My family spent a good chunk of August in Florida, as we adopted our third child, a beautiful and healthy girl born on August 22. As we sat and waited for the paperwork allowing us to leave Florida and reenter Nebraska to be processed, it began to look like I would be unable to make it home to watch the Wyoming game in person.
Marooned in a Tallahassee hotel room without BTN, I put a request out on the HuskerMax message board to see if anybody knew of a Husker bar in the area - or at the very least, a place that would be willing to turn a TV to BTN for a few hours on Saturday night.
Within a matter of hours, I received an email from a fellow UNL alumnus who provided me with a couple of options for bars that would likely play the game for me. This generous soul (who can identify himself in the comments if he chooses) was going to be out of town for the game, otherwise I would be welcome to join him. He even gave me contact information for one of his buddies so I could watch the game from his man cave.
As it turned out, I did not need his suggestions. Our approval came Friday morning. Twenty-four hours and 1,200 miles later, we pulled into Lincoln and at 6:30 I was in my seat in north stadium.
I bring this up not to #humblebrag about my beautiful baby girl or the depths of my desire to not miss a home game, but to show the generosity, loyalty, passion, and sense of community shared by Husker fans. Think about it: a guy who had never met me was willing to invite me into his home, simply because we cheer for the same football team.
The feeling that any fan in red could be your best friend is one of the things I love about being a fan of this program. The bond between fans is deep, but it is also in trouble.
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My long-held belief is that fans, media, and internet pundits read way too much into first games. There have been some good teams who have looked bad in their debuts and some bad teams who were nearly flawless their first time out.
That is what I've always felt, but then I read my colleague Derek Johnson's excellent argument that everything you needed to know about the 2012 Huskers could be found in their opener against Southern Miss. And he's right - aside from the 2012 team's knack for comeback wins (NU never trailed against Southern Miss last year), many of the season's plot lines were foreshadowed in the first game.
And more specifically to the rising blood pressure of a panicky Husker nation - will there be more repeats of Saturday's 602 yard, 34 point, 8 yards per snap, probably would have lost if Wyoming had a few more plays, defensive debacle?
My gut says yes, we'll see this again. But it also says it will be exception, not the norm.
Football minds smarter than I can debate on what happened Saturday night. Was the defense too inexperienced? Too slow? Too poorly coached? Were the wrong players on the field? Or in the wrong positions? Making the wrong reads? Taking the wrong angles? Is it scheme? Coaching? Talent? Know-how? Want-to? Is the defense ill equipped to stop spread teams? Or any team with an above average offense? Six hundred and two yards leads to six hundred and two questions.
Quite frankly, I don't know. And while you probably have your theories and opinions, sharpened by message boards and sports talk radio, you likely don't know either. My hunch is we won't learn too much more until UCLA comes to town in two weeks.
But over the next 11 games, the answers should become clear.
For an ever-increasing number of Husker fans, it will determine if they support Bo Pelini being the coach for the 2014 season.
Admittedly, that seems a little dramatic after a season opening win, but there is an increasingly vocal presence who are building a case for why "Pellllini" should be let go.
As I type this, I am not in that camp, but I promise to keep an open mind to Bo's detractors and try to look at things from your point of view - using the sometimes damning evidence that gets harder and harder to explain away.
Maybe Derek was right after all - we can see how 2013 will unfold from just the first 60 minutes of the season. If that is true, then buckle up for a season of ugly wins, crushing losses, and a fan base that is divided like never before.
If that is the case, I'd like for fans to remember that the program, the university, the common bond and passion we share as Cornhuskers is bigger than any player, coach, or single season. Feel how you feel about the direction of the program, but always be willing to help out a Husker in need.
So what did we learn?
Memorial Stadium continues to get better. The east stadium addition is magnificent. It is stunning, intimidating, and when the crowd gets fully amped up (say against UCLA or one of the November home games) it should provide a noticeable boost to home field advantage. The Bob Devaney statue is a long overdue tribute to the man who made it all happen (even if I think it should be filled with Jim Beam, like my prized Devaney decanter). The new, more subtly striped FieldTurf is a nice improvement, and it is nice seeing Tom Osborne's name back on the field.
The Special Teams could be special again. Due to player losses and inconsistent performances in 2012, the special teams units were a bit of a question mark. While it's too early to make sweeping conclusions, the early returns are very promising. Sam Foltz was impressive, averaging 45 yards per kick. Mauro Bondi boomed kickoffs through the end zone like Adi Kunalic. Kenny Bell averaged 36 yards on his two kickoff returns, both of which were very close to going all the way. Coverage of punts and kickoffs was excellent.
Yes, Pat Smith missed one of his five PAT attempts, and punt returner Jamal Turner seemed unsure of how to handle Wyoming's low rugby punts, but there is potential for this unit to be a strength of the team, instead of a mixed bag of greatness and liability.
