Northworst or Northbest?

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Feit Can Write

Note:  As is my custom, the winner of the Nebraska-Northwestern game unofficially earns the right to use “NU” for the following year.  Therefore, any references to “NU” in this piece will refer to Nebraska.

This game was a true tale of two halves.  In the first half, NU was sloppy on both sides of the ball.  There was poor tackling, bad pursuit angles, and a defense that seemed determined to make Justin Jackson (the NW RB, not the former Nebraska lineman) look like an All-American.  The defense could not get stops on 3rd down, which led to sustained drives down the field.

Offensively, it felt more like Beck was throwing plays up against the wall instead of executing a game plan.  Ameer Abdullah struggled to get established and the line looked subpar once again.  The team was unable to convert third downs, including some bad drops.  Despite coming to life late in the half, NU was lucky to be down just three points at halftime.

In the second half, everything changed.  The defense shut down the run and made Northwestern one-dimensional.  Trevor Siemian is not very mobile when he’s healthy, and he looked beat up.  The defense was able to pressure him and the Wildcats did not put up a point in the second half.

Offensively, the line (with three reserves on the right side) was much better.  This allowed Abdullah to get on track, and Armstrong converted several big 3rd downs.  Not too surprisingly, the Huskers pulled away at the end.  Now, we wait to see if Nebraska can play a full four quarters the way they played the final two.

So what did we learn?

When Armstrong can hit receivers in stride, the offense looks great.  When Nebraska’s offense is struggling, it often seems like Tommy Armstrong, Jr.’s passes are off target.  Too often, he throws behind his guys or at their ankles when they have room to run.  The receivers usually make a difficult catch, but a lot of extra yardage is left out on the field.  We’ve seen it frequently this season, and it happened again in the first half.

But on the first play of Nebraska’s final drive of the half, Armstrong hit De’Mornay Pierson-El down the field, in stride for 46 yards.  In the second half, Armstrong was much better at hitting his receivers in stride, allowing them to gain extra yards.  Not so coincidentally, the offense was much more effective.

I like that we’re seeing improvement from Armstrong in this facet of his game, as ball placement makes a big different in a pass going for a touchdown or deflecting off a receiver’s back shoulder into the arms of a defender.

NU made good on its promise to get Pierson-El more involved in the offense.  In the weeks leaving up to the Northwestern game, word out of the Husker camp had freshman return sensation De’Mornay Pierson-El getting more involved in the offense.  Not only did Pierson-El join Ameer Abdullah on the kickoff return team, he got several reps with the offense throughout the game, racking up three receptions for 66 yards, and throwing a touchdown to Armstrong on a trick play.  Additionally, Pierson-El was used as a motion man, setting up a jet sweep fake before many plays.  The threat of him getting the ball certainly helped Abdullah with his second half breakout.

Obviously, I like that NU is getting a budding star more opportunities.  But what I really like is NU finally getting a talented freshman to be a difference maker.  Over the years – and really, one could point to most seasons since Osborne retired – Nebraska has a bad, bad habit of playing true freshman early in the year, getting them a couple of touches during the non-conference schedule, and then completely forgetting about them during conference play.  As a result, Nebraska wasted a lot of eligibility from talented players (Niles Paul, Aaron Green, and Quincy Enunwa are the first to come to mind).  I’m guessing other coaches used NU’s failure in getting big contributions from freshman against them in recruiting.  I know I would.  Pierson-El’s season gives me hope that Nebraska will get talented freshmen on the field without trashing a year of eligibility.

It was a good night to be a reserve.  Several backups made key contributions on Saturday night.  It didn’t matter if they were replacing a dinged up starter or if the starters were being ineffective, once the backups got into the game, they made their presence known.  Kevin Williams, Jack Gangwish, Ryne Reeves, Chongo Kondolo, Givens Price, Trevor Roach, and others all looked good.

So what don’t we know?

Where were these O Line changes at Michigan State?  I liked that Nebraska recognized the struggles by the offensive line, and brought in Reeves, Kondolo, and Price along the right side.  Call it a change of pace, sending a message to the starters, or putting in somebody who can get the job done, the backups delivered.  I do not think it was coincidental that most of Nebraska’s best drives came with those three in the game.  Again, kudos to the staff for making a change.


Where were these changes against Michigan State?  The line looked much, much worse against the Spartans than it did in the first half against Northwestern.  And yet, I’m not sure if the backups ever stepped foot on the field.  To me, that is inexcusable.  I can understand the coaching rationale of “if you don’t practice well, you won’t play”, but I more understand the desire (if not need) to win a football game.  I don’t care how poorly a guy may have practiced, when a tackle is getting physically dominated and the center is snapping the ball before his quarterback is ready, you need to make a change.  Period.

As frequent readers have likely figured out, I’ll support and defend Bo against unnecessary and unfair criticism.  This criticism is warranted, and I’d love to hear a good reason for why changes weren’t made at Michigan State, especially in light of the immediate impact they had against Northwestern.

What is the upper end of Drew Brown’s range?  On Nebraska’s first drive of the second half, the offense stalled out at the Northwestern 35.  Instead of trying a 52 yard field goal, Bo Pelini opted to punt.

That decision surprised me a little bit.  I expected to see Drew Brown try a field goal that could have tied the game.  As Sam Foltz lobbed his punt towards the sideline, I wondered what is the longest kick Pelini will let Brown attempt.  In fairness to Pelini, Brown had missed from 39 yards earlier in the game, but on a 50+ yard attempt earlier this season, it looked like Brown had plenty of leg.

