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What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, after (what was then) the ugliest and most painful loss of the 2015 season, I wrote this*. Rereading it brings back all of the struggles and difficulties Nebraska was facing a year ago: highly questionable play calling, horrible game and clock management, not utilizing talent correctly, abandoning the run, players with horrible attitudes, a secondary that couldn’t cover their own shadow, fourth quarter collapses, and other things that you and I have still managed to repress.
*And given that I used a song title last year, I’ll continue the theme this year with a horrible pun that I absolutely love.
A year later, the transition is dramatic. Danny Langsdorf called another strong game, playing to the strengths of his personnel. Clock management was not an issue. Nebraska is running the ball – and sticking with it. After what could have been a divisive week the team unity and focus seems to be strong. I thought the secondary played one of their worst games of the season on Saturday and they held Illinois to 14-23 for 146. The Illini had almost 100 more passing yards a year ago, despite ridiculously windy conditions. Finally, Nebraska’s biggest transformation may be in how they are owning the fourth quarter.
Now let’s be clear: everything is not magically fixed. There are plenty of flaws to be found in this game and where the team is at today. There is a ton of work left to be done and room for improvement. Heck, another 5-7 season is not out of the question at this point.
But take a moment to acknowledge the progress that has been made so far.
So what did we learn?
The Huskers are literally limping into their bye week. Thank goodness the bye week is in the middle of the season, instead of at the end like last year. Here is a partial list of guys who did not play – or did not finish the game – on Saturday: Nebraska’s best receiver, their NFL-caliber tight end, arguably their best running back, their fastest receiver, two starting offensive linemen, and it feels like I’m missing a couple more.
Depth continues to be a major concern for the Huskers. There are a number of positions where the drop-off between starter and backup – in terms of talent, experience, or both – is dramatic. There was a play in the 3rd quarter where the guys on the field resembled a lineup you might see in the 3rd quarter of a Red-White Scrimmage.
The bye week, and the opportunity to rest and heal it provides, could not come at a better time for this team.
Milt Tenopir would be proud of the last four Husker drives. When word came out about legendary line coach Milt Tenopir’s passing, I said the best way for Nebraska to honor him would be to have the team rush for 300+ yards. While that didn’t happen, the team did the next best thing: they dominated the ball in the second half. Look at these two drives:
- 18 plays, 75 yards, 10:42 of possession. Touchdown. A drive for the ages. 18 plays??? Almost 11 minutes of possession??? And by the way, Nebraska took the lead with the score.
- 11 plays, 59 yards, 5:49 of possession. Touchdown. This drive opened up with seven straight runs.
Those are numbers straight out of Milt Tenopir’s heart. You can picture the old coach getting a little misty eyed watching his boys control the line of scrimmage for most of the second half. And just like in Milt’s day, those two drives played a huge role in the last two drives of the day:
- 2 plays, 70 yards, 0:54 of possession. Touchdown. First play: a run up the middle for seven yards. Second play: an offtackle run for 63 yards and a giant nail in the coffin.
- 2 plays, -1 yard, 1:14 of possession. End of game.
Rest in peace, Milt. You will be missed.
One of the Big Ten’s “sleeping giants” may be waking up. Illinois is often described as a “sleeping giant” program – one with resources, deep pools of in-state talent, and the biggest obstacle to success being themselves. Think Missouri prior to Gary Pinkel. The Illini have talent within their borders, the ability to recruit Chicago, and are the only big time public school in the state. Big Ten membership gives them money for anything they might need, namely coaches buy-outs and new training facilities. All that is left is for the administration to care, and to find the guy who can build something sustainable.
There is a chance that Lovie Smith may be that guy. His first team may be 1-3, but you can see his blueprint coming together already: build from the lines out, make your name on defense, and play physical football. Illinois is clearly a couple of years away talent-wise, but Lovie has the NFL cred that is valuable in recruiting.
Don’t be shocked if in the next few years Illinois gets out of their own way long enough to become a contender in the West.
So what don’t we know?
Does NU win this game a year ago? Walking out of the stadium, enjoying the glow of victory, a thought crossed my mind: Trailing by six headed into the fourth quarter, would the Huskers have won this game a year ago? Obviously there are a lot of factors that make it tough to compare and impossible to know for sure, but my gut says Nebraska loses this game.
For me, the only question is how Nebraska would have lost. Do promising drives end with interceptions, with a pick-six to ice the game? Maybe the Huskers reclaim the lead, but Illinois proceeds to march down the field and win in the final minute. Is the spot on the 4th and 1 carry by Newby marked short (or overturned on replay) stalling all momentum?
Was the reaction to the National Anthem protests a distraction? The offense got off to a slow start, only scoring 10 points in the first three quarters. Meanwhile, the defense had issues with soft coverage and softer tackling. As Husker fans tried to understand why this was happening (without giving any credit to the Illinois defensive line) one of the theories tossed out was the national anthem protest was a distraction. Or more specifically, the reaction by media, fans, and elected officials was a distraction.
To that, I say: Bull.
Yes, that protest – and the various reactions it spawned – were the hot topic of conversation across the state all week long, and across all mediums. But aside from Michael Rose-Ivey having a conversation with the Governor, and a few extra questions during the team’s media availability, I truly believe it was a non-issue in the locker room. You may doubt the validity (or the sincerity) of Riley’s team being a “melting pot”. I’m willing to guarantee multiple players on the team did not care for the protest, but I’ll also guarantee that the culture of respect is fully in place.
