Jack the Rabbits

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Feit Can Write

Another year, another sacrificial lamb from the FCS “minor leagues”.  Another athletic department subsidized by the University of Nebraska (and their donors and fans).  Another chance to empty the bench and get carries to the fifth string I-Back.  See you again, same time next year when McNeese State comes to town.

I’ve never had a problem with Nebraska playing the occasional game against 1-AA/FCS teams.  I understand the fiscal realities of needing seven home games to help finance the rest of the department.  I can either shell out to watch a mismatch with South Dakota State or I can pay even more for six home games.  Besides, I enjoy a good blowout win as it makes me nostalgic for the Osborne Era.

But how much longer will it last?

At this point, scheduling a FCS school is a lose/lose proposition for teams like Nebraska.  Everybody expects a blowout win, which other than getting game reps for the second and third string, doesn’t do much to improve your team.  If you don’t win by the expected margin, or look sloppy in doing so, there is criticism and scrutiny.  And that is assuming you win…After losses by Kansas State, Oregon State, and others to FCS schools this year, the risk of an embarrassing loss has never been higher.

I wish I had a good solution.  Sure, it would be great it major conference teams played robust non-conference schedules against other name programs, and left the cupcakes for the Food Network (and K-State).  But hopefully we can all acknowledge the current financial system makes that challenging.

So what did we learn?

It is time to readjust what a “good” defensive performance is.  I’ll put this bluntly:  the 2013 defense is not very good.  I’m hopeful that we will see noticeable improvement in conference play, but I’m not going to bet on it.  In the meantime, getting heartburn over allowing bucket loads of points and yards isn’t going to do anybody any good.

Here is what I propose:  for the remainder of the 2013 season, ignore the defensive stats, the yards allowed, everything.  Focus on two things:  a) How many points were allowed, and b) Did the offense score one point more?  If the answer to b is “yes”, it was a good day.

It turns out, I’m not the only one with lower expectations.  For years, there has been a free food offer on the back of Nebraska tickets if the defense holds the opponent under a certain point total.  In 2012, 10 points or fewer meant free grub.  In 2013?  You’ll get your Runza for free if the defense holds an opponent under 17.  (A tip of the hat to the lady whose seats are next to me for pointing that out).

Now, to be perfectly clear:  this is a temporary shift.  I firmly believe that defense wins championships, and the sorry state of the Blackshirts will be what ultimately keeps Nebraska from a conference (or maybe even division) title in 2013.  Drastic improvement is needed.

Tommy and RKIII played great, but there is no quarterback controversy.  As soon as I heard that Taylor Martinez’s turf toe would give Tommy Armstrong, Jr. his first career start, I knew there would be a contingent of fans and media who would try to drum up a quarterback controversy.  Make no mistake:  Armstrong looked great and did not play like a freshman.  Ron Kellogg III played like the system veteran he is.  Of course, South Dakota State’s defense won’t be confused with Michigan State’s defense any time soon, so you would be wise to take those performances with a grain of salt.

But I firmly believe that an old Osborne-era policy should apply here:  You do not lose your starting job because of injury.  When Martinez is healthy enough to play, he starts.  Period.  If he cannot get it done, or is not healthy enough to go, then you look at one of the other two guys.

East Stadium is something special.  For reasons that aren’t interesting enough to list, I watched the game away from my usual spot in the northwest corner.  Instead, I had a birds-eye view from the top of the new East stadium.  This was my first visit inside the new addition and I was very impressed.  The lobby is essentially a Nebraska Football museum – with pictures of players, teams, uniform styles, and bowl game appearances lining the walls.

There is an escalator up to the high altitudes – the 600 level – which means you won’t break a sweat just getting to your seat.  Sitting up that high, I was concerned about being too high to appreciate or enjoy the game.  And while it was high (from my seat I could see the Capitol, Haymarket Park, and the North Bottoms neighborhood where I lived during college) the view was great.  It felt like we were over the top of the field, instead of set far back from the action.  I’ll admit that I felt more detached from the action and atmosphere than I ever have in row 47, but some of that could be due to the opponent.

But the biggest differences about the 600 level are the fan amenities.  It is downright roomy up there.  The seats are noticeably wider (built for the asses of the 21st Century, instead of those of the 1920s) with back rests and a railing in front of every row.  I had leg room for the first time since my junior year in college.  My wife noticed the lack of lines at the concession stands and ladies room.

While I’m grateful for my seat in row 47, I would not balk at sitting up in the 600 level again.

So what don’t we know?

How do you explain the offensive success?  The offense had a banner day, recording 300+ yard rushing and passing for the first time in school history.  So why did it happen?

Was it a scaled-back playbook?  The impact of Armstrong and/or Kellogg?  Going up against a FCS defense?  Yes, yes, and yes.

I sometimes picture Tim Beck as the golfer who had 27 different golf clubs in his bag.  Instead of being really good and consistent with his 8-iron, he tries to hit six different wedges from a variety of stances and grips.  Focusing on a few core plays will help Beck – and by extension, the offense.

Take nothing away from Armstrong and Kellogg, who both looked good running the offense, but I think the biggest impact was having healthy quarterbacks taking snaps.

