Yes, I know - technically, we've been members since July, and have been playing for three months now. But in the B1G, you are not truly a member until you have your very own trophy game, and get to triumphantly hoist the trophy and keep it away from your rival for another year.
I like the idea of Iowa as our designated end of year rival, but I dislike much of what they have done with the "Heroes Game". A yearly game with Iowa makes sense in terms of geography. It matches two consistently good programs in a game that will likely determine division championships down the road. Of all of the games on the schedule, this one makes the most sense for a true rivalry.
I hate the name "Heroes Game". The Big Ten has this annoying tendency to come across as overstuffed and self-important (see also: Leaders & Legends). Recognizing "citizen heroes" from each state is nice, but frankly it detracts from what a good rivalry should be: 364 days of trash talk followed by a game to decide who gets the trophy and bragging rights for the next year. Seriously, embrace the agricultural roots of both states: "Farmageddon" might be too informal for the B1G, but it more accurately reflects what the game could (and should) be.
I hate that a college football rivalry has a corporate sponsor. Nebraska-Oklahoma did not have a corporate sponsor. Michigan-Ohio State does not have a corporate sponsor. Hy-Vee would probably not sponsor "Farmageddon", but I bet they jumped at the chance to sponsor the Heroes Game.
I love that Nebraska has a trophy game. If you are in the Big Ten, you need to have a trophy game. I hate that the Nebraska-Iowa trophy is nondescript, generic, and boring. When people think about Big Ten trophy games, they think about large axes, bronze pigs, wooden buckets, and spittoons. They do not think of something that looks like a cross between the Super Bowl trophy and a three-tiered wedding cake. Again - embrace the ag. My hope is the trophy created by the student bodies - the Corn Bowl - becomes the true object of desire.
So what did we learn?
You should be happy with the results of the 2011 season. With all due respect to my colleague Angry Dad, Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten was not a bust. Yes, the first conference championship game will be played without NU, but I consider this a successful season. I approach each season with three unwavering goals: 1) continue the home sellout streak, 2) go to a bowl game, and 3) win 9 games. Since 1964, 1) the sellout streak has remained intact, 2) NU missed bowl games in 1967, 1968, 2004, and 2007; and 3) NU did not win 9 games in '67, '68, '02, '04, and '07. In short: 9 wins is the Nebraska Standard, and should never be taken for granted. Sure, I think it's been way too long since NU won a conference title, and I miss being a legitimate National Championship contender, but I would think the three times we fell short in the last decade would make us know a good season when we see one.
Picking the MVPs of the offense, defense, and special teams will be very easy. On offense: Quincy Enunwa. On defense: Jason Ankrah. On special teams: Jim Ebke. Just kidding. It's Rex Burkhead, Lavonte David, and Brett Maher by an incredibly wide margin. You could make an argument for others (say, Taylor Martinez, Alfonzo Dennard, and Ameer Abdullah), but NU's season is probably a complete disaster without those three.
Nebraska earned bragging rights and two trophies. Yep, the trophy is a bland dud, but what is more important - at least for those of you who have friends, co-workers, relatives, or Facebook friends with Iowa ties - is the ability to keep the Ioweegans quiet for another year. Nobody really knows why Hawkeye fans talk trash, but they do. May God have mercy on us should we lose this game.
So what don't we know?
Has Nebraska forgotten how to return a punt? This was one of the bigger weeks in Nebraska's punt return game in the last month: Tim Marlowe returned a punt for positive yardage (2) and Ameer Abdullah attempted his first return in weeks (for a one yard loss). I haven't seen this many fair catches since the days of Santino "Fair Catch-o" Panico.
How lucky has NU been with recovering fumbles? Two more fumbles on Friday, both of which were recovered by Nebraska. Here is a fun (and slightly scary) stat: for the season, Nebraska has lost 10 fumbles and recovered 8 (-2). Yet, Nebraska has dropped 31 fumbles, compared to 15 by their opponents (-16). This season looks very, very different if even four of those fumbles are recovered by the other team.
