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Feit Can Write
I know the opponent on Saturday was the Purdue Boilermakers. Yet, I kept having flashbacks to the game at Michigan State last month.
I saw repeats of what the Huskers did in East Lansing: There was Nebraska wasting amazing field position time after time. There was the offense trying to find production without Ameer Abdullah carrying the team. Here was a bad snap from the center causing problems. There is the defense playing a very strong game. Here goes De’Mornay Pierson-El with another big punt return.
But I also saw the Huskers trying to emulate what the Spartans did: There are the Huskers taking their foot off the gas pedal and allowing Purdue to mount a minor comeback attempt. Where are the fans? Like at Michigan State, the stands were really starting to thin out in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
Aside from the punt return, Nebraska needs to stop trying to replay the Michigan State game. The game against Purdue could have (and probably should have) been a 30 point blowout. Nebraska squandered amazing field position and gift-wrapped opportunities to put Purdue away early. Instead they let them hang around while the Huskers plodded into the second bye in need of an offensive jump-start.
And they’ll need it – otherwise the trip to Madison could also resemble the loss to the Spartans.
So what did we learn?
Nebraska’s performance on the goal line was embarrassing. Three times, Nebraska got inside the Boilermaker five yard line. They scored two touchdowns, but it took a total of ten plays to get those two scores. Those ten plays netted a total of ten yards.
1st & Goal from the 4. Abdullah for two yards.
2nd & Goal from the 2. Abdullah for one yard.
3rd & Goal from the 1. Abdullah for no gain.
4th & Goal from the 1. Fumble, no gain. Loss of downs. Abdullah injured on the play.
1st & Goal from the 2. Cross scores a touchdown.
2nd & 4 from the 5. Cross for three yards
3rd & 1 from the 2. Cross for one yard and a first down.
1st & Goal from the 1. Armstrong for no gain.
2nd & Goal from the 1. Armstrong for no gain.
3rd & Goal from the 1. Cross scores a touchdown.
Let’s be clear: Nebraska was not facing Michigan State, the 1985 Chicago Bears, or a defensive line containing Ndamukong Suh. Purdue is noticeably better than they were a year ago, but it should not take that many attempts to pick up that little amount of yardage.
As for who to blame, I think you can share the wealth between Tim Beck (I abhor pistol or shotgun snaps inside the five yard line), the offensive line (you simply have to get it done), and the ball carriers (find a crease and get in there). In my mind, no one is greater than the others. Beck’s calls may not have been ideal, but if Nebraska can’t get one or two yards at will, it’s going to be a long November.
Two additional points are worth noting: 1) for many of these plays, NU was lined up in their standard pistol set, and 2) the second touchdown came out of the I-formation with a fullback in the game and Armstrong under center.
The Blackshirts continue to improve. I know it is fun and easy to knock and mock Purdue, who has been a B1G doormat ever since Drew Brees graduated. But Purdue is a much better team than they were a year ago, and their offense has been at the front of their resurgence, as they scored 35 points against Michigan State’s vaunted defense. So take a look at what your Blackshirts did to the Boilermakers:
- Held Purdue to 18 of 46 passing (39%)
- Two interceptions.
- Three sacks
- Nine quarterback hurries
- Eleven pass break ups
- 2 of 16 on 3rd down (13%)
- 1 of 6 on 4th down (17%)
I’ll take that effort any week.
Tommy Armstrong should plan to sit out next year’s game at Purdue. I don’t know what it is about the Boilermaker defense, but it is Tommy’s kryptonite. In two starts against Purdue, Armstrong is a combined 14-39 passing (36%) for 161 yards and five interceptions. His rushing numbers on Saturday (13 for 70 yards, with a score) were a big improvement on the four rushes for five yards he had in 2013.
I really like Tommy Armstrong. I see his growth from a year ago, and his potential for the next two seasons. But boy does Purdue have his number.
So what don’t we know?
Can Nebraska win without a healthy Ameer? The short answer is yes, they can beat any of the teams remaining on their schedule without Ameer Abdullah – or with Ameer at 70-80% (i.e. playing like a mortal). Nebraska has notable talent at quarterback and receiver, and the line and backup running backs should be good enough to keep teams honest. Now, I think it is fair to question if those players are capable of doing that (i.e. the line giving Armstrong enough time to make throws, and Armstrong avoiding interceptions). It’s also fair to ask if Tim Beck can design a game plan to maximize what he has, and avoid having guys do things that aren’t their strength (such as Imani Cross running sweeps).
Frankly, I think this somewhat of a moot discussion as Abdullah has proven himself time and again to a warrior of a back who plays through all sorts of injury. I don’t see him sitting on the sidelines when Nebraska may be in jeopardy of losing the division.
Worst case scenario, Bo Pelini reverts to 2009 mode where he relies on his defense to shut down opposing teams while hoping the offense can eke out 10 – 14 points. It would be ugly, and a big test of a defense that, while improved, is not at the 2009 standard. But special teams play may be enough to carry NU to victory.
