It was encouraging to see a maligned coaching staff come out with an offensive and defensive game plan capable of beating a top-20 team.
It was frustrating to see five turnovers cost Nebraska the game.
It was encouraging to see another strong performance from the defense, and a quiet the critics day from Ameer Abdullah.
It is frustrating to know that despite it all, Nebraska still could have won that game - especially if two key plays (getting a tackle instead of trying to strip the ball on the MSU touchdown right before halftime, and not fumbling on your 1 yard line) had gone the other way.
This game reminded me so much of the 2009 Iowa State game. Obviously, the ridiculously high number of turnovers is the main similarity, but there is more. In both games, there was an unmistakable feeling that if Nebraska could just get out of their own way for a few minutes, they would win - if not completely dominate the game. Clearly, the 2013 Michigan State Spartans are a much, much better team than the 2009 Cyclones, but I don't think it is a stretch to say that if Nebraska and Michigan State played again tomorrow, Nebraska would win*.
*Assuming, of course, that Nebraska does not turn it over five times.
Of course, Nebraska and Michigan State won't play again tomorrow (unless "today" happens to be October 3, 2014), so instead of saying "what if", we need to address the "what now". Can NU bounce back at Penn State? Do they want to? Or are they ready to put this drama-laden season behind them? Will the Bo Bashers be able to spell "Pelini" with four l's for the sixth straight year? Will the press conference of their dreams happen sometime between Thanksgiving weekend and January 1?
We just don't know. And for many of us, that is just as frustrating as a loss.
So what did we learn?
It doesn't matter who you are playing, you simply cannot go minus-5 in turnover margin and expect to win. As long of a shot as it would be to happen, this could have been the game. When they're not converting 3rd and long with crazy accurate throws and diving catches, Michigan State's offense is rather mediocre. As we've discussed previously, Nebraska's defense seems to enjoy the challenge of getting a stop after a turnover.
But there is one factor that is almost impossible to overcome: field position. After the five NU turnovers, Michigan State's average starting field position was the NU 24. Not coincidentally, MSU scored 24 points off of NU turnovers. Let's look deeper: when Michigan State got their two turnovers outside of the NU 40, those drives resulted in a field goal and a punt. The three possessions where the turnover occurred inside the NU 24? All touchdowns. On drives of two plays, three plays, and one play.
Hopefully, this is not a revelation for anybody.
The strategy to run out the clock at the end of the first half was the right one. With 3:32 left in the first half, Nebraska took over on their own seven. Three Abdullah runs, netted 12 yards and a first down at the 19. Nebraska had all three timeouts and a little over two minutes left on the clock, trailing 13-7. Instead of taking some shots downfield, or even continuing to run Abdullah, Imani Cross comes in and rushes for a total of one yard, before a Tommy Armstrong fumble gives the ball back to Michigan State at the 22.
I know some fans were upset that Nebraska did nothing with the ball, but the strategy was correct. Setting aside the fact that Nebraska already had three turnovers and was super lucky to only be down by six points, who honestly thinks the offense was going to march 80 yards down field against the nation's #1 defense? I like NU's offense, but the risk (an interception, three straight incomplete passes, etc.) greatly outweighed the reward.
If you want to criticize anything, it would Tim Beck's choice to have Imani Cross run off-tackle on 1st and 2nd down. As witnessed by his 51 yard touchdown, Cross is a much, much better runner going north/south than he is east/west. Personally, I would have thought Beck learned that lesson after the safety in the Illinois game...
John Garrison is making a strong case for Assistant of the Year. Coming into the game, Michigan State's #1 ranked defense was only giving up 43 rush yards per game. The Spartans had not allowed a player to rush for over 100 yards all season. Nebraska's offensive line was without both starting guards, a top backup at guard, and a tackle. Their starting center was forced to shift to guard. In short, of the five offensive linemen who started conference play last month, three played, and only one was playing the same position as a month ago.
