Reflecting on the Hail Mary, Big 10 Apathy, and early Bowl Returns
In reflection on the Hail Mary, there were two aspects to that play/series of events that stick out to me. One being, Aaron Babcock's photo of Jordan Westerkamp jumping to catch the ball in mid-air while Northwestern's defenders look on helplessly. The other is Ron Kellogg III running helmetless to the other end of the field to high-five.
There is a growing distance between fans and players in college football, as players start to get more attention as high school recruits, and it drives more attention and opportunities their way. I don't fault them for being more private these days, but once in a while, it is nice to see a college athlete go crazy and look to celebrate with average joes. Thanks Ron.
Football being the complex game that it is, a lot of what-ifs remain after Nebraska's Hail Mary succeeded. Here's a couple that could have played out that fateful last minute much differently.
What if Kellogg avoids the sacks, and Nebraska has more time to dink-and-dunk? Could they have gotten into field goal range? Kellogg accomplished something incredible, getting his team back to the line of scrimmage and converting and fourth and fifteen, all while the clock was running. Nine out of ten times, such a sack would end any hope of a comeback. But what if he'd converted the third down, and Nebraska could have gone furter downfield? Could they have made it to field goal range before Northwestern started to cover the quick outs? And if the drive had stalled at 37 with 4 seconds left, would Pelini have tried a 54-yard field goal, after Pat Smith had missed earlier in the game?
What if Quincy Enunwa catches the ball on penultimate play? Brian Christopherson brought this up on the Journal Star's Life in the Red blog: if Enunwa does make the catch and the 30, there may not have been enough time on the clock to spike the ball. If there were four seconds or fewer, Nebraska would have had to try to run another play or run its field goal unit onto the field, the latter of which would have been a complicated endeavor.
What if Tommy Armstrong had come into the game to throw the Hail Mary? Northwestern called a timeout before the last play, and the coaches may have thought that, for one throw, Armstrong could have chucked it deeper than Kellogg. But we'll never know.
My original plan for a 2013 Husker road trip was to go to Purdue, as it is a short distance from where my sister lives in northwest Indiana. But after the Big 10 announced its realignment plan and future schedules, we decided to instead attend the Michigan game, as it would be one of the last Nebraska-Michigan showdowns for several years. Seeing how many empty seats were at the Nebraska-Purdue game, it's not bothering me as much that I may travel hundreds of miles to watch the Huskers lose, given the aura of the Big House, and how few of those atmospheres Nebraska might play at in the next few years.
Dirk Chatelain's recent informal survey showed Nebraska fans are getting restless with life in the Big 10, a discomfort I would say comes from the low floor in America's Rust Belt Conference. Iowa State is the ninth-best program in the Big 12. They pack 55,000 strong into a windy band-box, have a solid list of upsets over the past four years, and, even with what will be Paul Rhoads' worst team record-wise, stayed in games against Texas Tech and Texas, questionable calls aiding the Longhorns The ninth best team in the Big 10 is low-momentum Indiana, who is nowhere close to where Iowa State is. (By the by, Texas getting every questionable call is a reason Nebraska should be thankful it left the Longhorns' conference.)
When Nebraska made the move to the Big 10, it made the right decision with the information available at the time. At the time, there was no guarantee that the Big 12 was going to be around in three or five years, and Nebraska was not guaranteed a spot in a major conference because the state doesn't offer a large TV market. Going into the Big 10, it looked like Nebraska would get regular games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, programs closer to Nebraska's culture than Texas, Texas A&M, and even Oklahoma to a degree. The Big 10's stable politics made the decision easy.
At the time, no one could have predicted that the Big 10 would add two middling east coast programs solely for their TV markets, and that Nebraska would find itself on annual schedules that guarantee home games against Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue instead of the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Nittany Lions. If Nebraska has to play in a half-empty stadiums, better if those stadiums are either in recruit-rich Texas or quick-drive-away Lawrence, Kansas, than in college football's Illinois/Indiana recruiting desert. Just look at Northwestern: they have a coach that Nebraska would die for, but they can't keep Ohio State fans out of their stadium for their biggest home game in ten years, and they are tarping off seats for a conference home game against Minnesota. If you were starting a college football conference from scratch in the area the Big 10 is now, there's no way you'd take Northwestern, or more than one school in Indiana.
As Big 10 teams continue to get slighted in the polls and be the punch-line of college football talk shows, the luster of playing in America's most tradition rich conference dims. Although, Nebraska's future in the Big 12 might have been dimmer if they had to fight through six games a year against the Texas and Oklahoma powers. After 10-year stretch with 65 wins, the Huskers might have been left out of the next major realignment round.
Still getting whipped by Texas Tech and Oklahoma State would be less embarrassing that the physical humiliation the Huskers' suffered in Minneapolis this year. In light of Missouri's physical dominance in the SEC after just two years, there is even less of an excuse for Nebraska not being able to hang with middle-of-the-pack Big 10 teams after three years.
But what's done is done. Nebraska is where it is, and the stable political structure of the Big 10 was worth leaving the Big 12 for, even if it does mean bi-annual trips to half-empty stadiums in West Layfettte and Champaign. The Big 12 will never be completely stable as long as the Longhorn Network exists.
After the dust settled on Nebraska's sixth win of the season, I came to a realization: the Huskers could be in prime position to get screwed in the Big 10 bowl selection process. And it could be as bad as Nebraska's last year in the Big 12.
Right now, the Big 10 will have at least seven bowl eligible teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa, assuming the Hawkeyes beat Purdue on the road this Saturday (Ferentz, I know.) And if the Huskers are sitting at 8-4 or 7-5 with Minnesota and Iowa there's a good chance they'll be getting dropped to last, because Gophers are having their best season in several years, and Hawkeyes sat out bowl season last year. And Michigan still is Michigan.
For their best bowl option, Nebraska has to root for Michigan State or Wisconsin to make the BCS, which, if it happens, probably means the Huskers will fall no further than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The former Insight Bowl won't get another chance to match the Huskers against a former Big 12 foe, and Oklahoma-Nebraska or Nebraska-Texas would get the Husker Nation flocking to the site of their biggest bowl win ever.
But if two Big 10 teams are not in the BCS, there will be no guarantees for a disappointing Nebraska team. Of course, loosing out on another SEC-drubbing in the Gator Bowl for a Big 8 reunion with Kansas State in the Texas Bowl wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either.
A quick endnote: as I will be in attendance at the game, my quick react will not be posted in the immediate aftermath of the Nebraska-Michigan game. Hopefully, it will be up by Monday noon at the latest. Enjoy the game everyone!
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05.