Unforgettable Fresno

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I don’t know if the Guinness folks track it or not, but I would wager Nebraska set a record for largest attendance at celebration of life ceremony.  Sure, some of the 90,013 in the stands may have said they were there for a football game, but Saturday night was dedicated to the memory of Sam Foltz, a beloved native son, team leader, and future NFL punter whose live was tragically cut short this summer.

If you believe a person’s spirit can be seen and felt after they die, there were a number of signs that Sam was watching over us on Saturday.  The day started off with a rare earthquake that could be felt in Lincoln.  The rain that passed through before the game left the exterior of Memorial Stadium looking as if it was streaked by tears.  The setting sun cast a partial rainbow over the stadium as the red balloons from the first score rose up to the heavens.

Everywhere you looked there was a remembrance of Sam Foltz:  the SF 27 logo on the players’ helmets and compression shirts, and the sleeves of the coaches’ polo shirts. The Cornhusker Marching Band wore SF 27 pins on their uniforms, the banners in the student section, and t-shirts everywhere you looked.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to look forward to Foltz appearing on the big screens during pregame introductions as he listed his hometown as “Small Town, USA, Greeley, Nebraska”.  On Saturday, a different Sam (Hahn) proudly used “Small Town, USA” for his home in DeWitt.  Before the game, Drew Brown – Foltz’s best friend – was honored as the initial recipient of the Sam Foltz Scholarship.

And then it was time for the Tunnel Walk…

The first game after 9/11 (Rice) is one of a handful of home games I’ve missed since the early 90’s.  I have always heard the Tunnel Walk from that game, with the color guard and first responders coming out of the tunnel, listed as one of the most emotional moments in school history.  I can only imagine how powerful that must have been.  But the sight of Sam’s young nephews leading the team out of the locker room, and being hoisted up to touch the horseshoe by Brown and fellow specialist Spencer Lindsay, brought tears to my eyes.*

*Excuse me for a minute while I go on a quick sidebar rant…Don’t be one of those guys who uses some pseudo-macho phrase like “it was dusty”, “there was something in my eye”, “somebody was cutting onions”, or “my allergies flared up” to try to hide the fact that you had tears in your eyes.  

Losing exceptional young men like Sam Foltz and Mike Sadler SHOULD make you emotional.  Those two men seemingly had it all: intelligence, athletic ability, great personality, and limitless potential.  If our children grow up to accomplish half of what Foltz or Sadler did in their short lives, we should be overjoyed.  

There was no dust, allergens, or raw onions, in my section on Saturday.  I cried tears of sadness because an amazing young man’s life was cut short.  If you aren’t secure enough to admit the same, well, I feel bad for you.

Finally, there was the missing man punt formation.  A simple, yet moving gesture for a beloved teammate, and another chance for fans to show their love for Sam, their sympathy and support for his family and teammates who are still hurting, and to celebrate a life well lived.

Rest in peace, Sam.  You will be missed.

So what did we learn?

The temptation to draw sweeping conclusions from a single game should be avoided.   This is my annual reminder that you shouldn’t read too much into what you see if the first game of a season.  For example, I’d be willing to wager that Nebraska does not have another game this year with a run/pass ratio of almost 4:1.  That player who looked over-matched?  He’ll probably look a lot better in October.  Yes, there are some questions that are a little clearer today than they were a week ago.  But even so, know that this team will evolve and change over the next 11+ games – hopefully for the better.

There is a lot of potential in the linebacker corps and secondary.  The second and third levels of the defense stood out to me.  At linebacker guys like Dedrick Young, Marcus Newby, Chris Weber, Micheal Rose-Ivey, Josh Banderas, and Luke Gifford all showed flashes and were around the ball much of the night.  The depth at linebacker is a big plus for a team that needs to improve their defense.

In the secondary, Kieron Williams took his explosive play from special teams to the defense.  Joshua Kalu was lightning fast on his blitz, getting to the Fresno QB as he was completing his three step drop.  Chris Jones didn’t see a lot of balls thrown his way, but made a beautiful pass break up and closed the game with an interception.  Even though true freshman Lamar Jackson got picked on quite a bit, he played as well as (if not better than) some of the seniors did a year ago.  Throw in Nate Gerry and a healthy Antonio Reed, and I’m optimistic about where this group can go.

The fans know who they want as the starting I-Back.   Senior Terrell Newby got the start on Saturday, and picked up 56 yards on 11 carries.  I thought he ran much more aggressively than he did a year ago.  Newby was decisive, hit his holes hard, and didn’t shy away from contact.  I think Nebraska could do well with #34 getting most of the snaps.