With that knowledge, you'd expect that Michigan State would hold Nebraska to something like 20 yards rushing, and allow five or six sacks. Instead, Nebraska racked up 182 yards rushing and another 210 passing - both season highs against Michigan State's defense - all behind a patchwork line. While Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg felt pressure at times, neither Husker quarterback was sacked.
I think a large slice of the credit goes to offensive line coach John Garrison. Ever since Pelini became head coach, there has been lots of talk about building depth on the line, and having guys capable of playing multiple positions - while still able to perform at a high level. This year is the first I've really see that come to fruition. That's not necessarily a knock on former O Line coach Barney Cotton, but it is meant as high praise for Garrison. If the season ended today, he'd be my favorite to be Nebraska's best assistant coach.
So what don't we know?
When will we see changes on the punt return team? I don't have the time, nor energy to list out all of the things that went wrong for Nebraska within their punt return game. Let's just say the entire operation sullies the good name of dumpster fires and train wreck.
So when do things change? While I know Jordan Westerkamp hasn't been lighting the world on fire, I'm not sure if Johnny Rodgers, Bobby Newcombe, Joe Walker, or any other return man is the answer. As we've talked about previously, Nebraska's punt return woes go way beyond the poor sap trying to field a punt with no blocking in front of him. "Make the first five guys miss" is not a viable punt return strategy.
I still advocate for trying for a block two or three times a game. You're telling me that you'd rather have an injured Jordan Westerkamp trying to field and return kicks over seeing what Randy Gregory could do one on one with one blocker between him and the punter?
How does this team respond? The loss ended Nebraska's hopes to repeat as Legends Division champs, which was a stated goal all year long. So now what? Do they continue to fight and try to improve, with the hope of getting into the best possible bowl game (and finishing with ten wins)? Do they enter the famed Pelini "Bunker Mode" where an "us against the world" mentality almost always equals wins?
Or do specific players decide to check out on the season? You'll notice I'm not saying the entire team would give up: I see way, way too much drive in some players (notably: Abdullah, Gregory, Kellogg, Michael Rose, Bell, and much of the offensive line) to quit on the team and/or the season.
When does the check come due for the nice weather? At kickoff on Saturday, the weather was absolutely perfect. Sunny, not very breezy, and 64 degrees. That is a textbook definition of "football weather" in September and October. In mid-November, that is hitting the lottery. (Side note to any Nebraska recruits reading this: I'm just kidding, it is always this nice in Nebraska in November. Lincoln truly is the San Diego of the Big Ten).
So far, the average temperature at kickoff of Nebraska's seven home games has been just under 69 degrees. Throw out the first two games, with their temps in the high 80s / low 90s, and it still has been over 60 degrees at kickoff of every home game this year. That is both a literal and figurative hot streak for a stadium known for freezing cold, can't-feel-my-fingers games. Arguably, the other shoe drops against Iowa on the 29th.
Also, I believe that Memorial Stadium is way, way overdue for a snowy game. My hope is we can have one more unseasonably warm game in 2014, then have ourselves a bitterly cold and snowy game next September 20 - when the Miami Hurricanes come to town.
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: The coaching staff had a strong game plan for the Spartans on both offense and defense. If not for five turnovers, Nebraska wins this game easily.
Glass Half Empty: An exceptionally high number of turnovers, most of which were unforced, speaks to a lack of discipline and desire - two things Pelini-era teams have often lacked.
5 Players I Loved
- Ameer Abdullah. I didn't watch it, but I heard that one of the College Gameday talking heads predicted that Abdullah would not surpass 40 or 50 yards against the Spartan defense. Ameer did a great job of shutting that clown up with 123 yards on 22 carries (5.6 yards per rush) and zero yards lost. After watching Abdullah flash through the tiniest of holes, and out race defenders to the corner, I have a question: Has there ever been a faster Husker over the first ten years? His initial burst is one of the best I've seen.
- Randy Gregory. When discussing yet another standout day, I could mention his stats (eight tackles, a sack, and four QB hurries) or how Michigan State directed their offense away from him as much as possible, but I'd like to focus on a single play. First quarter, MSU runs a play action pass. Gregory stays at home to protect the outside edge. As Macgarret Kings catches the short pass over the middle, Gregory is still engaged with a Spartan blocker, and at least 10 yards behind the play. Gregory made the tackle on the play. It wasn't the biggest play, but it shows how #44's motor never quits. He is a joy to watch.
- Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and David Santos. Nebraska's linebackers - individually and collectively - played their best game of the season on Saturday. They combined for 23 tackles (three for loss), but they also did a fine job of getting the defense set, making checks, and shifting into position as the Spartan offense moved around. What I found most impressive was how the linebackers - Anderson and Rose especially - attacked Michigan State's running game. Whenever it looked like a Spartan back had found a running lane, a Husker exploded into the hole and brought him down with a sure tackle.
- Offensive Line. I'm not sure if enough good things can be said about the performance turned in by Qvale, Rodriguez, Pelini, Pensick, and Sterup against the #1 defense in college football. Plus, I've been meaning to mention it for a couple of weeks, but I absolutely love the gesture by the O Line to have somebody wearing Spencer Long's #61 jersey for the remainder of the season. I think that is incredibly awesome (even if it confused the hell out of me for the first half of the Northwestern game). I also think it speaks to the culture that John Garrison is instilling on that group.
- Husker Fans. Give yourselves a pat on the back, Husker fans. You were there early, you were loud throughout the game, and many of you stuck it out until the end (or at least until MSU went up 41-21). My section stood for most of the game, which is a great indicator of how into the game the fans are.
Honorable Mention: Imani Cross, Sam Burtch, Kenny Bell, Sam Foltz, Jason Ankrah, Corey Cooper, Ciante Evans, Tim Beck
5 Areas for Improvement
- Turnovers. Arguably, turnovers should be 1 - 5 on this list. What is most disappointing is that aside from the interception of Armstrong, none of the other fumbles were truly forced by a Spartan defender.
- Third Down Defense. On first and second down, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook looked like the 2013 version of Eli Manning - a decent, but very beatable QB. But on third down, Cook played like the 2013 version of Peyton Manning - an unstoppable force capable of avoiding the rush before threading the needle to his sure-handed receivers. On the day, Michigan State converted 11 of 21 third down conversions, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Seven of those conversions were via passes, with an average to-go distance of 9.5 yards. On those seven conversions, MSU picked up 18.4 yards and a key touchdown. Give credit to Cook and his receivers for making plays, but I would have like to have seen a little more "send the house" blitzing on third and long.
- Quincy Enunwa. I'm not putting Q on this list for failing to bring in a sure touchdown catch in the 3rd quarter (although I believe he can make that play - even if replays show that he was being held), I'm putting him on here for failing to get a single reception in Nebraska's biggest game of the year. I get that responsibility is shared by Tommy Armstrong (only three throws to Enunwa), as well as Michigan State's excellent secondary, but I was hoping for more of an impact from a senior who is likely the healthiest member of the receiving corps.
- Tight Ends as receiving threats. Remember last year when Nebraska had two excellent pass catching tight ends with Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed? This year, Nebraska doesn't have the same receiving threats with Jake Long battling injuries and true freshman Cethan Carter often playing like a true freshman. Carter did have a nine yard reception on NU's final drive, but that was his first catch in a month. Jake Long had an opportunity on a big 3rd down, but Armstrong's pass was behind him and would have required a Kenny Bell-esque catch. It would be great if the tight ends could evolve into viable receiving threats, especially when the wide receivers are battling injury.
- Towels. This week, the "Iron N" student group called for students to bring black towels to wave around. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I think towels - especially black ones that get lost in the crowd - are dumb. I understand the idea was to create an "intimidating" atmosphere, but I question how much Michigan State was intimidated by only a small sliver of the stadium waving towels, especially when MSU seemed to spend most of the game running plays in the opposite direction of the towel waving students. Don't get me wrong - I fully support student groups like Iron N, whose goals (making Memorial a tougher place to play) are admirable. I just believe that in terms of intimidation, noise is always > towels being waved 80 yards behind me, and a person makes much more noise cheer and clapping that they do cheering and waving a towel.
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.