Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nebraska's Offensive Ineptitude May Cost Ndamukong Suh The Heisman

With the announcement of the Heisman finalists, the debate on who should receive this year's stiff-armed statue has begun in earnest. Should it be Toby Gerhart, the stud Stanford tailback who led the nation in rushing and scoring? Or how about Mark Ingram, the Crimson Tide's 1500 yard rusher who keyed the nation's #1 team to an undefeated season in the national title game?

I'm not going to bother bringing Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy into the conversation, as it seems that losses in their respective conference title games have seemingly knocked them out of position to win it. In reality, Tebow's decreased stats this season and McCoy's poor performance against better pass defenses is what set them back more than any one game.

Which brings me to Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska's All-Everything defensive tackle. First off, for those of you who don't read my work, I'm going to admit I'm biased. I'm a Nebraska fan, and so anything I say can be taken with a grain of salt.

After the Missouri game, when Suh's name first began to pop up in Heisman conversation, I wrote that for him to have a realistic chance from the defensive tackle position, not only would he have to continue to put up monster statistical games, but his team would have to win in order to keep him on the national radar.

If Nebraska has a banner season, there's an inevitable flood of media love touting their return to prominence. With that would have been coverage of Suh, the cornerstone of a defense that just two years ago ranked 112th in the country but now is #2 in scoring defense.

Months later, Nebraska sits at 9-4, a victim of an offense so putrid that if it were the offspring of skunks, even the parent skunks would have disowned them because of their stench.

The thing about 9-4 teams is that, well, there's a lot of them. They tend to get swept under the rug later in the season as the media inevitably turns it's attention to the BCS hoopla.

A look at Nebraska's four losses this season:
Virginia Tech, 16-15
Texas Tech, 31-10
Iowa State, 9-7
Texas, 13-12

What do you notice about those losses? Well, other than that eyesore against Iowa State?
Three of Nebraska's losses are by two points or less.

In the Virginia Tech game, the Husker offense managed to go from first-and-goal to punting the ball on a possession that included two penalties and a dropped touchdown pass and an 11-for-30 performance by Zac Lee that included two interceptions.

The loss to Texas Tech, while more one-sided, wasn't because of defensive shortcomings. The Huskers held the Red Raiders to 259 total yards, the lowest total in Mike Leach's tenure since his first game. Also, one of the Tech scores came on a bad Nebraska pass that was returned for a touchdown.

Against Iowa State, Nebraska's offense put up a performance for the ages. The Dark Ages. In a game that should have been a four-score margin of victory, the Huskers managed to turn the ball over eight times. Yeah, eight. Like, the number 8. Oh, and four of those turnovers came inside the Iowa State five yard-line.

Finally, in the Big 12 championship game, the Huskers managed a paltry 106 yards for the entire game, wasting a Hurculean by Suh and the defense and costing Nebraska the Big 12 championship.

The point of this whole rant is this: Heisman winners come in three forms.

One is the stat monster, a person who, despite perhaps being on an 8-4 team, puts up numbers that are so far above and beyond anyone else's that it catapults them to victory. An example would be Tim Tebow in 2007, when the Florida quarterback took home the trophy on the strength of having over 50 total touchdowns despite the Gators going 8-4 before the presentation.

This is where Gerhart comes in. First off, he's racked up over 1700 yards rushing and has 26 rushing touchdowns. Sure, Stanford is 8-4, but they've won some games in dramatic fashion, most of it while riding Gerhart's (extremely) broad shoulders.

The other Heisman winner is someone who puts up stats that aren't mind-boggling yet still are noteworthy, but fall in the best-player-on-the-best-team argument. Think Chris Weinke in 1999 or Troy Smith in 2006. Not that either of those players didn't deserve the award, because they both had great years. But would they have won if their teams weren't leading the national title conversation? That's tough to say.

Mark Ingram fits this mold, though I think comparing him to Smith or Weinke isn't fair to him, because Ingram is, at least in my opinion, a much better player than those two were. Also, he had a great performance against that stout Gator defense in the SEC title game.

The third is the guy who puts up ridiculous numbers AND plays on the best team, a'la one Reggie Bush in 2005. Sure, Vince Young put up quite a fight that year, but when a guy puts up 9 yards a carry and makes ankles break and jaws drop on a weekly basis, it's tough to top.

And so we come back to Suh. If Nebraska wins those three close games and is sitting at 13-1 with a Big 12 title, he rides the wave of Nebraska-is-back stories to a potential Heisman win, which would be the first legitimate win for a defensive player in history of the award.

Yes, I know Charles Woodson won in 1997, but let's be honest: if he wasn't taking snaps as a receiver and punt returner, the media doesn't let him leave New York with the trophy.

However, because Suh's offense plays with the precision of a drunken (and perhaps mentally challenged) surgeon, Suh stands little chance of winning. The media, convinced that everyone should be happy that a defensive tackle is invited at all, will award the trophy to either Gerhart or Ingram. Either of them are deserving choices.