However, I believe the fans want Devine Ozigbo to be the feature back in this offense – and soon.  There is a group in the fan base that have already dismissed Newby based on his 2015 season.  But on Saturday, there is also a definitive edge in the eye test:  as good as Newby played, Ozigbo was better.  He seemed faster through the hole, showed more power in breaking tackles and dragging the pile, and accumulated the stats (103 yards, 2 TDs) that one expects from a starter.

I’m not saying Ozigbo needs to be named the starter against Wyoming.  Newby’s play was good enough to keep that role for at least another week.  But that won’t stop the 90,000 offensive coordinators in the stands from demanding more of Ozigbo.

So what don’t we know?

What happened with the punt teams?   Between a blocked punt that resulted in Fresno State’s lone touchdown, and zero punt return yards with an explosive return man on the sidelines, it was not a banner evening for Bruce Read’s punting teams.  Let’s first take a look at the blocked punt.  With a true freshman punting in the shadow of Sam Foltz’s legacy, it was a smart call by Fresno State to go after him.  To my eye, it looked like a miscommunication on who was blocking whom.  While those sorts of mistakes happen – especially in the first game of the season – I can hear many of you citing Read’s salary as a way of saying mistakes shouldn’t happen.

As for punt return, my initial thought was to either blast Read or question Pierson-El’s health.  However, after giving it some thought, I think the decision to have Jordan Westerkamp pay homage to fair catch legend Santino Panico was smart.  Consider:  Fresno State’s punter was not all that great – he averaged just 35 yards on six kicks – which limits return opportunities.  Additionally, the damp conditions were not conducive to catching punts in heavy traffic.  I’m underwhelmed by his abilities as a returner, but Westerkamp clearly has the best hands on the team.

Now, if you want to make a case that if Nebraska isn’t going to try to return punts, maybe they should put some effort into blocking a punt of their own, I’ll certainly listen to that argument.  There appeared to be a couple of times where a block – or at least a rushed kick – was a possibility.  Just because you’re choosing not to mount a return, it does not mean you have to be a passive participant in the play.

Did Riley and Langsdorf purposefully limit Armstrong’s attempts?  Armstrong’s passing numbers (5-10, for 108 yards and a TD) were straight out of 1991.  Were those few passing attempts a fluke – or an orchestrated effort to keep the ball out of Tommy’s hands?

From what I saw, Armstrong had a pretty good day passing.  Yes, half of his passes fell incomplete, but most of those were on target and placed where the receiver could bring it in.  Aside from a screen play that was going nowhere, there were no bad throws or balls that could have been intercepted.

Maybe the coaches believe that with Armstrong, interceptions are a simple numbers game.  Coming into the season, Armstrong averages an interception every 24 attempts, so by keeping him under 20 attempts, he is less likely to turn the ball over.  That is certainly a theory (but not one that I believe).  Of course, intentionally limiting your quarterback’s throws is a curious strategy with multiple big time WR recruits in the building.

Or maybe Langsdorf was getting good production on the ground from his line and backs, and rarely found himself in 3rd and long situations (just four by my count).  Let’s not read too much into this off of one game.

Does anybody know what is – and what is not – targeting?   For the third straight game, Nebraska had a defender ejected for targeting.  Luke Gifford’s hit on Fresno State’s QB certainly fell under the definition of roughing the passer, but I did not view it as a flagrant shot made with malicious intent.  Nebraska fans can rightfully look at hits in other games that are much more obvious, but are not flagged (notably, the hit on Torii Hunter, Jr. in the Texas – Notre Dame game Sunday night).  Heck, one can usually find multiple examples of helmet to helmet contact in the same game that go uncalled.

The folks over at Corn Nation put out a good piece on the by-the-book definition of targeting, but good luck trying to grasp all of the nuances of the rule, or the various ways a player can be considered “defenseless”.  The easiest way to summarize the rule is this:  if in doubt, call it.  And if it gets called on you, you should probably start walking towards the locker room.

I completely get – and support – the rationale behind the rule.  Nobody wants to see players getting hurt, and the long-term impact of concussions is a cause for concern.  But as long as the rule is as subjective as it is, targeting will continue to be a source of controversy throughout the game.

