Husker Halloween in September

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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

Author’s note:  A lot of you are about to read will make reference to the uniforms Nebraska wore against Illinois.  While I was not a fan of this version going in, these things impacted my game experience like nothing else in the 30+ years I’ve been a fan.  I was not able to view the game the way I’m used to watching it, which makes it very tough for me to write about the way I’m used to doing it.  Know that going in…

I’m not going to pull any punches:  I absolutely hated the alternative uniforms Nebraska wore against Illinois.  H -A – T – E, hate.

I can deal with an all red get-up.  I can deal with a two tone helmet (even if it may have a hidden message inside it).  I can deal with Nebraska being adidas’s guinea pigs for new innovation and design.  I understand why Nebraska does the alternate uniform thing, the benefits it supposedly brings, etc.  Yes, I have not been a fan of any of the three alts NU has worn to date (2012, 2013, 2014), but when NU wears them I put on my big boy pants and deal with it, because at the end of the day it doesn’t impact me directly.

But on Saturday night, the “Red Rising” uniforms impacted me directly.

The black lettering on the back of the red jersey made it impossible to read the names on the jerseys.  The shiny, almost reflective numbers and a very closed font made it extremely difficult to know who was who.  That is a big problem for me.

I go to games to see the things TV doesn’t show me.  I want to watch the linemen, I want to see plays develop and receivers coming open, I want to see the defense react to the ball.  Most importantly, when the play is done I want be able to immediately know and acknowledge WHO made the play.  On Saturday, I could barely do that.

I sit in the northwest corner of the stadium, about halfway up.  My eyes aren’t 20/20, but with my glasses on, I can always read the numbers on a jersey in the opposite end zone.  On Saturday, there was a big interception in the corner of the end zone closest to us.  Nobody around me could tell the number of the Nebraska player who made the big play.  Apparently, it was Daniel Davie, but it could have been Davey Crockett for all we knew.

Yes, there were some visual clues out there:

  • You could distinguish single digit players from two digit ones.  That didn’t always help as Nebraska has two running backs who wear 32 (Imani Cross) and 34 (Terrell Newby).  The people in my section eventually learned to tell them apart by size.  (An actual quote:  “That must be Cross, Newby’s ass isn’t that big”).  When your athletic apparel provider makes it so fans have to stare at another man’s backside to know who he is, that is a failure.
  • If you knew Kenny Bell’s back story, you know that he always wears his old scout team blue practice jersey under his uniform.  As is usually the case, he was the only Husker wearing blue.  When your athletic apparel provider makes you play “Where’s Waldo?” hunting for a sliver of royal blue to find one of the most popular players in school history, that is a failure.
  • You could see if the player was white or black and narrow it down based upon the race of players at that position (“Let see, that was a linebacker.  He’s white.  Must be Banderas…or maybe Roach”).  When your athletic apparel provider forces fans into racial profiling to identify players, that is a failure.

And then there were those reflective shoes.  Under the lights those shoes reflected an odd orangey gold color.   (It’s worth noting that the 8 pm kickoff time was set long before these uniforms were announced, so it was known they’d be used under the lights).  When your athletic apparel provider puts your team in shoes that would look better on the other team (who does not share your school colors), that is failure.

Some folks may point out that the uniforms were a success because two recruits gave their verbal commitment to Nebraska on Saturday.  Maybe.  But considering that both recruits were offensive linemen, what do you think made the bigger impression:  a dominating offensive line that nearly had 300 yards rushing by halftime?  Or the Robin Williams tributes (from his Mork & Mindy days) that Nebraska wears once a year?  Considering that almost every alternate uniform is designed for the body types of receivers, linebackers, and running backs, leaving linemen looking silly and bloated, I doubt it was their desire to wear the all red Husker jammies.

This isn’t necessarily a call for Nebraska to replace adidas with Nike, Under Armour, or anybody else.  Every company has their own track record of gawd-awful designs.  Plus, I think the classic Husker uniform (white pants, red jerseys) has never looked better than they have in the last two or three years.  But this is a call – hell, a desperate plea – from an alum and season ticket holder:  make sure your provider is doing better quality control so the fans in the stands (i.e. the ones providing a big chunk of the department’s budget) do not have their game day experience significantly diminished by the team’s wardrobe.  As long as I can easily tell who is who, I don’t care if Nebraska comes out in neon green jerseys with purple numbers and aqua blue chrome helmets.

