2018 Nebraska Alternative Uniforms Reviewed

10 Nov

On Saturday, Nebraska will wear special “Memorial Tribute”* uniforms, which draw strong design influence from the uniforms the 1923 Huskers wore.  Why 1923?  That was the first season NU played at Memorial Stadium.

*Let’s take a second to address Adidas’s ridiculous name for this uniform.  At best, “memorial tribute” sounds similarly synonymous and slightly redundant.  At worst, it describes an eulogy – possibly for the days when alternative uniforms didn’t need their own identity branding story.

Due to a chaotic and stressful October, I wasn’t able to give these a proper review when they came out.  So let’s fix that.

As is the custom, we’ll go from the top down.

Helmet:

2018 helmet

From the reaction I’ve seen, the helmet is the most controversial piece of the ensemble.  The intention was to make it look like a stitched leather helmet of the time.  This apparently has not clear to all who have seen it.  In looking for pictures and reaction, I came across comparisons to a jock strap and a sleep apnea CPAP mask.  One glass half full fan suggested that the Huskers “can use the protractors on their helmets to knock out some geometry homework on the sideline”.  I’m all for adding to the list of Academic All-Americans.

As for me, I get – and like – the concept.  If you’re going to throwback to 1923, it wouldn’t look right with the regular “N” helmet.  You go big to complete the look, and that is what Adidas has tried to do.  I’m hopeful that, in person, the helmets look a little better than the handful of promotional pictures indicate.

As it is, this is one of the few times in Nebraska’s alternate uniform history that the helmet is not the star of the show.

Grade:  C+

Jersey:

Nebraska+x+adidas_Memorial_Jersey_006

If you’ve read any of my previous reviews of the Husker alts, you’ll likely know three things: 1) I am an unabashed traditionalist, 2) I dislike unnecessarily gaudy uniforms that choose to promote Adidas’s innovations instead of Nebraska’s history, and 3) any alternate jersey where you can’t see/read the numbers from the stands is a failure.

In other words, I typically use most of this space to tell you everything Adidas got wrong.  Today, it is my great pleasure to tell you everything that Adidas did right.

  • Adidas mercifully retired their sublimated “Primeknit” that looked like lightning bolts or tire treads.  Their new miracle fabric – which looks somewhat like corduroy in the pictures – is perfect for a throwback look.
  • The panels on the front are a great nod to 1923, and offer some nice visual interest without being over the top.
  • I love, love, love the numeral font which was influenced by the old Memorial Stadium clock – and not the 2018 Adidas Alternate Uniform Master Template.
  • As an added bonus, I feel confident that I will be able to read these numbers from row 47.

The only thing I would change would be to put the player names on the back – in the same retro font as the numbers.  That said, I have no issue with using the “In the deed the glory” inscription back there, as it helps tie the “Memorial Stadium” theme together.

This, my friends, is easily the best alternative uniform Adidas has produced for Nebraska Football.

Grade:  A+

Pants:

Nebraska+x+adidas_Memorial_Jersey_000

What color are these pants?  The Adidas marketing materials describe them as “buff,” which is “designed to resemble the first facade of Memorial Stadium.”  I take that to mean “buff” is a grayish limestone color.  Personally, I hope they are a shade of cream to really accent the gorgeous scarlet jerseys.

The pants do not have appear to have any stripes, bells, and/or whistles, which is great for staying out of the way and completing the throwback look.  Unfortunately, it’s really tough to give a fair grade to the sartorial equivalent of a neutral interior house paint.  Points are given for not stealing focus from the star of the show.

Grade: B

Accessories:

In a sharp departure from the last few alternate uniforms, the accompanying accessories are notably absent from the teaser images.  The apparently beauty of sporting a 1923 throwback is players 95 years ago didn’t bother with things like “base layers” or gloves that form a picture when put together just so) are not pictured.  The flexing uniform model has on a pair of plain red socks, and relatively plain black Adidas cleats.  I have no problems with this.

I’d be curious to see what the overall uniform would have looked like with red socks with a cream (or “buff”) stripe.  It may not have been what Nebraska wore in 1923, but it would have been accurate for the era.  As an example of what I’m talking about, check out the socks Iowa State wore with their Jack Trice inspired throwbacks.  That said, I’m on-board with the “less is more” vibe of these uniforms, so all red socks are fine by me.

Grade:  B

Overall:

If I have not been clear enough so far, I love this uniform.

This is the sixth Nebraska alternate I’ve reviewed, and every time before I’ve wanting something more, something better.  For example:

  • 2012:  “I expected to hate the alternative uniforms, to find them too futuristic, and too detached from the tradition-rich history of Nebraska Football.”
  • 2013:  “I continue to find it offensive that Nebraska’s athletic apparel partner…thinks so little of one of their flagship schools that they cannot create something unique for them; something that no other school wears.”
  • 2014:  “I didn’t expect Nebraska’s alt to be a true throwback, but I was hoping it would at least draw some inspiration from an old Nebraska jersey.  A faux-retro Bugeaters jersey would have been beyond amazing, which is clearly too much to ask….  I should expect adidas to provide Nebraska something that is on the line separating flashy and gaudy.  Something that looks like it came off a generic corporate template, instead of being inspired by Nebraska’s rich history.  I should expect a mediocre alternate from adidas, because that is all they have ever given us.”
  • 2015:  “One of my biggest criticisms of adidas is how they put all of their schools through a generic template and fail to do anything unique – even for a once-a-year special jersey.”
  • 2016:  “Finally, adidas seems to get that gaudy designs won’t play here. Superhero costumes that barely resemble Nebraska Football don’t work here. Numbers that are impossible to read are a failure to the 90,000 passionate fans that show up here.”

