Spartan Offense

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Feit Can Write

At halftime, I was not feeling all that confident about Nebraska’s chances for a comeback.  NU was down 17-0, had wasted several scoring opportunities, and was doing very little on offense.

Then ABC showed a stat that gave me an odd sense of hope:  The last time Nebraska was shut out in the first half was the 2009 game at Missouri.

The similarities, both on the field and personal – were striking.

As you may recall, that ’09 Mizzou game was a night game, on the road, and the weather was a factor (an obvious understatement, but stay with me).  Nebraska looked helpless on offense and it appeared to be a matter of time before a strong defense collapsed.

Ditto on Saturday.  A road night game, played in a chilly, windy rain.  The defense had made given up some big plays, but they were doing their best to keep Nebraska in the game.  The offense had no answers for Michigan State’s defense.

But the biggest similarities were personal.  I watched that 2009 game from a hotel room outside Tampa, Florida with my wife and then 11 month old daughter sleeping next to me.  It was so surreal to experience an exciting comeback victory knowing that if made any noise I would have a crying baby and a crabby wife.

I watched the Michigan State game from a hotel room in Kearney with my two youngest children (2 and 1), having ducked out of a wedding early.  The little ones were asleep at halftime, so as the fourth quarter comeback commenced I once again had to suppress my urge to yell and scream* as Nebraska came to life.

*I bet I looked ridiculous during Pierson-El’s punt return.

The moral of this little story?  If you have to watch a Husker game in the same room as sleeping children, try to pick one where Nebraska is expected to win 35-7:  a nice, easy, stress-free win.  Otherwise, rethink your travel plans.

So what did we learn?

Michigan State had the perfect defensive game plan.  Let’s start by setting the pregame scenario:  NU has an exceptional back putting up big numbers.  Beyond that, there is a capable, but young QB, two top-end receivers, and a several unproven pieces.  You can already see MSU’s game plan start to take shape:

Don’t let Ameer Abdullah beat you.  Force Tommy Armstrong to beat you with his arm – preferably to receivers other than Bell and Westerkamp.  With the run game shut down, you can now pin your ears back and go after the young QB and try to rattle him into making mistakes.  Husker fans, if this sounds familiar, it should.  It is the same recipe Charlie McBride used for his best years:  stop the run, make the other team one-dimensional, and get after the quarterback.  The weather (chilly and rainy) as well as a natural grass field further aided MSU.

And it worked.  Damn near perfectly.

Tip your cap to MSU’s staff for devising and executing a solid game plan.

Ameer Abdullah picked a horrible time for his first fumble of the season.  I’ve been thinking it for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t want to jinx it by saying something:  as well as Abdullah had been playing in 2014, he had not yet fumbled the ball.  The biggest weakness from his previous seasons was nowhere to be found!

And then…

Second and six from the Spartan 8 yard line.  Abdullah goes into the Wildcat (AmeerCat!) and takes the direct snap.  He plows ahead one yard before the ball pops out.  Michigan State recovers and runs it back 38 yards, ending a NU scoring threat and leading to a Spartan field goal.

For the first time in 2014, Abdullah looked human.  It says a lot about the season he’s having that this is noteworthy.

Nebraska can play a nationally televised night game on the road and not get blown out.  Yes, there is more than just a hint of sarcasm here, but there were large stretches of this game (i.e. the second and third quarters) where it sure looked like Nebraska was headed for the wrong end of a 48-7 blowout.  Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit certainly acted like that was going to be the case.  Once again, Nebraska goes under the bright lights and falls flat on their face.  The national narrative for this team continues to be negative.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Make no mistake:  for the first three quarters of this game, Nebraska was out-played, out-classed, and out-coached.  But Nebraska did something that few of the national folks (and I’m guess many of their own fans) thought was possible:  they never quit.  They keep playing; kept fighting.  This team knew that the game was far from over, and there was still hope.

Yes, Michigan State definitely played a role with a lackluster second half, several stupid penalties, and some poor clock management.  All of these things kept Nebraska in the game and kept their glimmer of hope alive.

I want to be clear that I’m not declaring any sort of moral victory, or implying that Nebraska should have won (that final pass to Alonzo Moore would have been an amazing catch – one that even the great “Wester-catch” might not have hauled in).  But I am giving credit to this team, the players, and the coaches for not quitting; not folding or allowing another blowout loss on national TV.  Sure, most of the nation had probably switched channels by the time Nebraska started to come back, but the act of doing it – and especially on the road – matters.