Young talent will get every opportunity to play.Lots of players saw their first playing time on Saturday. But unlike other seasons where guys debut then disappear for most of the season, I expect many of the youngsters to stay in the playing time rotation. Specifically, I'm thinking of Josh Banderas, Terrell Newby, Nathan Gerry, Cethan Carter, Kevin Maurice, and several others who made strong debuts. I have a feeling that Bo will trade complete mastery of the playbook for play-making ability.
So what don't we know?
How does Tim Beck manage the offensive pace? Nebraska's offense is capable of playing at a very fast pace. Several times against Wyoming, the ball was snapped with 25 - 30 seconds left on the 40 second play clock. That fast pace can create several advantages for the offense - it creates match-up problems and wears out a defense - that make it a good weapon to use.
But on the flip side, Nebraska's defense is, at best, a work in progress. An accelerated offensive pace typically means less time of possession, and a shorter break between series for the defense to rest, regroup, and adjust. In the 3rd and 4th quarters, the offensive pace slowed and Nebraska tried to chew up clock. For the most part, it worked, but the offense doesn't feel as explosive when they sit at the line of scrimmage for 15 seconds before the ball is snapped. I'm curious to see if Pelini and Beck find a middle ground or if the tempo revs and stalls like a teenager driving a stick shift.
Which position group is better: Running Back or Wide Receiver?Coming into the season, the wide receiver corps was almost universally considered a strength of the team - and possibly the best group of receivers in the conference. Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, and Quincy Enunwa form a potent trio, all capable of making big plays. Against Wyoming, they did lived up to their high standard with a combined 14 catches for 127 yards (82% of all receiving yards) and three touchdowns.
But the running backs made a solid case to be considered the premier unit on the team. Ameer Abdullah didn't play a great game (by his lofty standard), but still racked up 125 yards on 19 carries. The real surprise was the talent and versatility of the guys behind Abdullah. Imani Cross, who most considered as little more than a short yardage bruiser showed speed and elusiveness as he went over 100 yards with two scores. True freshman Terrell Newby shined in his Nebraska debut, rushing for 76 yards and showing an exciting mix of speed, moves, and power.
I think it is a little early for a verdict - I'd like to see how both groups fare against stronger defenses - but fans should be excited by the talent and depth at these positions.
What is the outside range of the place kickers, and does Bo have confidence in them (or his defense) to try? Twice in 4th quarter, the Huskers faced 4th down inside of the Wyoming 40 yard line. Field goal attempts would have been in the neighborhood of 55 yards. While that is a long kick, it was not outside the range of previous kickers Alex Henery and Brett Maher. With Wyoming threatening, some extra points could have helped seal the game. But the first time, Pelini chose to go for it, resulting in a Taylor Martinez fumble. The second time, Bo chose to punt and play defense.
First off, I completely approve of the decision to go for it on 4th and 1. I probably would have given the ball to Cross, but going for it was the right choice. Even with a steady breeze out of the south, a 56 yard kick would have been a bit much. The second time? Nebraska was up three and would have had a 54 yard attempt, still with the wind at their backs. A field goal only means Wyoming cannot take you to overtime, they would need a touchdown to win.
But, if Bo had wanted to try, could Mauro Bondi or Pat Smith have made a kick from 50+ yards? Bondi showed big leg on his kickoffs, but his accuracy is mostly unknown. My understanding is that Smith is more accurate but doesn't have the range.
And if the kick was missed, could Bo risk giving Wyoming the ball at midfield against a defense that was running on fumes? I'm guessing that factored heavily into his decision making.
How Full Is Your Glass?
Last year in this space, I tracked how Nebraska did in three key areas (turnover margin, 3rd down, and penalties). I considered doing that again, but let's face it: when you give up 600 yard of offense, things like penalties and 3rd down percentage don't matter that much.
Given the divide I'm seeing between the "Pelini Apologists" and the "Bo Bashers", I'd like to provide a stat, quote, observation, or factoid that best illustrates the position of these two diverse groups.
Glass Half Full: The offense had an off night and scored 37 points, a young defense with several new starters struggled, but can get things straightened out before the conference games that matter.
Glass Half Empty: Of the 25 worst defensive performances in school history (by yards per play), 11 happened under Bo's watch. Of the worst six performances, three happened in the last three games.
5 Players I Loved
- Wide Receivers. The terrific trio of Bell, Enunwa, and Turner made plays all over the field. Bell did a great job turning the quick routes into 8-9 yards. Turner made a beautiful catch on his fade route touchdown. And Enunwa probably turned the most heads with his two TD day where he displayed some very steady hands. I would have liked to see the reserves get a little more involved, but overall, the WR corps was great.
