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  • Remember to Never Forget

    Among the many things I love about Husker fans is their incredibly long memories. If you look back at all of the big losses in the last 50 years (think Orange Bowls, games against Oklahoma in the 80s and games with Texas during the Big XII era) there is that one play - or player - that our fans will point to as the reason we lost. Sometimes it is an amazing performance (Ricky Williams, Jamelle Holieway), a soul-crushing big play (James Brown, Keith Jackson), or a controversial or missed call (William Floyd, Travis Ochs). I bring this up because of the Ghost of Losses Past that reappeared on Saturday: Penn State's Mike McCloskey.

    McCloskey's name and the infamous 1982 "crooked sideline" game were invoked by thousands of Husker fans after Penn State's Matt Lehman lost the football at (or after) the goal line. I saw lots of tweets, posts, and comments referencing "payback", "karma", and "settling an old score". Before we get too far into that, let's first talk about the play:

    It was ruled a fumble on the field and that call was "upheld" by the replay official. And you'll notice that the referee used the word "upheld" as opposed to "confirmed". Confirmed means the ref on the field got the call right. Upheld means there was not indisputable video evidence to overturn the call. In other words, if the play had been ruled a touchdown on the field, that call probably would not have been overturned either. It was just too tough to tell. But from what I heard, it was not too tough to tell for the ABC announcers disagreed, who apparently kept going back to the call. The Omaha World-Herald printed a photo that sure makes it look like Lehman got the ball across the goal line before losing it.

    To be sure, this play is going to be mentioned for years and years by Penn State fans, as it probably should be. But here is the good news Husker fans: you don't have to let go of 1982 if you don't want to. Why? Well, 1) the Lehman play happened with 7:39 left to go in the game. The McCloskey play occurred with 9 seconds left. You can overcome a lot of bad breaks in seven and a half minutes. It's a little tougher with 9 seconds. 2) The 1982 Nebraska team's only loss was at Penn State, meaning that play cost NU a share of a national title. All things considered, Penn State is having a pretty darn good season, but even if they were eligible for post-season play this year the difference between a win and a loss on Saturday is the difference between going to Tampa (Outback) or Jacksonville (Gator) for a bowl game. That's it.

    And one other thing: maybe Penn State was screwed on that play and maybe they weren't. But let's knock it off with the conspiracy talk. I can appreciate that the Sandusky mess has Penn State fans feeling jittery, persecuted, and ultra defensive. But there is no conspiracy going on to keep Penn State from being successful being orchestrated by the NCAA or the Big Ten Conference. If either one of those bodies felt like handing it to Penn State, they could have done so when PSU's punishments were handed out this year.

    So what did we learn?

    If you're going to Indy, now is the time to make plans. For the last two weeks, I've been telling you to hold off - mainly out of fear that the Cardiac Corn's comeback ways would flatline. To be sure, Nebraska is not out of the woods yet. The Huskers have not been undefeated at home in a season since 2001, and you can never predict what happens in rivalry games (even manufactured rivalries with generic trophies). But the odds favor Nebraska winning both of their next two over Nebraska going 1-1 and a Michigan win at Ohio State. And if anybody would like to chip in for their favorite Husker blogger to make the trip, I'm not too proud to accept your donations.

    Taylor Martinez is money on 3rd down. In the game, Nebraska ran 18 plays on the 3rd down. Four of those were Imani Cross runs, leaving 14 third down opportunities where Taylor Martinez was tasked with picking up a first down. How did he do? How about 4 of 7 passing for 95 yards for a pair of first downs and a touchdown? More impressive is his seven rushes on third down totalling 55 yards, getting a fresh set of downs four times. All told, Martinez converted 50% of his 3rd down opportunities (Nebraska is at 40% for the season) and amassed 150 yards.

    Memorial Stadium puts on a pretty good show for Veteran's Day. On Saturday, Nebraska honored veterans from our nation's wars (including a 97 year old WWII vet), the band performed their annual armed forces anthem medley and color guards, they scrolled the names of soldiers with Nebraska ties who have lost their lives since 9/11 (a list that sadly had a lot of names on it), as well as the in-game feature where they honor a military family. After touchdowns, several soldiers (ROTC, I assume) performed push-ups in front of the student section to "USA" chants. At first there was disappointment in the stands because of a lack of a pre-game fly over. However, that went away when it was announced that Nebraska had arranged for a military sky diving team to parachute into Memorial Stadium, but the strong winds made it unsafe.

