A Hail Mary for the Season?

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Why?  As a writer for the site, I earn a fraction of a penny per page view.  And with three mouths to feed, and a poor wife who becomes a football widow 12 Saturdays a year, I need those penny parts to keep everybody happy.  

Thank you,

Feit Can Write

And that, my friends, is why you never, ever leave a game early.

You may not always see something amazing when you stay until the bitter end,, but I guarantee you will never see a miraculous come-from-behind victory when you leave early to beat traffic.

Look:  I get why folks left before that final drive.  The offense had not scored all half, the quarterbacks had combined for four interceptions, and two of Nebraska’s top three receivers were in street clothes.  I’m not justifying or condoning leaving early, but I do understand it.

Let’s face it, for all intents and purposes, the game – if not the season –  were over.  And despite the win over a Northwestern squad that has now lost five in a row, big issues still exist on this team.  Quarterback.  Defense.  Team health.  Linebacker.  Offense.  Punt returns.  Coaching.  The odds don’t favor vast improvements over the remaining four regular season games.  If you’re considering making plans for a trip to Indianapolis in early December, I’d recommend reading up on cancellation policies.

But here’s the beauty of that last glorious play:  for a few fleeting minutes, none of that mattered.  Those of us who stuck it out were rewarded with a truly historic moment, a glorious overload of stranger-hugging joy that you’ll remember and talk about for decades.  I fully expect a few of you who left early to go to your grave lying about the celebration in the stadium, instead of admitting that you were doing a walk of shame back to  the car when you realized the impossible had happened.

Yes, the 2013 season is not going how many of us expected it to go, and the odds are against Nebraska winning out.  But I see absolutely no shame in enjoying this moment, this “fluke” win, and holding on to the euphoric feeling for as long as possible.

There will be plenty of time for doom and gloom later on.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska’s quarterback situation is a jumbled mess.  Tommy Armstrong, Jr. started the game and led the team on a beautiful 76 yard scoring drive – personally accounting for 70 of the yards by going 3-3 for 36 yards and rushing for another 34, including a touchdown.  After that first drive?  12 or 26 passing with 1 TD and 3 INT, and 14 rushes for 35 yards.  For those keeping track, that is six interceptions by Armstrong in his last two games.

Ron Kellogg III ended the game with an 83 yard scoring drive, where he was 6-8 for 91 yards and TD, while losing eight yards on a sack.  The rest of the game, Kellogg was 1-5 with an interception an another eight yard loss.  Taylor Martinez did not play, but Kellogg picked up his roomie by collecting all of the “why is he in the game?” fan opinions that Martinez usually endures.

To be sure, each QB does things very well:  Armstrong is the better the runner, and his fake option pitch on that first drive was a thing of beauty.  Kellogg proved that he is probably the best choice for a two minute drill, and is the least likely to force a throw.  I still believe that Martinez at 100% health is far and away the best QB on the team.  But the challenge Pelini and Tim Beck face is managing the quarterback series and reps to give this team the best chance to win.

Nebraska can still win the Legends, but they have zero margin for error.  Many Husker fans watching the Northwestern game also had one eye on the Michigan – Michigan State score.  After beating the Wolverines, the Spartans are now firmly in the Legends division driver’s seat.  Technically, Nebraska still “controls their own destiny”:  if Nebraska wins out (including a victory over Michigan State on November 16) the Huskers do go back to Indianapolis.  But, if Nebraska trips up in any of their other games they would need the Spartans to stumble against Northwestern or Minnesota – and I just don’t see that happening.

The artists formerly known as the Blackshirts are capable of dominating a game.  Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first:  Northwestern’s dual threat QB (Colter) is hobbled by a bad ankle.  Northwestern’s running backs would be better described as a “corpse” instead of a “corps”.  And this is a team that is still winless in an underwhelming Big Ten.

But with that all said, let’s give some credit to the performance turned in by the defense.  The Wildcats were held to 8-21 passing, with four sacks and an interception.  After the first two scoring drives (75 yards each), Northwestern did not sustain a drive of more than six plays or 38 yards.  The final 10 points allowed were both following interceptions which gave the Wildcats the ball deep in Nebraska territory.  Nebraska recorded a season high six 3 and outs, seven if you include the clutch goal line stand that led to their final field goal.

The defense wasn’t perfect – too many missed tackles, as well as two Wildcats combining for 235 rush yards and three TDs – but give serious credit to the D for keeping Nebraska in the game.

So what don’t we know?

Where is the excitement on this team?  Far too often this season, the Nebraska players and sideline have been noticeably lethargic and apathetic – looking generally uninterested in the game.  For example?  The offense has a nice drive to cut the lead to 21-14.  The defense follows that up with a 3 and out, giving NU the ball back with 4:44 left in the half.  To a fan in the stands, it sure felt a like a golden opportunity to seize momentum.  But if you looked at the NU sideline, you would have thought Nebraska was down by 21 with two minutes left in the game.  There was no sense of excitement, no rooting for their teammates, no attempts to get the crowd into the game.

This isn’t something that is isolated to the Northwestern game.  I’ve seen it in many games this year; especially UCLA, Minnesota, and even Illinois and Wyoming.  Where you place the blame (coaches or players) likely depends on where you stand on bigger issues.  Heck, you can probably make a good argument that this team will play the same regardless of is the reserves are standing on the bench waving towels or holding their helmets up in the air on kickoffs.  But it is noticeable, especially on a team that appears to have some issues.

