Here We Gopher Again

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Feit Can Write

Based on the season Jerry Kill’s Minnesota Gophers have put together, it is easy to see them as a program on a rise.  Good for them.  For a long, long time, the Minnesota football program has aspired to gravitate towards mediocrity.

But how many of you knew that Minnesota was once one of the elite teams in college football?  Seriously.

The Golden Gophers claim seven national championships.  They’ve won conference titles, had multiple unbeaten seasons, and had two long-time coaches who each won over 72% of their games.  Gopher players have won a Heisman, multiple Outland Trophies, and other national awards.  They have sent numerous players to the NFL, and have a large presence in both the College and Professional Football Halls of Fame.

There is a proud period at Minnesota, known as the “Glory Years” where they won five titles in under ten years (1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, and 10941) and boast a contender for the greatest team of all time (1934).  They were the class of college football for a long stretch of time.

After coach Murray Warmath (who led Minnesota to their most recent title in 1960) left in 1971, the Gophers have employed nine head coaches.  Of those, Glen Mason (64-57) easily has the best record.  No other Minnesota coach since 1971 has been above .500 (including several who were nowhere close to winning half of their games) until Jerry Kill, who went over .500 at Minnesota with his win over the Huskers.

Under Kill, the Gophers starting to claw their way from irrelevant joke of a program to a team you must take seriously.  It’s been a long climb (seasons of 3-9, 6-7, and 8-5 before 2014’s 8-3), and while the program is vastly improved, it’s still fragile.  Losing Kill (either to another school or a re-occurrence of his health issues) would likely derail the progress that has been made, and Minnesota could slide back to the bottom of the pack.

I bring this up as a cautionary tale for Husker fans.  We have been spoiled by the sustained success of our program, as we expect (if not demand) the Huskers to meet or exceed a certain standard every year.  Do you think Minnesota fans back then had similar expectations that their Gophers would always be a top team in the Big Ten, winning championships on a regular basis?  When they slid down from the mountain top, did their alumni object, their fans demand change, or were there calls for patience?  Or did they resign themselves to the continued failure that oozed out of the program under coaches like Jim Wacker, Joe Salem, and Tim Brewster?

Speaking of Brewster (who went 15-30 before being fired during the 2010 season), in retrospect , it’s easy to say that hiring him was a mistake.  But was the bigger blunder firing Glen Mason, who was winning games and reaching bowls with consistency?  Was he close to a break-through, or would one or two more years just been more of the same?

I say these things not to further my stance as a Bo-leaver, or as a Bo-liever.  I say these things because regardless of what Shawn Eichorst chooses to do, Nebraska is at risk of falling into a deep, dark abyss of irrelevance that Minnesota is trying to climb out of.  The Gopher’s seven titles are great for recruiting brochures and banner images on your website, but let’s do a quick show of hands if you were alive the last time Minnesota won a title?  Only those of you 54 or older should have your hands up.  At Nebraska, there are 17-year-old kids who were not alive when Scott Frost pleaded for at least a share.

I’m not saying NU is irrelevant, nor are they doomed to spend decades as an inept punching bag as Minnesota has done for the better part of 40 years.  I’m not.  But neither Bo-leaver nor Bo-liever can rule out that possibility should they get their way on what happens with this coaching staff.

And that scares the hell out of me.


So what did we learn?

The Blackshirts failed on second down.  For the most part, Nebraska’s defense did pretty good on first down.  The Gophers ran a total of 30 plays on first down, averaged 4.7 yards per play, and picked up four first downs and two touchdowns.  Not great, but not horrible.

On third down, Minnesota converted 5 of 12 attempts (42%).  That’s not spectacular, but it is decent – and in many games, that is good enough to win.

But on 26 second down plays, the Gophers gained an average of 6.3 yard, while picking up 14 first downs and one touchdown.  In other words, when Minnesota got to second down, 54% of the time they never got to third down.  That’s not very good.

Nebraska’s defense thrives when they get offenses in third and long situations (six or more yards).  Let’s revisit Minnesota’s 3rd down conversions:  when they faced 3rd and 6 or more, the Gophers were 2 of 7 (28%).  Only one of those 3rd and long conversions was on a drive that ended in points.  When it was 3rd and 5 or closer, Minnesota converted 3 of 5 times (60%).  Four of those attempts ended in Minnesota points (the three conversions were on TD drives, and after Nebraska managed to get a stop on 3rd and 2, Minnesota went for it on 4th and 1 and scored from 19 yards out.  The final 3rd and short attempt ended in the blocked field goal attempt.

