McNearly Got Beat

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Feit Can Write

Walking into the stadium on Saturday, I was lamenting that this was going to be Nebraska’s last game against a FCS opponent.  I was mentally compiling arguments to lay out in this space for why NU should consider the occasional game against a lower tier school.  I felt confident that although my opinion may not be popular, I could make a good case for dipping into the minor leagues every now and again.

And then the game started.

Three hours later, most of my arguments were trumped.  I knew that McNeese State was the last FCS to enter Memorial Stadium without a ticket.  The risks simply outweigh any reward that can be gained.

That is the harsh reality of a Power 5 program – especially one with Nebraska’s tradition – playing a team from the lower division:  there is very little on-field upside.  Seriously, imagine the best case scenario that could have happened on Saturday.  In my mind, it’s a 70-0 win where the stars put up big numbers, the backups get lots of game experience, and nobody gets hurt.  That type of success only happens once in an Idaho State moon.

Instead, Nebraska came dangerously close to the worst case scenario:  a home loss to a FCS school that is a black mark on the program for years and years.  As it was, Nebraska got a hell of a scare, lost some key players to injury, and took a hit to the program’s credibility.  Nobody cares that McNeese State would easily defeat Florida Atlantic (despite what FAU cornerback D’Joun Smith thinks).  McNeese is FCS and Nebraska is FBS.  Therefore, Nebraska should win by a wide margin.

Nebraska got lucky on Saturday.  Lucky that McNeese receivers dropped so many wide open passes.  Lucky that Ameer Abdullah was the lone I-Back from his recruiting class to stick it out.  Lucky that K-State transfer Daniel Sams was not on the field for the final few drives.  Lucky they did not become a national joke for losing to a FCS school.  Lucky that their abysmal performance was one of many throughout the conference.  Lucky that they get to spend the week in the deep self-analysis that comes after a disappointing loss while still being undefeated.

You can argue that Nebraska should have learned their lesson after South Dakota State, but I guarantee the message has been heard loud and clear.  To paraphrase a popular book:  Death to the FCS.

So what did we learn?

Ameer Abdullah will carry this team to victory.  We’ve seen it before:  the heroic rushing performances, that 4th down conversion against Northwestern to set up the original Westerkatch, playing through injuries, and more.  But his fourth quarter performance shows without any doubt that Ameer Abdullah will do whatever it takes to win.

McNeese State ties the game late in the fourth?  Ameer returns the kickoff 34 yards giving NU great field position and a much-needed spark.  Nebraska is in trouble on 3rd and 6?  Find Ameer in the flat and let him go to work.  Concession stand runs out of Aquafina?  Abdullah expertly mixes two parts hydrogen with one part oxygen while recycling enough plastic bottles to save a baby seal.

I truly believe that when McNeese State punted for the last time, if NU was trailing instead of being tied, Ameer would come in and tried to block the punt.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets the chance in conference play.

This is a special player, my friends.  Enjoy the show.

A lack of offense can really kill the defense.   At halftime, NU had 297 yards of offense and McNeese only had 106.  In the second half, Nebraska’s offense fell off a cliff only picking up two first downs.  Meanwhile, McNeese marched down the field time and again, wearing out the Blackshirts with a 2-1 time of possession advantage.  There were many reasons for the offense’s ineptitude, but the end result was forcing a defense missing a lot of playmakers to carry the load.  We saw it last year against UCLA, with disastrous results and it almost happened again.

It is way too early to worry about rankings, the “strength” of the Big 10, or if Nebraska may have cost themselves a shot at the playoff.  Saturday was a rough day.  Nebraska was 20 seconds away from going to overtime with a FCS school and the Big Ten suffered through another weekend of high-profile losses and embarrassing near-upsets.  As Nebraska dropped out of the AP poll on Sunday, the popular opinion was the Big 10 will be shut out of the four team playoff.  To paraphrase a certain ESPN personality:  not so fast, dear reader.

First and foremost, rankings are pretty much irrelevant in this new playoff world.  Sure, you won’t get picked by the committee if the AP says you’re #23, but if you’re #23 in December, you likely have two or three losses.  In other words, the recipe for getting into the playoff is simple:  Win.  As much as national pundits want to puff up the SEC and discredit the Big Ten, one fact is indisputable:  no undefeated team from a “Power 5” conference will be shut out of the playoff.  Period.

