2012 Improvements Hard to Swallow
The 2012 season is over and pundits will now spend nine months feasting on the state of the program while the Husker staff scurries underground only to surface for air in a few Groundhog Day moments after National Signing Day, the Red/White Game and Fall Camp to exhale recycled statements about just how dang awesome the team is progressing.
This is one of those pundit pieces, so if your media appetite is to fill-up on how Dear Old NU showed a lot of grit and how we’ll get ‘em next year in Indy and/or Pasadena, then best find another word entree. This one is about whether the program improved over last year (spoiler alert: it didn’t) and the next episode will discuss if there’s an upward trend (spoiler alert: there’s not), which are worthy main courses after 5 years of Pelini in the kitchen.
Not to take away from the team’s undeniable moxie that often overcame maniacal sloppy; everyone can appreciate the comeback wins that led to NU now owning the dubious Big Ten record for making up lost ground. Ignoring the unapologetic beatings by teams ranging from just OK to a smidge above good however wouldn’t fairly assess the season that just was.
Outside Lincoln, folks in Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State aren't impressed and insist NU had more luck and/or zebras on their side than they did more talent; and their feelings were essentially validated on December 1st. Why? Because 39 point eviscerations that leave a wry grinning Bret Bielema challenging his every restraint not to say “they were who we thought they were” basically end all debates and spell indisputable truths.
Truths like the Huskers were an undisciplined and often fortunate team that never strung together four quarters of solid football. Truths like, despite one more win and finding a ticket to Indy, the Huskers were not an improved team.
Facing more facts, the Big Ten in 2012 was an abject joke. The competition was flavorless, so arguing improvements were seen in avenged losses to Michigan and Northwestern is a weak sauce. An 11 win, BCS bound UM team that smoked NU in 2011 graduated its core on D, lest not forget a freak injury caused Meatchicken to play without a legitimate college QB for 31 minutes, just as Robinson started to run downhill on the Huskers.
Northwestern, who also suffered major losses, still owned NU until Martinez threw two game-sealing interceptions that Northwestern simply forgot to catch. Gifted second and third chances, the Huskers again proved grit and luck, but hardly improvement.
NU dominated an 11 win Sparty team in 2011, but needed zebra-aided road assistance in 2012 to erase MSU’s coffin-nail TD with a mystery call on a fumble return. Outmuscled against a reeling .500 team, NU scraped-out a W, but was clearly a lesser team against a lesser team.
A bizarre review botch was needed to put away a PSU team that matched NU’s veteran squad blow for blow despite having lost 13 players to defection and/or outright disgust due to sanctions.
Having drilled a so-so Iowa team last year, the wind was blamed for the 2012 Huskers being frequently blown off the ball on both lines in a six point nail biter against the team Kirk Herbstreit recently called “the worst in the Big Ten.”
Aside from failing the eye test, most statistics other than wins lean towards decline over improvement. Yes, the offense was more interesting, but any progress was wiped-out by the mind-numbing turnovers, penalties, and outright lack of position playing by a Junior-Senior laden roster.
Martinez upped his completion percentage by 6% and subsequently his INTs by 25%. He also fumbled more than any player in the nation, helping NU to rank an NCAA worst in fumbles lost. QB mistakes happen most under duress, so eyes didn’t deceive when the Huskers OL appeared non-existent at times. NU gave up the 16th most sacks in the nation with 29, up roughly 40% over the embarrassing enough sack total of 21 in 2011.
NU’s 4.5 more points per game (ppg) was washed out by the defense giving up 4 more ppg, all against weaker teams. The 2012 scoring improvement to 35.1 ppg with a Junior Martinez, from 30.5 ppg with a Sophomore Martinez should be expected, especially against bad teams, but really just how improved is Beck’s offense as a whole when Shawn Watson’s injury plagued 2010 offense averaged 32.7 ppg with a Freshman Martinez who sat out or played on one ankle in half the games? The same heavily maligned offense that saw Watson escorted out of Lincoln at pitchfork point to Louisville where, for what it’s worth, his O just shredded #3 Florida in a BCS bowl.
The defense’s alleged resurrection didn’t really start until the second half of the 9th game, when Denard Robinson was replaced by a kid who made Idaho State’s offense look freaky good. Next the Blackshirts exalted their will against the high-ranking offenses of Michigan State (91st ypg / 109th ppg), Penn State (54th ypg / 66th ppg), Minnesota (114th ypg/ 99th ppg), and Iowa (117th ypg / 113th ppg).
Reality is that anemic Michigan State exceeded their average point total against the Huskers and Penn State would have done likewise without the botched review. Actually every remotely formidable team NU played, save Northwestern, garnished its offensive averages against NU with UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and UGA doing so in all-you-can-eat buffet fashion.
In 2012 alone, the defensive savior Pelini owned the second and third worst yardage surrenders in the history of Nebraska football with 4 games that yielded essentially 500+ yards (498, 589, 640, and 653), yet there was still the audacity to point out that NU led the nation in pass D in a run happy league that left NU 93rd out of 120 teams against the run. Translation, the Huskers ranked 56th in points allowed per game, the only D stat that matters per Pelini’s own words from past interviews.
Pelini’s Ds have allowed more points per game every year since 2009, going from ranking 2nd in the nation in 2009 to 9th in 2010, 41st in 2011, and now 56th (even before adding UGA’s pile up to steepen the decline). Noteworthy is that the potency of the offenses NU has faced have also declined every year.
Bottom line, there’s nothing wrong with liking this Husker team’s grit in pulling off some great comebacks, they simply did not improve as a team and if the D were a steak it would be sent back to the kitchen for excessive charring. There’s also no law that says NU football has to be a juggernaut, although a lot of boosters pay big dough to ensure the team heads in that direction and signs of upward mobility in 2013 are well hidden if they exist, which is the topic of the next column.
For now, I know many Husker faithful are still chewing on how they feel about 2012, a year where good-intentioned ABC/ESPN announcers attempted to pacify Husker fans’ disappointments by suggesting it was a neat accomplishment just for Nebraska to make the B1G Title Game in only its 2nd year, as if NU had jumped from the FCS instead of the more prolific Big XII. Suggesting how the talent-challenged Huskers should be proud they played 3 strong quarters against a big, strong (disinterested, lethargic) SEC team much in the same vain they gave Northern Illinois an atta-boy for staying in the ring with FSU for 3 rounds.
I imagine some will digest it all just fine knowing NU showed some moxie and did the best they could while others will react to the condescension shown towards a once Championship caliber program by wanting to hurl from more than just a New Year’s hangover. Such is the clientele at the Husker Diner where, love it or heave it, everyone keeps coming back for more.
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