But dammit, so is Suh. I challenge any Heisman voter to watch every defensive series from the Virginia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State, and Texas games and come away thinking anything but this:

The nation's Most Outstanding Player (which is what they are supposed to be voting for) doesn't reside on the offensive side of the ball. It's just a shame that Nebraska's offense couldn't help them realize that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nebraska Left to Wonder What If

Why? Why does this happen? Why doesn't Nebraska just get blown out, the way all the "experts" say they would? Why can't Zac Lee throw for more than 39 yards? Why does Niles Paul drop at least one game-changing pass a game? Why did the Husker coaching staff put Cody Green in for one series on his own 2-yard line, only to yank him right after it and put back in the most inept quarterback in recent Nebraska history?

I feel like I'm Nancy Kerrigan after she got her knee busted by Tonya Harding's strongman. You remember the clip, where Kerrigan sits crying on the ground, asking in a horrifying voice....Why?
When Nebraska lost to Virginia Tech earlier this year, I hadn't felt that kind of wrenching pain in my gut for a long time. But that was a simple non-conference game. This was for a championship and a trophy, rewards this defense desperately deserved for carrying one of the moribund offensive units in the country all season.

If Nebraska had lost by three touchdowns, I really wouldn't be all that torn up about it. Hell, we were expected to get our asses kicked, so to see it actually take place would have at least been tolerable. Sure, it would have been embarrassing, but at least all of Husker Nation wouldn't be on suicide watch.

Instead, we saw a pantheon-level performance by the defense (and the defensive coaching staff) get wasted yet again by an offense that belongs in a local intramural league.

I don't know how the offense lives with itself. I know that I shouldn't be upset, because really what else would I expect? Zac Lee and company have shat themselves all season long, and this time they were against one of the best defenses in the nation.

But if I were a member of that unit, I'd be taking a long hard look in the mirror and be giving serious thought about buying an "I'm sorry" gift for every member of the Blackshirts.
For the third time this year, Husker fans are left to pick up the pieces after watching a game that Nebraska SHOULD have won.

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda. Those words don't count for much when you watch a team go from BCS-bound to the Holiday bowl in the span of two plays.

Before I get to those two plays, let's stand back and think about just how unbelievable it is that Nebraska was even in the game during the 4th quarter.

Nebraska put up 106 total yards of offense.

106 total yards. On 55 plays.

That's 1.92 yards per play, or about the distance covered by walking two small steps. You would think just by pure odds and statistics that Nebraska would get lucky and get one big play to boost that number over the 2-yard threshold, but you'd be wrong.

There were people on Twitter joking about the Huskers starting the winner of the Dr. Pepper halftime throwing contest at QB. Another person said that the offense could overdose on Viagra and still be impotent. And they were right.

Zac Lee continues to amaze me with his inability to do even the most simple of tasks on a weekly basis. After the Blackshirts intercepted a pass in field goal range, the only thing the Huskers could not afford was a turnover. So what does Lee do on the very next play? Throws it directly to a Texas defender in the end zone.

The question here is, what the hell is Watson thinking with that play call? I can understand taking a shot when you are on you're own 30 and are trying to make something happen, but to do it when you're in field goal range is unacceptable. Hell, he's been watching this abortion of an offense all season, just like we have, and he should have known that 3 points is a priceless commodity when your unit smells like a burnt diaper filled with Indian food.

That wasn't the only atrocious throw Lee made. Earlier in the game, Niles Paul got a couple steps on a Texas cornerback, and Lee had about a 15-yard window to throw into before the safety came over to break up the play. If Lee throws that ball to Paul's outside shoulder (by the sideline), it's a potential touchdown.

Instead, Lee must have thought the Huskers switched to their colors to burnt orange, because he managed to hit the safety in stride on the right hash mark. Never in my life have I seen one team be screwed so consistently by one player, and it's been happening all season.

So when taking that complete ineptitude into account, it's astounding that Nebraska was even in the game, let alone 1 second away from winning it. The Blackshirts held Texas nearly 300 yards below their season average. They forced 3 turnovers. They harassed the most winning quarterback in college football history into one of the worst performances of his career, likely costing him the Heisman in the process.

Then there was the last defensive series. Nebraska had kicked a field goal to take the lead with 1:44 to play, and all of a sudden, the Huskers were one more stop away from being Big 12 champions. I didn't know whether to scream or vomit. Scream because surely our defense wouldn't let us down after this Hurculean performance, and vomit because over the past few years I have come to expect that the worst possible thing that could happen for Nebraska always comes to fruition.

So it was no surprise when Adi Kunilac, Nebraska's kickoff ace, managed to do the one thing he couldn't afford to, and sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving the ball to Texas at the 40. Even if he merely sends the ball into the end zone again, the Huskers force Texas to go 60 yards for a game-winning field goal.

Then Texas completed a 10-yard pass that was stopped by a horse-collar tackle, giving the Longhorns the 15 yards they desperately needed to make a game-winning field goal. With two bone-headed plays, the Huskers went from hoisting the Big 12 championship trophy to going to the Holiday bowl.

