Over the past 10 years, there have been a handful of times where I've gone back and forth on the likelihood of a Husker victory. Usually the opponent is pretty tough (Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, etc.) and there are certain factors that cause my confidence to slip.
This was one of those weeks. Would there be a post-Hail Westy letdown? Would Michigan's talented skill players run around, past, and through a defense that had been underwhelming for the first two months of the season? Would Nebraska be embarrassed, again, in front of a national audience? Would Nebraska be abused by another mobile quarterback? How would Tommy Armstrong fare in his first road game in a truly hostile environment (i.e. one without 15,000+ Husker fans like at Purdue or Minnesota)? Would the Wolverines play with a chip on their shoulder after they and their coach were called out by an ESPN columnist? Would Michigan be fired up by Ameer Abdullah's comments in the Monday press conference? Would there be enough able bodies to block for Abdullah and Armstrong?
Long story short, I approached this game hopeful, but not brimming with confidence.
And that sucks.
I miss when I would approach big games against big time opponents with excitement, instead of a fearful unease. I miss viewing big games as a measuring stick to show how good Nebraska is, versus a wake-up call to see how far we've slipped. I miss the euphoric glow of a big win instead of the "fire everybody, sky is falling" panic of a disappointing loss.
This is why I'm so happy about the win at Michigan. Yes, over the last 10 years Michigan has as many top ten finishes as losses to Bill Callahan, but this win is as big as any win the Huskers have recorded this year. Northwestern? A more thrilling finish to be sure, but the simple act of winning was not as newsworthy as a loss would have been. Ditto for any other game the Huskers have played this season. A win over Michigan, and especially AT Michigan, is big. It's not the "signature win" that the media is always looking for, but it is big step forward for Bo Pelini and his Huskers.
Now, the next step is to avoid tripping in a must-win game against the division leader. But that is for next week...
So what did we learn?
It's time to give back the black. Wow. That was a vintage performance by the defense. Here is what the soon to be Blackshirts allowed versus Michigan: Zero first downs via the rush. Negative 21 yards rushing. Three of 15 on third down (1-7 in the second half). One of three on fourth down (0-1 in the second half). On two drives following two Nebraska turnovers deep in Nebraska territory, the Wolverines gained a total of two yards and were held to two field goal attempts - and only three points. Recorded seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
Skeptics will note that Michigan's offense was booed several times by the Big House crowd, and many of Devin Gardner's throws looked like they were thrown by a guy wearing #98, but take nothing away from this masterful performance. The Blackshirts (rightfully) went back into storage after the loss to Minnesota. It's time to give them back.
The offense is going to fall just short of Jamal Turner's 50 points per game prediction. Back in August, Jamal Turner boldly predicted that Nebraska's offense, brimming with talent and experience, could score 50 points per game. Over the first six games, Nebraska averaged an impressive 42.6 points a game. Since then, the average has dropped to 35.9 per game. That means in order to mean the original goal, Nebraska would need to average 81.75 over their final three games and the bowl game. The good news is that if Nebraska is scoring that much, they likely make it to the Big Ten Championship. That gives NU another game towards the 50 ppg mark, reducing the amount they need to a very manageable 75.4 points a game.
I bring this up not to crack on Turner for his high level of confidence in the offense's potential nor to be hypocritical to one of my biggest pet peeves (player says something bold, yet honest; media member parses and dissects that statement into a billion pieces; next time the media member cannot understand why the player only speaks in generic statements and clichés). I bring it up to show just how amazing the 1983 and 1995 offenses were to be able to score over 50 ppg. The 2013 Huskers would have struggled to make that number even without the multitude of injuries they've had to overcome.
College football MUST change how they deal with helmet to helmet contact. Let's reset the scenario: Michigan is returning a Nebraska punt and return man Jeremy Gallon is looking for a running lane. Nebraska's Mohammed Seisay is closing in when he is drilled by a Michigan blocker. The result was one of those classic "Oooo" hits where the blocker unloads on an unsuspecting player, knocking him clean off his feet - the type of hit that football fans have loved for years.
