The Greatest of All Time and the (North)worst of the Year

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Feit Can Write

I took a few extra minutes getting out of the stadium on Saturday.  I had to pause and try to comprehend yet another inexplicable home loss.  As I wandered down from my seat in North Stadium, the Cornhusker Marching Band started replaying their halftime show, which featured karaoke favorites.  The first song they played was the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believin'”.

I thought that was a painfully appropriate song to play at the conclusion of Nebraska’s “Weekend of Champions” where championship teams from Baseball, Volleyball, Bowling, and Women’s Gymnastics were honored.  But the headliners of the weekend were the members of the greatest football team in Nebraska’s illustrious history, the 1995 Huskers – arguably the greatest team in the history of college football.

Let’s face it – it’s been a bit of rough stretch to be a Husker fan.  The football team is in a championship drought, and the greatness of the 1995 team is a distant memory for almost all of the current players.  For example, when Nebraska’s greatest team was emphatically proving that they could indeed run on the Fiesta Bowl grass, De’Mornay Pierson-El was busy turning one week old.  The oldest member of this team, senior Alex Lewis, was three and change when Nebraska was steamrolling the Big 8 for the final time.

The 1995 season was the pinnacle.  Even though Nebraska won another title in 1997 and played for the championship in 2001, things haven’t been the same since Tommie Frazier and company walked off the field.  So much has changed in the last 20 years.  Two new conferences, four new head coaches, three new athletic directors, new and upgraded facilities.  Across the sport, TV exposure and TV money has leveled the playing field along with a host of rules and regulations.  Baylor is a championship caliber team now.  Memphis, Toledo, Temple, and Duke are currently ranked.

For just the fourth time since Bill Jennings was fired 54 years ago, Nebraska has five losses.

But that doesn’t deter us, the fans.  For the loyal among us, every Saturday is like that medley of karaoke favorites performed by the Pride of All Nebraska

Don’t stop believin’.  Hold on to the feelin’.

And I would walk 500 miles.  And I would walk 500 more.  To be the man who walked 1, 000 miles.  To fall down at your door.

Woah, we’re half way there.  Woah, livin’ on a prayer.  Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear.  Woah, livin’ on a prayer.

Sweet Caroline.  Good times never seemed so good.  I’d be inclined.  To believe they never would.

It sucks right now Husker fans.  But don’t stop believing.  1995 gets a little farther away with each passing year, but we can be special again.


Finally, as is the custom, since Northwestern won the game, they get the honor of being referred to as “NU” in this piece.

So what did we learn?

This may be the worst of the losses in the Riley Era.  In the other games, there were a couple of things you could point to for why the Huskers lost:  pass defense, penalties and dropped passes, clock management, etc.  But in this game, it felt like a Greatest Hits album.  There was poor coaching, poor execution, needless penalties, bad pass defense, stagnant offense, horrendous blocking, and so many other misfires.  It was truly a team loss.

And yet, despite NU’s 6-2 record and victory over Stanford, I was not impressed with them.  They are an average team with a below average offense.  Nebraska has been rather Jekyll and Hyde this year, but the Husker team from pretty much any other game in 2015 (with the likely exception of Illinois) could beat this team.  Heck, as poorly as they played, the iteration of the Huskers we saw on Saturday could have beaten Northwestern.

And yet, they lost.

Say what you will about needing to run the ball more, but a strong passing game is nice to have.  Like you, I have had my frustrations with how often (and when) this staff calls passing plays.  I grew up in the School of Osborne and Tenopir where a game with less than 300 yards rushing was likely a game you lost.

But I’m okay with how this team is moving towards being a strong passing team.  The first drive of the second half was a great illustration of why.

Nebraska took a touchback and started from the 25.  First down: Imani Cross offtackle for one yard.  Second down:  Jamal Turner drops a pass.  Third down:  Armstrong completes a pass to Cethan Carter for 11 yards and a first down.  And so the drive went:  A rush on first down gained little – or lost yards.  A pass on second down was incomplete.  But on third down, the Huskers were able to pick up 10+ yards and move the sticks.  Throw in a 15 yard penalty on the Northwestern sideline, and the Huskers were able to drive 75 yards for a touchdown despite losing five yards on the ten 1st and 2nd down plays they ran.

Obviously, facing four straight 3rd and longs is a horrible way to run an offense, but I can remember many, many Husker teams where 3rd and long meant the punter was getting ready to come on the field.  This year, I find myself more optimistic on 3rd and long than I do on 3rd and short.  And while that make Pipeline alumni weep, it gives me hope.