While I know that Adidas doesn’t give a damn about what some two-bit blogger has to say, the “Memorial Tribute” uniform is not only visually satisfying, but personally gratifying.

And with the final keystroke of the previous sentence, I’ve already started lowering my expectations for next year, because the only place to go from here is back down.  I’ll make my peace with this on one condition:  we bring these uniforms back out in 2023 for the true 100th anniversary of Memorial Stadium

Grade:  A

 

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Farts are Funny; Censorship is Not.

6 Nov

Some truths that I hold self-evident:

  • Googly eyes are inherently funny.
  • A well timed fart (or fart noise) can be a source of amusement, especially if the associated odor is minimal.
  • Vandalism is a crime.
  • Our First Amendment right to free speech is a cornerstone of democracy.

How do these seemingly random things come together?  Let’s find out.

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry has represented Nebraska’s 1st congressional district since 2005.  He is also a lock to be reelected today (fivethirtyeight.com predicts Fortenberry has a 99.8% chance of winning).  Despite his strong likelihood of victory, he has numerous campaign signs and billboards around Lincoln.

One of these signs was recently vandalized by an unknown perpetrator.  They placed two large googly eyes over Rep. Fortenberry’s face and managed to change the “o” in his name to a different vowel.

For reasons I’ll get into below, I am not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  Thankfully, State Senator Adam Morfeld has provided an image that a) pays homage to the vandals’ efforts and b) comes with a built-in liability waiver:

Now, you may be asking yourself why I’m not comfortable sharing an image of the vandalized sign.  My response is this:  I like my job and I don’t want elected officials, their staff members, and/or supporters coming after me if I am amused by flatulence and googly eyes.

While that probably sounds like a ridiculously unnecessary overreaction, there is evidence to suggest that some within Representative Fortenberry’s staff are very sensitive about the vandalism.

As the Lincoln Journal-Star reports, Fortenberry’s chief of staff – William “Reyn” Archer – called UNL political science professor Ari Kohen after Kohen “liked” a Facebook post containing a picture of the altered sign.  When Kohen did not immediately return Archer’s message, Archer escalated the issue to Kohen’s boss (the Poli Sci department chair), his boss’s boss (the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences), and his boss’s boss’s boss (Chancellor Ronnie Green) via email.

When Kohen and Archer spoke via phone last week, Archer appears* to try to link Kohen’s “like” of the image to an implicit endorsement of criminal vandalism and scolds him because of the message it could send.

*In fairness, I’m basing my opinion off of a seven minute snippet of the 50+ minute conversation that Kohen posted to YouTube.  You can listen to it here.  It is quite possible that Archer was a complete gentleman for the other 40-some minutes of the call.  Frankly, I don’t want to know.  Dr. Archer, please do not call me or my employer.

At best, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is attempting to censor the free speech of state employee.  At worst, Fortenberry’s chief of staff is threatening to make Kohen’s life very difficult through political pressure on UNL officials, and attempting to stifle what faculty members can say and do.  Most concerning is Archer’s suggestion that he may utilize “a First Amendment opportunity to put you out there in front of everybody,” which I take as a not-so-thinly veiled threat to unleash a wave of partisan outrage at Kohen.

Once that train leaves the station, who knows where it stops?  As Kohen speculated on Twitter: “In the past, such efforts have directly resulted in weeks of threatening letters, voicemails, and email messages to faculty members who found themselves publicly called out in this way (including several of my colleagues at UNL). These have included death threats.”  This is a good time to mention that the conversation between Dr. Archer and Professor Kohen took place the day before the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which is likely why all of this has hit the fan.

This entire thing is equal parts ridiculous and infuriating, which is why the way the issue was handled by Rep. Fortenberry’s staff angers and concerns me:  It is warning shot fired across the bow of anybody who dares to laugh at an elected official.

And let’s be clear: this is not a cruel personal attack on Fortenberry or his family.  It’s not libelous or slanderous.  It was not part of a calculated attack in a toss up Congressional race.  It is pair of ridiculous googly eyes and a piece of tape used to transform Fortenberry’s name into crude 7th grade humor.  The person on the receiving end of these threats had no hand in vandalizing the sign, nor did he post the picture to Facebook.  He merely clicked “like” because, like I (and probably you) think, googly eyes and fart jokes can be pretty damn amusing.  Kohen’s position as a professor at a public university is presumably all the leverage Fortenberry’s office needs to try to intimidate and impose their will.

And that is what scares me.

You see, my work – in intentionally vague terms – serves employees across various levels of government (city, county, and state) from coast to coast.  As such, it is theoretically possible that some of my work may directly impact departments and agencies in areas within Nebraska’s first congressional district, or led/impacted by Fortenberry’s political allies.

Look:  I know that out of respect for my employer and the customers we serve, it is important to have a very strong filter on what I post here and on social media.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to chime in on a topic, but held back out of extreme cautiousness.

I’ve long subscribed to the social media theory that if you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, then don’t say it on Facebook or Twitter.  But here’s the thing – I would have no issue with telling Jeff Fortenberry – my Congressman for the past 12 years, and the foreseeable future* – that I thought the picture of him with googly eyes was hilarious.  I’d also ask him how many times he was called “Fartenberry” as a kid, because I’d wager the cost of a campaign billboard this was not the first time.

*As thin skinned and petty as Fortenberry looks in all of this, until the Nebraska Democrats can find a viable candidate to truly challenge Fortenberry, the gig will be his for as long as he wants it.  I’ll be shocked if this incident makes a noticeable dent in the support Fortenberry receives today.

I don’t think it is too much to ask that I retain basic First Amendment rights without feeling paranoid that somebody is going put unnecessary pressure on me.

