Moral Buckeyes & Progress

6 Nov

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Let’s talk for a minute about “moral victories”.

Scott Frost doesn’t want to acknowledge moral victories, and I don’t blame him.  Most competitors would rather punch their mother than celebrate a moral victory.  You either win or you lose…and unfortunately this Nebraska team will end the season with more losses than wins.  Nobody wants to be a part of team that leads the league in moral victories.  That mindset percolates down to the fan base to the point where a moral victory has become taboo.

Personally, I don’t care if fans want to recognize or applaud a moral victory.  Because no matter if it is sarcastic (“Nebraska forced Ohio State to punt for the first time in three games!”) or honest (“Nebraska played well enough to beat a top ten team on the road”), you’re really doing the same thing:

You are acknowledging the progress this team is making.

And let’s be realistic:  while we all want to win – and win now – this program is not currently built for that.  If you’re still hinging your satisfaction with the 2018 Huskers strictly on wins and losses you will be disappointed.  Period.

But if you choose to acknowledge where this program has been – both in the last few years, and in the last  few months – I suspect you can see the signs of progress.  Forcing Ohio State to punt, not getting blown out on the road by a top 10 team, fighting until the very end – these are not thing you could count on previous Husker teams giving you.  We all want the wins, but I won’t apologize for being happy with the manner in which NU loses.  I won’t judge you if you want to do the same.

So what did we learn?

The offense can spread the touches.  It would be very easy for Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters to lock in on their proven offensive talents (Martinez, Ozigbo, Washington, Spielman, and Morgan) when calling plays on the road against the #10 team in the country.

And to be sure, that happened as Martinez, Ozigbo, and Washington combined for 47 carries, while Morgan and Spielman led the team with seven and six receptions, respectively.  But look at the other guys who got yards on Saturday:  Jack Stoll, Austin Allen, Bryan Reimers, and Mike Williams.  In addition, Spielman and Morgan each had a carry, and Washington and Ozigbo both caught a pass.

This approach is such a win-win.  It opens the field up for your playmakers and gives guys the experience to prove themselves to the coaches and their teammates.  Give credit to Frost and Walters for putting guys in positions to make plays, and to Martinez for being willing to find the open man.

The Blackshirts are capable of carrying their weight.  One of the narratives for this team is the offense can be explosive, which is necessary because the defense is a work in progress.  Some of that work seems to be paying off.  The defense is more aggressive, more sound, and much better at making big plays then they were a month ago.

Example 1:  After the botched onside kick gave Ohio State prime field position at the NU 31, there had to be a 90% chance of the Buckeyes scoring at least three points.  Instead, the Blackshirts stood strong and stopped the Buckeyes on four downs.

Example 2:  The Blackshirts forced several fumbles and recovered two.  The much maligned Lamar Jackson intercepted a pass in the end zone.  I’ll take my chances being +2 on turnovers on the road any week.

While NU seemed to run out of gas a little bit in the fourth quarter when it was obvious the Buckeyes wanted to run, the progress shown should not be ignored.

Ohio State’s black jerseys are perfection.   As somebody who is typically not a fan of alternate uniforms – and especially those that are black just for the sake of being black – I love Ohio State’s all black look.  Seriously, look at this picture.  Those are simple and clean, with crisp stripes that tie everything together.  They don’t need a space age custom font that can’t be read, nor any other unnecessary bells and whistles.  I challenge you to show me a better all-black look.

I’ve long been on record that only the Blackshirts should wear black jerseys, but I would happily reverse that decision if Adidas stole this design from Nike.

So what don’t we know?

What’s up with Caleb Lightbourn?   I ask this not to disrespect the young man, but out of a sincere sense of concern.  To put it politely, Lightbourn has had a very rough season.  He lost his punting job to Isaac Armstrong.  He’s had some big miscues in key moments that have cost the team valuable field position.  And after what I will generously call a botched onside kick attempt, he now has two entries on the list of Worst Husker GIFs of the 21st Century.*

*A list headlined by the undisputed champion titled (and I’m not making this up) “Nebraska lineman false start by falling on his ass“.

Personally, I feel for Lightbourn.  While I have no idea what the heck happened on that onside kick – or what it was supposed to look like – I feel strongly that his other blooper (the slip and fall against Purdue) was not his fault.  If you’ll remember, that was a damp, misty day and several other players were slipping and falling to the point where several people suggested NU had the wrong footwear on for the conditions.

But more to the point, I feel bad for Lightbourn for how his NU career has unfolded.  He came here in 2016 fully expecting to redshirt behind a senior starter.  Those plans changed dramatically on July 23, 2016 when Sam Foltz died.  After that, he had to replace not only one of the best punters in the conference, but a beloved team leader.