What would have happened if Purdue played to win? With baseball season over, bashing Tim Beck is now the favorite pastime of Husker fans. But as poor as you may think Beck is doing, he’s still miles ahead of Purdue’s OC. In the second half, Purdue looked like the team with a 21 point lead. They rushed frequently, huddled after most plays, and did not seem to be in much hurry to get back in the game. Frankly, it wasn’t until Purdue stumbled into a 4th quarter touchdown to cut the lead to 14 that the Boilermakers realized that they actually had a chance. Who knows what happens if Purdue is smarter with the clock and their play calls.
Should we be concerned about Drew Brown? Drew Brown missed a 46 yard field goal, and has only made three of his last six kicks going back to the Illinois game. His longest make in the last month was 40 yards at Michigan State. For the second game, Spencer Lindsay handled kickoff duties.
I’m cautiously optimistic that this is just me looking too deep at the numbers. But if Abdullah is slow to return to form, Nebraska will need scoring from wherever they can get it – even if it means some longer, high pressure field goals.
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: Officially, NU was -1 on the game. A very tough luck -1, as Byerson Cockrell fumbled his second quarter interception back to Purdue. Instead of a big third down stop, Purdue got a fresh set of downs and scored three plays later. Nebraska’s other two turnovers – interceptions by Tommy Armstrong – were rather ugly, one of which occurred inside the 10. LOSS.
- Penalties: A season low three penalties for 30 yards. It’s worth noting that half of the penalty yards were picked up by the head coach on an unsportsmanlike penalty call. WIN.
- Punt Returns: This one was decided three minutes and twelve seconds into the game. By that time, NU had blocked a punt and nearly blocked a second as Pierson-El Punt returned it 42 yards. WIN.
- Game Management: Even though it didn’t work, I liked Pelini using a replay challenge on the Cockrell interception and fumble. Other than the official, nobody is really sure why Pelini was hit with a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the fourth quarter, but it took NU out of field goal range when an extra three points could have sealed the game. LOSS.
Final tally: The impact of Nebraska’s punt return / punt block game was enough to make a big difference here and avoid tipping the scales towards what could have been an ugly loss.
5 Players I Loved
- Randy Gregory. The stats don’t really show it, but RG4 played a hell of a game. Gregory has always had a high motor, but he puts into another gear for the Purdue team he was twice committed to. The Boilermakers knew that, and regularly double and triple teamed him. I’m not saying that Gregory was held repeatedly during the game, but if he was wearing a Jeff Kinney-style tear-away jersey, Gregory would have been naked by the start of the fourth quarter. As it was, he had three quarterback hurries and batted down a pass.
- Josh Mitchell. This is the J-Mitch I’ve been looking for. The one who is a shut-down corner (three pass breakups) and a devastatingly quick on the corner blitz (two sacks). I hope he wore his SWAG sunglasses for post game interviews, because he earned it.
- Maliek Collins. Collins is playing at a very high level right now. Big, powerful, and surprisingly quick, he picked up another sack as well as three hurries. It’s fair to say that Collins has benefited from the extra attention that Gregory draws, but Collins played just as good when Gregory was injured early in the season. I’m still not sure how he missed the tackle on Purdue’s trick play attempt.
- Nate Gerry. Another game, another interception for “Defense Rex” (as Tunnel Walk of Shame calls him). You wouldn’t know that this is Gerry’s second year in the program, and just his first at safety.
- Kieron Williams. His punt block was a great spark, and should have set the tone for a blowout win. I am excited by Kieron’s future. He just looks and acts like a playmaker.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Reilly, Zaire Anderson, Daniel Davie, Corey Cooper, Sam Foltz, Veterans Day tributes, Army Golden Knights parachute team
5 Areas for Improvement
- Center. As gusty as the wind was in row 47, it must have been much worse on the field, as several snaps went sailing all over the place. I’m going to delve into the Mark Pelini / Ryne Reeves debate, as each had their fair share of bad snaps. Whatever the problem is, it needs to be fixed before going to Wisconsin. Period.
- Tommy Armstrong, Jr. As noted above, Tommy had another rough outing against Purdue. Here’s hoping that a) there is no hangover and b) he has a career day in West Lafayette next year.
- Reserve I-Backs. I understand that Terrell Newby and Imani Cross don’t just step in and replace a Heisman-caliber back with no discernible drop-off. That just isn’t going to happen. But given the chance for extended playing time in a non-mop-up situation, I was hoping one of the reserves would make the most of the opportunity and get a leg up on the starting job in 2015. I didn’t see that.
- Goalline Offense. You are Nebraska, dadgummit. Get out of the pistol and go under center. Put in a fullback. Tell the line to block somebody. Give it to an I-Back, and hand the ball to the ref after you score. The end.
- Andy Janovich. Usually, I’m all for my fellow Gretna Dragon getting on the stat sheet….except when it is off of a holding penalty. Hopefully next time it will be a reception or possibly a carry. I guarantee a fullback would not get stuffed on 2nd and goal from the 1.