So what did we learn?

Nebraska was more conservative against Illinois than any other opponent.  Tim Beck did not go very deep into the playbook Saturday night.  There were only a handful of times the jet sweep motion was shown, otherwise most of the formations were basic or something that had been shown before.  The biggest wrinkle shown was a true screen pass to Newby, with another attempted screen being tipped later in the game.  Defensively, Nebraska did not seem to blitz Illinois that often, choosing to rely on pressure generated by the defensive line.

Obviously, with the complete and utter domination of the NU run game, there was little need to get pass happy or put a bunch of new plays on film for the Spartans to study.  Look for some new things next week against Michigan State.

Nebraska is ready for a challenge.  Aside from the McNeese State game, Nebraska really has not been challenged in any of their games in 2014 – and I’ll listen to the argument that that the biggest challenge NU faced against McNeese was themselves.  So far, Nebraska has proven that they can put up big numbers against inferior opponents, take care of business, and generally have a strong defense.  All of this is good.

But, despite the strength of the Big Ten (or the lack thereof) Nebraska will still face some stronger teams – starting this week in East Lansing.  This team is ready to see how they stack up against the best defense – and possibly the best offense – they will face in the regular season.  They are ready to be tested by a top ten team.  The Huskers may not come out of Michigan State with a victory, but the challenge will tell us a lot about where the ceiling for this team is at.

Randy Gregory is a bad, bad man.  Gregory had seven tackles, two and a half sacks, and three more QB hurries.  A couple of those sacks and hurries were nothing more than Gregory abusing the poor lineman across from him.

And then there was The Block.  You know there is a big hit, when you can hear an audible gasp from the crowd while the play is still going.  I’ve been going back and forth on if it sets a new standard for blocking by a defensive end (a title currently held by Mike Rucker against K-State in 1995 – shown around 7:35 in this clip).  I still lean towards Rucker’s hit (helmet off, ranked opponent, led to a TD) but I’ll listen to arguments from the Gregory camp.

The only downside to Gregory’s block is the bitterness it makes me feel that the last devastating block by a Husker (Kenny Bell vs. Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten Championship) was flagged.  For my money, there is little to no difference between these blocks, and neither one should be flagged.

So what don’t we know?

Can Nebraska stop allowing points on the first drive?  For the fourth time in five games, Nebraska’s opponent scored on their opening drive – only Fresno State was stopped on their first possession.  And much like the opening drives by McNeese State and Miami, Illinois flew down the field getting big chunks of yardage.

I don’t know if the success is due to excellent scripting by opposing offensive coordinators, a Blackshirt defense that wants to see what they’re up against, or if the defense isn’t ready to go and needs a punch in the face before they respond.  Regardless, as the talent level of their opponents increases, the defense will need to play up to their potential for the entire game – not just from the second drive on.

Why were Tommy Armstrong, Nate Gerry, and other starters still in the game midway through the fourth quarter?  Let’s set the scene:  seven minutes left in the game, Nebraska is up by 24 points, with the ball.  On the field are your starting QB (Armstrong) and two best receivers (Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp).  There may have been O line starters in as well, but there was no way I could have known.

Yeah, it was very impressive when Armstrong picked up a 4th and 22 all by himself, but for what purpose?  Is he the only one who can hand off to Cross and Newby?  Why risk getting your clear #1 QB hurt in garbage time?  Why waste the opportunity to give live game snaps to your backups?

On the next defensive series, Nate Gerry and other key Blackshirts were on the field.  Given that Josh Mitchell and Ameer Abdullah left early with injury concerns, you would think those invaluable starters would be gone and the young, inexperienced backups get some reps – even if it means giving up an other touchdown.

Is Nebraska a “running team” or are they just taking what the defense gives them?  Over the last few years, I’ve heard/read a lot of Nebraska media members lamenting the lack of an “offensive identity”.  In their opinion, this lack of identity is responsible for the offensive struggles Nebraska sometimes has.  I don’t necessarily buy that argument, but that is another topic for another day.

I bring that up because many of those same media members have determined that Nebraska being run-heavy against Miami and Illinois is proof that Nebraska has fully embraced a smashmouth running game instead of the “multiple” attack that Tim Beck seems to prefer.

But is that the case?