To make it even worse, the clock had seemingly run out on the Longhorns' last play, setting off a celebration that had been a long time coming for this program. Ah, but there was one second left, and that was all Texas needed to punch their ticket to the national title game.
And about that Heisman....

Any person who watched the game in it's entirety Saturday night can't deny that the "most outstanding" player in the nation doesn't reside on the offensive side of the ball. Ndamukong Suh had 12 tackles, 7 for loss, with 4.5 sacks. Read that stat line again.
It's downright jaw-dropping, only this has been the type of performance that Suh has been putting up all season except for one or two games. Yet because Heisman voters think that the award is a beauty contest, it will likely go to Mark Ingram, who is an incredible player but isn't the best in the land.

The only hope here is that the Downtown Athletic Club and the voters see fit to at least invite Suh to the ceremony, because no one player has been more integral to his team's success than him. If he doesn't get invited to New York, than they can take a baseball bat to that award as far as I'm concerned, because the damn thing is a farce.

The tragedy here is that for the briefest of moments, Nebraska fans were once again back in the spotlight they have for so long clamored for. For a few seconds, they were relevant again, a conference champion headed to the BCS with a defense that is (along with Alabama's) the nation's best.

But for some reason, the football gods decided that the Huskers and their fans have not suffered enough. Sorry Nebraska, you have to get off the field so Texas can kick both it's field goal and you in the nuts at the same time.

After the game, I didn't know whether to cry or vomit. To be angry or destitute. The first drink I ordered after the game was a double of Jack Daniels, and I drank it in a catatonic shock, unable to talk to anyone for a good half hour because my chest hurt too much to acknowledge just how close Nebraska had come to pulling off an upset for the ages.

It's a pain that I'm going to remember for the rest of my life, something I acknowledge is both depressing and, at least to non-Nebraska fans, probably pathetic.

But that's what makes Nebraska special. I don't have a pro team to root for on Sunday. I don't have a baseball team to follow during the summer, or a basketball team to look forward to in the cold months of winter.

All I have is Cornhusker football. To watch them lose a championship in the most cruel of ways is heart-wrenching, because I know that I'll still be lamenting this loss next July, wheres fans with multiple sports to follow can simply transfer their passion to the next one.

The Huskers lost by 1 point to Virginia Tech, 2 points to Iowa State, and 2 points to Texas. 5 points away from being 12-1, a top-5 ranking and Big 12 Champions. Thanks, Nebraska offense, for blowing a potentially great season.

Nebraska returns 16 starters next season, and may be the favorite for the Big 12 title. But that's not going to assuage the pain of this loss. I don't know if anything will.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Boy Named (Ndamukong) Suh

I thought that with the college football awards show coming up, it would be fitting to hype up Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, given that he is the most dominant player in the country and yet somehow isn't getting the publicity he deserves.

And what better way to do that than by putting it to the tune of Johnny Cash's classic song, "A Boy Named Suh". And yes, I've actually been practicing this on my guitar to play for my Husker-hating friends.

Deep in the middle of the nation's heartland
stands a massive mountain of a man
it takes three men just to make him move.
He leaves lines and QBs terrified
offensive coordinators can't help but cry
When they try to stop the Boy Named Suh

Across the Big 12 they run in fear
from the man who's name means House of Spears
and the fun part is there's not a damn thing they can do.
With a wingspan that measures three miles wide
and a tenacity that never subsides
There ain't no way of stopping the Boy Named Suh

He came to Lincoln from way out west
there ain't no doubt that he's the nation's best
and I'm talking bout the boys in Florida and Texas too
he may not carry or throw the ball
but come April he'll go trump 'em all
when the draft 'rolls round they'll all want the Boy Named Suh

It's a shame the media loves the O
because every opposing coach knows
the best player in the land's helmet bears an "N"
he carries a whole state on his back
batting down passes and racking up sacks
and if he doesn't get a Heisman invite, it's a sin

the tragedy is we know he won't
because the writers are nothing but dolts
who never gives the defensive guys their due.
But the talking heads can say what they want
and when I say this I don't mean to be blunt
but the best damn player in the country is Ndamukong Suh!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Things I Am Thankful For as a Husker Fan

I'm sorry for my lack of writing as of late, but that will tend to happen when you go from being unemployed and having all the time in the world to working 60 hours a week and being too exhausted to do anything when you get home.

That said, in times like these, I'm just thankful to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, considering there are so many people who wake up and wonder if they are going to be able to find a job that day. I'm especially fortunate because I only have myself to support. My heart aches for the man who has three kids and a wife and doesn't know how he's going to feed them that night.

We as a populace are extremely fortunate to live in the United States, even if we aren't kicking ass and taking names like we have in the past. Times are tough, but even through the darkest of hours, there are silver linings to be found.