Unfortunately, in the year 2013, we also recognize that the Michigan blocker "launched" himself at Seisay, led with his helmet, and made first contact with Seisay's helmet. The combination of these things being more than enough for a 15 yard penalty and ejection for the blocker. But yet, no flag was thrown, even though the play apparently took place right in front of the officials (in an ironic twist of fate, Seisay was credited with the tackle as he was blasted into Gallon).
If maintaining player safety is as important as league officials would have us believe it is, changes must be made so hits like this can be caught and dealt with. I've got two suggestions: 1) Assign a conference official to review all games looking for hits that meet a specific criteria (helmet to helmet, defenseless player, etc.). When such is hit is clearly identified (as by "clearly", I'm talking you can see it without using mega slo-mo or freeze frames), the league office issues a suspension to the player, and a reprimand to the crew who missed the call, 2) Allow coaches to use their replay challenge for uncalled helmet to helmet hits. In this case, Pelini could challenge that the refs missed a call, and after the replay official confirms it, the 15 yard penalty and ejection is enforced.
So what don't we know?
Where did this defense come from? This is the same team that was nearly embarrassed by Wyoming, gutted by UCLA, and ran over by Minnesota, South Dakota State, and others? With the exception of the Minnesota game, the improvement has been steady throughout the conference season, but it the intensity has really kicked up a notch in November. But why? Are the kids growing up? Has the scheme been altered or simplified? Does it just take six games for a team to fully get what Pelini and Papuchis are trying to do?
Let's be clear - the Michigan offense isn't going to be confused with Oregon, Ohio State, or even Indiana. Those 112,000 fans weren't saying "Bo" after Michigan failed to convert 3rd downs, they were saying "boo". But the defense is playing at a high level right now.
Can we put an end to the QB rotation? Or at least specifically define when RKIII plays? We all love Ron Kellogg III. By virtue of his Hail Mary throw, Husker fans will always have a very soft spot in their heart for Ronnie. But the time has come to put an end to Husker quarterback roulette. All it does is strip momentum from the offense and lead to stalled drives.
Cases in point: Michigan opens the second quarter with a field goal to cut the lead to 10-3. Instead of bringing Armstrong back out, Tim Beck (we assume it is his decision, yes?) goes with RKIII. Kellogg manages to pick up a single first down before Sam Foltz has to punt three plays later. I'm not saying NU would have marched down the field to score with Armstrong behind center, but I fail to see the greater good in pulling him for a series. At the end of the first half, gets the ball at their 39 with just under a minute left and three timeouts - plenty of time for a scoring drive. Yet, the last player on the field - by a wide margin - was Kellogg. Nebraska goes three and out.
Here's my suggestion: define the roles. Armstrong is the starter and should play every series when healthy or not struggling. Kellogg should continue to be his able backup. Since I think RKIII is the better passer, I'm okay with Ronnie leading a two-minute drill possession before halftime. This was Nebraska's ninth game and Tommy Armstrong has now started more (5) than Martinez (4). Don't pull the kid if you don't have to.
Should we start worrying about Ameer Abdullah declaring for the NFL Draft? Saturday, Abdullah recorded his eighth 100 yard game in nine tries (he "only" rushed for 98 yards against UCLA, and would have gone over 100 had Nebraska not been in such a huge hole after the third quarter). As a junior, he is already third in career all-purpose yards behind two guys you may have heard of (Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green). Other than a prolonged fumble-free stretch, I'm not sure what else Abdullah would need to show a pro scout that he already does not have on film.
While it is true that running backs aren't drafted high as often as they used to be (one 2014 mock draft I found had zero RBs in the first round), it is worth noting that a few recent Huskers have seen their draft stock slip by coming back for their senior seasons (Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick, most notably). Given Abdullah's talents and Nebraska's reputation for producing NFL backs, there is a decent chance that Abdullah may be playing his final two games in Lincoln.
How Full Is Your Glass?
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: At the beginning of the season, nobody would have predicted a win in Ann Arbor - especially with Martinez, Spencer Long, Jamal Turner, Jake Cotton, and others out with injuries.
Glass Half Empty: Nebraska has played two of the worst teams in the Legends divisions and has only won by a combined total of seven points - including a Hail Mary pass.