Moral Buckeyes & Progress

6 Nov

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As you may know, this column is also available on HuskerMax.com.

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As always, you have my sincere appreciation for reading, commenting, and sharing (hint hint).  

Now, quit screwing around and CLICK THIS LINK.

*   *   *

Let’s talk for a minute about “moral victories”.

Scott Frost doesn’t want to acknowledge moral victories, and I don’t blame him.  Most competitors would rather punch their mother than celebrate a moral victory.  You either win or you lose…and unfortunately this Nebraska team will end the season with more losses than wins.  Nobody wants to be a part of team that leads the league in moral victories.  That mindset percolates down to the fan base to the point where a moral victory has become taboo.

Personally, I don’t care if fans want to recognize or applaud a moral victory.  Because no matter if it is sarcastic (“Nebraska forced Ohio State to punt for the first time in three games!”) or honest (“Nebraska played well enough to beat a top ten team on the road”), you’re really doing the same thing:

You are acknowledging the progress this team is making.

And let’s be realistic:  while we all want to win – and win now – this program is not currently built for that.  If you’re still hinging your satisfaction with the 2018 Huskers strictly on wins and losses you will be disappointed.  Period.

But if you choose to acknowledge where this program has been – both in the last few years, and in the last  few months – I suspect you can see the signs of progress.  Forcing Ohio State to punt, not getting blown out on the road by a top 10 team, fighting until the very end – these are not thing you could count on previous Husker teams giving you.  We all want the wins, but I won’t apologize for being happy with the manner in which NU loses.  I won’t judge you if you want to do the same.

So what did we learn?

The offense can spread the touches.  It would be very easy for Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters to lock in on their proven offensive talents (Martinez, Ozigbo, Washington, Spielman, and Morgan) when calling plays on the road against the #10 team in the country.

And to be sure, that happened as Martinez, Ozigbo, and Washington combined for 47 carries, while Morgan and Spielman led the team with seven and six receptions, respectively.  But look at the other guys who got yards on Saturday:  Jack Stoll, Austin Allen, Bryan Reimers, and Mike Williams.  In addition, Spielman and Morgan each had a carry, and Washington and Ozigbo both caught a pass.

This approach is such a win-win.  It opens the field up for your playmakers and gives guys the experience to prove themselves to the coaches and their teammates.  Give credit to Frost and Walters for putting guys in positions to make plays, and to Martinez for being willing to find the open man.

The Blackshirts are capable of carrying their weight.  One of the narratives for this team is the offense can be explosive, which is necessary because the defense is a work in progress.  Some of that work seems to be paying off.  The defense is more aggressive, more sound, and much better at making big plays then they were a month ago.

Example 1:  After the botched onside kick gave Ohio State prime field position at the NU 31, there had to be a 90% chance of the Buckeyes scoring at least three points.  Instead, the Blackshirts stood strong and stopped the Buckeyes on four downs.

Example 2:  The Blackshirts forced several fumbles and recovered two.  The much maligned Lamar Jackson intercepted a pass in the end zone.  I’ll take my chances being +2 on turnovers on the road any week.

While NU seemed to run out of gas a little bit in the fourth quarter when it was obvious the Buckeyes wanted to run, the progress shown should not be ignored.

Ohio State’s black jerseys are perfection.   As somebody who is typically not a fan of alternate uniforms – and especially those that are black just for the sake of being black – I love Ohio State’s all black look.  Seriously, look at this picture.  Those are simple and clean, with crisp stripes that tie everything together.  They don’t need a space age custom font that can’t be read, nor any other unnecessary bells and whistles.  I challenge you to show me a better all-black look.

I’ve long been on record that only the Blackshirts should wear black jerseys, but I would happily reverse that decision if Adidas stole this design from Nike.

So what don’t we know?

What’s up with Caleb Lightbourn?   I ask this not to disrespect the young man, but out of a sincere sense of concern.  To put it politely, Lightbourn has had a very rough season.  He lost his punting job to Isaac Armstrong.  He’s had some big miscues in key moments that have cost the team valuable field position.  And after what I will generously call a botched onside kick attempt, he now has two entries on the list of Worst Husker GIFs of the 21st Century.*

*A list headlined by the undisputed champion titled (and I’m not making this up) “Nebraska lineman false start by falling on his ass“.

Personally, I feel for Lightbourn.  While I have no idea what the heck happened on that onside kick – or what it was supposed to look like – I feel strongly that his other blooper (the slip and fall against Purdue) was not his fault.  If you’ll remember, that was a damp, misty day and several other players were slipping and falling to the point where several people suggested NU had the wrong footwear on for the conditions.

But more to the point, I feel bad for Lightbourn for how his NU career has unfolded.  He came here in 2016 fully expecting to redshirt behind a senior starter.  Those plans changed dramatically on July 23, 2016 when Sam Foltz died.  After that, he had to replace not only one of the best punters in the conference, but a beloved team leader.

I doubt he’ll ever say it, but I think that redshirt year would have done wonders for Lightbourn’s skill level and confidence.  Instead, he’s ridden a roller coaster with more downs than ups, lost his primary job, and has “fans” openly mocking him and calling for him to never see the field again.  I hope he can find confidence, success, and end up in a GIF making an incredible play.

Just how aggressive is Scott Frost?  On NU’s first drive, Frost goes for it on 4th and 2, keeping a scoring drive alive.  He follows it up with an onside kick attempt.  Late in the third quarter, facing a short 4th & 1 from their own 13, Frost appears to ponder going for it, before calling a timeout and punting it away.