Which is why I'm going to move on to a brighter subject. I started thinking, after the Callahan years, there is so much going on in Nebraska football right now that we are fortunate to be witnessing. So why not compile an impromptu list of things that we, as Husker fans, can say thanks for this week?

The Huskers Play in The Big 12 North

The North has long been the whipping boy of the conference, the ugly sister to the glamourous and star-studded Southern division.

They have Bob Stoops and Mack Brown. We have guys who resemble the Goodyear blimp (Mangino) and a humanized version of Lord Voldemort (Bo Pelini).

They have Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford, we have Joe Ganz and Todd Reesing. And it's not just recently, this goes back through pretty much the entire decade of the 2000's.

But this year, the North went from putrid to downright offensive. The lack of good or even decent teams is appalling, especially considering how good Kansas and Missouri were just two seasons ago. So while I really do believe Nebraska is a very good team, there's no doubt they've benefited from playing in the local intramurals division .

Ndamukong Suh

He's changed the way I watch football. I've always appreciated good defensive line play, but never in my life have I seen someone single-handedly take over a game from the defensive tackle position.

He won't win college football's glamour award, but if the man doesn't get an invite to the Heisman Trophy presentation, you can tell the voters and the Downtown Athletic Club to stop giving out the trophy. It'd be an outright crime if the most dominant player in college football doesn't get to sit at the ceremony.

Healthy Running Backs

This cost us dearly in the Texas Tech and Iowa State losses, but with Roy Helu finally back to strength and the return of Rex Burkhead, the Husker's stable of running backs is again deep enough to harbor hope of knocking off Texas.

Bo Pelini

I thought Nebraska's defense would jump from 55th into the mid-30's range this year. Instead, Pelini molded the Blackshirts into an aggressive, attacking unit that is lethal, particularly when the opposing offense is threatening to score.

It's refreshing to watch, since for most of the Kevin Cosgrove era I was watching the defense play the catch-and-release method of tackling.

Alex Henry

Say what you want about Suh's greatness, but the best player on the Nebraska roster just might be it's game-changing punter and kicker. While he hasn't been as consistent on his field goals this year, Henry has flipped the field position throughout the season, especially in the Oklahoma and Kasnas State games.

Notre Dame Sucks

What's that? Oh, yea, I know this isn't Nebraska-related. But surely all college football fans are reveling in watching as the Golden Domers are relegated to another crappy bowl and a coaching change.
So much for Lou Holtz's prediction of 12-0 and a loss in the national title game, eh?
Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Big 12 Title Aspirations Fester after Offensive Performance Against Kansas

There’s a scene in the movie Gladiator that for whatever reason popped into my head after Nebraska’s victory over Kansas. In it, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius is talking to General Maximus about what people once dreamed Rome could be, a dream that was extremely fragile. The exact quote:

"There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter."

I bring that movie up for a reason. For weeks, Husker fans have watched as the defense has carried a moribund offense through games against Baylor and Oklahoma. So putrid was the performance against Oklahoma, I thought that perhaps Nebraska had grabbed a local Lincoln high school team to face the Sooners.

Now, I understand that OU fields a great defense with some terrific athletes, but when the Huskers put up a mere 39 yards passing and gained the bulk of their 180 total yards on one Roy Helu run, even I couldn’t believe the ineptitude. But then I remembered the Iowa State game, and I realized that this was definitely the Nebraska offense.

However, against Kansas, for the first time, there came a faint glimmer of hope. Niles Paul came out of his shell, continuing his “I-tear-it-up-every-four-weeks” act that has gone on throughout this season. Zac Lee looked confident and efficient for the first time since the fourth quarter of the Missouri game. And a re-energized Roy Helu, with an assist from some power formations that we haven’t seen enough of, looked like he did against Virginia Tech.

Even the oft-maligned Shawn Watson, whose performance has been questioned throughout the conference slate, finally realized that to win he needed to play the hand he was dealt and stop throwing like Ganz, Peterson, and Swift were still around. Those double tight end sets, the option game (AND the option pass), it was as if a light finally went on above his head.

If Texas Tech last year was the game that the Husker offense finally figured out it’s winning formula, perhaps the Kansas victory is this year’s “Eureka!” moment. Zac Lee can’t throw the simple slants and outs that Joe Ganz could. But he throws one hell of a deep ball, which happens to suit our fleet receivers much better than the dink-and-dunk offense of 2008.

So the zone-read hasn’t been as effective as we hoped it would be. That is to some extent the byproduct of an offensive line that is erratic and inconsistent, and Watson made a smart move offsetting it by putting in a fullback and extra tight end. Is it as sexy as the spread? Probably not. But the spread is only sexy when you have the personnel to run it, otherwise it’s like Lindsay Lohan circa 2009.

Nobody ever accused the option and power run game of being sexy, but ask the man in the athletic director’s office if he cared when he was racking up 60 wins in his last 5 seasons. The best coaching staffs are the ones that adapt to their personnel, something Watson may finally be doing over halfway into this season.

