Hail (Varsity) to the Victors

To my followers, family, Facebook friends, and anybody else who ends up here:

Thanks for stopping by!  I appreciate you taking the time read this.  But I’d greatly appreciate it if you read this fine article on HuskerMax.com, as I earn a fraction of a penny per page view – and I’m hoping to earn enough this year to buy my wife a steak dinner – and I’m guessing she’d rather go to Misty’s over Steak ‘n Shake.



Slowly, but surely the change is happening – I’m becoming a Big Ten guy.  Watching the early games on Saturday, I paid more attention to the Wisconsin – Michigan State and Iowa – Northwestern games than I did to the games involving our former Big XII foes.  The transition is not fully complete – I was ticked that Texas rallied to beat Kansas, and I was rooting for Missouri to lose again – but I’m finding myself more distanced from the former Big 8 / Big XII teams than a year ago.  And I suspect that will only continue as the years go by.

Of course, games like this really help to ease the transition.  No offense to the other teams in the former Big XII North, but none of them provided all of the things that a game against Michigan provides.  The instantly recognized winged helmets, the legendary names, the history, tradition, and national prestige that few programs can match.  And when you match ’em up under the lights on a brisk fall night, with the inside track to the conference championship game on the line….well, let’s just say that is something we never knew in all those years of playing Iowa State, Kansas State, Missouri, Colorado, or Kansas.

In a way, I think Michigan is going to replace what we once knew with Oklahoma.  To be sure, there is no way that Nebraska will ever supplant Ohio State as Michigan’s chief rival; just as the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry was always more intense than what we had with OU.  But here is another important similarity:  in the Big 8, the winner of OU-NU almost always won the conference.  And I can see how the winner of NU-UM will be a leading contender to win the Legends division.  From the Michigan fans I talked to on Saturday, I think this series can built on mutual respect and a history of big games and big moments – although that will obviously take some time to develop.

For now, it is enough to revel in seeing a marquee team come to Lincoln for the first time in a century, and have them leave empty-handed.

So what did we learn?

The maturation of Taylor Martinez continues.  Taylor Martinez continues to quietly put together a terrific season.  Statistically, he didn’t have a great night (14 rushes for 58 yards and 14 of 24 passing for 166 yards and a TD), but he was instrumental in getting the win, though some little things that don’t show up in the box score.  As an example, look at back to back plays in the 3rd quarter:  On 2nd and 4, Martinez dropped back to pass, but his primary options weren’t open.  A year ago, this would likely have ended up as a sack, an ill-advised throw, or at best, a scramble for a few yards.  Instead, as the pocket started to collapse around him, Martinez stepped up and found Kyler Reed for a 12 yard gain.  On the next play, Martinez recognized before the snap that Kenny Bell was one-on-one with a corner playing right up on the line of scrimmage.  Bell ran a go route and Martinez threw him the ball, resulting in a defensive pass interference penalty and another first down.  Yes, he had two turnovers (although I’m still not convinced on that fumble), but his growth as a QB cannot be denied.

Nebraska’s defense plays entirely different with a pocket QB instead of a mobile one.  When Dennard Robinson was in the game, Nebraska opted for a very limited pass rush on passing downs – essentially just having the four defensive linemen engaged with their blockers and staying in their lanes to keep the shifty Robinson contained.  The defensive backs were forced to cover for long periods of time while Robinson patiently waited for somebody to get open.  But once Dennard went down and the noticeably less dynamic Russell Bellamy in the game, Nebraska’s linemen pinned their ears back and brought serious pressure.  Meanwhile, the DBs sat back and waited for an errant pass to come their way.  The good news is the Mobile QB portion of Nebraska’s schedule appears to be complete.

Nebraska can beat you fast or slow.  My two favorite drives of the game were a contrast in offensive tempo:

1) Starting at the beginning of the second quarter*, Nebraska went 86 yards in six plays to score the game’s first points.  Nebraska ran as fast of a pace as we’ve seen – a couple of the snaps were with 28 seconds left on the play clock – and flew down the field in one minute, 43 seconds.  (*Yes, technically the drive started on the final play of the first quarter where a chop block penalty cost Nebraska 14 yards and took up the final 21 seconds of the quarter, but I’m not counting that).
2)  After Stanley Jean-Baptiste intercepts a Michigan pass, Nebraska takes over at their 20 with 3:18 to go in the game.  Michigan had two timeouts and with a defensive stop would have had plenty of time to make a comeback.  Instead, the Huskers grind out ten plays, 46 yards, and four huge first downs before taking a knee to end the game.