    I've said it before, and I'll hope I'll say it again: I love how Nebraska and the Athletic Department never forget what the "Memorial" in Memorial Stadium is all about. Thank you to all those who serve and protect our country!

    So what don't we know?

    Would Nebraska have won if Penn State had taken the wind in the 4th Quarter? I think one of the biggest coaching blunders in the game happened at halftime. Nebraska won the coin toss, and deferred to the second half. Obviously, they chose to take the ball, so Penn State then got to choose which end they wanted to defend. More accurately, Penn State got to choose if they wanted the strong south wind that gusted to 35 mph at their backs in the third or fourth quarter. PSU took the wind in the 3rd, and I think it was a huge mistake. Brett Maher - who had a 16 yard punt into the wind in the 2nd quarter - got a wind-aided 69 yard punt that went out of bounds at the 2 yard line. Two plays later, Nebraska picked up a safety, increasing their lead to six. Later in the 4th, Maher kicked a 33 yard field goal to ice the game. He probably would have made that kick into 20 mph head wind, but it would not have been nearly as automatic. Bottom line: PSU really screwed up by not having the wind at their back in crunch time.

    Is Imani Cross the answer for Nebraska's red zone issues? Over the last few games, Nebraska's offense has struggled inside the 20, and especially inside the 10. In the 3rd quarter, freshman RB Imani Cross got a few carries on the goal line, and was able to blast through for touchdowns. Is he the answer? I'm not convinced yet, but I like that he provides another threat for opposing defensive coordinators to account for.

    Can Nebraska play a game where they don't dig themselves a big hole? The scenario is pretty well known at this point: Nebraska - through a pick-mix of bad defense, inconsistent offense, turnovers, and stupid penalties - goes into halftime trailing by double digits. Then the defense digs in, the offense starts clicking, and the comeback is on. That style of play is never boring, but it is definitely getting old. Don't get me wrong: the third quarter rally was a blast in the stadium, but I'd be okay with a predictable wire-to-wire win. I'd like to predict that with Minnesota and Iowa coming up next, Nebraska should be able to get out to a comfortable lead and ride the defense to victory. But I never would have predicted wearing jeans and a t-shirt to a home game in November, so we'll see what happens.

    Where are my Keys?

    At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season: 1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties. Throughout the year, I'll be tracking Nebraska's progress:

    Penalties
    Penalty Yds.
    3rd Down Conv. (NU)
    3rd Down Conv. (Opp)
    Turnover Margin
    So. Miss
    2
    30
    80.0%
    50.0%
    1
    UCLA
    7
    60
    9.1%
    45.0%
    -1
    Arkansas St.
    4
    34
    76.9%
    37.5%
    -2
    Idaho St.
    9
    104
    45.5%
    13.3%
    2
    Wisconsin
    6
    70
    38.5%
    26.7%
    -1
    Ohio St.
    9
    75
    35.7%
    45.5%
    -3
    Northwestern
    8
    62
    21.4%
    25.0%
    -3
    Michigan
    8
    104
    33.3%
    33.3%
    1
    Michigan St.
    9
    72
    42.9%
    40.0%
    -1
    Penn St.
    7
    55
    50.0%
    40.0%
    1
    2012 Per Game
    6.9
    66.6
    44.2%
    35.3%
    -8
    2011 Per Game
    7.2
    57.3
    42.3%
    40.2%
    -1


    Much will be said about that +1 in turnover margin - specifically the PSU fumble at the goal line - but be sure to note the 55 penalty yards, a season-low in conference play and 20 yards fewer than what Nebraska was averaging in Big Ten play.

