Holiday Cotton Bowl

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Feit Can Write

It’s over.

The Bo Pelini Era is done.  Complete.  No more.  Oh sure, it wasn’t going to go quietly – and I’m not referring to secretly recorded audio.

Nope, for the Pelini Era to fully end, it needed to go down like this.  Like some compilation album advertised late at night, this game had all of the Bo-liever and Bo-leaver greatest hits in one four quarter set:

Defensive meltdowns.  Players from the other team racking up yardage in chunks.  Assistants screaming at each other on the sidelines.  Flashes of brilliance.  A costly turnover.  Curious play calling on offense.  Missed opportunities.  Trailing by three scores.  A never-say-die mentality that led to a comeback.  Big XII refs adding one second back on to the clock.  A game decided on the final play.  Another loss to a big name opponent.

Nine wins.  Four losses.

Now it’s time to close the book on Bo.  You can put this seven-year saga with your other cherished books – or in the Goodwill pile.  Regardless of your feelings on Pelini, let’s all agree that the time is now to move forward.

So what did we learn?

This was not a “throw-away” game to the players and coaches.  Coming into the bowl game, there were many people who felt that this game didn’t matter because NU wasn’t really playing for anything.  The coaching change meant NU wouldn’t carry any momentum (positive or negative) over to 2015, and the players and coaches were anxious to put 2014 behind them.

Wrong.  It was clear all night that Nebraska wanted to win this game, and they fought their tails off to do so.  We can speculate on if that was due to the remaining coaches, a tribute to Pelini, the leadership of the senior class, or anything else, but the Huskers came to San Diego to win.

Barney Cotton leaves NU on a high note.  I’ll admit it – my initial reaction to hearing Barney Cotton was going to be the interim head coach was to question if Shawn Eichorst was capable of finding a new coach if he thought Barney was the best guy to lead NU in the bowl game.  I’ll also admit that I was wrong.

Barney led the Huskers very well during a difficult time – both for him and the program.  Remember back when we all thought Barney Cotton was an inept coach incapable of doing good things?  Certainly some folks will carry those memories, but for many others their lasting opinion of ol’ Barney will be the way he led the team (and carried himself) with dignity and class.

Mike Riley had to enjoy what he saw.  Sitting in the stands, Mike Riley probably spent most of the game looking at the talent he has returning – especially on offense – and thinking that his first Nebraska team could be alright.

Certainly, that game pointed out some holes and deficiencies in the program and the roster, but I’m guessing the new coach has a plan to address those before September.

So what don’t we know?

Would a Bo Pelini-led staff have won this game?  This is not to ask if Bo would have done a better job than Barney Cotton, or if Bo’s presence would have magically lifted the team to victory.  And it is definitely not questioning if Bo should or should not have been fired.  This is just me wondering if – all other things being equal – Nebraska wins this game with Bo Pelini as Nebraska’s head coach.

Personally, I don’t think so.  I think the offense, which kept NU in the game as long as it did, would not have looked the same with Bo in charge.  Also, I couldn’t help but notice in the second half that the sidelines looked loose and relaxed – and that was with Nebraska trailing by 11 points.

Is that what Tim Beck’s offense could have looked like?  Nebraska rolled up 525 yards of total offense, ran 91 plays, and scored 42 points against a USC defense with some strong talent.  Tommy Armstrong, Jr. threw 51 passes to seven different receivers.  NU ran a handful of gadget and trick plays (damn you refs for taking away a lineman touchdown!), and at times operated at a very quick tempo.

So was that a one game deal with a departing coordinator who wanted to have some bowl game fun?  Or was this the offense that we could have had the last few years under Tim Beck?

I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.  I believe Beck wanted to run a faster pace than Pelini allowed.  I’m guessing that Beck would have been okay with a little more passing too.  But I don’t think NU would be running two trick plays a game throughout Big Ten play.  Regardless, it was fun to watch, if only for one night.