What does it all mean?  It is damn tough for a defense to stop drives and get off the field if they can barely get a team into third down – let alone a third a long.  For that to happen, Nebraska needs to be much better on second down.

Injuries did not help Nebraska’s chances.  Nobody likes the guy who uses injuries as an excuse, but it is worth noting that on NU’s final offensive play, their receiving options were (in order) 1. A true freshman in his first year at receiver (Pierson-El), 2.  A former walk-on who has missed most of the season with injuries (Brandon Reilly), and another former walk-on who had not caught a ball since the first game of October (Lane Hovey).  NU’s top three receivers (Kenny Bell, Jordan Westerkamp, and Alonzo Moore) were all out with injuries.  And throughout the game, Abdullah was a liability when he had to help out with pass protection.  He is trying to play through his injuries, but stopping a blitzing defender shows how hurt he really is.

Nebraska did not lose because Players A, B, & C were out of the game or because two key starters (Bell and Mark Pelini) were injured on the first three snaps.  But it sure didn’t help their chances.

It is a shame that three of Nebraska’s best players had to go out like that.  Regular readers likely know that I am a big fan of Ameer Abdullah – both as a Mount Rushmore caliber back and as a wonderful representation of what a student-athlete should in the 21st century.  Ditto for Kenny Bell.  An amazing talent, and a bright and thoughtful young man with a fun-loving personality – plus, as the kids would say: “Dat ‘Fro”.

Finally there is Randy Gregory.  While he could technically come back for a senior season, I have a hard time believing that will happen unless something happens that tanks his draft stock.  Gregory is an absolute freak of an athlete with a rare combination of speed and power.  But what I’ll miss the most is how he can fight and fight and fight through double teams, be completely out of play and still make a tackle.

None of these guys (or any of the other seniors for that matter) deserved to go out on an ugly loss – especially when injuries did not allow them to play to their full potential.

So what don’t we know?

Where would Nebraska have been on Saturday without big plays?  Fourteen of Nebraska’s 24 points came as a result of big plays.  The first touchdown was set up by a great scramble by Armstrong and a 73 yard reception by Bell that put NU on the four yard line.  Two other big plays happened on the same snap (Gregory’s field goal block and Nate Gerry’s touchdown return).  Take those two snaps away and replace it with an incomplete pass and a Gopher field goal and the final margin is closer to 31 – 10.

Frankly, that score feels a little closer to the way NU was defeated.

Is Nebraska’s defensive philosophy backwards?  To me, it appears that the Pelini/Papuchis defense is all about not getting beat by the pass.  Statistically, that is backed up by NU’s traditionally strong rank in pass defense, pass efficiency, and other metrics.  As noted above, with NU’s strong pass rush and decent to above average cornerbacks, I like NU’s chances when they get a team into 3rd and 5+ yards.  When they cannot stop the run on 1st and 2nd down, they don’t see nearly enough 3rd downs.

The Big Ten – and especially the Big Ten West – is a running league.  Teams are going to line it up and come at you – especially when it starts getting cold and windy in November.  You may have noticed that all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award (top running back) are from the Big Ten.  You may have also noticed that Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is about the closest thing the Big Ten has to a “star” quarterback.  Most of the other QBs in this league are simply not very good (Joel Stave and Mitch Leidner, I’m looking directly at you).

So it baffles me why NU seems more interested in stopping the pass (that may not come) then they are in stopping the run (which is what most teams prefer to do).  As we’ve discussed before, I cannot help but wonder if Nebraska would be better served defensively to invoke one of Charlie McBride’s core beliefs of stop the run and make mediocre quarterbacks beat you with their arm.

Have you voiced your opinion on the State of the Nebraska Program?  In case you haven’t heard, I put together a survey to get a true fan perspective on where the Nebraska program is at, where it should go, and who should lead it there.  If you haven’t taken it, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to do so.  You can get started here:

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:  Two absolutely back-breaking, point-costing, spirit-crushing, game-changing fumbles forced by Minnesota inside within 12 yards of the end zone.  Nebraska forces one fumble that flies directly into the arms of lineman (who gains yardage).  Later in the same drive, a second potential fumble was whistled dead (forward progress had, in the opinion of the official, stopped) as Trevor Roach sprinted towards the end zone.  Minnesota scores four plays later to take a 28-24 lead.  LOSS.
  • Penalties:  Only three penalties.  Two of those were on offense and did not have a discernible impact on the drive.  The defensive penalty (15 yards against Josh Mitchell, which happened a good 10-15 yards behind the play) was a boneheaded mistake that gave the Gophers a boost towards their first touchdown.  LOSS.
  • Punt Returns:  The Gophers only punted four times.  One was a shank that was nearly fumbled by Tariq Allen, one went into the end zone, and there were two fair catches.  Can’t call this a win, but I can’t call it a loss either.  NO DECISION.
  • Game Management:  Give Pelini credit for a first quarter timeout to make Minnesota punt into the wind instead of with the wind at their back.  The resulting kick only went 33 yards.  Compare that with Sam Foltz’s first punt with the wind at his back that sailed for 56 yards.  I liked the decision to decline a Gopher holding penalty right before the blocked field goal.  That was a smart call that looked really good when it turned into points.  Schematically, it did not appear as if Nebraska had many answers or adjustments, and the sequence where NU went from 2nd and 1 to 4th & 9 was a critical game changer.  In this case, the bad outweighs the good.  LOSS