Which brings me to the Gladiator quote. With the improved offensive performance, there is now a dream, something that has begun to fester inside every Nebraska fan. They don’t want to admit it, for fear it would vanish just as the Roman empire did. And that dream is defeating Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

That last sentence? I whispered it. Because what if Nebraska could pull it off? What if Nebraska has the tools to keep Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley off the field long enough to give Nebraska a chance? The season has proven that with Nebraska’s defense, the Huskers have the opportunity in every game.

Hell, in reality Nebraska is only 2 plays away from being 9-1 right now, so it’s not as if they are a bad team. Sure, the offensive slump hurt, but the tools are there to make a run just as they did at the end of 2008. If the Huskers can use the power formations they used against Kansas and continue to slip in play action passes (and Zac Lee can continue to show those wheels we saw against the Jayhawks), Nebraska could maybe, just maybe, pull off something truly special.

Don’t tell anyone though…..I don’t want this opportunity to vanish.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Big 12: From Powerhouse to Punchline

My, how one year can change things.

At the end of last season, the Big 12 was considered by many to be best in college football, based of it's top-to-bottom depth and the insane amount of firepower in the South Division.

I can hear the SEC fans complaining already: But Florida won the National Championship over Oklahoma, your conference champion! Ah, but what about Texas, the team that beat OU but was denied a shot because of the Big 12's ridiculous tiebreaker policy? Who knows for sure if the Gators would have beaten the Longhorns?

In addition to Texas and Oklahoma (12 wins each), you also had Texas Tech at 11-2, Missouri at 10-4, Nebraska and Oklahoma State both at 9-4, and even Kansas finished 8-5.

It would be one thing if only the Big 12 North sucked. I mean, after all, people are used to that. But for whatever reason, this year the South has been dragged down as well.

Oklahoma, for so long one of the sure things in the top 10, has stumbled to a 5-4 record and is in danger of matching the worst season of the Bob Stoops era, when he went 7-5 in his first season in Norman.

Texas Tech, while no slouch at 6-3, stood no chance of matching last year's storybook season, when Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell launched them to the best record in school history.

To it's credit, Oklahoma State is still playing well. Sure, people were quick to dismiss them as overrated when they lost to Houston, but it warrants mentioning that the Cougars are 8-1 and ranked 12th in the nation. OSU's only other loss is to the undefeated Longhorns.

Once again, the stench that accompanies any "Big 12 stinks" argument is yet again emanating from the North Division. The leader of the division, the Kansas State Wildcats, are a stout 6-4, with one of those losses coming to Louisiana- Lafayette.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of their wins have come against their equally-hapless competition in the North.

Missouri, the winner of the division the past two years, is currently 5-4, with all four of those losses coming against fellow Big 12 members, which is the exact same situation that the Kansas Jayhawks find themselves in.

Nobody is even sure that Colorado is still fielding a division I football team, what with most of his team apparently opting to play the intramurals that coach Dan Hawkins so famously condescended a couple years back.

And Nebraska, despite having a defense ranked #2 in the nation in scoring defense and being led by probable #1 NFL draft pick Ndamukong Suh, has managed only a 6-3 record in a year many hoped it would help balance the scales away from the South.

Me being a Nebraska fan, I have to mention that the Huskers are two plays away from being 8-1 right now: a blown coverage at Virginia Tech and any one of the 4 fumbles inside the five yard-line against Iowa State. That will happen when you have an offense ranked 84th in the country.

Unfortunately, there's that familiar saying about excuses: They're like assholes, and everbody's got one.

And so no matter what kind of way I break down the schedules, no matter how much I extrapolate on the parity in the Big 12, it can't distract from a terrifying reality: The Big 12 has become the Big 10 West, a conference that simply beats itself up until there's only one relevant team, and the rest, no matter what admirable traits they may possess, simply aren't that good.

I guess if there's one thing Big 12 backers can take solace in, it's that unlike the Big 10, at least we don't get massacred in our bowl games.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Script Is Flipped: Husker Offense and Defense Switch Places Over 2 Years

Like any Husker fan, I don't like to dredge up memories of 2007. Nobody likes remembering massacres of Biblical proportions or watching Bill Callahan stand seemingly indifferent on the sidelines as opposing teams rang up the scoreboard like they were playing Madden on XBOX instead of facing a once-proud program.

While Kevin Cosgrove led the Husker defense to the septic tank of the NCAA rankings (including giving up 38 points per game), the other side of the ball was an entirely different story. In the last three games of that doomed season, the Huskers rang up 39, 73, and 51 points.

The fans were only left to wonder what the team would be able to do if they had a defense that could even play in the top 50, let alone an elite unit like the one that resides in Lincoln this season.

When Callahan got the axe and Pelini was hired, many fans were thankful that Watson was retained. The thought process was that with Pelini fixing the moribund defensive unit and Watson keeping his job, the offense would continue humming until the defense was on par. When a team's offense and defense are both ranked in the top 25, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that you're going to win your fair share of games.