In the fourth quarter, down by nine, NU has a 4th and goal from the OSU 1.  Frost elects to take kick the field goal and cut the deficit to six points.  Ohio State takes the ensuring drive and scores at touchdown, and Nebraska responds with a touchdown of their own.  Down by five, with 1:55 left and two timeouts, Frost opts to kick it deep.  Nebraska never gets the ball back.

I offer these points not to question or criticize Frost’s decision making.  Obviously, hindsight plays a big role in determining if a decision was good or poor.  But nine games into Frost’s tenure at NU and I don’t feel if I have a good indication on if he’s going to be an aggressive, go win the game coach or a more conservative, don’t lose the game leader.  Certainly, there is a time and place for both, but it has felt inconsistent to me this year.  Maybe this will change as Frost becomes more confident in each of his three units.

Has the college basketball concept of “make up calls” come to football?   In the first quarter, Ohio State was called for offensive pass interference on a very questionable play.  Two plays later, Dicaprio Bootle was flagged for an equally questionable pass interference penalty.

In the second quarter, OSU’s Jordan Fuller was kicked out for targeting.  On the Buckeye’s next drive, the replay booth (with a possible assist by Urban Meyer) initiated a targeting review against a Nebraska player.

The only thing worse than making a bad call is making an equally bad call against the other team to try to balance things out.  Big Ten referees have enough to worry about without trying to make sure their bad calls are distributed equally.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  Ohio State’s band is known for fun and creative performances that become viral sensations.  On Saturday, they spelled out the name of Tyler Butterfield, a Cornhusker Marching Band member who died last week in a car accident.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  The broadcast itself.  For most of the first half, Fox’s director seemed more interested in winning an Oscar for cinematography than showing a football game.  There were low angle shots, sky cam shots, close ups, and other unnecessary bells and whistles.  Just show me the game, and save the fancy camera angles for replays.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Adrian Martinez.  Performances like this are the reason Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia transferred.
  2. Devine Ozigbo.  The best way to appreciate how far he has come is to think what the 2016 or 2017 version of Ozigbo might have done in this game.  I guarantee those previous editions do not get 86 yards, a touchdown, and some key short yardage gains.
  3. JoJo Domann.  Some guys just have a knack for making plays.  JoJo Domann certainly appears to be one of those guys.  Kudos to Erik Chinander for recognizing this and getting JoJo on the field.
  4. Lamar Jackson.  “Development” can mean getting a walk-on to outshine a scholarship guy.  It can also mean getting one of the program’s top recruits to perform up to his potential.
  5. Tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen.  Historically, Nebraska tends to ignore the pass catching (and mismatch creating) abilities of their tight ends.  So it was great to see Stoll haul in three catches – including a clutch one-hand grab on 4th & 2 – and Allen get behind his man for a 41 yard gain.

Honorable Mention:   J.D. Spielman, Stanley Morgan, Mohamed Barry, Aaron Williams, Jacob Weinmaster, sideline reaction shots of Urban Meyer looking upset.

5 Areas for Improvement – Special Teams Edition

  1. Punt protection.  A simple breakdown in protection led to a block and a safety that played a big role in the game.
  2. Kickoff returns.  No disrespect to Nebraska’s return specialists, but until you can consistently get a kickoff return past the 25 – without flags – I would much rather have you take advantage of the new fair catch rule.  To use a baseball analogy, it seems silly to swing for home runs when you struggle to hold the bat correctly.
  3. Onsides kicking.  Here’s the thing: if you have the confidence in your kicker to call a surprise onside in the first quarter, you should have an equal amount of confidence calling a traditional onside late in the fourth.
  4. Punt Returns.  Good news:  NU forced four Ohio State punts.  Bad news:  the lone return lost two yards, and another punt should have been fielded before rolling inside the 10.
  5. Punter Flopping.  Memo to Isaac Armstrong:  We all hate it when soccer players flop after the slightest contact, but if you can pick up a free first down by displaying your stunt man skills, you will be a hero.

 

Rejected Tunnel Walk Songs

30 Aug

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* * *

Change is coming to Nebraska’s beloved Tunnel Walk. It appears that “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project (by way of the Chicago Bulls) is on it’s way out and something new will be pumped over the speakers Saturday night.

But what is that new song?  Athletic Director Bill Moos wouldn’t say, only hinting that it goes with NU’s theme of  “Honor the past, live the present, create the future”.  I don’t really know what that means, but it is probably not code for “we’re bringing back the Mikey Bo Remix“*

*Am I the only one who thinks Mikey Bo looks a lot like Taylor Martinez?

Inspired by these two hilariously brilliant tweet by @IanAeillo, where he plays “Spanish Flea” and the Chipmunks performing “Funkytown” over a video of the Tunnel Walk, here are some other rejected Tunnel Walk songs.

“Let It Go” by Idina Menzel

After 20 years of bitterness and division within the program and the fanbase, it is time to come together. It is time to unite. It is time to to let go of all of the past failures and animosities. Plus, think of all of the Frost references!

If this doesn’t work, the Frozen soundtrack several other good options including “For The First Time In Forever” and “Fixer Upper”.

 

“1999” by Prince

What better way to “honor the past” by playing a song titled for the last time Nebraska won a conference championship?

 

“99 Luftballons” by Goldfinger

With one song, we can upgrade the Tunnel Walk – AND – satisfy the folks who think releasing balloons after the first touchdown is an environmental tragedy. That is efficiency, people!

I like the Goldfinger version better because it’s newer (we want to be accused of being stuck in the 90s, not the 80s) and a little heavier than the original Nena version.

 

“Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who

We have been duped by Callahan’s West Coast Offense, Riley’s Pro Style passing attack, and whatever the heck Shawn Watson and Tim Beck tried to do.  It’s time to go back to old school ways and principles – even if the fullback is dead.