Could Drew Brown have made the field goal?  You know which kick I’m referring to:  Fourth quarter.  Nebraska is down three with under three minutes left.  It’s fourth and three from the USC 31.  Instead of trying a 48 yard field goal, Barney Cotton opted to go for it.  The play – a hybrid of the jet sweep and a shuttle pass – was stopped for a one yard gain.

Brown was 2-7 on kicks over 40 yards with a long of 44.  Cotton said after the game that NU was about three yards from where they felt good about kicking it.  I’m not questioning the decision to go or not go, I’m wondering if Brown (or any of the other kickers on the roster) had the leg to make the kick.

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 had one interception, which eventually led to a USC interception, so that is close to a break even – except that NU’s turnover came inside the red zone where a field goal could have been huge.  Zero fumbles for Nebraska is a win in and of itself.  WIN.
  • Penalties:  NU had seven penalties, but only 45 yards.  Regardless, this is a WIN solely because of how undisciplined USC played.
  • Punt Returns:  USC clearly did not want De’Mornay Pierson-El to beat them, as he had little opportunity to return any kicks.  Give the kick return unit credit for recording two punt blocks.  WIN
  • Game Management:  NU had to call a timeout on 3rd and 3 late in the fourth quarter.  I felt it was a wasted timeout at the time, and considering NU did not convert – and could have done something with an extra 30 seconds of clock at the end of the game, this is a LOSS.

Final tally:  Three out of four is  usually good enough to win the game, but these factors don’t really account for the other team scoring 45 points.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Ameer Abdullah & Kenny Bell.  I’m going to lump the record-setting seniors together one more time.  Abdullah set the tone early with his opening kickoff return.  Although he didn’t get into space as often as I thought he might, it was great to see #8 back to his full potential.  Bell had a terrific diving touchdown catch, provided a key block on Armstrong’s keeper, and caught the two point conversion.  These two are among the all time greats.
  2. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  Even with a shaky second quarter, that was Armstrong’s finest game.  381 passing yards, 41 rushing yards, four total touchdowns, and a bunch of big time throws.  Mike Riley may know and like Johnny Stanton, but Stanton will need to have a gigantic spring and fall to beat out Armstrong.
  3. Kieron Williams.  On a night where the special teams were the best unit on the field, Kieron Williams was the special teams MVP.  What stood out the most were his two punt blocks, but he had some great blocks on kickoff return – especially on Ameer’s two long runs.
  4. Andy Janovich.  How does a fullback contribute in today’s football?  By being all over the field.  Pressuring the punter.  Being a lead blocker.  And returning three kickoffs – including a 17 yarder.
  5. Alex Lewis.  Every offensive lineman dreams about scoring a touchdown.  For Lewis, it paid to have an offensive line coach running the team.  Even though the call was (wrongly) reversed, in my mind, that touchdown will always count.

Honorable Mention:  De’Mornay Pierson-El, Josh Banderas, Maliek Collins, Jordan Westerkamp, Sam Foltz, the departing assistant coaches

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Taking advantage of opportunities.  How many times – both in this game and throughout the season – did Nebraska squander amazing field position, turnovers, and/or scoring opportunities?
  2. Kickoff coverage.  The lone dark spot on an otherwise outstanding special teams performance was the 98 yard kickoff return by USC’s Adoree Jackson.  Granted, Jackson looked like a sprinter, but there were some missed opportunities to get him down.
  3. Kickoffs.  After the long kickoff return, NU opted to do dribbler and squib kicks for the rest of the game.  But why?  Why not use the booming right leg of Mauro Bondi or Spencer Lindsay who looked strong on kickoffs during the middle of the season?  This isn’t an attack on Drew Brown, but more of a question of why you don’t go with a kicker who is more likely to get a touchback instead of dribbling the ball down to the 35.
  4. Jake Cotton.  Jake’s bowl game included picking up a penalty, getting in his quarterback’s way on a keeper, and some less than stellar blocking.  But the biggest injustice?  Your dad plays a part in calling a play for a lineman to get the ball – and it goes to somebody else.
  5. Four losses.  Here’s hoping this is the final four loss season for a while.


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