the Wall. Nebraska had no business being successful running the ball at one of the best rushing defenses in the country. Injuries to the offensive line coming into the game made Nebraska’s ability to create space a huge question mark. And when guard Tanner Farmer was carted off the field in the first half, it became difficult to see how Nebraska was going to do much of anything on offense.

But Nebraska still ended the game with 152 yards rushing on 44 attempts. Yeah, it was only 3.5 yards per carry. Terrell Newby led the way with 78 yards on 17 rushes. And while Nebraska’s running attack certainly won’t win any awards, it helped to keep the offense on the field and keep Wisconsin’s defense honest.

Even with a hurting offensive line, Nebraska had 44 rushes to 31 pass attempts, demonstrating a commitment to the run and an offensive game plan. And that plan was oh-so-nearly good enough to get the job done.

Front Four. Nebraska’s defensive front had been a question coming into the season, especially with the departures of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine. But against Wisconsin, the front four played one of its best games of the season. Nebraska’s two sacks came from the interior of the line, one from Mick Stoltenberg and one from Carlos Davis.

And Wisconsin, while ultimately doing well against Nebraska on the ground, had to move to the edges to find success. Against an imposing Wisconsin offensive line, Nebraska’s defensive front was more than able to hold its own.

Fourth Quarter Fortitude. Well, here we go again. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter down ten, and in danger of seeing the game slip away. But rather than crumble, Nebraska dug in, scoring early to get the game closer, then getting two Nate Gerry interceptions to allow NU’s offense to tie the score.

Last year, a combination of a new coaching staff and a string of heartbreaking losses tore at the fragility of Nebraska’s psyche. This year, this group of Cornhuskers has definitely achieved a level of confidence to keep swinging late into a contest.

The Bad

Tommy’s Troubles. It is really, really hard to write negative things about Tommy Armstrong. He is such a tough competitor, and such an inspirational character and leader for the team. Going through what he has, with a coaching change and an entire shift in offensive philosophy, is one of the most difficult thing for a quarterback to handle.

The numbers, though, speak for themselves. Armstrong was 12 of 31 for 153 yards, and two interceptions. He had 13 carries for 47 yards. Yes, he made some clutch plays – that’s what Armstrong does, to be certain.

But as compelling as Nebraska’s comeback was – indeed, its play throughout the game – Armstrong’s contribution to that comeback was limited at best. A sharper performance from the quarterback position may very well have been the difference in Nebraska finally putting its Camp Randall ghosts to rest.

Getting Stretched. At the start of the game, Nebraska was having a great deal of success against Wisconsin’s running game. Corey Clement, the Badgers’ starting tailback, was limited to 82 yards on 19 carries. The interior of Nebraska’s defensive line was handling Wisconsin’s attack.

But Wisconsin brought in Dare Ogunbowale, and began to attack Nebraska with stretch concepts, meaning a running play where the offensive line and running back go at an angle to one side with the hope of “stretching” the defense out until a running back can get through a crease in the stretch.

That’s just what Ogunbowale did to great effect, rushing for 120 yards on 11 carries. The big hits that Wisconsin created off of those stretch plays were ultimately the difference that allowed the Badgers to win an incredibly tight contest.

Those No-Calls. On Wisconsin’s first touchdown, defensive end Ross Dzuris was pretty clearly held going after Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Nebraska receiver Stanley Morgan was arguably interfered with on a critical pass attempt. And on third down in overtime, Jordan Westerkamp was body-checked by Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, with no pass interference called. The Badgers were not flagged once for holding.

Stop it. Just stop it, Husker Fan. Yes, there’s an argument that there were some missed calls in the game. Much like you, my arms were raised in righteous indignation when the flags remain in officials’ pockets.

But you just can’t go there. It’s loser talk, as I remind my kids when they want to bellyache about an umpire’s calls. Nebraska has gotten, and will get, its share of calls, and you won’t remember those for more than five seconds when they go your way. Letting yourself fall into a “we wuz robbed” mentality won’t do anything more than raise your blood pressure even more than being on this roller-coaster of sports fandom already does.

