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Feit Can Write
Throughout the game on Saturday night, I kept thinking how much fun I was having. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed going to every one of the Husker games I’ve attended over the years. But this was different. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why.
Yes, the late kickoff (and some pregame beverages) didn’t hurt. Certainly, the opponent was a big part. Miami. The dreaded Hurricanes. The team that ruined more New Year’s Days than any other program. After years of having to play the biggest game of the season in their stadium, they were finally coming north. (Seriously, I’m still bummed it didn’t snow – or at least get below 50 degrees). And we beat them. Decidedly.
Yet, there’s more to it than just the win. More than Nebraska going to 4-0 and emerging as one of the better teams in the conference. It was how they won. With four quarters of no-nonsense power football, featuring an amazing player doing amazing things. It was a throwback to the glory days, which was fitting as the 1994 team – the team the finally broke through and did the impossible – was there to watch it.
And that is what made the night special.
It was Bo Pelini being as stoic as he possibly can. It was John Garrison channeling the offensive line success of his former coach. It was diminutive Josh Mitchell breaking the game open like another undersized play maker, Baron Miles. It was a quarterback named Tommy making excellent decisions in the option game. It was Ameer Abdullah cementing his legacy on the Mount Rushmore of Nebraska I-Backs the way Lawrence Phillips did in 1994. It was a defense with a strong front four who shut down the run and pinned their ears back when you passed. It was a team that didn’t retaliate to their opponent’s cheap shots and let their play do the talking. It was a new generation of Husker fans understanding why many of the older ones hate Miami.
Frankly, the only things missing from the night were a two-point conversion attempt and a fullback trap.
I’m well aware that a single game between two programs more than a decade removed from their last championship appearance is not going to erase the heartache of 1983, 2001, and so many other seasons. But damn it felt good to beat them. It was a special night.
So what did we learn?
Nebraska is capable of long sustained drives. Coming out of the Fresno State game, there was some concern on if Nebraska’s offense was too dependent on big plays. What would happen against a better defense that is too good to allow 60 yard runs and 70 yard pass plays? I think we found our answer.
On the six scoring drives by the offense (four touchdowns, two field goals) the drives lasted an average of nine plays and went an average of 63 yards. That includes the first drive that ended on a 40 yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell. One of the keys to that sustained success: Nebraska converted 70% of their third downs (7 of 10).
Randy Gregory can really disrupt a game. Miami’s offensive attack of short passes, quick throws to the sideline, and draw plays seemed tailor-made towards keeping Randy Gregory away from freshman QB Brad Kaaya. No disrespect to one of my favorite walk-ons, but I don’t think Miami has the same game plan with Jack Gangwish at defensive end.
In spite of Miami’s best efforts to avoid Gregory, he still made his presence known with seven tackles, two big sacks, and a forced fumble that probably should have been recovered by Nebraska. Gregory’s first sack – a ten yard loss on second and goal to start the fourth quarter – helped force Miami into a field goal instead of a big touchdown.
And while we’re on the topic of disruption, we need to mention Gregory’s involvement in the two altercations with the Hurricanes. Gregory was battling all night with Miami’s tackles, and it sure appeared from my North end zone seats that Randy had a lot to say to the Canes. Notably, before Josh Kalu’s interception triggered the second dust-up, Gregory was pointing and gesturing at the Miami sideline. Let’s just say that I wasn’t too surprised to see a Miami player take a shot at him. I’m not saying Gregory was in the wrong with his talking, but it certainly made an impact on the game.
Nebraska may survive the loss of Mauro Bondi. I was a little nervous about losing kickoff specialist Mauro Bondi to a broken collarbone. His kickoffs are under-appreciated feats of strength (pounding the ball deep into the end zone) and beauty (placing it into the corner of the end zone limiting the chance for return). I expected more than a few Miami drives to start beyond the 35 yard line.
But Drew Brown showed that he can be as good as Bondi on kickoffs. Seven kickoffs, three touchbacks, and none of the three returns made it past the 25 yard line. There was a bit of a shank out of bounds, but I was pleased with how the freshman stepped up in the biggest game of his young career.
So what don’t we know?