So what don’t we know?

Should you make travel plans for Indianapolis?  As we discussed last week, this was essentially an elimination game for Nebraska’s Legends division hopes.  With the win, Nebraska is now in the driver’s seat to win the division and play for the conference championship.  But…you might want to hold off on making those travel plans right now.  Nebraska’s remaining schedule is not a cake walk – going to Michigan State will be tough, Penn State still has lots of fight left, and there is the lingering fear of the annual game we shouldn’t lose, but lose anyway.  Meanwhile, Michigan has the same conference record as Nebraska, and should coast into the Ohio State game without another loss.  The division title likely will not be decided until the last week of the season.

Where was Braylon Heard?  Rex Burkhead’s gimpy knee kept him out of the game.  Ameer Abdullah was his usual amazing self – especially on that final drive.  And Imani Cross got some snaps on the goal line, as some carries in the game’s final drive.  But Braylon Heard was nowhere to be seen.  I don’t know if he was injured, suspended, in the dog house, or if he got a head start on the trip to East Lansing, because he didn’t see the field on Saturday.  (Update – sounds like a groin injury kept him out).  Whatever the reason, I hope Heard is back out there on Saturday.

What happened near the goal line in the 3rd?  In the third quarter, Nebraska had some golden opportunities to put Michigan away.  An interception by P.J. Smith put NU 1st and Goal at the 4, but after a 2 yard run and two incomplete passes, NU settled for a 19 yard field goal.  Later in the quarter, a Michigan penalty set up 1st and 10 from the 11 yard line.  Abdullah lost three yards on a reception, Martinez threw two incomplete passes, and Maher was back for another field goal.  It is unrealistic to expect a touchdown every time NU gets into the red zone, but I wanted to see better execution (some of those incompletions were catchable), possibly some better play calls, and definitely better results than two field goals.

Where are my Keys?

At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season:  1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties.  Throughout the year, I’ll be tracking Nebraska’s progress:

Penalties Penalty Yds. 3rd Down Conv.   (NU) 3rd Down Conv. (Opp) Turnover Margin
So. Miss 2 30 80.0% 50.0% 1
UCLA 7 60 9.1% 45.0% -1
Arkansas St. 4 34 76.9% 37.5% -2
Idaho St. 9 104 45.5% 13.3% 0
Wisconsin 6 70 38.5% 26.7% -1
Ohio St. 9 75 35.7% 45.5% -3
Northwestern 8 62 21.4% 25.0% -3
Michigan 8 104 33.3% 33.3% 1
2012 Per Game 6.6 67.4 43.4% 34.1% -8
2011 Per Game 7.2 57.3 42.3% 40.2% -1

The defense was the story of the game.  Nebraska racked up 70 penalty yards on Michigan’s three scoring drives, but due to an excellent job of stopping the Wolverines on 3rd down, Michigan settled for three field goals.  Finally, Nebraska was positive in turnover margin in a game for the first time since Labor Day.  Those three interceptions were turned into 10 points and a drive that ran out the clock.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer Abdullah.  Mr. Fourth Quarter strikes again.  Through the first three quarters, Abdullah had 12 carries for 41 yards, and Nebraska was clinging to a 16-9 lead.  In the 4th quarter, Abdullah had 12 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown, with 34 of those yards coming on the final drive when everyone knew he was getting the ball.  Three times Abdullah picked up a first down, erasing Michigan’s hopes in the process.  Give credit to the offensive line, but Ameer got several yards through sheer effort and determination.  Very impressive.
  2. David Santos.  Santos saw his most extensive playing time of his short career, and made the most of it.  He had a team high 10 tackles and his speed and instincts were evident on a number of plays.  He showed a ton of potential.
  3. Sean Fisher.  Now THIS is the game I’ve been waiting for out of Fisher.  The kind of game where he can use his speed and size to make plays from sideline to sideline.  I’m very hopeful that this performance is an indicator of his health, confidence, and understanding of the defense, because that sets up a big second half of the season for a guy who has more than earned some good fortune on the field.
  4. Brett Maher.  Can we all agree to put away the “What’s wrong with Maher?” talk for the rest of the season?  On his first punt, he avoided disaster from a bobbled snap and got off a decent kick.  The second time out, he broke out the rugby kick, which surprised Michigan’s return man, causing the catch to be muffed and recovered at the 2.  And don’t discount being 3 for 3 on field goals.  While the 19 and 31 yarders were rather automatic, the 51 yard kick was not.  Frankly, in college nothing over 45 should ever be considered “automatic”.
  5. Kenny Bell.  Throw to the ‘fro!  Kenny only had two catches, but he made the most of them, scoring the game’s first points.  Of course, it could have been more if not for the two pass interference penalties committed on balls thrown his way.  This was another one of those games where I have to remind myself that he’s only a sophomore and has two more years at NU.