Besides, Nebraska had plenty of opportunities to win this game. There’s plenty of questions to raise about what could have been different to escape Madison with a record unblemished.

Wisconsin won because Wisconsin played a hell of a game. Nebraska lost because Nebraska played a hell of a game, but came up a few plays short. Leave it there – both because it’s right and because it’s far better for your mental health.

And The Moral Victory

OK, I’ll admit it. In the throes of the overtime, I wasn’t terribly interested in hearing the “win or lose, Nebraska has proved itself” narrative. I might have gotten a little shouty about it on Twitter.

But Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for November 15, 2014. With 14:12 to go in the second quarter, Nebraska led Wisconsin 17-3 and had the ball. It looked like – after so long – Nebraska was finally going to play well on a national stage and take a step back towards national recognition.

After that, well, let’s just say that the Huskers.com recap tells the story of Wisconsin’s 59-24 win:

Melvin Gordon ran for an NCAA FBS record 408 yards and four TDs on 25 carries, as Wisconsin rushed for 581 yards and reeled off 56 unanswered points. Gordon set the record despite sitting out the fourth quarter. (Emphasis added)

Nebraska fans had been accustomed to seeing those embarrassing losses on national television. Indeed, one smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out that epic collapses like that were the defining characteristic of the Bo Pelini era.

You remember that, don’t you Husker Fan? Spending a week or so getting excited for a game, settling in with your diet soda and taco-flavored Doritos to watch a prime-time Nebraska showdown for big stakes? Luxuriating in the national attention brought to you by college football’s pundits discussing the scarlet and cream alongside all the other national powerhouses? Seeing “Nebraska” flash amongst all the other teams in the mix for those coveted four spots in the College Football Playoff commercials?

For years – probably since the 2010 Big XII Championship Game against Oklahoma – Nebraska was buried in those games quickly. Here’s what the halftime scores were for Nebraska against top-15 teams (and Wisconsin):

Wisconsin 2011 UW 27, NU 14 (NU lost 48-17)
Michigan State 2011 NU 10, MSU 3 (NU won 24-3)
South Carolina 2012 USC 16, NU 13 (NU lost 30-13)
Ohio State 2012 OSU 35, NU 24 (NU lost 63-38)
Wisconsin 2012 UW 42, NU 10 (NU lost 70-31)
Georgia 2013 NU 24, UGA 23 (NU lost 45-31)
Michigan State 2013 MSU 20, NU 3 (NU lost 41-28)
Michigan State 2014 MSU 17, NU 0 (NU lost 27-22)
Wisconsin 2014 NU 27, UW 24 (NU lost 59-24)

Under two seasons with Riley, Nebraska has played two teams ranked in the top ten, and four ranked teams in total. Nebraska beat no. 6 Michigan State 39-38 and lost to no. 3 Iowa 28-20 in 2015, and beat no. 22 Oregon 35-32 and lost to no. 11 Wisconsin 23-17 in overtime this year.

Notice something? One point win. Eight point loss. Three point win. Six point loss.

Yes, Nebraska is 2-2 in those games. But that’s the point. Nebraska is in those games. Husker Fan has something to do in the fourth quarter of those big games other than turn of Twitter and see what’s on sale at Restoration Hardware.

That’s reason to hope. Reason to think that Nebraska just might be on the verge of winning more of these games, and of bringing in the quality and quantity of players necessary to win those games on a consistent basis.

Now, let’s be clear. Coming close and losing isn’t good enough, certainly in the long run. Putting up a fight as a plucky underdog and gaining respect in the loss is still a loss, and moral victories won’t get Nebraska where it wants to go, where the program and the fanbase envision it and expect it to be on the national stage.

In the long run, it’s not good enough. But as a salve for the wounds of blowouts past, for the exhausting energy to keep the faith with the scarlet and cream year after year, through all kinds of weather, it’s a start. Not the finish, to be sure, but just maybe this is the tangible evidence that Nebraska is finding a way to come in from the long winter’s night of irrelevance.

Bring on the Buckeyes.