Part of what Beck has said he likes to do is to a) take what the defense gives him and b) stay with what works.  If Beck can get yards and points by pounding the ball, isn’t he staying true to his philosophy?  When you can average 7.5 yards per carry (as NU did in the first half against Illinois) why do anything else?  The test will come when NU faces a defense that doesn’t allow the Huskers to run wild.  Will Beck stay with the run, or will he look to the air to move the ball?

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 Huskers finished +1 in turnovers.  More important is what happened after the turnovers.  Illinois threw an interception and punted after their two takeaways.  Nebraska scored two touchdowns and fumbled after their three takeaways.  That is a recipe for success.  WIN.
  • Penalties:  NU had more penalties and more yards than Illinois (8 for 70).  Two of them were costly.  A holding call against Mark Pelini erased a 17 yard run and put NU at 1st and 20.  Two plays later (on 3rd and 21), Tommy Armstrong forced a passed which was intercepted.  A pass interference call against Tariq Allen cost Jordan Westerkamp a touchdown.  If not for Armstrong’s 4th & 22 scamper, NU loses points again.  LOSS.
  • Punt Returns:  Not too much to go on here, as NU only had three returns for 12 yards.  But I’ll give credit to Pierson-El for not attempting to field a punt in the 4th quarter.  He could have caught the kick, but he was running back and towards the sideline, which is a recipe for a fumble – and something this team might have done last year.  WIN.
  • Game Management:  I would have liked to see Pelini run the ball on NU’s last possession of the first half – especially with two timeouts in his pocket – especially when NU threw three straight incompletions.  However, that is more about my desire to have NU rush for 300 yards in the first half (they went into the locker room with 288) than anything else.  Besides, I think the end result – letting freshman kick Drew Brown try a 54 yard field goal in a game situation – was a good thing, even if Brown missed the kick.  WIN

Final tally:  Three wins, and a loss that didn’t make a big impact in a 31 point win.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Randy Gregory.  Abdullah is rightfully getting a lot of hype right now, but don’t underestimate the impact Gregory is having on the defense.  Teams are scheming around him, and he still is disrupting plays.  Plus, that block.  Oh my.
  2. Ameer Abdullah.  The Franchise had another big night, putting up 208 yards and three touchdowns.  I’m curious how many more carries he would have had if he did not get banged up.  Also, how many other backs get their own shout-out from the marching band?
  3. Kenny Bell.  Let’s recap Bell’s night:  105 yards receiving, a long TD reception that helped keep the Illini defense honest, and another strong night of downfield blocking.  Outstanding.
  4. Offensive Line.  458 yards rushing, two backs over 100 yards, and holes big enough for the marching band to fit through.  I’m not wild about the two sacks allowed, but 288 yards rushing in a half will make me forget about those mistakes.
  5. Memorial Stadium spotters, announcers, and statisticians.  The only thing more difficult than stopping Nebraska’s run game was being able to quickly relay ball carrier / tackler information to the P.A. announcer off of those shiny jerseys.  If my section was doing that we would have heard “Ball carried by….um….Shiny” and “Tackle made by Duct Tape and Idontknow.”  Kudos for providing that important information to those of us who couldn’t see it for ourselves..

Honorable Mention:  Greg McMullen, Tommy Armstrong, Jr., Daniel Davie, Nate Gerry, Zaire Anderson, Imani Cross, Joe Ganz’s pants.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Alternate Uniforms.  Adidas, you can and have done better.  Nebraska deserves better.  Step up your game or step aside.
  2. Corey Cooper.  I don’t want to bag on a senior co-captain, but I have been underwhelmed by Cooper’s level of play this year.  Part of it may be my expectations, but he sure looked foolish in the open field on Illinois’s first touchdown.
  3. Fullbacks.  Hey Beck:  when it is a blowout and you’re running the ball at will, how about tossing a bone tor your fullbacks?  They’re blocking hard for the backs, so pay them back with a carry.  #FreeAndyJanovich
  4. Cornhusker Marching Band flag corps.  I was a big fan of the Pride’s halftime performance, but my OCD was triggered by the Big Ten school flags they use in pregame.  Could you sort them by division, alphabetically, power ranking, or something other than the seemingly random line up you used?  Thanks.
  5. Johnny Rodgers.  It is always great to see the Jet in the stadium, but did anybody else notice the original Johnny Football sporting a fanny pack?  Dude.  Mike Rozier is embarrassed by your fashion choice.

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