And speaking of dead, since this song was famously used for CSI:Miami, just imagine the opportunities to start the Tunnel Walk off with a trademark Horatio Cain pun leading into the big “YEEEEAHHH!”

 

“Black Betty” by Ram Jam

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a horrible stadium song.  Heck, the Huskers have used this song for football and basketball in recent years.  But I just cannot pass up an opportunity to link to the most hilarious videos of all time.

 

“Yakkity Sax” by The Edwin Davids Jazz Band

Yakkity Sax – otherwise known as the theme music from “Benny Hill” – is one of those songs that just makes any video production more entertaining.  For example, nobody on this side of the Missouri River would willingly watch a video of all eight Nebraska fumbles in the 2008 Iowa State game…unless it is set to Yakkity Sax*.

*And even then, I only made 2:37 before I got so frustrated by that game I had to turn it off. My apologies, folks.

 

“Eye In The Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project

Did you know that our beloved “Sirius” is just the introduction for another song?  One would assume that any song that immediately follows a stadium pump-up anthem like “Sirius” MUST be an even bigger, badder, goosebump-inducing-ier song, right?  Right?

 

“Willie’s Chant” by William P. Wildcat

When I think of kick-ass entrance music, I think of our former conference foes in Manhattan, Kansas.  They knew how to get a crowd worked up to a medium frenzy.  This video fully encapsulates the awesomeness that was the Ron Prince Era.

2017 Big Ten Predictions

23 Sep

This is the first full weekend of Big Ten action, which means it is time for some predictions* on how the teams will finish in the respective divisions.

*Or, given some of my history with prognosticating, blind guesses.

For today, we’ll predict by division.  Throughout the season, we’ll do a power ranking 1-14.  Let’s dive right in with the East.

East

  1. Ohio State.  I know, I know.  They have looked pedestrian (by their standards) in the first few weeks, and they have a quarterback controversy brewing.  But…you pick against an Urban Meyer team at your own risk.  They’ll get it figure out, and when they do – watch out.  Plus, they get Penn State at home.
  2. Penn State.  Arguably the best offense in the league, but they have the hardest set of cross over games (at Iowa, at Northwestern, Nebraska) in addition to that trip to Columbus.  If they repeat as division champs, they will definitely have earned it.
  3. Michigan.  The Wolverines have Ohio State at home, but they drew the suddenly competent Purdue and perennial power Wisconsin, along with the boat rowers from Minnesota.
  4. Maryland.  The Terps made a splash with a convincing win at Texas, and it wouldn’t shock me to see them climb up into the top 3.  But until they beat one of the teams above them, they’ll be middle of the pack.
  5. Michigan State.  After a nightmarish 2016, the Spartans are back and…well, nobody really knows yet.  The only thing we really learned from their two non-conference games (35-10 over Bowling Green and 28-14 over Western Michigan) is they would be a title contender in the MAC.
  6. Rutgers.  I started out with a bit of a stunner, and let’s continue that down at the bottom.  Yes, the Scarlet Knights are a familiar 1-2, with the lone win coming against an FCS school.  But they have been competitive in those losses – including nationally ranked Washington.  More importantly, they have an ideal draw from the West to steal some conference wins:  at struggling Nebraska, at Illinois, and Purdue.  Win two of those – and probably the game against Indiana – and Rutgers could escape laughingstock status.
  7. Indiana.  The Hoosiers are a decent team, and in the West they might be middle of the pack.  But in the East, Indiana has two options:  pull some big upsets or wait for basketball.  You’re just under 50 days, Hoosier fans.

 

West

  1. Wisconsin.  Heading to Indianapolis at 11-1 or maybe 12-0 is a decent possibility for the Badgers.  Michigan is by far their toughest crossover game, but they have to come to Madison, as do West contenders Iowa and Northwestern.  Sconnie could have the division wrapped up by Veteran’s Day.
  2. Iowa.  Predicting the Hawkeyes second is more about my uncertainty about the rest of the division than my confidence in Iowa’s chances.  Iowa has two convincing wins and an OT comeback against Iowa State.  But their conference schedule is brutal:  Penn State, at Michigan State, at Northwestern, Ohio State, at Wisconsin, and at Nebraska.  Still, do you trust and of the other teams more?
  3. Nebraska.  This may be a homer pick, or maybe I’m scared off by a flaky Northwestern team and PJ Fleck’s hyper enthusiasm, but I’ll take Nebraska third.  Questions – and drama – abound in Lincoln, but if Mike Riley can get things settled, NU has the talent to compete.
  4. Northwestern.  The perennial trendy pick to win the division has already been blown out by Duke.  But maybe this is the year?  If so, we’ll know by November 1 as the Wildcats open at Wisconsin, followed by Penn State, at Maryland, Iowa, and Michigan State.
  5. Minnesota.  I’m going to have to pace myself on the P.J. Fleck “row the boat” references, so I’m not high and dry (sorry) by Week 8.  Fifth is a realistic spot for a first year coach building his cult…I mean culture.
  6. Purdue.  The surprise team of the West, the Boilers gave Louisville a scare and beat Ohio and Mizzou convincingly.  Will they finish out of the cellar?  I’d guarantee it.  Can they make some noise in the division?  Probably, but not enough to be a legit title threat.  By Thanksgiving, I may want to flip this pick with Northwestern.
  7. Illinois.  In Indiana, they have basketball to look forward to.  At Illinois?  Well, by falling on Jim Delany’s “Friday Night Lights” sword multiple times, they have a couple of extra Saturdays free.  So that’s something.

 

Big Ten Championship:  Give me Wisconsin 34, Ohio State 31 in a thriller.

Under the radar pick:  Michigan surprises everyone by rolling to a 42 – 10 win over the Badgers.