I doubt he’ll ever say it, but I think that redshirt year would have done wonders for Lightbourn’s skill level and confidence.  Instead, he’s ridden a roller coaster with more downs than ups, lost his primary job, and has “fans” openly mocking him and calling for him to never see the field again.  I hope he can find confidence, success, and end up in a GIF making an incredible play.

Just how aggressive is Scott Frost?  On NU’s first drive, Frost goes for it on 4th and 2, keeping a scoring drive alive.  He follows it up with an onside kick attempt.  Late in the third quarter, facing a short 4th & 1 from their own 13, Frost appears to ponder going for it, before calling a timeout and punting it away.

In the fourth quarter, down by nine, NU has a 4th and goal from the OSU 1.  Frost elects to take kick the field goal and cut the deficit to six points.  Ohio State takes the ensuring drive and scores at touchdown, and Nebraska responds with a touchdown of their own.  Down by five, with 1:55 left and two timeouts, Frost opts to kick it deep.  Nebraska never gets the ball back.

I offer these points not to question or criticize Frost’s decision making.  Obviously, hindsight plays a big role in determining if a decision was good or poor.  But nine games into Frost’s tenure at NU and I don’t feel if I have a good indication on if he’s going to be an aggressive, go win the game coach or a more conservative, don’t lose the game leader.  Certainly, there is a time and place for both, but it has felt inconsistent to me this year.  Maybe this will change as Frost becomes more confident in each of his three units.

Has the college basketball concept of “make up calls” come to football?   In the first quarter, Ohio State was called for offensive pass interference on a very questionable play.  Two plays later, Dicaprio Bootle was flagged for an equally questionable pass interference penalty.

In the second quarter, OSU’s Jordan Fuller was kicked out for targeting.  On the Buckeye’s next drive, the replay booth (with a possible assist by Urban Meyer) initiated a targeting review against a Nebraska player.

The only thing worse than making a bad call is making an equally bad call against the other team to try to balance things out.  Big Ten referees have enough to worry about without trying to make sure their bad calls are distributed equally.

The best thing I saw on Saturday:  Ohio State’s band is known for fun and creative performances that become viral sensations.  On Saturday, they spelled out the name of Tyler Butterfield, a Cornhusker Marching Band member who died last week in a car accident.

The worst thing I saw on Saturday:  The broadcast itself.  For most of the first half, Fox’s director seemed more interested in winning an Oscar for cinematography than showing a football game.  There were low angle shots, sky cam shots, close ups, and other unnecessary bells and whistles.  Just show me the game, and save the fancy camera angles for replays.

5 Players I Loved

  1. Adrian Martinez.  Performances like this are the reason Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia transferred.
  2. Devine Ozigbo.  The best way to appreciate how far he has come is to think what the 2016 or 2017 version of Ozigbo might have done in this game.  I guarantee those previous editions do not get 86 yards, a touchdown, and some key short yardage gains.
  3. JoJo Domann.  Some guys just have a knack for making plays.  JoJo Domann certainly appears to be one of those guys.  Kudos to Erik Chinander for recognizing this and getting JoJo on the field.
  4. Lamar Jackson.  “Development” can mean getting a walk-on to outshine a scholarship guy.  It can also mean getting one of the program’s top recruits to perform up to his potential.
  5. Tight ends Jack Stoll and Austin Allen.  Historically, Nebraska tends to ignore the pass catching (and mismatch creating) abilities of their tight ends.  So it was great to see Stoll haul in three catches – including a clutch one-hand grab on 4th & 2 – and Allen get behind his man for a 41 yard gain.

Honorable Mention:   J.D. Spielman, Stanley Morgan, Mohamed Barry, Aaron Williams, Jacob Weinmaster, sideline reaction shots of Urban Meyer looking upset.

5 Areas for Improvement – Special Teams Edition

  1. Punt protection.  A simple breakdown in protection led to a block and a safety that played a big role in the game.
  2. Kickoff returns.  No disrespect to Nebraska’s return specialists, but until you can consistently get a kickoff return past the 25 – without flags – I would much rather have you take advantage of the new fair catch rule.  To use a baseball analogy, it seems silly to swing for home runs when you struggle to hold the bat correctly.
  3. Onsides kicking.  Here’s the thing: if you have the confidence in your kicker to call a surprise onside in the first quarter, you should have an equal amount of confidence calling a traditional onside late in the fourth.
  4. Punt Returns.  Good news:  NU forced four Ohio State punts.  Bad news:  the lone return lost two yards, and another punt should have been fielded before rolling inside the 10.
  5. Punter Flopping.  Memo to Isaac Armstrong:  We all hate it when soccer players flop after the slightest contact, but if you can pick up a free first down by displaying your stunt man skills, you will be a hero.

 

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