Adidas struggles to make an alternative uniform that functions on the field.  Saturday was the debut of the all-black #HuskerBold uniforms from adidas.  I voiced my initial opinion on them when they were released, but I try to reserve final judgment until I see them on the field.  I’ll start with a positive:  I liked the black matte helmet.  It’s easily the best alternative component the Huskers have worn to date.  I didn’t really notice the silvery cleats, which after last year’s orange shoe debacle is as good as a win.

But the rest of the look?  Complete and utter failure.

When I first saw the jerseys, I had concerns about being able to read the “duct tape” numbers from row 47.  While they were easier to read than the 2014 duct tape numbers, that is akin to saying it’s easier to run in knee-deep mud than knee-deep concrete – you still are going to fail.  I love the in-stadium experience and firmly believe you see more by being there than what you see on TV, but on TV you probably had a fighting chance of knowing who was who.  The folks in my section had to use contextual clues (i.e. if the player was white or black) and educated guesses (“that injured player is white and has an elbow brace, it must be Gangwish”).  Clearly, the designers have no consideration for the fans and journalists who have to report on what they see.

In my initial review, I mocked the silly jargon and grandiose claims made in the press release about how these uniforms were sure to give Nebraska a competitive edge over the Wildcats.  Let’s check in and see how adidas did on their claims, shall we?

  • “The jersey’s padlock system secures tension over the shoulder pads, while the bodymap fit adheres to the player, making it difficult for opponents to grab, hold or tackle.”  38 carries for 82 yards begs to differ.
  • The cleats promised “a SPRINTSKIN upper with SHOCKWEB reinforcement and a SPRINTFRAME plate that provides maximum acceleration and multi-directional traction”, which was clear on the three long runs by Clayton Thorson – a man who refused to divulge his 40 time, but was described on Twitter as “Taylor Martinez in slow motion”.
  • The receiver’s gloves had “4-way stretch mesh for compression fit and GripTack 2.0 for consistent control in all-weather conditions.”  I stopped counting at eight drops.  Maybe “beautiful autumn day” doesn’t count as a weather condition?

This isn’t about me pushing for Nike*, Under Armour, or anybody else.  It’s about wanting my school to look good (or at least somewhat like my school) and not have an embarrassing performance in gear that is supposed to make them better.  Adidas tries hard, but ultimately they just keep coming up short.

*Although if Nebraska does the all-black look again they should request what Nike did for Ohio State a couple of weeks ago.  Pair that simple, clean, and classic look with the helmet we saw on Saturday and I promise you that is an alternate that this over 40 traditionalist would support.  

And since I know somebody will say “who cares what you think, these are for the recruits” let’s address that one up front:  I challenge you to show me anything from a Nebraska commit who says their decision was impacted by these or any other alternate uniform Nebraska has worn.  Not just that they thought they were cool/sick/fire emoji, but the thought of wearing something like this made any impact in their decision.  I’ll hang up and listen.

So what don’t we know?

What would have happened if Nebraska scores on the first drive?  Let’s set this one up:  Northwestern came into this game winning their first five games and ranked in the top 20.  Then, they lost back to back games to Michigan (38-0) and Iowa (40-10) before coming to Lincoln.

Northwestern fields the opening kickoff and gains two yards on three plays before punting.  Nebraska takes over at the 48 and puts together a nice little drive, setting up a 1st and 10 from the Wildcat 26.  But the next three plays do not gain any more yardage and the Huskers settle for a 43 yard field goal.

But what if Nebraska finishes the drive with a touchdown?  I think it’s very likely that Northwestern’s confidence takes a big hit and Nebraska has the opportunity to cruise to a comfortable victory.  Instead, the Wildcats hold NU to three points.  On the first play of their next position, Clayton Thorson rumbles 68 yards to the 2 yard line, setting up a NU touchdown.

There has been a lot of talk about closing out games and putting teams away.  But sometimes, you can land that knockout punch in the first round – or at least get your opponent on the ropes.  The Huskers missed a prime opportunity.

Why couldn’t Nebraska benefit from a huge time of possession advantage?  In the first three quarters, Nebraska’s offense had the ball for 10:45, 11:08, and 11:19.  Even with a paltry 5:46 of possession in the fourth quarter, Nebraska had NU’s defense on the field for almost 39 minutes on Saturday.  The Huskers ran a season-high 86 plays, almost 10 more than their previous high.

Conventional wisdom says that when a team runs that many plays and keeps a defense on the field for that long, the defense will eventually be gassed.  Short runs will turn into long runs.  Pass rushers will too tired to generate pressure.  Long story short, an offense should be able to reap the rewards with a strong third and fourth quarter.

But yet, the offense only generated 373 yards including an abysmal 82 yards on the ground.  Even worse, 54 of those rush yard happened in the first half.  In the second half, when Northwestern should have been getting worn out and Nebraska’s ground game should have taken over the Huskers rushed 17 times for 24 yards.