The best thing I saw on Saturday There were a lot of contenders, most of them in the “Sam Foltz Tribute” category.  But the thing that I will always remember is how the Fresno State players reacted during the missing man punt formation.  The Bulldogs – both on the field and on the sidelines – were clapping, cheering, and waving their arms.  Coach Tim DeRuyter’s decision to decline the delay of game penalty earned him the undying respect of Husker fans everywhere.  The Fresno State Bulldogs showed a ton of class.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday All of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.  Individually, I can see how they might happen:  Zack Darlington spins the ball because he’s excited to be in the end zone for the first time since his junior year of high school.  Dylan Utter takes out a defensive player he’s been battling all game after the whistle.  Aaron Williams makes a big hit on the goal line and flexes his muscles.  Taken one by one, they can be chalked up as an overly exuberant player caught up in the moment.  Taken as a whole, it points to a team that still struggles with composure and decision-making.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Nebraska’s running backs.  NU played four backs – Newby, Ozigbo, Tre Bryant, and Miakle Wilbon – and each of them looked really good running the ball.  Ozigbo certainly had the stats and the most impressive runs, but I liked what I saw from each of the other backs.  This group is deep, and aside from Newby, they are young.
  2. Kieron Williams.  I’ve been a big fan of his work on special teams.  Kieron has a great knack for using his speed to put himself in position to make plays.  If he can apply that to his work in the secondary….look out.  Also, a tip of the cap for changing his jersey number from 27 to 26 in honor of Sam Foltz.
  3. Drew Brown, Caleb Lightbourn, Zack Darlington, and Spencer Lindsay.  Brown had a close relationship with Foltz, and it was obvious when he received the memorial scholarship that he was missing his dear friend.  Lightbourn and Darlington had arguably the toughest roles on Saturday – they were the guys who took over Sam’s kicking and holding jobs.  Oh by the way, it was the first time either of them had played in a college game.  They did great in their debuts, and I’m sure Foltz was proud of them.  Finally, it was cool that fellow specialist Spencer Lindsay was able to kick his first career PAT during this game.
  4. Ross Dzuris.  One of the big questions is if the defensive ends can generate a pass rush and be a disruptive force.  Dzuris answered the bell with two sacks and another tackle for loss.  If he can get off to a strong start, it should create opportunities for Freedom Akinmoladun on the other side.  Bonus points for twirling his sweet ‘stache in the starting lineup video.
  5. Alonzo Moore.  Raise your hand if you predicted Moore would lead the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.  Throw in his two carries in the sweep game, and Moore had the best game of his NU career.  Had he managed to haul in the sideline pass that Armstrong placed perfectly, Moore probably would have earned the top spot.

Honorable Mention:   Tommy Armstrong, Jr., Nick Gates, Sam Hahn, Dylan Utter, Tanner Farmer, David Knevel, Joshua Kalu, Dedrick Young, Luke McNitt, Run defense, Chris Jones, Sam Foltz’s nephews

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Fullback reps.  Let me get this straight:  you commit to the ground game so hard that you run it 51 times with nine different ball carriers, but your fullback can’t get a single rep?  Heck, I’d guess that on 90% of the offensive snaps NU did not have a fullback in the game.
  2. That spread-out PAT formation.  For each PAT, Nebraska started with just the long snapper, holder and kicker in the middle of the field.  The rest of the players were lined up outside of the hash marks before trotting into a traditional kicking formation.  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  Yes, Darlington managed to sneak his way in for a very inconsequential two point conversion, but how many times can you truly attempt that in a season?  Twice?  I thought the swinging gate formation my high school used for PATs was stupid, and this version is not any better.  Critics of Bruce Read and/or his salary, feel free to add this to your list of grievances.
  3. Defensive Tackles.  When Mick Stoltenberg opened the game with a big solo stuff, I was optimistic that the tackles would have a breakout game.  Instead, the tackle play was rather anonymous.  Yes, they allowed the linebackers to run free and make plays, but I would like see a little more noise from the big boys – especially in collapsing the pocket.
  4. FanXP.  Feel free to file this under #FirstWorldProblems, but Memorial Stadium’s normally outstanding Wi-Fi connection was non-existent on Saturday.  Considering the (relatively) slow demand for season tickets, anything that negatively impacts the fan experience needs to be corrected ASAP.  I’m going to be a little more critical of the fan experience this season.
  5. First National Bank.  Late in the first quarter, fans in the top rows of the northeast corner of the stadium held up a dozen or so large panels that made up a big billboard for FNB.  I’d estimate these panels were held up for a good 10 minutes.  How ticked off would you be if somebody asked you to block your view, all for an advertisement?  I’m surprised some of those panels didn’t “accidentally” get caught in the wind and sail right over the wall.


One personal note:  Five years ago, my first column – a recap of the 2011 opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga –  was published on HuskerMax.  I will forever be grateful to David for the opportunity, as well as Joe and the other admins for everything they do in making this site special.  I am especially thankful for those of you who take the time to read my work, and provide compliments or critiques.  I appreciate it more than you know, and I look forward to another fun season.

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