Should Nebraska happen to go 13-0, winning the Big Ten championship, they will have one of the final four spots – even with an ugly escape against McNeese State on their resume.  Why?  Because it is incredibly unlikely that there would be four other undefeated teams from power conferences to bump them out.  Certainly there would be a faction of media who would want some SEC team with one or two losses to get in over an undefeated team from a “weak” conference, but I simply do not believe that will happen.

So what don’t we know?

Which is the “real” NU – the team that gained 784 yards or the one that could not get a first down?  Hopefully we’re all smart enough to understand that Nebraska was not going to replicate the 55-7 win over FAU – especially the 784-some yards of offense – week in and week out.  But I don’t think Nebraska is as poor (either in scheme, play-calling, or execution) as what we saw on Saturday.  So where is Nebraska’s offense?  Without pointing fingers or assigning blame to coaches or players, I think NU’s second half woes are correctable.  I lean towards Nebraska being a team that can move the ball and score three or more touchdowns a game – no matter the opponent.

It’s worth remembering that as poorly as the offense played – from all position groups – NU still put up 437 yards of offense.  Even when you convert FCS to FBS, that is a decent amount.

Should you panic?  I get it:  Nebraska damn near lost to McNeese State.  Many of the issues that have plagued Pelini teams reared their ugly head once again.  It’s easy to look ahead and see multiple losses, regardless of how weak the conference may be.  I hear what you’re saying.

I just don’t agree with you.

Part of the problem is the success Nebraska had against FAU.  Aside from the Owls’ first drive, everything came easy for Nebraska.  The team looked like they would give the 1995 squad a game.  Then one week later they look like a team that would get smashed by Callahan’s 2007 unit.  But here’s the thing:  every team – even championship squads – have games where they struggle and look very beatable.  Granted, you don’t really want to see it in week 2, but you also don’t want it to happen against a conference opponent capable of finishing the job.

If it happens again in Fresno or against one of the weaker Big Ten schools, we’ll revisit this again.

Will De’Mornay Pierson-El end the punt return drought?  We all know that Nebraska’s punt return game has been a dumpster fire in the middle of a train wreck for a long time.  How long?  At Ohio State in 2012, Abdullah returned a punt 43 yards.  In the next 20 games (ending the 2012 season and all of 2013), only three punts were returned longer than 15 yards.  The list:

  • 19 yards.  Tim Marlowe vs. Michigan State, 2012
  • 19 yards.  Jordan Westerkamp at Minnesota, 2013
  • 17 yards.  Jordan Westerkamp at Michigan, 2013

For reference, NU’s opponents punted a little over six times a game in this span.  So out of 120+ punts, only three were returned more than 15 yards.  As we all know, there were more than three fumbles in that span.

Then De’Mornay Pierson-El arrived on campus and started returning kicks.  In his first two games he has two returns of 15+ yards (15 and 25 yards).  In only seven attempts.

No disrespect to Kenny Bell, Jordan Westerkamp, or anybody else not named “Ameer Abdullah” who has returned punts, but Pierson-El needs to be the man back there.  Full time.

Four Downs and Four Losses

In my opinion, there are four key areas where Nebraska has fallen down in the last few years.  Their inability to be successful (or, at times, competent) in these areas often factor prominently in the four losses that Pelini teams have every year.  I believe that to avoid another four loss season, Nebraska needs to win at least two of these four downs every game.

  • Turnover Margin:  Technically, the stat sheet says Nebraska was even in turnover margin, but that is very misleading.  Nebraska’s turnover (a 98 yard pick-six) represented a 10 – 14 point swing in the game.  McNeese’s turnover was a worthless interception at the 30 with no time left.  LOSS
  • Penalties:  A personal foul on Jake Cotton cost Nebraska 15 yards and four points as it took a touchdown off the board and stalled a drive into a field goal.  An illegal man downfield penalty also against Cotton nullified Jordan Westerkamp’s surreal Nestea Plunge catch, and likely cost Nebraska a chance at points.  It is equally frustrating that these penalties are being committed by a senior captain.  LOSS
  • Punt Returns:  It’s hard to say if Pierson-El would have returned punts on Saturday if Kenny Bell had not gotten hurt (my guess is no), but I think Pierson-El needs to keep the job going forward.  His day wasn’t spectacular (5 for 52), but you can just feel big play potential when he’s back there.  WIN
  • Game Management:  Nebraska’s opening drive was a disaster.  Three lackluster plays led up to a fourth and 1.  Given the size advantage on the line, as well as the running prowess of your I-Back and quarterback, I would think you line up and get the first.  Instead, NU called a timeout to discuss, and then ran a offtackle play out of the pistol.  NU would have been better served to get to the line quickly, run a QB sneak, and pick up an easy first down.  Instead, McNeese picked up an early momentum boost.  Bottom line:  When you receive the opening kick you cannot go 4 and out.  Additionally, I’ll concur with Pelini’s postgame comment that Nebraska was “out coached”.  That goes under game management too.  LOSS.

