Playing For Bits of a Broken Season

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Feit Can Write

This is just what the doctor ordered.  A solid win over a decent divisional foe that was never really in doubt during the final 15 minutes.

There was so much to like in this game – strong performances from a number of players, advantages in just about every statistical category one could care to track, an improvement in most areas where Nebraska has struggled.

But most of all, Nebraska earned the Chair.  Yep, I’m big fan of the $5 Bits of Broken Chair trophy.  Read on to see why I think it is easily the best of Nebraska’s trophy games.

So what did we learn?

It’s easy to win when you are +3 in turnovers and only commit two penalties.  There are many, many reasons why Nebraska came into this game with a 2-4 record, with five of those games coming down to the final play.  But two of the biggest reasons have been turnovers and penalties.  Coming into the game, the Huskers were averaging almost 10 penalties a game for 82.8 yards.  The Huskers had only gained six turnovers (and none since the Southern Miss game) and were -5 on the year.  As we learned in the last seven and half years, it’s tough to win when you hurt yourself like that.

But on Saturday the Huskers played a clean game.  Zero turnovers.  Three takeaways – a forced fumble and two interceptions – that led to 14 points.  Only two penalties for 25 yards, neither of which stalled or extended a drive.  A final score of 48 – 25.

Look back at NU’s four losses.  How many of those do the Huskers win if they get a single turnover and limit the penalties to five or six?

If you want to demoralize a team, a 99 yard touchdown drive is a great way to do it.  Ten minutes left in the third quarter, Nebraska up 24-14.  A Minnesota punt was downed inside the one yard line.  With a quick three and out, the Gophers would be in great shape to get back into the game.  Instead, the Huskers go 99 yards in 10 plays and 5:47.

The drive was a thing of beauty.   Three runs and seven passes, with eight different Huskers touching the ball.  Armstrong was 7-7 for 83 yards and the touchdown on an amazing effort by Cethan Carter.

Two plays really symbolized the drive:

  • 2nd & 9 from the Nebraska 2 yard line.  Imani Cross blasts up the middle for seven yards.  His tough run changed the dynamic of the drive.  Instead of a 3rd and long, he set up a very make-able 3rd and 2, which Armstrong and Westerkamp easily converted.
  • 1st and 10 from the Minnesota 20.  Westerkamp catches a quick out at the line of scrimmage.  He shook the first defender and cuts up the sideline for 11 yards.  At the end of the play, a Gopher comes over and smacks him head on.  Instead of going down from the contact, Westerkamp gives a little smirk like “is that all you’ve got?”.  99 yard drives are a masculinity check for a defense.  When you put a good lick on a receiver and he isn’t phased that really hurts your psyche.

On the following series, Minnesota went three and out (courtesy of a near interception and a sack).  Nebraska answered with another touchdown and the game was effectively over.

The special teams are rather mediocre.  Pierson-El made a splashy return to NU’s special teams with two returns for 49 yards, which nearly beat the total return yards from the first six games (54).  Aside from Sam Foltz, and the kickoffs by Drew Brown, the special teams have been far from special.

  • Field goals:  Drew Brown has been good, but not great, hitting 12 of 18 on the year with some tough misses.
  • Kickoff return:  NU came into the game averaging 14.7 yards per return and using Jordan Stevenson has not had a big impact.  Far too often when NU returns a kick, especially if they bring it out of the end zone, they don’t get past the 25 yard line.
  • Punt block.  Remember how Kieron Williams tied a school record with three punt blocks in 2014, including two in the bowl game?  If it wasn’t for the participation report, I wouldn’t know he was on the field.  Turn him loose.
  • Kickoff coverage.  Like everything else here, it’s been good, not great.

Like everything else in this first season of the Riley Era, patience is the key.  Despite the underwhelming performance of these units – collectively, they’ve been a step back from 2014 – I really like that NU has a full time special teams coordinator in Bruce Read, instead of a patchwork of coaches primarily focused on other things.  But I want to see improvement over the rest of the season.

So what don’t we know?