Will Husker fans be invading Orlando or Tampa? Bowl bids come out this weekend, and all that is known is Nebraska will be playing in Florida. The Capital One Bowl in Orlando has the first shot, and I'm guessing they'll bypass the loser of the conference championship for NU (I'm assuming Michigan will be a BCS at-large pick). Should the Cap One Bowl pass on NU, it is almost guaranteed that NU would play in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. I'm expecting Nebraska fans to travel in droves this year after many skipped last year's Holiday Bowl rerun with Washington, therefore I will be shocked if NU gets bypassed by the Cap One and Outback bowls. If that does happen, NU would likely return to the Gator Bowl where Bo Pelini picked up his first (non-interim) bowl win. Selfishly, I want the Outback (it just so happens we will be in Tampa to adopt our second daughter over the holidays), but I'll settle for a win.
5 Players I Loved
- Rex Burkhead. I'm a little late in getting this written up, but I'm guessing Rex is still sore from Friday's game. Thirty-eight carries (or 37 carries and a kneel down if you want to be technical) for 160 yards and a touchdown.
- Spencer Long. One of the reasons for Burkhead's big day was a good performance by the offensive line. Specifically, I'd like to mention Spencer Long, who spent most of the day pulling from his right guard position and sealing the corner for Rex. Anytime Rex went to his left (and that was quite a bit) Long was paving the way.
- Kenny Bell. Below the HuskerVision screen in the southwest corner was a homemade sign that said "CATCH THE BALL". Kenny Bell took that advice and brought in five catches, including a diving snag that might be the catch of the year. Bell impresses me with how he picks up yards after the catch - you don't expect guys his size to bounce off tacklers. Bell also had a good day blocking too.
- Lavonte David. Early in the second half, I found myself thinking that David was having a quiet game. So naturally, he comes out and forces/recovers a fumble, stalling an Iowa drive. David was in coverage more than usual (2 break-ups), but still put in a "typical" game: 8 tackles and a sack.
- Blackshirt Secondary. Marvin McNutt is one of the best receivers in the conference, but Alfonzo Dennard (and the other members of the NU secondary) made him a non-factor. Take away McNutt's 26 yard reception, and he ended up with 3 catches for 3 yards. That is an impressive effort.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Finishing games. In the 4th Quarter, Nebraska completed an 80 yard drive with a touchdown. The defense held Iowa to a 3-and-out. The offense got the ball back with 10:45 on the clock, and failed to pick up a first down on four drives. Not counting the three kneel-downs to end the game, NU picked up 14 yards on 9 carries. Had NU not gone into a complete shell (or at least picked up a couple of first downs), it is likely the Blackshirts could have held on for the shutout.
- Player Health. On one hand, it really stinks that NU will not be playing in the conference championship game. Yet, with all of the injuries, it is probably for the best as NU is really beat up. The defensive line is so thin they were an injury away from pulling fat guys out of the stands to suit up. Hopefully several players can get healed up before the bowl game.
- Penalties. The amount and yardage on NU's penalties has been steadily increasing throughout the season. I don't know if this is due to a lack of focus and discipline or if the lack of depth is causing lapses in judgment. You can say what you will about the validity of some of the penalties - let's just say the B1G calls things a bit differently than the XII did, and NU needs to adjust to that going forward.
- Tempo. Nebraska's offense was operating at a noticeably slower pace for most of the game. Usually, NU is lined up and ready with 20-25 seconds on the play clock. Against Iowa, there were usually 15-20 seconds on the play clock. We've seen how the faster pace pays dividends in the 4th Quarter, but I wonder if the slower pace was due to long day the defense put in against Michigan.
- My mom. Full disclosure: I am 50% Iowan, as my dear mother was born and raised in the Hawkeye State. Two of her brothers (as well as two of her nephews) graduated from Iowa, and even though they grew up closer to Ames than Iowa City, nobody in the family ever claimed Iowa State. Ever since the Iowa-NU game was announced, she's been mentioning how she'll be rooting for the Hawkeyes and wearing her Iowa sweatshirt whenever they play - despite the fact that both of her children are UNL alums, and she had lived in Nebraska for longer than she lived in Iowa. Mom - I still love you, but you may be getting a Nebraska sweatshirt for Mother's Day.