Normally, I like to propose an answer or opinion on the questions in this section.  But in this case, I have no answers.

When does Riley go with a youth movement and prep for 2016?  I haven’t done the math to confirm this, but I think it’s safe to say that Nebraska will not win the Big Ten West this year.  Say what you will about nine win seasons, but that is out the window too.  Should Mike Riley start focusing on 2016 by getting some young guys some much-needed experience?  Look at the offensive line, where four seniors started on Saturday.  Wouldn’t it make sense to let the presumed starters for 2016 work together and start to gel?

In theory, I can see an argument for this, but there are some big holes.  First and foremost, if you want to get more experience for the younger guys, the best thing this staff can do is find two or three more wins to become bowl eligible.  The extra practices would be invaluable for player development and implementing Riley’s system and culture.  Secondly, I’m going to give this staff that benefit of the doubt that if a senior is starting he’s the best person for the job.  If we want to knock this senior-laden line, making Armstrong and the backs play behind guys not good enough to the win the job in the fall could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.  Thirdly, with the injuries and suspensions this team has faced, at some positions most of the young faces have already made it on the field.

Another big factor at play is the (presumed) divide in the locker room between guys who have bought into Riley and those who still live the culture instilled by the previous staff.  Who knows how the team would react if all of the “Bo guys” were no longer starting.

But mostly, benching seniors for a youth movement is not fair to those guys who have given and sacrificed so much for the program over the last four or five years (or nine, in the case of Jamal Turner).  The season is not going the way anybody wanted it to go, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to see the careers of Andy Janovich, Jack Gangwish, Imani Cross, and others end.

5 Players I Loved

  1. 1995 Husker Players & Coaches.  I’ve seen a lot of good teams, and a handful of great teams in my time, but there is no team better than 1995 Huskers.  Period.  End of discussion.  It was a pleasure to see them walk out on the field once more, led by those legendary coaches.  As my friend Nate said, “How much happiness do we owe to those guys on the field?”
  2. Ross Dzuris & Jack Gangwish.  I love that one of the biggest defensive plays of the game – Nebraska’s first safety of the season – was made by two guys who started as walk-ons.  Dzuris and Gangwish had nearly identical stat lines:  four tackles, a half sack, and a QB hurry, with Dzuris adding another tackle for loss in one of the best games of his career.  Plus, I love the thought of seeing the Northwestern QB’s face after he realized he was sacked for a safety by a guy with a glorious handlebar mustache.
  3. Sam Foltz.  He averaged 50 yards on his six punts.  His three touchbacks arguably should have been lower with some better help from his gunners.  Ironically, Foltz’s only punt inside the 20 was the one fair caught by a Northwestern player at the four yard line.  Also, don’t be surprised to see a fake punt in the next few weeks.
  4. Andy Janovich.  Sign #35 that this was not going to be Nebraska’s day:  Janovich blasted up the middle and blocked a NU punt…which still bounced and rolled 41 yards.
  5. Cethan Carter.  Because of a penalty, the play where Carter trucked over a Northwestern defender doesn’t count, which is a damn shame.  Carter is turning into a major target on this team, and a strong threat when we gets the ball in his hands.  The final obstacle is making sure those targets get in (and stay in) his hands.

Honorable Mention:  Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Drew Brown, Josh Banderas, Christian Peter’s hat.

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  The line play was atrocious.  I don’t care if you’re facing Northwestern or the ’85 Bears, you have to be able to get more than 2.2 yards per carry.  Northwestern’s front four dominated the game, despite being on the field for most of the game.  Nick Gates cannot get healthy soon enough for my tastes.
  2. Dropped passes.  Far too many dropped passes, most of them at critical times that sucked the life out of drives.  I counted six different guys with at least one drop.
  3. Tommy Armstrong.  Another long afternoon for Armstrong, as he only completed half of his 48 passes.  Obviously, the multiple dropped passes are not his fault, but several other throws were rather off target or forced – including a tough pick six that seemed destined from early on in the game.  I really liked Tommy on designed runs – why the option was only ran once, I’ll never know – but he continues to make bad choices when trying to escape sacks.
  4. Jordan Stevenson.  Good news:  Stevenson’s first kickoff return probably covered 35 yards.  Bad news:  31 of those yards were to the east and only four were to the south.  Get up field, young fella.
  5. Miles Shuler.  Everything I’ve ever heard about Northwestern is that it is a very prestigious academic school, on par with the likes of Stanford and Duke.  Yet Northwestern’s Miles Shuler fair caught a punt on the four yard line.  Even fans from diploma mill colleges will tell you that is dumb.  His quarterback was sacked for a safety on the next play.

What do you think?

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