Northern Illinois Reaction and Recap

19 Sep

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*   *   *

How do you sum up one of the most shocking losses in school history?

How do you accurately account for all of the things that went wrong?

How does a loss like this impact the big picture – for Mike Riley, Shawn Eichorst, and the program as a whole?

Frankly, I don’t know.  I’m still processing it.  So I’m going to pass on any sweeping proclamations, knee jerk reactions, scalding hot takes, or calls for anybody to be fired.

For now.

So what did we learn?

This is going to be a long year.  Think back on the time between the end of the Spring Game and the start of the season.  It was one of quietest and most drama free summers of recent memory.  The vast majority of the news was positive – big name commitments,  positive reviews about Bob Diaco’s defense, and several glowing reviews of Tanner Lee’s skill and potential.  Some folks refer to the summer months as the “Kool Aid Season”, and this year’s batch was as sweet and delicious as it had been in years.

And then the season started.

We’re just three weeks in, and have already endured two painful losses and a very close call, several key injuries, a defense that can allow yards (and points) by the bushel, an offense that is maddeningly inconsistent, and a coaching staff that seems to make a questionable decision every week.

Off the field that has a been a controversy about a coordinator not talking to the press after a game, a controversy about potentially losing the Black Friday game, angst over a contract extension signed a few months ago, and coaching seats that get hotter by the hour.  The athletic director – who prefers to stay out of the spotlight – has spoken publicly twice this week.  Fans are becoming divided on the future of the program.  And it’s technically still summer.

Let’s say Nebraska wins eight of their last nine games.  Even in what appears to be a best-case scenario, it still seems likely that the drama and division will continue to grow.

The offensive line is not good.  Nebraska finished with a total of 85 yards on 36 carries – an average of just 2.4 yards.  Tanner Lee was sacked three times, hurried on seven other plays, and finished with one of the weirdest stat lines you’ll see:  7 carries for -18 yards and 2 touchdowns.

In addition, three of Nebraska’s five penalties were against the offensive line.  I’d love to know which lineman graded out the highest, because I honestly have no clue who played the best – or, the least worst, if you prefer.

The defense came to play.  One of the biggest questions from the Oregon game was if the second half shutout was a fluke, Oregon taking their foot off the gas, or a turning point for Bob Diaco’s defense.

While not conclusive, the Blackshirts made a strong statement against NIU, holding them to just 116 yards (and zero offensive points) through three quarters.  Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t get the big stop they needed after Nebraska took the lead.  Northern Illinois flew 75 yards down the field in 2:28 to regain the lead.  But the defense certainly held their own.  The key – as with everything on this team – is consistency.

So what don’t we know?

Where are the substitutions on the offensive line?   I know Mike Cavanaugh prefers to keep the same five linemen on the field throughout the game, as he feels collective unit benefits from the continuity.  In theory, I agree with this approach.

But in real life, the approach raises more questions than answers.  How do you develop players and build depth?  When a player is clearly struggling to handle what the defense is throwing at him, doesn’t his presence weaken the entire unit?  And then there are injuries…

During the game, center Cole Conrad left briefly with an injury.  He returned shortly after, but could be seen limping in the fourth quarter.  Right tackle Matt Farniok apparently broke a bone in his wrist at some point during the game.  Yet, both played almost the entire game.

I’ve made my peace with Conrad, a former walk-on, starting over other highly touted recruits.  If he’s truly the best man for the job, he should play.  But the equation changes when a guy is hurt.  Is Cavanaugh telling us that a starter at, say, 80% health is still preferable over his backup?  If so, that raises some serious questions about depth and player development – especially of former four-star recruits.  If not, doesn’t that put more of a burden on the rest of the offense to compensate for an injured teammate?

Is DeMornay Pierson-El the best option at punt return?  Wow, that is sentence I never thought I would type.  But there is a part of me that wonders if that role is based more on what he did in 2014, than on what he’s done since.  Here are the numbers:

2014:  34 returns; 17.5 yards per return, three touchdowns.
2015, 2016, first three games of 2017:  32 returns; 7.2 yards per return, zero touchdowns.

In fairness, the 2015 and 2016 version of Pierson-El had to battle multiple injuries, as well as punt return schemes designed by Bruce Read.

But his senior season as a returner has not gotten off to a great start.  Against Oregon, he broke a cardinal rule by fair catching a ball inside his own 10.  Later, he appeared upset with himself after calling for a fair catch late in the game with his team needing a spark.  Against Northern Illinois, he fielded a ball at the 7, fumbled a return, and appeared to be pressing.  His best return of the day was negated by a penalty.

I have nothing but respect for DPE, his abilities, his potential, and how he has come back from injuries that may have ended the careers of other players.  But I have a nagging feeling that if it wasn’t for a special season before those injuries, somebody else would be returning punts for NU.

How do we account for Tanner Lee’s struggles?   On the season, Lee is completing just 52.5% of his passes, with a upside-down TD:INT ratio of 5:7. None of this matches up with the expectations Husker fans had going into the season.  So what is going on?

To my eye, there are many factors at play.  From biggest to smallest, I would point towards:

  • A porous offensive line.  Lee has been sacked six times in three games, and has faced constant pressure.  Lee appears to get flustered by pressure, which leads to bad throws and interceptions.
  • Drops by his receivers.  I haven’t found a good source to count drops and “shoulda caught its” by backs and receivers, but it certainly feels like there have been several – and often at critical moments.
  • Over-aggressiveness.  Lee has a strong arm and the potential for pin-point accuracy. In the Arkansas State game, he had a couple of passes that went through a narrow window.  Against Oregon and Northern Illinois, those passes were knocked down or intercepted.  Additionally, Lee appears reluctant to throw the ball away when under pressure.
  • Mechanics.  I’m no QB coach, but it appears to my untrained eye that Lee occasionally throws off his back foot.  I’ve also noticed a tendency to stare down a primary target.