Last year, with the offense still residing in the top 25 and putting up 35 points per game, the defense rose halfway up the rankings to the mid-50's, and that led to 9 win season and a (perhaps unwarranted) large amount of optimism heading into this season.

Halfway through, well......let's just say things haven't worked out quite as well as we had expected.

On the defensive side, the Huskers took another quantum leap under Pelini, jumping into the top 25 in nearly every defensive category. The only one where they still haven't cracked? Um....turnover margin. Having Zac Lee and Team Anvil Hands in the offensive backfield isn't helping that cause.

What has been stunning has been just how far the offense has regressed. It would be one thing if only Zac Lee was playing poorly. However, the fault can't be piled on his efforts alone. The ineptitude has been spread all across the skill positions.

Nebraska's offense now finds itself ranked 58th in the country, which is funny, because that's pretty much exactly where their defensive counterparts found themselves last year.

How did we get here? How on earth do we have the best Husker defense in 10 years, only to watch it completely wasted by an offensive stink bomb that nobody saw coming?

To think, if we had last year's offense was still here, we very well could be undefeated. I guess the lesson to take away from this article is that I really miss Joe Ganz and Nate Swift. Who knew Watson's offense would fall so far so fast?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Husker Offense: 7 Points, 8 Turnovers, Zero Hope

What do you say after a game like that? What words can adequately describe such futility, such complete ineptitude? I find myself at a loss today, unable to come to terms with the nightmarish slew of mistakes I saw Nebraska commit yesterday in a 9-7 loss to Iowa State.

Christmas came early for the Cyclones, as the Huskers gift-wrapped a win for them and handed it over, again and again. We all know about the eight turnovers. Even more shocking than that staggering number is the manner in which they occurred. Fumbles with nobody touching you (Niles Paul). An interception thrown directly to a defender when no Nebraska receiver was within 10 yards (Zac Lee).

Four turnovers inside Iowa State's five yard line. Think about that. The Huskers were just a few feet away from winning this game 35 to 9. Hell, even if you only get field goals on those drives, you still win 19-9.

What initially was anger over turnovers turned to frustration. Then the Huskers hit the 4th turnover, and it turned to bewilderment. Once the 6th turnover was committed, it became disbelief. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to describe the feeling that sweeps over you when your team commits that many back-breaking mistakes.

The real tragedy here is that the turnovers and garish play of the skill-position players on offense overshadowed a great performance by the offensive line and an even better effort by Ndamukong Suh and the Nebraska defense.

The Cyclones were held to 102 yards passing, 47 of it coming on one long touchdown pass. On 48 carries, Iowa State managed 148 yards rushing, giving them a 3-yards-per-carry average, which dips to 2.72 when you take away the 20-yard gain on a fake punt.

You have to feel for the Blackshirts, who put up a Herculean effort only to watch it be wasted by an offense who couldn't get out of their own way. During the game, I tweeted that the Huskers weren't shooting themselves in the foot, they were blowing off their leg at the kneecap. Which is true.

Shooting yourself in the foot is having a couple of bad penalties. Shooting yourself in the foot is having two turnovers in the red zone. What we saw yesterday was far beyond that.

I don't care what Bo Pelini says: Zac Lee did not play well. I don't know what game the coaching staff is watching, but the quarterback play yesterday was downright awful. Did Lee's teammates do him any favors? No.

There was a litany of dropped passes, and those obviously aren't Lee's fault. Niles Paul and Meno Holt, in my opinion, need to be benched for a game just to give them time to pull their heads out of their ass. And maybe learn how to catch too.

But how many more passes do I have to see go above and behind receivers before the staff is convinced that Lee isn't the best option?

I don't know that I've ever seen a quarterback who delivers the ball to the back hip of receivers more than Lee. Nearly every time he throws, the receiver has to alter his route to attempt to bring in an errant pass. I only saw two or three passes yesterday that hit the receiver in stride, and those are the kind of plays that this offense is built on.

An offense predicated on getting a few yards after the catch isn't going to be successful when the receiver has to stop and reach behind him every time. And it's not just the poor passing, it's the questionable decisions.

On the Nebraska's final drive yesterday, the Huskers faced a 3rd-and-10 with just over a minute to play and no timeouts left. It is OBVIOUSLY 4-down territory, meaning that you don't have to get all 10 on one play, because you know you're going for it on 4th regardless. So what does Lee do?

He throws it 50 yards down-field.

Into double coverage.

Luckily, Niles Paul turned into a defensive back (which he maybe should be one at this point) and broke it up. But the fact that Lee even threw that pass to begin with was mind-boggling. You don't need 50 yards there. Hell, you don't even need 10. You have another down after 3rd, and you can get whatever is left on the next play.

That play would have stood as the perfect example of why Lee must be benched. But then Lee topped himself. When he threw his final interception, I at first thought he had thrown it to a Nebraska receiver.