I get that this decision may be nothing more than a defense-minded coach wanting to play field position.  And in light of how it played out (the punt went out of bounds at the 6, Nebraska got a three-and-out, and scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive), Pelini made the right decision.  But as a fan, I’d love to know where Brown’s “field goal range” line would be digitally displayed on the field.

Are the all-white road uniforms here to stay?  Since Northwestern was wearing their all black “Gothic” uniforms, I wasn’t all that surprised to see Nebraska come out in all white.  When you look at how the three road games have gone (wins at Fresno and Northwestern in white pants and a loss at Michigan State in red pants), I won’t be at all surprised to see the white pants when NU takes the field in Madison.

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:  My favorite stat entering the game was how over the last three years of this series, the games have collectively been decided by one point.  Look a little deeper into that number, and you’ll see that NU was -5 in turnover margin in those three games.  Ironically, their lone loss in this series was the game where NU was positive in turnover margin. But that is a statistical anomaly.  NU is tough to beat when they are positive in turnover margin like there were against the Wildcats (+1 on the night).  WIN.
  • Penalties:  Nebraska had eight penalties for 83 yards, far more than Northwestern (7 for 50 yards).  As is the case when you have 8 for 83, some of those penalties will kill your drives and extend those of your opponent.  LOSS.
  • Punt Returns:  Pierson-El did not have many opportunities, and did not do a ton with the kicks he did return (3 for 26 yards).  However, it was quite obvious that Northwestern was kicking it away from him.  That resulted in field position gains, and is a WIN in my book.
  • Game Management:  I wasn’t a fan of Beck’s play calling in the first half.  I rarely got the feeling that he knew how he wanted to attack the Wildcats.  It is also worth noting that four of the five of the timeouts Nebraska took were on defense.  Two times, Northwestern ended up punting within two plays of the timeout.  Two times, Northwestern scored within four plays.  Still, I’m going to give credit for getting the team focused on execution (blocking, tackling, catching passes, etc.) in the second half.  WIN.

Final tally:  If Nebraska does not make adjustments at half, I would not have given them a W for Game Management, and it is quite conceivable that they would have lost this game.  As it stands, when NU goes 3-1 in these areas, they tend to win convincingly.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Kevin Williams.  I love a good comeback/perseverance story.  And Kevin Williams, having lost so much time to injuries and surgeries is the poster child for perseverance.  So it was terrific to see him play so well in relief of Vincent Valentine and record two big sacks.
  2. Ameer Abdullah.  It took a while, but Abdullah made the most of his second half opportunities.  It’s also very interesting how a year ago on 1st and goal from the one or two, Abdullah would come out and Imani Cross would come in.  Not so this year, as the coaching staff seems determined to pad Abdullah’s stats with as many touchdowns as possible.  I’m okay with this.
  3. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  Did anybody else think that “get Pierson-El more involved in the offense” meant having a true freshman throwing a touchdown pass to his quarterback?  If he has a solid arm (and I believe he played some QB in high school), look for him to take some wildcat snaps in the future.
  4. Sam Foltz.  Most weeks, a 33.4 yard average on five punts (with a long of 37) will get a punter on the other list.  But when all five of those punts land inside the 20 yard line.  With Northwestern lacking a big play threat, it was smart to make them go 80+ yards on their drives.
  5. Ryne Reeves, Givens Price, and Chongo Kondolo.  The big fellas provided a spark for the entire offense.  The execution looked crisper, the backs had better holes, and Armstrong had more time to throw.

Honorable Mention:  Kenny Bell, Jack Gangwish, Randy Gregory, Trevor Roach, Zaire Anderson, BTN broadcast team of Kevin Kugler and Glen Mason

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. First Quarter execution.  The defense allowed another first drive score, the offense had some very bad drops, and NU didn’t look like a team that had two weeks to rest and prepare for Northwestern.
  2. Kenny Bell’s Twitter Critics.  After the game, Kenny Bell retweeted several messages he received from Husker “fans” who were so disappointed by Bell’s dropped passes that they felt the need to make personal attacks on a player.  I think that is disgusting.  If you want to be mad because a guy didn’t make a play, fine.  If you feel the need to call somebody out by name (via Twitter, message board, talk radio, or *ahem* a blog) that’s your choice.  But there is absolutely zero reason to go personal, threaten, or tell a guy that he sucks.  I get that Bell – an outspoken guy who likes interacting with fans on social media – is an easy target, but that doesn’t make it right.
  3. Kenny Bell.  That said, Bell’s drops were very uncharacteristic and came at some very unfortunate times (3rd downs).  I don’t expect Bell to catch every ball thrown in his direction, but I’d guessing that he’d make those same catches over 95% of the time.
  4. Corey Cooper.  BTN did a mini-montage of Jackson’s big runs in the first half.  On most of them, Cooper was in – or close to – position to make a play but came up empty.  I realize that Cooper was second on the team in tackles Saturday night, but I’d still like to see the senior safety become more of a playmaker.
  5. NU High Hurdle team.  Memo to Jordan Westerkamp and especially Tommy Armstrong:  Stop trying to hurdle guys before you get hurt.  You’re not Roy Helu.  Especially in the case of Armstrong – I know you want to score, but consider the circumstances:  you’re in the red zone, up 11 in the fourth quarter.  Protect the ball and yourself.  Slide.


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