Honorable Mention:  P.J. Smith, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Baker Steinkuhler, Taylor Martinez, Eric Martin

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Game and Clock Management.  The NU coaching staff had some notable lapses in the second quarter.  Early in the quarter, a Michigan drove into Nebraska territory.  On 3rd and 6, Dennard Robinson threw incomplete, but was flagged for holding.  Nebraska could have accepted the penalty and taken their chances with Robinson on 3rd & 16.  Instead, NU declined the penalty, and Michigan kicked a 52 yard field goal.  Later, Michigan got the ball near midfield with 51 seconds left in the half.  Michigan threw two incomplete passes before Eric Martin got a sack on third down.  Instead of calling an immediate timeout with 30-some seconds left (NU had two left), Nebraska let the clock run out.  Look – I can understand the first one:  Michigan’s kicker had just missed from 53, and given NU’s history against mobile QBs, giving Robinson another shot at 3rd down (even a 3rd and 16) is risky.  But I disagree with the second one.  Call the timeout and make Michigan punt.  I understand that a) NU fumbled two punts last week, b) NU was likely going to get the ball at the 20 with 25 seconds to go, and c) NU was going to get the ball to start the second half, but I’d still call the time out.  Force Michigan to make the snap and get the kick off.  If you are concerned about a fumble, then don’t put anybody back to receive the kick.  But what if the snap goes over the punter’s head or he shanks it out of bounds at the NU 45?  Force the opponent to execute instead of letting them off the hook.
  2. Justin Jackson.  Taylor Martinez really showed off his athleticism on several occasions Saturday night.  Unfortunately, most of them were snagging shotgun snaps that were about to go over his head.  Jackson did a pretty good job blocking, and he’s a very good pulling blocker for a center, but those high snaps are a turnover waiting to happen.  Also, his chop block penalty put the offense in a hole.  Fortunately, they were able to overcome it.
  3. Officials.  I don’t like to pick on the officials or criticize the calls they make, as I understand that a) bad/missed calls tend to balance out over the course of a season, and b) nobody is perfect.  But the refs had a rough night.  From the stands, it sure looked like they blew both of the replay calls (the first quarter long pass by Michigan and Martinez’s second quarter fumble).  The delay of game penalty they tried to call on NU in the second half did not inspire a lot of confidence in their management of the game clock.  The late hit penalty Michigan was called for on Martinez did not look very flagrant.  But what really frustrated me were the “targeting” penalties.  Nebraska’s defenders led with their shoulders – not their heads – and did not appear to be aiming for (or targeting, if you prefer) the receiver’s head.  I get that the refs want to reduce head injuries as well as players being left vulnerable to big hits.  But if I were Nebraska, I’d coach defenders to take out a receiver’s legs/knees when they are in the air catching a pass, as they are less likely to get called for “targeting” and the ball may pop out when the receiver hits the ground.  Of course, having a receiver land on the back of his head because his legs got taken out is likely worse than a P.J. Smith shoulder to the sternum, but that is the environment the officials are creating.
  4. Fullbacks.  NU’s trio of fullbacks (Mike Marrow, C.J. Zimmerer, and Andy Janovich) had a rather rough night.  Their blocking was not as solid or consistent as it has been throughout the season.  I wonder if rotating snaps and series is hindering the fullbacks from getting into a rhythm.
  5. Towels.  In honor of the 50th anniversary of the sellout streak, Nebraska handed out black rally towels to fans.  This probably more of my fuddy-duddy-ism showing, but I have two issues with the towels:  a) the crowd did not seem as loud as I expected for this game (a hand waving a towel does not make as much noise as hands clapping – even when muffled by gloves), and b) They were tough to see.  Maybe black towels might look cool in the afternoon, but at night they were rather tough to see.  Next time, go with red – or skip them all together.

What do you think?

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