Why? Because there was nobody within 10 yards of him. It was as if Lee thought the Cyclone linebacker was his own teammate, because that's the only way you can explain a throw that hits a guy right in the numbers. There was not a single Nebraska receiver in the camera shot. That throw was hands-down one of the worst throws I've ever seen in all my years of watching and playing football.

The only way Lee could have topped that series of mistakes is if he had dropped his pants and laid a deuce on the "N" at midfield. I say that in jest, because that's basically what his performance the past three games has been. His play is so bad that I just compared it to a bowel movement.

With Nebraska now mired at 1-2 in the conference and in desperate need of a spark on offense, there is no choice: Cody Green must play.

Not only because of Zac Lee's ineptitude, but because, at 1-2 in the conference and 4-3 overall, it's become apparent that the Huskers must start building for next season.

Let me clarify: I am in no way writing off this season. The Huskers still have an elite-level defense, and in a down Big 12, there are still opportunities to do great things yet this year.

But it has become painfully obvious that Zac Lee is not the future at the quarterback position. Now is the time to throw Green into the fire and let him make his mistakes now, because it surely can't be worse than watching Lee kill the Nebraska offense.

Yesterday was very odd to me. After the Virginia Tech loss, I was devastated. There was literally pain in my chest and stomach.

After the Texas Tech loss, I was angry. I couldn't believe how poorly the Nebraska offense had played, and how awful the play-calling was

However, yesterday's loss didn't result in either of these feelings. I walked out of the bar with a sense of detachment, an odd bewilderment reserved for those who can't comprehend what they have just seen.

I found myself resigned to another year of irrelevance for Nebraska, the reality creeping in that this year may result in an Insight Bowl bid if we're lucky.

I have a little story for you, perhaps one that will resonate for Husker fans after yesterday's game:

Every week, my brother and I watch the Nebraska game at a Husker bar in the Minneapolis metro area. We always bring along our friends, who are Minnesota fans. We always give each other crap about the other's team. We have heated debates about the Huskers and Gophers, the Big 10 vs. the Big 12.

After the loss to Virginia Tech, they were downright merciless, rubbing it in our faces.

Yesterday however, there was nothing. They saw it my face: giving me crap was completely unnecessary. I already knew my team sucked, and they didn't even need to reaffirm it.

Welcome to Nebraska football in 2009.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Midseason Report Card: Suh-Led Defense Earns High Marks

Crazy how time flies, isn't it? We wait for months through spring and summer for football to finally come back into our lives, but then when it finally arrives, we don't properly savor it. We spend so much time analyzing and agonizing about every game that all of a sudden we take a step back and half the season is gone.

Which is exactly where we find ourselves now. Halfway through year two of the Bo Pelini era, Nebraska stands at 4-2, and while that may be a one-win improvement from last year at this point, many questions remain.

A 4-1 start with a heart breaker to Virginia Tech and a comeback victory against Mizzou gave fans hope that 2009 may be more than just a stepping stone to a big 2010 season, but that momentum came crashing down in a lethargic and head-scratching loss to Texas Tech.

With six regular-season games remaining, it's time for a midterm report card.



Well, um.....can I give an "Incomplete" grade? If Nebraska was in the Sun Belt conference, this would be an A+, but alas, that's not the case. As spectacular as Zac Lee was against those also-rans, he has been equally mediocre against everyone else. The more I watch him, the more I recall Sam Keller, who would stand in the pocket too long, freak out, and then dump it off to a guy in the flats for three yards. Or get sacked.

Nebraska now stands mired in a quarterback controversy, pitting a beleaguered Lee against true freshmen Cody Green, who has won the hearts of Husker fans with some spectacular mop-up duty and the fact his name isn't Zac Lee.

One thing is certain: whatever the outcome of the competition, it will determine whether Nebraska is playing in a New Year's Day bowl or the Alamo Bowl. For now though, the grade on this position is just barely passing.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

This position, led by Roy Helu, has been the one dependable group on the Nebraska offense. Another pleasant surprise was just how effective Rex Burkhead was in his first season of college football.

Unfortunately, the running backs have also had the most difficulty staying on the field. Between Helu's banged-up shoulder and Burkhead's broken foot (that will cost him the next six weeks), the Huskers have been stretched thin at the position. You think Bo might be regretting booting Quentin Castille right about now?

But this report card isn't based off of what-ifs or injuries, it's about grading the results, and so far, these guys have done a great job.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight End

What's that? Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't aware these guys were in class this semester. Or perhaps they've just been truant a lot. Either way, this was a group that, while admittedly a question mark in camp, had given Husker fans a lot to expect due to the amount of physical talent they possess.

As we've seen though, talent doesn't always translate to results. Niles Paul looks like Randy Moss for spurts, and then disappears faster than beer at a frat party. Curenski Gilleyen is equally inconsistent. And the most consistent performer among them is senior Chris Brooks, who was all but written off before the season started but has emerged as the most sure-handed of the bunch.

Then there's the tight ends. All through camp, there was so much sunshine being blown about this group that you'd have thought KC and his band had taken up residence in Lincoln. We all knew about Mike McNeill, but then we kept hearing about Kyler Reed, Ben Cotton, and Dreu Young, and how the coaches were scheming to get them all on the field.