How many games can Ameer take this type of workload? Saturday night, Abdullah had 35 carries, four kickoff returns, and one reception. Forty touches. Take away his three touchdowns and that means he was hit and tackled 37 times. That doesn’t include the dozen or so times where he was the decoy on zone read plays and drew a lot of attention from the Hurricane defense. Clearly, it worked. Ameer had 313 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, in one of the truly special performances in Nebraska history. This had to be sweet vindication for the legions of fans who have been calling for Abdullah to get more touches.
But, how many times can Abdullah be expected to do as much as he did against Miami? Keep in mind, Abdullah was just three carries away from tying Rex Burkhead’s school record for a single game. Nebraska has eight more regular season games, plus the possibility of up to three more should they made the Big Ten and national championship games. So far, Abdullah is on pace for 299 rushing attempts over a 13 game season (the school record is 286 by Lawrence Phillips in 1994).
Look: I’m all for riding the hot hand and giving the ball to your best player – especially when there may be national awards at stake. However, the team isn’t going to be as successful if their best offensive player is beaten up, broken down, or just worn out by November 1.
How close did we come to a full out brawl? This game was marred (or enhanced, depending on your point of view) by two second half incidents where Miami and Nebraska players were going at it after the play was over. There was pushing, shoving, grabbing other players, lots of talk, and possibly a punch or two. Players and coaches from both teams came onto the field and eventually some semblance of order was restored.
I had a bad feeling after the second incident that things were about to get ugly, and especially after the horse collar tackle on Abdullah a few plays later. Give credit to the coaches for getting the Huskers to stand down, but let’s also recognize what a poor job the officials did. They clearly lost control of the game, failed to make necessary warnings and ejections, and were very lucky that a full out brawl did not occur on their watch.
Is Nebraska ready for conference play? Nebraska made it through the non-conference with a perfect 4-0 record and now takes aim at the inaugural Big Ten West title. But do they have what it takes to make it to Indianapolis in December?
That’s the big question. Nebraska certainly has some excellent talent, and if they play to their potential there are few teams in the conference that can beat them. But, there are also some holes as well as the concerns of consistency from week to week.
It’s easy to point to the two big road games (Michigan State and Wisconsin) and say those will determine NU’s fate. But I believe that the key will be taking care of business in the other six conference games against teams that may be inferior to Nebraska.
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: The Blackshirts got three turnovers and a fourth (the Nathan Gerry interception) was waved off by a very questionable roughing call. Tommy Armstrong did account for two turnovers (a fumble and an interception), but the take-aways had a greater – and incredibly positive – impact. WIN.
- Penalties: On the surface, seven penalties is a little excessive, but given the…um…chippy nature of the game, it could have been much worse. As mentioned above a roughing penalty did take a turnover off the board, but 8 times out of 10 that flag is not thrown. Given the amount of extra curriculars, the Huskers deserve credit for their poise and restraint. WIN.
- Punt Returns: This one is tough to call. Two returns for 11 yards isn’t all that wonderful, but it’s not De’Mornay Pierson-El’s fault the defense only forced two punts. Still, the threat of Pierson-El seemed to impact Miami’s kicking. WIN.
- Game Management: I loved the clock management displayed by Pelini at the end of the first half. Third and five from the Miami 10, there was confusion getting the offense lined up and the play clock was ticking down. Instead of panicking, Pelini stood right beside the official and called timeout with one second left. Nebraska was in position to score, but did not want to leave Miami any time for a late drive. There may have been some second guessing about kicking a field goal on 4th and goal from the two, but it says here that taking the points was the smart call. WIN.
Final tally: In what should not surprise anybody, four wins in these key areas translates to a convincing on-field win that was not as close as the final score.
5 Players I Loved
- Ameer Abdullah. His stats (313 total yards, 229 rushing, and three total touchdowns) really don’t tell the full story of how good he was in this game. Ameer played on another level. Rarely did the first Hurricane defender bring him down. He rushed with power, speed, and elusive moves. He impacted the game from the opening drive as the three biggest plays in that 81 yard march were directly impacted by Abdullah: his 17 yard run, an option keeper by Armstrong where the defense collapsed do hard on Abdullah that Armstrong ran for 17 yards, and the 40 yard TD pass to Kenny Bell aided by a safety that was cheating up in run support Later on, the unveiling of the AmeerCat formation was a great addition to the offense that will have defensive coordinators staying up nights.