Who knows how it would have played out if Rose-Ivey knelt in Riley’s first year – or in one of Pelini’s last two seasons. My guess is it would not be nearly as seamless as we’ve seen so far.
Can Nebraska clean up their sloppiness? Your Huskers are 5-0, but not without their flaws. The good news is, three of the biggest warts are things they can control.
- Red zone turnovers. Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity pointed out that five of Nebraska’s six turnovers occurred inside the opponent’s 15 yard line. Since I consider Drew Brown to be automatic inside 35 yards, red zone turnovers cost the Huskers at least three points every time. Protect the ball and get your points.
- 15 yard flags. It says something about how sloppy this team can be that picking up two 15 yard penalties in a game is a major improvement.
- Quarterback decision-making. Tommy Armstrong is trending in a bad direction with his decision making. His one interception was a ball under thrown into triple coverage. He deserved a second INT when he was flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right and threw a lob back to the middle of the field.
It’s actually rather impressive that Nebraska has made it to 5-0 as sloppy as they can be. But unless those things get cleaned up – or at least drastically reduced – they will lead to losses.
The best thing I saw on Saturday: The defensive intensity in the second half. In the first half, Illinois had 169 yards on 24 plays (an average of 7 yds per play). But in the second half, the Blackshirts raised their game allowing just 101 yards on 20 plays (5 yards per play).
Remember those amazing ball control drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters that won the game? Don’t forget the defense’s role in that. After giving up a 74 yard field goal drive to get the score to 16-10, Illinois had three more possessions. The Illini gained just 18 yards on 10 plays, with no first downs.
The worst thing I saw on Saturday: Two of Nebraska’s best receivers being taken to the locker room with injuries. Get better soon, boys.
5 Players I Loved
- Terrell Newby. After an injury to Ozigbo and a fumble by Wilbon, the much maligned Newby was asked to be a workhorse in the second half. And did he respond. He gained 143 on 27 carries, and scored two touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 26 yards. Newby is probably the least respected NU I-Back since Dahrran Diedrick or Josh Davis, but he has been a much improved player in 2016.
- Sam Cotton. Speaking of much maligned Huskers, let’s take a minute to appreciate the youngest member of the Cotton clan. Watch any clip of a Nebraska back running, and you’ll likely see Cotton somewhere in the frame blocking his man, setting an edge, or chopping down opposing players. And I have a hard time thinking of a better catch by a Husker than his fingertips grab of a Tommy Armstrong missile for a big first down.
- Kevin Maurice. The stats (2 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 hurry) don’t really show it, but the “Space Cowboy” has been playing at a very high level of late.
- Stanley Morgan, Jr. When you see him blocking defensive backs to the sideline, or making big catches on third down, it is tough to remember that he is just a true sophomore. This kid Stan has a bright future – and with Westerkamp and Carter out, a big opportunity to increase his role.
- De’Mornay Pierson-El. I love watching him return punts. The way he moves in space, accelerates, and finds creases cannot be taught. I like seeing him getting touches in multiple facets of the game (returns, receptions, and rushes). Finally, his work as a perimeter blocker was equally impressive.
Honorable Mention: Trey Foster, Jordan Westerkamp, Joshua Kalu, Michael Rose-Ivey, Dedrick Young, Freedom Akinmoladun, Ross Dzuris’s old-school black cleats, Corey Whitaker
5 Areas for Improvement
- Tackling. As impressive as the overall defensive performance was, I’d love to see how it would have looked if the first (or even second) defender would have made the tackle. Far too often, an Illinois player was bouncing off two or three guys before going down.
- Loose coverage. The secondary spent most of the game playing way off the Illinois receivers. It was not uncommon for there to be an 8-10 yard cushion between Chris Jones, Kalu, or one of the Williams boys and the receiver. Illinois gained a lot of yards on basic pitch and catch throws that could have been avoided with tighter coverage.
- Option Football. Let’s set the stage: 3rd & 2 from the Illinois 5. NU is down six and on play 14 of their marathon drive. Settling for a field goal is not an option. So what play does Danny Langsdorf opt for when he needs two yards? An option to the left. Armstrong had to pitch the ball early and Newby was fortunate to get a yard. Hopefully, we all know by now that I love me some option football. But that was not the right time or situation for Nebraska to run their first option of the year. From the execution, it looked like they could use a little more work.
- Referee Don Capron’s Microphone Etiquette. Dear Don – I’m not sure how long you’ve been a referee for major conference football, but here is a pro tip for you: After you explain a penalty or other procedural thing, you will want to always – ALWAYS – turn off your microphone before blowing your whistle. Otherwise, you end up rupturing eardrums, shattering eyeglasses, and pissing off every dog for 30 miles. And you really don’t want to do it three times because 90,000 of the greatest fans in college football will boo the crap out of you.
- Mike Rozier’s headwear. It’s always great to see the former Heisman Trophy winners back in town, but I was a little bummed to see Mike Rozier in a black ball cap. I’m not expecting him to break out his glorious two-tone suit and matching hat, but getting Rozier in a ball cap is like being served chicken nuggets at a five-star restaurant.