Tally:  Three definitive losses as they combined to cost Nebraska at least seven points, and allowed a lesser opponent to hang around.  The lone win is mainly because the grading curve for punt returns is so big.  That will change.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer F. Abdullah.  Reason #8,853 why I love watching games in person instead of on TV:  I guarantee ESPNU did not show Ameer sprinting down to applaud the student section after the game.  I got to see that very cool moment and have even more respect for this remarkable young man.
  2. Sam Foltz.  Last week, I was underwhelmed with his performance.  This week, the right foot of Foltz is a major reason why the Huskers won.  He averaged over 51 yards on six kicks, and placed four punts inside the 20.  Foltz put the special in Special Teams.
  3. Nate Gerry.  Gerry was all over the field making tackles, big stops, and breaking up plays.  In the fourth quarter, McNeese was 2nd and goal from the 2 yard line.  Gerry tipped a pass that would have been a sure touchdown.  On 3rd down, he combined with Josh Banderas for a five yard tackle for loss.  McNeese settled for a field goal.  Instead of taking the lead, McNeese had to settle for tying Nebraska.
  4. Jordan Westerkamp.  Ridiculous.  Just plain ridiculous.  With due respect to Dominique Wilkins, Westerkamp is quickly becoming the Human Highlight Reel.
  5. Tommy Armstrong (running quarterback).  Armstrong had 11 rushes for a team high 131 yards and a touchdown.  He made great decisions in the option game and flashes some great moves in the open field.  With McNeese clearly keying on Abdullah, Armstrong took advantage in a big way.

Honorable Mention:  Greg McMullen, Jack Gangwish, Joshua Kalu, the band forming the outline of the state during the pregame spectacular

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  I would hope nobody expected another 784 yard performance coming out of the Pipeline, but their day on Saturday was borderline embarrassing.  There were zero lanes for the backs to run through.  Guys were repeatedly being pushed backwards.  Armstrong took his first sack of the season and felt pressure on other throws.  It was a disappointing performance for a unit that can do much better.
  2. Tommy Armstrong (throwing quarterback).  Armstrong was 16 of 31 through the air, with an interception.  Many of those incompletions were nowhere close.  You can make the argument that blame should be shared by the backup receivers running bad routes, and I’ll listen to that.  However, I’ll counter that Armstrong should have checked down to other options instead of sailing deep ball after deep ball over the heads of his receivers.
  3. Tim Beck.  First, let’s acknowledge that if the O line does a better job run blocking and Armstrong makes better throws, Beck isn’t as big of a scapegoat for this performance.  That said, Nebraska looked unsure of what to do against a lower division opponent for most of the game, and could barely move the ball in the second half.  That is on Beck.  Also, it’s too bad that coaches cannot provide benefits for players, because Beck owes Westerkamp a couple of steak dinners for bailing him out of some third and long situations brought on by Beck being overly committed to throwing the ball.  Without the one-handed sideline catch and his diving catch (called back by penalty), Beck really gets hammered.
  4. Readiness to play.  I don’t know if it was the opponent, the 11 am kickoff, complacency over the FAU win, or the Huskers looking ahead to Fresno State and beyond, but Nebraska clearly was not ready to play on Saturday.  They looked flat, uninspired, and often acted as if they were waiting for somebody else to step up and make a play.  NU was lucky to get away with a win, but next time they come out like this they will likely lose.
  5. HuskerVision.  During a TV timeout in the second quarter, HuskerVision ran a feature showing various tweets with the #Huskers hashtag.  Many of the tweets are generic and very positive (you likely won’t see anything from @FauxPelini, @ZombieDevaney, or any of the other parody accounts on the big screen).  So far so good.  But in this segment, there were several tweets that mentioned the great game Tommy Armstrong was having, his passing prowess, etc.  The punchline?  These tweets were shown immediately after the 98 yard interception return for a touchdown where Armstrong made a bad read and a worse throw.  Whoops.




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