- Offensive Line & Wide Receiver Corps. With an audience that included the original Pipeline and the greatest offensive line coach in the history of the game, the 2014 line put on an impressive performance. They opened big holes for Ameer, Armstrong, and the other backs all night long, helping NU rack up 343 yards on the ground. When Armstrong dropped back to pass, there was barely a hint of pressure. Additionally, the wide receivers put on an absolute clinic in perimeter and downfield blocking. Kenny Bell, Jordan Westerkamp, Alonzo Moore, Tariq Allen, and others were relentless in making and sustaining their blocks. If these performances can be replicated in conference play, Abdullah will pass Rozier.
- Tommy Armstrong, Jr. Armstrong arguably had his finest game as a Husker. He completed 69% of his passes, including 3 of 4 on third down. He was masterful on the read option, making terrific decisions on when to give it and when to pull it back. He ran tough and picked up big yardage as the Hurricane defense bit on his option fakes. The interception was disappointing, but he more than made up for it with an excellent performance.
- David Santos. From a goat in Fresno to a hero against Miami. Santos led the team with 10 tackles, and showed good speed and range making plays from sideline to sideline. But the highlight of his night was the diving interception at the 5 yard line that thwarted a Miami drive. Santos had good coverage on his man, and made a catch that receivers coach Rich Fisher would be proud of. I love seeing guys bounce back after a poor outing, especially in a unit that needs somebody to step up.
- Nebraska Students and Fans. The stadium was packed 30 minutes before kickoff. The crowd was loud, proud, and made an impact all night long. I’m not big into “blackout” games or waving towels, but the students brought their A game, earning another post game salute from Abdullah. Plus, the new “Welcome To Your Worst Nightmare” banners were sweet. I loved the entire stadium on their feet chanting “DE-FENSE” at the end of the game – it has never been that loud with Nebraska up 17 points with 22 seconds left in the game. One other thing to consider as you rest those vocal chords: not only did that atmosphere directly impact the game (two delay of game penalties, and two more wasted timeouts by Miami), but it had to make a big impression with the recruits – not only football, but basketball and several other sports – who were on hand. Give yourselves a pat on the back, and do it again next week.
Honorable Mention: Randy Gregory, Josh Mitchell, Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Drew Brown, Clinton Childs rockin’ the “Free LP” shirt during the 1994 Tunnel Walk
5 Areas for Improvement
- Pass Defense. The tone was set on first drive: freshman QB Brad Kaaya went 5 of 6 passing for 54 yards, and it continued from there. The Huskers gave up 353 yards passing on the night, and struggled to stop or sometimes even cover the short passing game of Miami.
- Goal line play calling. In the second quarter, Nebraska twice had play calling challenges inside the 10 yard line. The first trip started first and goal from the six. There was a three yard keeper by Armstrong, an awful attempt of a swing pass to Lane Hovey on the weak side of the field (where Hovey was nearly decapitated by a Hurricane defender) before Armstrong found Abdullah for a TD reception. At the end of the half (first and goal from the five) Abdullah was stuffed for no gain and Armstrong gained three yards on two carries, before NU settled for a 19 yard field goal. Suggestion to Tim Beck: consider using the AmeerCat the next time you find yourself first and goal inside the 10.
- Linebackers. The standout plays from David Santos notwithstanding, the play of the linebacking corps was rather pedestrian. Zaire Anderson has not yet played to the level that many expected. Josh Banderas spent a good portion of the second half on the bench watching Trevor Roach. The loss of Michael Rose-Ivey has really hurt this unit.
- Tackling. We saw a fair amount of missed tackles by Nebraska defenders. I’m not pushing the panic button, however it needs to get cleaned up before it becomes an issue.
- Phil Collins. Some of you took issue with my call for remake of “The Cornhusker” to become the 4th quarter song in Memorial Stadium. I’ll ask you: would you rather listen to this or “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, which is what NU played? Me too.