5 Players I Loved
- Randy F. Gregory. If I say this was the best defensive performance since Ndamukong Suh in the 2009 Big XII Championship, that is more fact than hyperbole (even if I feel I should apologize to Lavonte David). Three sacks, another QB hurry, and a ton of havoc wrecked on Michigan's offense.
- Ameer Abdullah. What else can be said about this guy? There were 112,000 fans in attendance who knew Nebraska's strategy centered on #8, and yet he delivered another 110 all-purpose yards and both touchdowns. I would hate to think where this team would be with Abdullah.
- Corey Cooper. I don't follow recruiting that closely, but I remember the excitement when Cooper signed with Nebraska. We're finally starting to see what the hype was all about. Coop played a great game stopping the run.
- Zaire Anderson. It was a lot of fun to watch Zaire play at such a high level, knowing that the last time he had a day this strong (six tackles, including two sacks) he was playing on a torn ACL. Assuming any post-game MRIs are negative, it is great to have Anderson back to full strength.
- Tommy Armstrong, Jr. From a statistical standpoint, it was not a stellar game, but Armstrong did a great job on Saturday in his first true road start. (Yeah, I know he started against Purdue, but there is a big difference between a road game where 15,000 Husker fans bought tickets on StubHub for less than $10, and one with 112,000 fans singing "Seven Nation Army" at the top of their lungs). Armstrong ran the offense well, audibled into good plays, and most importantly - did not turn it over. Plus, his TD pass to Abdullah was either a beautiful display of patience or a play from the Martinez School of Quarterbacking known as "OMG, are you doin...oh!...WOO-HOO!!!!"
Honorable Mention: Michael Rose, Quincy Enunwa, Sam Foltz, Thad Randle, Mauro Bondi, any other defender not already listed, the amazing brisket and pulled pork at the football party I attended on Saturday
5 Areas for Improvement
- Turnover Margin - Offense. Over the last three games, there have been eight turnovers (five interceptions, three fumbles lost) by the offense/special teams. Even though Armstrong did not have an interception, there were a couple of passes that could have (should have?) been picked off. When the offense is only scoring 17 points, you simply cannot afford to be sloppy with the ball.
- Turnover Margin - Defense. Give a lot of credit to the defense for how well they respond after turnovers. But I'm not letting them completely off the hook - they've only gathered one turnover in the last three games. Multiple opportunities slipped away against Michigan, as a couple of Devin Gardner fumbles took fortuitous bounces and potential interceptions hit the turf. In the big picture, Nebraska is minus seven in turnover margin over their past three games - and their 2-1 record could very easily have been 0-3. Another negative turnover day against the Spartans will likely end poorly for NU.
- Scoring Droughts. I have been very, very impressed with the fast starts Nebraska has gotten out to this year - it seems like they jump out to a 10-0 lead in almost every game. But then, the offense goes dormant, first downs become tough to find, and Sam Foltz sees a lot of action. We can speculate on the reasons why (defensive adjustments, QB rotations, play calling, etc.) but I'd like to see the same urgency in the 2nd and 3rd quarter as we see in the 1st and 4th.
- Tim Beck. Fair warning: I'm about to get really nit-picky. In the second quarter, Nebraska began a drive at their own 3 yard line. On the first play, Tommy Armstrong lost two yards and Jeremiah Sirles went out with a knee injury. Zach Sterup replaces Sirles for 2nd and 12 from the one yard line. Tim Beck calls a running play to the right side which nets one yard. On 3rd down, Armstrong does a QB sneak and Foltz punts from the back of the end zone. My issue? When a new lineman comes in, you don't run the first play right over the top of him - especially in the shadow of your goalpost. I'm not saying Beck should have thrown it there, but maybe run it to the left while Sterup gets that first hit out of the way. NU probably doesn't pick up a first down in that situation regardless of what Beck calls, but I think they have a better chance going to the left on that play.
- Big Ten Expansion. As I watched this game with my two month old daughter in my arms, I realized that she'll be in kindergarten the next time Nebraska and Michigan meet in a regular season game (2018). With no visits to Lincoln planned for the remainder of this decade, she may be able to drive her old man to the stadium the next time the Wolverines come to town. All this so stray dogs Maryland and Rutgers can have somewhere warm to sleep? No thanks.
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.com). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.