- Backup Running Backs. Take nothing away from Ameer Abdullah, who had a very solid night, but I was more impressed by the play of Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. Newby flashed some serious potential, and could be in the early stages of a stand-out career. Imani Cross is quickly becoming one of my favorite Huskers. We all love how he runs like a human wrecking ball, so his speed and the very nifty double spin move on this 31 yard TD run was the cherry on a big ol' awesome sundae.
- Sam Foltz/Mauro Bondi. When Nebraska went three and out on their first offensive possession and had to punt from their own 8 yard line, there was a nervous air in the crowd. A new long snapper getting the ball back to a new punter standing in his own end zone. Then Sam Foltz snapped off a monster kick - a tight spiral that sailed 56 yards. Foltz followed it up with several more nice punts, including a coffin corner lob to Kenny Bell that helped pin Wyoming deep for their final possession. Mauro Bondi was equally as impressive in booming four kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. The kicks that were returned ended up being covered well by the coverage team.
- Stanley Jean Baptiste.Many Husker fans are desperately seeking a defensive playmaker - somebody who can deliver a big play when the team needs it. On Saturday, SJB made a case to be that guy. His interception in the end zone thwarted a Wyoming drive, and his 42 yard return led to an offensive touchdown. Later, SJB was very close to a second interception, and played strong defense most of the night.
- Offensive Line. My policy is that any time Nebraska rushes for 300+ yards, the O Line makes the top 5. Why? Because when Nebraska rushes for 300+, they almost always win. The line play wasn't great, but NU got 375 yardson the ground and Martinez was not sacked.
Honorable Mention: Randy Gregory,Taylor Martinez, HuskerVision showing multiple replays of plays under review, the fans who put up the "We Can See Wyoming From Here" sign in the top level of East stadium.
5 Areas for Improvement
- Conditioning. I noticed lots of defensive guys (linemen, linebackers, secondary) who looked like they were getting very tired in the second half. Yes I know it was muggy and Wyoming ran a very fast tempo on offense, but those excuses don't hold a lot of water with me. Summer in Nebraska is hot. The defense goes up against a fast paced offense every day in practice. I truly believe that if this game was played in Laramie (on their field that sits 7,200 feet above sea level) Nebraska would lose, partially because they couldn't keep up with a better conditioned team.
- Pass Rush. The good news is Nebraska recorded nine QB Hurries. The bad news is Nebraska recorded zero sacks, whiffed on several opportunities, and allowed Wyoming's Brett Smith to find open receivers all night long. While Brett Smith proved to be elusive, his mobility should not be confused with another gold wearing #16 - Brad Smith. Nebraska absolutely must have a legitimate pass rush to keep offenses honest and to ease the pressure on the secondary.
- Tim Beck. Nebraska's offensive coordinator had an up and down night. Credit Tim Beck with getting 37 points on the board and showing some new wrinkles (a zone read with Martinez and Quincy Enunwa? Sexy.) But it never really felt like the offense was in a rhythm. There were 91,000 people waiting for Beck to take a shot down the field, but it never happened.
- Officiating. As a rule, I try not to bash too much on the officiating - unless it is truly warranted. This crew - and especially the crew chief - really struggled with articulating what calls we being made and why. Surely Randy Gregory was not flagged for roughing the passer, especially when Brett Smith had not yet become a passer. From the replays I saw, there wasn't anything else on that hit that should have been flagged, but that is a separate discussion. But the calls on reviewed plays was really bad. There are specific words that officials use ("ruling on the field is confirmed/upheld/overturned") to tell fans what they saw. After reviews, the official would say "the ruling on the field is _______" and whatever replay showed (a touchdown for Enunwa, an interception for Ciante Evans). But technically, that is incorrect and misleading. The rulings on the field were incomplete passes, which were overturned by replay. You may think it's nit-picky, but if an official cannot articulate the rules, do you really trust him to interpret them correctly? Or will they call roughing the passer on a person who has not thrown the ball?
- Fans who left early.When Nebraska went up 37-21 in the 4th, many fans started streaming out of the stadium. I get it - it's a night game and many fans have long drives back home. At that point, the game appeared to be well in hand, so it made sense to beat traffic. A few minutes later, Nebraska was driving for another score. But a Taylor Martinez pass was intercepted setting Wyoming up at midfield, down by two scores. At this point, another wave of fans started leaving. Again, I understand the realities of a night game, getting your vehicle out of the garage/lot/yard you parked in, and driving 50+ miles to get home. You stuck around to see if Nebraska would score again. They didn't so now it's time to head out. But here's the thing - by the time you made it ten rows from your seat, Wyoming had scored to make it a 10 point game. The momentum was shifting, and yet you continued on your way out the door.