Advertisements

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 27, Indiana 22

DSC04381.JPG

Nebraska survived what might have been the trickiest game on its schedule to date, traveling to Bloomington and beating Indiana 27-22. After roaring out to a 17-0 lead, Nebraska held on for dear life, getting a long fourth-quarter drive to finally put the game out of reach. So for Nebraska fans watching the Indiana game …

The Good

Fast Start. Indiana became a trendy pick to upset Nebraska. Even this dope thought Nebraska would get stung in Bloomington at the start of the season. So if Nebraska was going to avoid an upset on the road, it needed to get out of the gates quickly—something it has not excelled at this season.

Well, Judas Priest, Nebraska delivered on that score. Nebraska scored ten points on its first two offensive possessions, then cornerback Chris Jones intercepted a Richard Lagow pass and took it back for a touchdown to give NU a 17-0 lead with 4:33 left in the first quarter.

That’s how you start a game to avoid an upset. Of course, things didn’t continue to go as well game wore on (more on that later), but Nebraska at the very least now has a blueprint for how to start well on the road.

Defensive Masterclass. Nebraska’s offense was … well, it wasn’t the best we’ve seen. But the Blackshirts more than made up for NU’s offensive woes with a dominant performance. The Hoosiers were held to 4.8 yards per play, far fewer than the 5.98 Indiana has averaged this season. Indiana was held to 5-for-15 on third down, and 0-2 on fourth down, meaning that the Blackshirts were able to get stops at critical times.

Last season, it was fair to wonder if Nebraska’s defense would ever be a strength for the squad. On Saturday, the defense was able to help Nebraska survive and advance in the B1G this season.

Gritty Ending. We had all heard the stories about how dominant Nebraska had been in the fourth quarter this season. You know, 78-6 and all. But this game wasn’t about fourth quarter dominance so much as having the mental strength to make the final plays when needed at the end of the game.

After Tommy Armstrong hit Stanley Morgan for a 72-yard touchdown, Nebraska looked ready to pull away and finish off the Hoosiers. But Indiana responded with a five-play, 85-yard drive in just 1:13 to bring the score back to 24-22. Rather than a fourth quarter domination, Nebraska was faced with a challenge late in the contest and on the road.

And Nebraska responded. Perhaps most importantly, with 8:26 left in the game, NU ripped off a 15-play, 60-yard drive that took 7:41 off the clock. While the drive only resulted in a field goal, it left Indiana with only 45 seconds to respond, and needing a touchdown. That pressure undoubtedly contributed to the game-sealing interception by Aaron Williams.

So not only has Nebraska demonstrated an ability to dominate lesser opponents late in games, it has also shown that it has the ability to grit out a win on the road against a salty conference foe.

The Bad

The Stuff In The Middle. Nebraska’s first quarter against Indiana was awesome. Nebraska’s last drive to salt the game away, combined with the game-sealing interception, was tremendous.

Everything between those two events? Eh ….

Nebraska was 5-of-15 on third down against Indiana. Tommy Armstrong was 10-for-26 passing, with two interceptions to go with his two touchdowns. On the ground, Nebraska was held to 3.4 yards per attempted rush, down from a season average of 4.69 (according to cfbstats.com). And those numbers are for the entire game, not just the lull between the good parts.

Nebraska went nine – nine – possessions without a point against Indiana. It’s tough to weather a dry spell like that – and Nebraska very nearly did not.

Depth Charges. Yeah, yeah, football is a tough game, and injuries aren’t an excuse for anything. That’s true, if somewhat simplistic. But, good heavens, does Nebraska have some depth problems.

With injuries to Nick Gates and David Knevel, Nebraska will be down to two healthy offensive linemen that started the season. Top wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was out against Indiana, as was top tight end Cethan Carter. Alonzo Moore was hampered with injury, as was Devine Ozigbo.

And that was coming off a bye week.

Nebraska will face Purdue on Saturday, which just fired its head coach. Assuming the MASH unit that is Nebraska’s offense can get by the Boilermakers, it still makes for heavy weather when Nebraska looks at trips in consecutive weeks to Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Dropped Kicks. It’s hard to complain about Nebraska’s special teams when placekicker Drew Brown is 5-6 in field goals and 26-26 in extra points. But Nebraska’s punting game has left something to be desired. It’s not fair, of course, to be overly-critical of true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, who was thrust into the position of starting punter after the death of Sam Foltz.