Why doesn’t Nebraska commit to the run?  Let’s reset the scenario facing Tim Beck for most of the game:  Your four year starting QB is sitting out.  His backups are a redshirt freshman who has not played since a three interception game three weeks ago, and the career backup who is better known for his heart than his talent.  Two of your top wide receivers and your starting tight end are out with injuries.  Meanwhile, you have one of the top running backs in the conference – if not the country – in Ameer Abdullah, two capable backups, and a QB (Armstrong) who is a legitimate rushing threat.  While the offensive line is banged up, the opponent is the 8th best team in the conference versus the run.  So it makes perfect sense that you choose to throw it 34 times (not including the eight passes on the final drive).

I’m not saying that if Nebraska runs the ball 60, 70, or 80 percent of the time, they win this game (or the Minnesota game) going away.  But I do think there is something to be said for doing one thing very well instead of many things with inconsistent results.

How bad would it be for Pelini and staff if Nebraska had lost?  Yikes.  I’m not sure I want to consider it.  It may only be a one or two week reprieve, but Pelini should thank his lucky stars that his team pulled that one out.

Pelini should also be thankful he’s not Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald, and have to explain how you can be plus three in turnovers and still lose, while your defense allowed a 4th and 15 to be converted, as well as a 49 yard Hail Mary.

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 Hail Jordan WesterKatch is the type of play that can springboard this team to an undefeated November, and a shot at Ohio State for the Big 10 title.

Glass Half Empty:  The Husker offense is so anemic, it would struggle to score 17 against Nebraska’s defense.  Oh by the way, Michigan is undefeated at home under Brady Hoke.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer Abdullah.  There is a lot of focus – deservedly so – on his individual effort to get 16 yards on 4th and 15.  But I loved his overall performance on Saturday.  He fought for yards, slipped through tiny cracks, and did everything he could to help an inconsistent offense find the end zone.
  2. Ciante Evans.  The senior captain had a huge game, with five tackles for loss as part of his eight stops overall.  We’re approaching the point of the season where seniors start to elevate their game with a sense of urgency.  If Ciante can sustain this level of play for the next month, it could really impact the team’s record.
  3. Randy Gregory.  He didn’t have the greatest statistical day (four tackles, one for loss), but note his presence on two of the biggest defensive plays of the day:  He forced Trevor Siemian to rush his pass that was intercepted by Aaron Curry and he made a huge tackle on Northwestern’s final possession, which forced them to kick a field goal.
  4. Avery Moss.  As impressive as his pick six was, I hope his teammates learn the bigger lesson from that play:  when you can’t get to the quarterback, get your hands up in his throwing lanes.  If Moss doesn’t have his hands up, that pass is probably caught for a 5-6 yard gain, helping to extend Nortwestern’s drive.
  5. Ron Kellogg III / Jordan Westerkamp.  I find it fascinating how we perceive a player’s “legacy”.  Had their careers been over with four seconds left in the Northwestern game, I think it is fair to say that we’d remember Kellogg as a good teammate and rather underwhelming career backup, and Westerkamp as Santino Panico 2.0 – a skilled receiver best known for fair catching punts.  But then, this happened.  And now, no matter what happens for the rest of their careers (or beyond) they will always be known and beloved for their roles in one of the greatest plays in school history.

Honorable Mention:  Qunicy Enunwa, the O Line’s tribute to Spencer Long, Alonzo Moore, Matt Davison’s reaction to the Hail Mary, Mauro Bondi, Wil Richards, Jason Ankrah, Military tributes in honor of Veteran’s Day

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Timeout Management.  For the most part, I’ve made my peace with the patented Bo Pelini Defensive Timeout, especially when it works.  But there were two moments where it did not.  On Northwestern’s first possession, they had 3rd and 6 at midfield.  Pelini calls time, but Kain Colter still runs for nine yards to pick up the first down.  In the 3rd quarter, Northwestern was facing 4th and 3 from the Nebraska 40.  While the Wildcats lined up like they were going to go for it, it sure felt like they were doing the old “let’s see if we can get them to jump offsides before we take a delay of game and punt it” play.  Regardless, Nebraska called timeout, and Northwestern punted the ball.  The second one is the most glaring, as an extra timeout sure would have been nice to have when you need to drive 83 yards in 74 seconds.
  2. Tackling.  One of the biggest reasons Nebraska got down 21-7 was their inability to tackle a Wildcat ball carrier on the first try.  Make no mistake, Kain Colter is a terrific player, but it should not take three or four players to get him down.
  3. Penalties.  Tie game, early in the fourth quarter.  Nebraska is driving as Imani Cross takes the ball down to the Wildcat 28.  It should have been 3rd and 3, which is makeable for Nebraska.  At the worst, it’s a 45 yard field goal – definitely in Pat Smith’s range.  Instead, a holding penalty backs them up 10 yards.  Nebraska recovers, and two plays later Abdullah runs it down to the 20 yard line, putting NU in prime position to get a field goal, if not a touchdown.  But an illegal chop block penalty moved NU back 15 yards where they go 3 yard run, sack, incomplete pass, punt.  Nebraska has been doing better on penalties this year (especially by Pelini era standards) but they still have a nasty habit of showing up at the worst possible times.
  4. C.J. Zimmerer.  To start a 3rd quarter drive, Zimmerer went down field for a pass.  Even though he was wide open, he never turned around as the ball went sailing by.  I won’t claim to know if this is on the back or the QB, so I’ll just say this:  as infrequently as fullbacks get targeted for pass attempts, you simply have got to be ready to make a play.
  5. Fans who left early.  I sure hope your decision to “beat traffic” was worth missing out on the first win on a Hail Mary in school history.  I also hope that you are man enough to own that decision and admit to bailing out early.  Frankly, the knowledge that you have to live the rest of your life with that choice is more satisfying than anything else I can say on the subject.


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