Much of the credit goes to the defense.  The Blackshirts did a very good job of shutting down a very potent offense.  They held Connor Cook to a rather pedestrian day (11 of 29 passing with an interception) and only allowed MSU to convert 25% of their third downs.  You may recall that third down is where Michigan State and Cook did most of their damage in 2013.

So what don’t we know?

If NU and MSU meet in Indianapolis, will the result be different?  Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that Tommy Armstrong’s postgame prediction comes true and NU gets a rematch with Sparty at the Big Ten Championship.  Shouldn’t we expect another round of Spartans keying on Abdullah while their defensive front works over the NU offensive line?

Maybe.  But maybe not.

I think the night plays out a little differently if the game is indoors on turf.  The footing for Abdullah and his blockers is better.  Do Tim Beck’s play calls work better on dry turf than wet grass?  The ball is dry, so Nebraska can run a quicker tempo.  On the first possession, Drew Brown probably tries a 48 yard field goal in a dome with no wind in his face.

Plus, there is this highly unscientific and anecdotal stat:  in a same-season rematch of college football teams, the team that lost the first time usually wins the second time.

Of course, Nebraska has to win the West first…

What should we make of  “Clap-Gate”?  In the days after the game, Bo Pelini stated that a reason for nephew Mark Pelini snapping the ball to an unsuspecting Tommy Armstrong was a MSU defender replicating the clap that NU uses to signal when the ball should be snapped.  In theory, it makes sense – little Pelini is a very bright kid (he turned down Ivy League offers to walk on at NU) so I doubt that he simply forgot the snap count.  Plus, somebody posted a pixellated Zapruder film showing the Spartan defender clapping (a signal to the Spartan defensive line, we’re told) on YouTube.

So what to make of it?

First and foremost, from reading Bo’s remarks he was not using the clapping as an excuse for losing the game or the line’s poor play.  He simply answered a question asked by a reporter.  Maybe Bo should have avoided the implication that MSU committed a penalty, as it sure looks like sour grapes (pro tip:  when little Pelini clearly snaps it early, ask him why when he comes off the field.  If you can determine that a rogue clap was the culprit, you alert the officials during the game – not days later).

Did MSU intentionally cheat?  I don’t think so.  I get that by the letter of the law it would be a penalty.  I also agree with the old football axiom that a penalty could be called on every play.  In cases like this, I subscribe to logic prevalent in NASCAR and SEC country:  “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying”.  Michigan State (allegedly) found a potential advantage because NU uses a basic clap instead of Hut, Hike, Go, Yahtzee, Omaha, or any other verbal snap count.  After the first two or three times, it’s on Nebraska to adjust.

How much does the mood around this team change during the bye week?  A loss going into the bye week is horrible for fans, media, and internet know-it-alls who base their opinion solely on the last game.

Nebraska loses, and looks poor for most of it.  Meanwhile, their next opponent (Northwestern) has two surprising conference victories, and is suddenly looking like a tough team.  And that game is in Northwestern!  Don’t forget the three close games between these teams since NU joined the Big Ten!

I’m not advocating for bye week panic mode.  Nebraska got beat by less than a touchdown to a top 10 team playing at home.  Yes, Nebraska played poorly, but who out there thinks that Michigan State gave the Huskers their “A” game in return?  Anybody?

Northwestern may be a surprise team and a legitimate threat for the division title, but I still expect Husker fans to make up a significant chunk of Ryan Stadium.

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:  Nebraska lost the turnover battle by one – the interception thrown with 30 seconds remaining that killed NU’s comeback hopes.  That hurt, but what hurt more was Nebraska’s failure to convert any of their three takeaways into points.  NU got the ball on the Michigan State 30, 41, and 24 yard lines and came away with a net of 12 yards on the 13 plays they ran.  Defensively, NU did a good job of holding MSU to a pair of field goals after NU gave the ball away.  LOSS.
  • Penalties:  Michigan State had almost twice the penalty yards of Nebraska.  However, Nebraska still had six penalties – all on the offense – and many of them put the offense into a hole they could not climb out of.  On a night where offensive success was hard to come by, NU could not afford to shoot themselves in the foot.  LOSS.
  • Punt Returns:  Plain and simple:  Nebraska’s comeback effort goes nowhere with the 2013 punt return team on the field.  With the 2014 squad – headlined by De’Mornay Pierson-El – Nebraska is given a quick boost of energy and confidence as momentum clearly swings to the NU sideline.  There is a slight demerit for the earlier return attempt where Pierson-El’s “get away” arm waving was mistaken for “fair catch”.  Apparently that is a rule, and the coaching staff should have made him aware of it.  WIN.
  • Game Management:  I’ve seen some criticism of Pelini’s choice to punt on Nebraska’s first possession instead of trying 48 yard field goal into the wind.  While potentially valid, I think this speaks to how spoiled we’ve become by a string of excellent field goal kickers capable of making long range kicks.  Remember:  we’re still less than 10 years removed from an era where a coach down by three with 10 seconds left chose to throw for the end zone instead of trying a 40 yard FG – mainly because he didn’t think his kicker had the range (2007 Cotton Bowl).  I’ll give Pelini a pass on that, but the failures to make in-game adjustments – particularly in light of “Clap-gate” – are on the staff.  LOSS.