There are probably others that I’m missing, but those seem to be the biggest culprits.  The good news is, these are all things that can be corrected.

 

5 Players I Loved

  1. Caleb Lightbourn.  It certainly felt like a day where the punter should be the MVP, and Lightbourn delivered.  He averaged over 47 yards on six kicks, which played a big role in the shutout the defense pitched for three quarters.
  2. Antonio Reed.  Going solely off the stat sheet, one would think Reed played a pretty decent game (second on the team with 5 tackles, including one for loss).  But the stat sheet doesn’t tell you that Reed, who is battling injury, was essentially playing with one hand.  His recognition of Northern Illinois’ trick play prevented a big play.
  3. J.D. Spielman.  I really like this kid.  He made big plays in the passing game.  He had an impressive 50 yard kickoff return.  And he had the presence of mind to get Tyjon Lindsey to take a touchback after bobbling the opening kickoff.
  4. Khalil and Carlos Davis.  The twin defensive lineman made a big impact on the Northern Illinois offense.  Carlos had five tackles and part of a sack, and Khalil played his best game as a Husker with a half sack, another TFL, forced fumble, and a deflected pass.  The defense needs pressure on the quarterback and the twins delivered.
  5. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  DPE had one of his best games as a receiver, racking up 101 yards on eight catches.  It’s great to see him making big plays.

Honorable Mention:   Former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson carrying the American flag, Mikale Wilbon, yards after catch by the receivers, Tanner Lee scoring two rushing TDs, Stanley Morgan Jr., biased announcer Les Miles, all of the fans who held their balloons through halftime until NU scored.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  Yes, this is the third time I’ve called out the line in this piece.  But I believe it is warranted.  Any discussion about benching Lee is worthless until we see what he does with good protection.
  2. Tanner Lee.  That said, Lee needs to make some better decisions.  Throw it away or check it down to a back.  Stop forcing passes unless your receiver is the only one who can catch it.
  3. Receiver drops.  And speaking of the receivers, there were some very savage drops and passes that probably should have been caught.  It would be easy to point at some of the bigger moments – Spielman dropping a sure thing on 3rd and short; Connor Ketter short arming a wide open touchdown – and point to the inexperience of the players involved.  But if that is the case, the QB (and/or offensive coordinator) should not be putting those guys in that position.
  4. Lamar Jackson.  The young cornerback is here for two unfortunate plays.  The first was his attempt to shove a NIU receiver out of bounds after a catch.  The problem was the receiver was 4-5 yards in bounds, so the shove didn’t accomplish anything.  The second is an unsportsmanlike penalty that resulted from his frustrations boiling over.
  5. Memorial Stadium atmosphere.  11 am games suck.  We all acknowledge this.  The crowd is late to arrive, and slow to provide any sort of home field advantage.  On Saturday, it was obvious by halftime that the team was in trouble and could use a jolt.  Going into the fourth quarter, it was almost painfully silent.  Nebraska needs to do something to spark the crowd.  As my buddy Nate observed, “Wisconsin has ‘Jump Around’, and we have the Hy-Vee tailgate of the game”.  Nebraska can – and should – do better.

[COLOR=#FF0000][I]Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog ([URL=”http://www.feitcanwrite.com”%5Dwww.feitcanwrite.com%5B/URL%5D). Follow him on [URL=”http://www.twitter.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DTwitter%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D or on [URL=”http://www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite”%5D%5BU%5DFacebook%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D.

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Ah, Duck

15 Sep

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*   *   *

So….that didn’t exactly go as planned, did it?

The good news, if you want to see it, is in the big picture this loss doesn’t really hurt Nebraska.

Nebraska wasn’t ranked, so the loss just puts them lower in the “Others receiving votes” wasteland.  Only the most rabidly passionate fans believed Nebraska would make it to the College Football Playoff, so I think we all can accept that is not going to happen this year.  The big prize for the year – a West Division title, and a shot at that elusive conference championship – is still in play.

I know it is jarring to consider Nebraska in these terms, but this is where the team is.  No amount of complaining, denial, or anger is going to change that.  And with that uplifting lede, let’s dive in….

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s offense must do a better job of helping the defense.  As you know, Oregon scored six first half touchdowns.  While you may choose to blame Bob Diaco’s defense for that, I’m here to tell you that Danny Langsdorf’s offense didn’t exactly help the situation.  Take a look at what the offense did in their drives following Oregon scores:

1st half drives following Oregon Touchdowns
Plays Yards Result Time of Poss
1 0 INT 00:12
3 3 Punt 01:35
4 75 TD 01:34
3 4 Punt 02:33
3 -5 INT 00:53
3 7 Punt 00:39
17 84   07:26

I’m not suggesting that Nebraska must answer every single score with a score of their own.  But I wonder if Langsdorf shares that opinion.  It certainly appears as if his reaction to the other team scoring is to try to score, and quick.  Heck, even the lone touchdown drive covered 75 yards in just four plays.

I can understand feeling like the offense needs to score every time out, but I also see value in a slower, grind it out drive that gives the defense a chance to catch their breath and make adjustments, slow momentum, and establish a field position edge.  It may not be as exciting as a quick strike answer, but in the long run it may be more effective.

There was improvement in the defense.  Aside from the obvious improvement from the first half (42 points) to the second half (0 points), there were some signs of growth from the Arkansas State opener.  In one of Oregon’s first quarter drives, they ran the bubble screen that Arkansas State used to gain a billion yards.  That play was stuffed for no gain, and Oregon mostly stayed away from it.  I saw some good examples of the defense “rallying” to the ball.  On one play, I counted seven defenders surrounding a ball carrier on the sideline.