    5 Players I Loved
    1. Taylor Martinez. Once again, Martinez leads the team back from a big deficit and makes the big plays to extend drives. Hopefully, you've noticed that the slide has disappeared from Taylor's arsenal, and he's getting extra yards even if it means he takes some hits. His passing numbers weren't very great, but I'm not sure if that is due to the shaky pass protection, Martinez, or how the wind affected his throws.
    2. Ameer Abdullah. Every week he has a run where he shows off his speed, one where he shows his vision, and one where he shows his power. Sometimes that all happens on the same play. I'm running out of adjectives to describe Abdullah's season.
    3. Daimion Stafford. The good (big interception, fumble recovery, eight tackles) definitely out-weighs the bad (got caught on ABC's Bo-Cam venting some steam at Pelini). While I was a little taken aback when I saw that Saturday night (apparently that was the only highlight Fox thought we needed to see from our game) I have yet to lose any sleep over a passionate player being passionate about defense to a passionate coach - especially since most of the good happened after that exchange. Nothing to see here, move along.
    4. Imani Cross. You know who Imani reminds me of? The big, red Angry Bird. The one that goes in like a big wrecking ball and leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. I like how Cross goes blasting into the line of scrimmage and comes out on the other side with a first down or six points. I thereby dub Mr. Imani Cross with the official nickname: "Angry Bird".
    5. Justin Blatchford. It seems like every year, Bo finds a tough and athletic Nebraska kid and turns him into an under-appreciated defensive contributor (see also: O'Hanlon, Matt; Thorell, Lance; Cassidy, Austin). The latest is Blatchford, a senior from Ponca. Blatchford has been a special teams (and honor roll) fixture for years, and is now taking advantage of playing time in the secondary. He doesn't put up a ton of stats, but he is showing a knack for making a big play in crunch time. Case in point - his picture perfect pass break up on Penn State's final offensive play helped seal the victory.



    Honorable Mention: Ciante Evans, Baker Steinkuhler, Cam Meredith, Blocking receivers, Niles Paul's beard.

    5 Areas for Improvement
    1. Offensive Line. The good news is Taylor Martinez had 104 yards rushing. The bad news is many of them occurred because his protection broke down and he had to run for his life. Missed blocks, linemen on the wrong end of pancakes, and sloppy technique (how Andrew Rodriguez was not called for a hold on that one pass, I'll never know). Give credit to Penn State's front four, but nobody will mistake PSU's line with the 2009 Nebraska unit.
    2. End-of-game offense. After the defense picked up the safety, Nebraska fielded the free kick at their 43 with 5:02 left in the game, a ton of momentum, and PSU's defense looking tired. At that point, NU had 251 yards rushing, and I fully expected Nebraska to run, run, run and either grind out the clock or tack on another touchdown. Instead, Nebraska went three and out after picking up seven rushing yards (and five penalty yards). The Blackshirts held PSU, and the offense took over with 2:39 left and the opportunity to run out the clock if they could pick up a first down. But three rushes picked up just nine yards. Fortunately, NU was in field goal range and Maher was able to put the game away. So on two late drives with the game on the line, NU's offense picked up 16 yards on 6 plays. Part of the blame goes to the offensive line, who struggled all night long. And part of the blame goes to the staff for calling the same two plays over and over. Also, I would have liked to see what Braylon Heard could have done in that situation with fresh legs and a good burst.
    3. Forcing Fourth Down. In the second quarter, Nebraska stopped PSU on 3rd and 3 near midfield, but PSU was flagged for holding. Given the two options (accept and make it 3rd and 14 from the PSU 41 or decline and set up a 4th and 3 from the NU 48) Bo opted to push PSU back and have them replay third down. Penn State then picked up 30 yards on 3rd and 14 as they continued to march down the field. I understand that PSU might have gone for it on 4th and 3 instead of punting into the wind, but there was no guarantee of that happening. Unless you're moving a team out of field goal range, decline the penalty and get your defense off the field.
    4. Punt Returns. It was refreshing to see Ameer Abdullah back to receive the first punt. Credit Penn State's punter for making a good kick that sailed away from Abudllah. Next time, Tim Marlowe was back deep, wearing that appeared to be a large brace or wrap on his arm. He called for the fair catch shortly after the ball as in the air, but fumbled the ball away. I think Marlowe is a tough, gritty player, and he has shown some skill in the return game previously, but there was no reason for him to be back there over Abdullah, Kenny Bell, or Jamal Turner. Also, where Penn State did a nice job of kicking away from Abdullah, I'd like to see Nebraska take a page from PSU's playbook and have two returners back - especially when the wind was wrecking havoc with punts all game long.
    5. Penn State's Helmet Stickers. We all know what Jerry Sandusky did and how Penn State football, the athletic department, and university leadership all played a role in allowing it to continue. As part of their awareness for child abuse, Penn State is wearing a blue ribbon the back of their helmets this year. A nice gesture, but I think they could have (and should have) done more. My suggestion back in July was to put a big version of that blue ribbon the side of the Penn State helmet. Frankly, I think they should do this at least once a year.




    Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog (www.feitcanwrite.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @Feitcanwrite


    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Angry Bird! I love it!
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