Final tally:  There were no WINs against Minnesota, and even if I were to generously change Punt Returns and Game Management to W’s, it still would not be enough to offset the two turnovers.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Randy Gregory.  If that was his final game in Memorial Stadium, that was a pretty decent way to go out.  Eight tackles, a big sack to close out the first half, and the blocked field goal that led to Nate Gerry’s touchdown.  Most of this occurred after you were injured in the first half.
  2. Nate Gerry.  Tunnel Walk of Shame refers to Gerry as “Defense Rex”, a portrayal that always amuses me.  After his long return of a blocked field goal for a touchdown, I suggested that he be referred to a “Special Teams Rex.”  Regardless, this was a nice bounce back performance from a long day in Madison
  3. Zaire Anderson.  Zaire put in a strong Senior Day performance, leading the team with 12 tackles (including two for loss) and a forced fumble.  It was a joy to see a linebacker making linebacker plays, like when you shot through the gap to tackle David Cobb in the backfield.
  4. HuskerVision.  Kudos to the cameraman who had the definitive, goal line angle of Pierson-El’s touchdown.  Without that shot – straight down the goal line, ball clearly breaking the plane – NU probably does not get that touchdown.  Also, thank you for showing said replay multiple times.  During an official review, you should treat the stadium crowd like the home audience of the TV broadcast and show us every possible angle multiple times.
  5. Imani Cross.  I was very encouraged by your work on a drive in the 3rd quarter after Minnesota cut the lead to 21-14.  Armstrong went under center and you or Ameer rushed it eight straight times, picking up 63 yards and setting up a field goal.  It showed that there is potential with Nebraska being a power run team with the personnel they have on campus – including you as a power/feature back.  If Abdullah is limited at Iowa, I hope you can repeat (or improve upon) this performance.

Honorable Mention:  Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Jake Cotton, Corey Cooper, Joey Felici, Derek Foster, Paul Kelly, Josh Mitchell, Mike Moudy, Mark Pelini, Trevor Roach, Austin Williams.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Tim Beck.  Even by the standards of the 2014 season, Beck did not call a very good game on Saturday.  Chief among the blunders was taking a 2nd and 1 and turning it into a punt on 4th & 8.  There was an option keeper on 3rd & 6 that went nowhere.  There was another option call a few plays after it looked like Armstrong was dinged and less than 100%.
  2. Greg McMullen.  There were too many times where I did not see you staying at home on running plans.  Minnesota ran a lot of misdirection, so too often I saw you go crashing in towards the guard while a Gopher ran right through were you used to be.  I’m not expert enough in Pelini’s scheme to know if crashing down like that is schematic or if it was mistakes on your part, but I have a guess.  Your sack shows your potential, but in the Big Ten you need to be better at stopping the run.
  3. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  From what I saw as you were coming off the field, you were taking those two fumbles pretty hard – which is understandable given the location and situation of those turnovers.  But it’s tough for me to be too mad when mistakes occur as part of effort.  Keep your head up and bounce back strong.
  4. Iron N / Boneyard.  I was a big, big fan of the large “Welcome to your worst nightmare” signs you put up before the Miami game.  And I liked your versatility that when it made another appearance before the Minnesota game it said “Wake up to your worst nightmare”.  That’s clever for an 11 am kick.  Two issues, though:  a) there appeared to be a delay with getting all of the signs held up, which led to about 20 seconds the only sign being a large one saying “WAKE UP”.  For the most part, I’m okay with that except b) when the signs were held up, there were still big chunks of the student section that were empty.  You might to address that “wake up” message with your fellow students.
  5. Cornhusker Marching Band.  I know that the band’s custom to play the songs from their halftime show a second time shortly after the game ends.  No problem with that.  However, it was unfortunate that when I was talking out of the stadium following a very disappointing 28-24 loss, the band was playing Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”.  Maybe you should have called an audible there…

What do you think?

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