Finally, be sure to remember that South Dakota State is not exactly a defensive juggernaut.  After the Nebraska game, SDSU is 99th in FCS in total defense.

What is the go/no go determination for Martinez?  Let’s look ahead through the bye week.  As I stated above, I firmly believe that a healthy Martinez is Nebraska’s best option at QB.  But what is “healthy”?  Do they try to play him at 80%?  90%?  Sit him until he is completely healed?

Instead of focusing on a percentage – which is ambiguous at best – the determination should be Martinez’s ability to run.  Can he take off at a moment’s notice?  Get to top speed?  Be a legitimate threat in the running game?  If so, he should play.  If not, then defenses will sit back and force Martinez to beat them with his arm.  He can do that, but it is much easier if they must respect his legs (just ask Michigan State).

My hunch is Martinez’s status – at least officially – is unknown until just before kickoff of the Illinois game, as Pelini and Beck force the Illini to prepare for multiple QBs.

Can Nebraska win the Legends Division?  As much as the UCLA loss hurt, it had no bearing on Nebraska’s ability to win their division.  It says here that Nebraska absolutely can win the Legends Division.  Will they?  If the Nebraska team from the first 25 minutes of the UCLA game returns full time, I’d all but guarantee it.  If the Nebraska team from the Wyoming, Southern Miss, and SD State games shows up, then they’ll need some help.  Personally, I think 6-2 or even 5-3 wins the division, so Nebraska will need to bring their A game against Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern, while avoiding costly mistakes the rest of the way.

In short, it can be done, but it won’t be easy.

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:  There was no negative reaction to Bo when he came on the field, just lots of cheering, supporting fans.

Glass Half Empty:  The fans who cheered Bo on Saturday will be booing him if his defense continues to give up yards by the bushel.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer Abdullah.  Number 8 had his best outing of 2013.  He showed his potent combination of speed and power for 139 rushing yards, another 46 receiving, and a touchdown.  I question the logic/sanity of putting him to return kickoffs, but that is another gripe for another day.
  2. Randy Gregory.  When a FCS team plays a BCS school there should be discrepancies in talent, but at times Randy Gregory looked like a man playing against boys.  His made-it-look-easy pick-six leads the highlight reel, as does his first partial sack, but I was most impressed by a pass rush where he simply tossed a SDSU lineman on his butt.  Regardless of the difference in division, you do not see that very often.
  3. Tommy Armstrong.  Give credit to the kid – he certainly did not play like a freshman starting his first game.  We knew he could run – his option pitch to Cross for a first quarter touchdown was a thing of beauty.  But his passing – 12 of 15 for 169 yards was a very pleasant surprise.  But repeat after me:  It was one game against a FCS school.  One game.  FCS school.
  4. Cethan Carter.  Carter only had two catches (for 43 yards), but I’m putting him on here for what those two catches represent:  a legitimate pass catching threat from the tight end position that opposing defenses must respect.  Personally, I think he should have gotten the ball on Sam Burtch’s touchdown, as Carter was painfully wide open down the middle of the Jackrabbit defense.
  5. Offensive Line.  Look at the numbers:  335 yards rushing, 310 yards passing.  Zero sacks allowed and zero penalties.  I’ll gladly take two of those four anytime.

Honorable Mention:  Zaire Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Tyler Wullenwaber, David Santos, Stanley Jean Baptise, The return of the pre-game flyover, pediatric cancer awareness, my wife for giggling like a schoolgirl every time they said “Jackrabbits”.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Rush Defense.  Zach Zenner is a good running back.  I have no doubt that he could start for a number of BCS-conference teams, and could wind up on an NFL roster in a Danny Woodhead role.  But Zenner should not be confused with Adrian Peterson, Ricky Williams, Barry Sanders, or any of the dozens of NFL stars who never rushed for 200 yards against Nebraska.  Too often Zenner was seven yards downfield before he was touched.  That must stop.
  2. Pass Defense.  No disrespect to Austin Sumner, but he probably would not start for a lot of BCS teams.  And yet, he completed over 60% of his passes for 239 yards.  My belief is the lack of pressure on the quarterback without sending a blitz is forcing the secondary to cover for too long.  We all know that even the best cornerbacks can only cover a guy for so long before he’ll get open.  If the QB is standing in the pocket unhurried, he’ll find that guy for a big gain.  Yes, the blitzes worked against SDSU, but Nebraska will face quarterbacks capable of exploiting a blitz for a touchdown.
  3. Punt Returns.  Nebraska had one punt return for one yard.  We can look at reasons (excuses) why NU is not getting returns, but eventually we need to address the fact that Nebraska is conceding 10-20 yards per punt.
  4. Fumbles.  Nebraska put the ball on the ground three times on Saturday, losing two.  Since I’m sure we can somehow blame that on Taylor Martinez, let’s talk about the defense.  Charles Jackson forced a fumble, which was recovered by Jonathan Rose – Nebraska’s first recovery of the year.  If the defense is going to allow 200+ rush yards per game, they need to force more fumbles to even things out.
  5. Tim Beck.  C.J. Zimmerer gets honored before the game for his work with Uplifting Athletes.  Andy Janovich blocks like a battering ram.  And neither can get take a carry away from King Frazier or Graham Nabity?  C’mon Tim.


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