But it is inarguable that Nebraska’s punting game has been a liability. With two blocks on the season, Nebraska has now had a punt blocked once every three games. Against Indiana, the blocked punt notched two points for the Hoosiers on a safety as the ball squirted through the end zone – and could easily have been six.

More importantly, though, the blocked punt provided a spark for Indiana and seemed to rattle Nebraska more than a little bit. While neither blocked punt has cost Nebraska a game, clearly against the more difficult opposition NU is about to face, it cannot afford to be surrendering that yardage and momentum in the future.

And BOWL ELIGIBLE!!!!!11!!!1!!

Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for October 31, 2015. It’s not quite a year ago, but given what’s happened in between it can feel like an eternity. So let’s look back at where Nebraska was on Hallowe’en one year ago. After a glimmer of hope with a 48-25 defeat of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Nebraska lost to Northwestern in Lincoln. And then came the trip to Purdue, with an injured Armstrong giving way to Ryker Fyfe and Nebraska losing 55-45 to arguably the worst team to beat NU in the last decade.

At that point, Nebraska was 3-6 under new head coach Mike Riley. The fanbase was in a mixture of rage, shock, and horror.

Fast forward to the present, and Nebraska fans are reading about NU’s chance to make the College Football Playoff. They are engaging in their favorite pastime, loathing ESPN’s Kirk Herbstriet for mocking Nebraska being a top-10 team.

Say what you will about ESPN’s sarcastic chuckling, but remember this. Nebraska is ranked in the top ten! Less than a year after being 3-6 and losing to freaking Purdue!

Nebraska has quite a gauntlet to run in the next few weeks (after Saturday’s contest against Purdue), with three of the five games being road contests at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. The glittering undefeated season may look as bruised as Armstrong’s ankle in a few weeks.

So if and when that happens, Husker Fan, please don’t forget where we’ve been in the last year. Yes, it would be great to see Nebraska go 12-0 and reprise Iowa’s 2015 season (although hopefully with a better bowl outcome).

But don’t get too greedy. 2016 has been far kinder to Nebraska than anyone had a right to hope for. A bit of a regression to the mean by the end of this season won’t signify failure.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 31, Illinois 16

dsc04393

Nebraska fans saw an uninspired Cornhusker team struggle for three quarters against a spirited Illinois squad, before scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to notch a win that was nowhere near as comfortable as the final score might suggest. My photos of the game are here. So for Nebraska fans looking back on Nebraska’s second conference win of 2016 …

The Good

Stick To The Plan. Nebraska’s plan against Illinois was pretty straightforward. Even though Nebraska trailed for a good part of the game, Nebraska still maintained its run-heavy playcalling. The final tally ended up with Nebraska having 49 rushing attempts to 23 passes, a plan that clearly bore fruit in the fourth quarter against a weary Illini defense.

That helped senior I-back Terrell Newby have a break-out game, finishing with 140 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns. And it was a far cry from the pass-happy game plan last year against Illinois in Champaign. In head coach Mike Riley’s second year, it’s clear lessons were learned from last year’s campaign.

Bye Bye. At the start of the season, Nebraska’s bye seemed poorly placed. It was early in the season, and Nebraska had two games against lesser competition before its gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State. Getting a breather before Indiana and Purdue, even coming off a 5-7 season, did not seem like an ideal use of a bye week.

But, boy, does Nebraska need the week off now. With an offensive line bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a MASH unit and injuries to wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter still to be determined, Nebraska would be ill-prepared to face another B1G foe – especially one coming off a huge upset of Michigan State. Proving once again how little pre-season predictions mean, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Nebraska.

Rising To The Occasion. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates got quite a bit of attention last week when they knelt during the national anthem before the Northwestern game. Rose-Ivey endured quite a bit of criticism, including from some local politicians (including some that was exceptionally ill-informed, as discussed by this smart and particularly handsome analyst).