Obviously, there is still much improvement needed – finding a way to pressure the quarterback would be a great place to start – but there were some positives to take away.

Mike Riley’s teams do not quit.   Raise your hand if at halftime you thought Oregon was going to hang 70 on Nebraska, and beat them by 50.  But the Huskers came out after half and did their best to save face.

And while I suspect my counterparts in Oregon are railing on the Ducks for taking their foot off the gas too soon / playing too conservatively in the second half, I think the second half result was more about the Huskers continuing to fight hard than Oregon coasting in.

I’m in no way suggesting that we as fans should be pleased with “only” losing by seven points.  Nor am I trying to carve a moral victory trophy out of the giant turd the Huskers dropped in the first half.  As poorly as NU played in the first half, they probably deserved an Ohio State style ass kicking.  That they refused to let it happen tells me a lot.

So what don’t we know?

How will Diaco’s defense look against a non-spread team?   We’re still way to early in the season for sweeping generalizations, but the early results suggest that pass-happy spread teams are bad for the Blackshirts.

This is another spot where the second half shutout can be encouraging to Nebraska fans.  Very few of the teams remaining on Nebraska’s schedule will throw it as much as Arkansas State and Oregon did – especially in the West division.

Where was the screen game?  In basketball, when a shooter is off, they often are able to get back on track with some easy shots like layups or free throws.  When Tanner Lee was struggling with accuracy, and Oregon’s pressure was getting more aggressive, it seemed like some short passes to the running backs might be a good way to get him going.  Instead, only one ball was caught by a back – a four yard gain by Mikale Wilbon.

Will there be a hangover?   This week’s game against Northern Illinois has the potential to be really good – or really bad.  Between any lingering effects from a frustrating loss, the sluggish nature of 11 am kickoffs, and a team looking ahead to the conference season, Northern Illinois could put a scare into the Huskers – especially if the defense continues to struggle.

Or, the Huskers, coming off a strong and focused week of practice, jump out early and put the game away early in the 3rd quarter; allowing the reserves to get some snaps.  I know which one I pick.

 

5 Players I Loved

  1. Tre Bryant.  A fourth quarter knee injury kept him from fully living up to the “All Day Tre” moniker, but 107 yards on 20 carries provided some much needed offensive balance in a game where NU threw 41 times.
  2. Luke Gifford.  Gifford is one of those players who just has a knack for the ball, and seems to always be around the action.  There were not a lot of bright spots in the defense’s performance, but Gifford was one of them.
  3. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  On Nebraska’s first drive of the second half, Tanner Lee proved that Stanley is his favorite target, as four straight throws went towards #8.  The last two accounted for a huge 4th down conversion and a statement touchdown.  Morgan added another touchdown catch on the next NU drive, and finished with team highs in catches (7) and yards (103), becoming the first Husker to open a season with 100 yard receiving games.
  4. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  DPE was just behind Morgan for receptions (4) and yards (67), including a highlight reel grab over the top of an Oregon defender.  His catch on the first drive lit the spark for a big second half.
  5. Nebraska fans.  Did you see all of the red?  For a fan base well known for showing up on the road, that was an impressive performance.  It was fitting that Saturday’s game was the anniversary of the legendary Nebraska takeover of Notre Dame’s stadium.  Kudos to all who made the trip.

Honorable Mention:   Eric Lee, Jerald Foster, Caleb Lightbourn, Aaron Williams, Matt Farniok, Matt Farniok’s hair, JD Spielman, Luke McNitt, Oregon’s duck stomping cancer logo

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Pass rush.  Want to know how Justin Herbert managed to be 21-25 for 313 yards and 3 TDs – in the first half! – on Saturday?  The stat sheet has the answer:  zero sacks, zero QB hurries, and clear passing lanes.  That puts the defensive backs in a situation where they need near perfect coverage, which for a young and inexperienced group, does not end well.  How little was Herbert pressured?  If Autzen Stadium had a grass field, Herbert’s uniform would have ended up as brightly white as it started.
  2. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  If I could describe Nebraska’s day in one word, it would be inconsistent.  And nobody personified that inconsistency more than Pierson-El.  His first touch was a punt that he fair caught at the five.  95 yards later, he made that crazy, over-the-top catch.  In the second quarter, he had a false start penalty that turned a drive-extending 4th and 1 into a punt.  Speaking of punts, you could see DPE immediately regretting his decision to fair catch a 4th quarter punt, with NU in big need of a spark.
  3. Stanley Morgan, Jr.  On Nebraska’s first offensive play, Lee found Morgan 20 yards down field and put the wall in a great position for the catch.  Instead, the ball bounced off Morgan’s hands, his face mask, and into the arms of a Duck defender.  Above, we talked about Stan’s big day – 7 catches for 103 and 2 TDs.  But his first half was a very forgettable one catch for five yards.
  4. Tanner Lee.  Let’s be fair:  prior to Saturday, Lee’s last road start was November 21, 2015, at SMU, in front of what had to be a raucous crowd of 14,954.  So I think we can understand somewhat if nerves played a role in a day with four interceptions and a completion percentage under 50%.  While interceptions 1 and 4 were not Lee’s fault, no one will argue that Lee struggled throughout most of the game.
  5. Destro helmets.  By now, the shock factor from anything Oregon wears should be long gone.  But whenever they wear a shiny chrome helmet, as they did on Saturday, I cannot help but think of Destro from the G.I. Joe cartoons of my childhood.  And in finding that Destro image, I realized that almost every Oregon uniform is a homage to a one of the many great G.I. Joe characters.

 

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