Is this a turning point or a nice win against a lesser opponent?  Let’s start with a harsh reality:  Minnesota is not very good.  Like Nebraska, the Gophers their two best offensive players (David Cobb and Maxx Williams) leave the program.  Like Nebraska, the Gophers are riddled with injuries.  Unlike Nebraska, I haven’t seen anything from the Gophers that makes me say “with a little luck, they could be undefeated”.  Minnesota has not scored more than 27 points against anybody not named Purdue.

All of that said, this is Nebraska team that so many of us expected to see this year.  Explosive on offense.  Strong on defense.  Able to go on the road and take care of business.  Games that don’t come down to the final minute.  Now, Nebraska has an opportunity to put a run together.  Northwestern is coming off back to back big losses.  Purdue is still Purdue.  Michigan State is undefeated but appears mortal.

It remains to be seen if Mike Riley’s first team will rebound from an ugly start to put together a respectable season, but this is definitely a step in that direction.

Will the Big Ten recognize the $5 Bits of Broken Chair trophy as a legitimate trophy game?  In the 2015 Big Ten Football media guide (pg 103), they list 14 intra-league trophy games.  Some of them are household names:  Floyd of Rosedale, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Little Brown Jug, etc.  Many of them are not*:  Governor’s Victory Bell, Land of Liberty Trophy, Heartland Trophy, and the two generic duds Nebraska currently plays for – the Heroes and Freedom Trophies.

*Pop quiz:  One of the trophies I just listed doesn’t exist.  Can you figure out which one is a figment of my imagination?

Enter the $5 Bits of Broken Chair trophy.  The offspring of a Twitter exchange between Goldy the Gopher and Faux Pelini, the $5 Bits of Broken Chair is an example of what Big Ten trophy games should be about:  oddball trophies with you can’t make this up back stories (seriously, have you read the history on Floyd of Rosedale or the Little Brown Jug?).  These are the trophy games that make the Big Ten great.  When Nebraska joined this conference, I think we all expected to have a trophy game of our own to be excited about.

Instead, we got Legends and Leaders, Heroes and Freedom.  Is anybody passionate about the Heroes Trophy (presented by Hy-Vee!!!) or the Freedom Trophy?  In both cases, instead of doing something fun or unique or symbolic of the schools/states involved, the decision was made to go with the most inoffensive, yet pretentious platitude the league office could find and commission an equally bland trophy to go along with it.

And while I guess we should be thankful that the end result didn’t turn out like the Land Grant Trophy, I think I speak for Husker fans when I say I’ve been thoroughly disappointed with the first two offerings.  Frankly, I hope the Heroes Trophy perishes in a fire (with nobody feeling “heroic” enough to save that piece of junk) and the Freedom Trophy is given away during an athletic department purge of mid-level bowl chotskies.  Then we can start over with something that the fans and alumni care about (a combine and a cow, respectively), instead of something that came out of a boardroom full of suits who never leave Chicago.

My guess is the Big Ten brass will be slow to embrace the $5 Bits of Broken Chair.  It didn’t come from a focus group.  It doesn’t honor America, Mom, apple pie, or some other cliched ideal.  There is no corporate sponsorship (unless, maybe you get Ikea or somebody involved…).  I just cannot see Jim Delany and the conference leadership officially acknowledging the $5 Bits of Broken Chair any time soon.

But that’s okay.  Both schools have had possession of the Chair in the first two years.  Minnesota displayed it last year with the Old Brown Jug and Floyd of Rosedale (seriously – how awesome are Minnesota’s trophy games?).  Nebraska’s social media folks sent out a picture Saturday night of Coach Riley holding the trophy in the locker room.  As long as the schools and players keep the trophy going, it can become a lasting tradition.  And it will probably be the trophy game that you as a Nebraska fan care the most about.

Embracing the $5 Bits of Broken Chair as a trophy game does not mean that you’re declaring Minnesota as a rival or that you’re “settling” for any trophy other than a conference or national championship.  Not at all.  Embracing the Chair means you want Nebraska to have the full Big Ten experience, which means valuing an obscure object with a weird back story.  Yeah, we mocked it when we were in the Big 8/12, but now that we’re here, let’s enjoy it.