Some people around the country have reacted poorly to the athlete’s protests, as evidenced by East Carolina’s fans booing their own band when some knelt during the anthem (according to SB Nation). So in a deep red state (politically, not in a football sense) like Nebraska, it was certainly an open question how NU fans would react when Rose-Ivey’s name was announced in the starting lineups.

Well, Nebraska fans came through. Here’s what Michael Rose, Rose-Ivey’s father, had to say on Twitter about the fans’ cheering of Rose-Ivey’s name.

https://twitter.com/marosekcmo/status/782297020048420864

It’s nice that Nebraska won the game. But this is one time where the ridiculously self-congratulatory moniker foisted on the Sea of Red by former athletic director Steve Pederson, really did ring true. On that cloudy October afternoon, Nebraska fans really were the Greatest Fans In College Football.

The Bad

Next Man Up. By the end of the Illinois game, Nebraska had three players on the offensive line that were backups – at best – at the start of the season. But when an injury to David Knevel pressed walk-on Cole Conrad into duty – playing next to Corey Whitaker, who was making his first start of the season at guard – the depth of Nebraska’s offensive line was called into question.

As discussed above, Nebraska’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Indiana just beat Michigan State in Bloomington, and Purdue knocked off Nebraska last year. And that’s before Nebraska gets back-to-back trips to Madison and Columbus. If Nebraska is going to continue this run, its offensive line has to produce.

Cashing In. Part of the reason Nebraska struggled against Illinois was because it wasn’t able to take advantage of opportunities it had to score. Four times Nebraska had the ball at the Illinois 42 or closer, and NU got exactly zero points out of those possessions.

It was a similar story against Northwestern last week. Four times, Nebraska had the ball at the Purples’ 41 or closer, and didn’t get a single point from those possessions. Of course, two fumbles at the goal line will help make that particular statistic look worse.

Advanced analytics, like Bill Connelly at SB Nation, use efficiency of offensive performance as one of the key metrics to determine how well a team is playing. Having a number of those empty possessions might help explain why Nebraska is only no. 23 in the most recent S&P+ rating (according to Football Outsiders) while no. 12 in both the AP and coaches’ poll.

Leaving it Late. Yeah, you’ve all heard the number by now. Nebraska has outscored its opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter. That’s a remarkable achievement, and speaks volume to the resilience and coaching of the team.

But it’s also playing with fire. Perhaps more than any other game this season (other than Oregon), Nebraska’s late-game heroics felt especially needed. Illinois not only took a lead into the fourth quarter, but felt at many points like it could have taken charge and pulled an upset.

Fourth-quarter pull-aways are great, but leave little margin for error. One turnover, one defensive error, or one great play by the opponent could have been enough to render Nebraska’s comeback unsuccessful.

And The How Many

Look, it’s a good thing that Nebraska is 5-0. A very good thing. At this point last year, Nebraska was 2-3. So an undefeated and twelfth-in-the-country Nebraska is awesome for the scarlet and cream faithful, regardless of how it came about.

But as a famous smuggler once said, don’t get cocky. If you feel a little cockiness coming on, just use the bye week to take a glance at how Nebraska’s opponents this year have fared. After losing in Lincoln, Oregon has dropped a game to Colorado (no real shame in that, the Buffs are actually pretty good this year) and Washington State (well …)

Fresno State is 1-4, with its only win over FCS Sacramento State. Yes, Northwestern did beat Iowa last week, but it also lost to FCS Illinois State. Before their game in Lincoln, Illinois got beat at home, 34-10, by Western Michigan. Heck, Wyoming has the best record of all the teams Nebraska has played in 2016 to date.

So Nebraska doesn’t appear to have faced a Murderer’s Row of opponents to earn it’s 5-0 mark. But it’s still 5-0. My golf partners have long since become sick of hearing me, after an ugly shot gets a lucky bounce and ends up on the fairway, that “it ain’t about how, it’s about how many.”

That pithy logic holds true for Nebraska as well. There’s no style points sought after here. Nebraska’s one win away from bowl eligibility in early October, with a trip to Indianapolis entirely in its hands. After last year, Nebraska fans can’t ask for anything more than that.