Final Tally:  1-3.  The inability to convert turnovers into points was a huge factor in the game, and probably would have tipped the scales if it ended up 2-2.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Trevor Roach.  Roach was a standout performer on the defense.  Eighteen (!) tackles, including four for loss.  Frankly, if not for the 4th quarter rally lifting #2 and #3 into contention, Roach would be the runaway player of the game.  Regardless, Roach looked great and earned himself more playing time.
  2. Jordan Westerkamp.  Let’s start with the stats:  an impressive nine catches for 158 yards.  Now consider that most of those catches came after Kenny Bell went out with an injury (and Nebraska went into obvious passing mode) making Westerkamp the clear #1 target.  I know that lone drop will haunt him, but it was another impressive game.
  3. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  This kid is a difference maker and a legitimate threat any time he goes back.  What really stood out to me during his punt return for a touchdown was just how far he had to run to even field the punt.  Then, he was able to find his blockers and get up field in a hurry.
  4. Zaire Anderson.  It’s fascinating how the perspective on position groups changes from week to week.  It wasn’t too long ago that the linebackers were one of the weakest links on the team, with the offensive line being perceived as a strength.  But after stand-out performances by Roach and Zaire (six tackles, one for loss, a pass break up, and a QB hurry) the linebackers look sturdy.
  5. Greg McMullen.  McMullen had another strong performance on Saturday:  four tackles, one for loss, but I’m giving him proper recognition after having him in the Honorable Mention all year long.  He’s been a worthy counterpart to Randy Gregory.  Besides, who else from the offense would you put on this list?

Honorable Mention:  Andy Janovich (the fullback touched the ball!!!), Randy Gregory, Ryker Fyfe, Drew Brown, Kevin Gladney’s block on the Pierson-El TD, Vincent Valentine, 5% of NU’s first downs generated by the fullback.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  During fall camp, the line made it know that they wanted to be “Hell in a Helmet”.  It was sadly symbolic that for their trip to Sparta they became “Helen in a Helmet”.  (All due apologies to my wife’s late great-grandma Helen, who despite having the same weight and age (95) probably could have played equally as well.  Regardless, she would have been just as fast off the ball).  You can blame personnel, scheme, motivation, leadership, athleticism, or any of a number of other options for what went wrong.  There are very few positive words that can be said for that performance.
  2. Tommy Armstrong’s Mechanics.  For much of the game, Armstrong put on a clinic of how not to throw the ball.  Throwing off his back foot, locking in on receivers, and that inexplicable jump pass.  I get that the deck was stacked against him by a Spartan defense determined to make him beat them with his arm.  And I definitely get that he was under heavy pressure all night due to the line’s issues – including snapping the ball when he wasn’t expecting it.  I can understand how that could rattle a young quarterback, and clearly it did.  But the complete breakdown of his throwing mechanics did more harm than good.
  3. Two Point Conversion plays.  Neither of the two plays Nebraska ran on their conversion tries looked very good – or very likely to score.  I know he had fumbled earlier in the game, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Ameer Cat in that situation.
  4. Jonathan Rose.  Rose is not on this list because he got beat for a touchdown.  That happens.  But he on this list because of that play.  Look:  it doesn’t take a football savant to know that when a starting cornerback leaves the game the offense will go after his replacement early and often.  Rose needed to be better prepared (mentally and by his coaches/coordinators), and he probably could have used a little better assistance from his safeties.
  5. Jake Cotton.  That was the most Cotton penalty in the long and infamous history of Cotton family penalties.  Young Sam, the bar has been raised.  Seriously, though.  That was embarrassing on a night where Nebraska (and the offensive line) did not need any help embarrassing themselves.



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