Why was Nebraska throwing deep with a 16 point lead in the fourth quarter?  Midway through the fourth quarter, Terrell Newby rips off a nice run setting up first down.  On first down, Armstrong throws deep – and incomplete.  Second down is a screen pass that’s well set up, but is dropped.  On third down, Armstrong throws incomplete again.

In theory, this is a nit-picky complaint from a nice win, but given previous history, it’s a valid concern.  Do Riley and Langsdorf have that much confidence in Armstrong and the receivers?  Or that little faith in the backs and line?

5 Players I Loved

  1. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  Armstrong looked comfortable and confident running the offense.  He sailed a couple of passes, but was excellent throughout the game – hitting nine straight at one point.  My favorite plays were third downs that he picked up with his legs along with a third and five late in the fourth when he dropped back as if to throw but ran forward to keep the clock ticking.  An excellent game.
  2. Terrell Newby.  Arguably his best game as a Husker.  He ran decisive through the holes, showing a quick burst.  His 69 yard touchdown showcased some home run speed that has been missing since Ameer Abdullah graduated.  But his contributions went beyond 116 yards and two touchdowns.  Newby was solid in the screen game and caught onside kick to effective end Minnesota’s day.
  3. Alonzo Moore.  Arguably his best game as a Husker.  Four catches for 84 yards including an impressive touchdown where he came clear across the field to make a sliding catch in the end zone.  Moore showed speed, elusive moves, sure hands, and excellent perimeter blocking – helping to spring Newby’s second touchdown.
  4. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  Husker fans, were there any sweeter words spoken during the ESPN2 broadcast than “Pierson-El back to return the punt”?  I thought he was going to take his first true return of the season to the house.  His tip drill touchdown reception between two defenders was a thing of beauty.  DPE may not be all the way back, but he is very, very close.
  5. Josh Kalu.  He’s had a rough month – and portions of this game weren’t that wonderful – but give him credit for fighting and for being the closest thing to a playmaker in the Husker secondary.  He had a great tackle on a 3rd and short to stop a Gopher drive.  His shoestring tackle saved a touchdown in the fourth quarter.  His pick six iced the victory.

Honorable Mention:  Blackshirt rush defense, Byerson Cockrell, Josh Banderas, Cethan Carter, Vincent Valentine, Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Danny Langsdorf, Andy Janovich’s fumbleroosky

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Pass defense.  I continue to see progress (no matter how small) in the pass defense.  The front seven had good pressure most of the game, and NU had two big interceptions.  But giving up 301 passing yards to Mitch Leidner?  That’s pretty much the definition of needs improvement.  Still too many receivers running wide open.
  2. Taking advantage of the short field.  De’Mornay Pierson-El gave NU great field position with his first quarter punt return.  Nebraska ran three plays, gained seven yards, and missed a 31 yard field goal.  A second “plus field” situation, set up by a Blackshirt fumble recovery, looked headed for a similar fate before Armstrong found Alonzo Moore for a 32 yard touchdown.
  3. Jordan Stevenson.  I know the youngster wants to prove himself and make plays, but you’ve got to do better than the 15 yard line if you’re bringing a kickoff out from five yards deep.
  4. “Surrender Whites”.  I’ve made my peace with the fact that this team prefers to go all white on the road, and a convincing victory won’t do anything to help out those who would like to see the return of the red pants.  That said, I still prefer the classic look.  If nothing else, it would distract focus from those Zubaz-inspired undershirts worn by members of the NU secondary.
  5. Jerry Kill.  If this were written by a Minnesota fan, I’d be crushing Kill for kicking a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down.  Instead, I’m simply going to point out that Kill bears a strong resemblance to a gopher – quite possibly the closest that any Big Ten coach looks to his school’s mascot.

[COLOR=#FF0000][I]Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog ([URL=”” Follow him on [URL=””%5D%5BU%5DTwitter%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D or on [URL=””%5D%5BU%5DFacebook%5B/U%5D%5B/URL%5D.


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