But like their fellow receivers, these guys have been missing in action. The question is, how much of it can be traced to the inconsistency at quarterback? If Joe Ganz was still in town, would these guys still be having such run-of-the-mill seasons? It's doubtful.

Grade: C- , only because the Sun Belt games boost them up.


The performance of Shawn Watson mirrors that of his unit. He is at times brilliant, mixing a concoction of diverse plays out of multiple sets. Yet, that very word, "multiple," makes me want to vomit. All through the season, we've heard that his offense is striving to be "multiple."

How is it then that it can be so damn predictable most of the time? As I said in my Texas Tech article, there are times where it seems as if this offense only has two plays, and that, as much as the inconsistent quarterback play, is what is holding the entire offense back.

Grade: C+


Ahh, something actually fun to talk about.


Downright dominant. Ndamukong Suh is an absolute beast, and he recently moved to #1 on Mel Kiper's big board for the NFL Draft. In his shadow, Jared Crick is playing spectacularly well, and he's been getting better with each passing week.

Due to the scheme that Pelini has employed (keeping quarterbacks in the pocket, not letting his d-ends get too far upfield), Pierre Allen and Barry Turner have been somewhat quiet this year, but against Tech, Allen had two sacks and I could see both of these players having a big second half. Even younger guys like Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler were doing pretty well in the Sun Belt slate.

The bottom line is that without this defensive front, who knows where the defense would be at this point. It is far and away the strength of the entire team.

Grade: A- ........and it only got a minus because I'd like to see more sacks. But that's nitpicking at it's finest.


The big question mark of the defense going into this season; this unit is long on talent but short on experience. The names Will Compton and Eric Martin may already be household names, but it's mostly because of hype, not results. Sure, they've made a few nice hits, a few nice plays.

But when the mistakes came, the experience came back to the forefront. Phillip Dillard, who was two tiers down the depth chart before the season started, worked his way back into the starting lineup and has become a calming presence in the middle of the Nebraska defense, even notching 12 tackles last week against Texas Tech. While the play of this group looks to improve, it's still very much a work in progress.

Grade: C+


This was supposed to be a pretty decent unit, and while it has shown flashes of great play, it also has a few examples of truly bone-headed brain farts: the blown coverage by O'Hanlon in Blacksburg, several costly dropped interceptions by Larry Asante (seriously, at what point do you find some Stickum for this guy?), missed tackles by Prince Amukamara against Texas Tech.

No player is entirely at fault, as obviously the play of these guys is determined by the defensive call. That said, there have been many times where the secondary has been in position to make a game-changing play, only to blow it and see it carom off their outstretched fingertips.

Before the season, I thought the Blackshirts would be getting a lot of interceptions, but through 6 games they only have 4 picks, and that has to change, especially in light of how poorly the offense is playing. The offense needs more possessions, and if the defense doesn't start forcing more turnovers, it could spell trouble.

Like seemingly every other unit on the team (excepting the defensive line), the secondary has to play more consistent if Nebraska hopes to have a big second half of the season.

Grade: C


Looking at the numbers, Nebraska has improved by leaps and bounds from last season:

Rushing Defense: 16th in the country, 96.5 yds/game

Passing Defense: 23rd in the country, 174.5 yds/game

Total Defense: 12th in the country, 271 yds/game

Scoring Defense: sixth in the country, 11.83 points a game

And while I'm overjoyed at the vast improvement, the thing that stands out to me isn't the dominance 85 percent of the time, it's the other 15 percent, the one polluted with breakdowns, blown tackles, and schematic screw-ups.

Bo has preached all season about living up to his lofty expectations, and it's these mistakes that he is referring to. Playing excellent ALMOST all the time isn't going to win championships. It'll win you a lot of games, and it'll get you to a decent bowl every year. But if this program is going to get over the hump and rejoin the nation's elite, it is these screw-ups that must be fixed.

And it's Pelini's job to keep on the players until they get it right.

Grade: B+ (This is downgraded from an A due to sideline antics and evisceration of refs...that stuff is OK, but not so often.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not "Back" Yet: Reality Sets in After Loss to Tech

So much for going into the Oklahoma game 7-1. All the good will and warm fuzzy feelings from the win a week ago were effectively killed Saturday by a unbelievably bad offensive performance and the development of a quarterback controversy.

When you look at the stats, you wonder not only how Nebraska lost the game, but how it wasn't even close. If someone had told me that the Huskers would hold the Red Raiders to just 260 yards of total offense, I would have been thrilled. I would assume that it would be a 14, maybe even 21-point victory for NU. Which goes to show just how misleading statistics can be.

After the win in Missouri, many Husker fans (including yours truly) were so giddy about the fourth quarter comeback that we shrugged off what had been a putrid performance by the offense for the first three quarters.

Sure, we knew we had struggled, but we reasoned that when challenged, the offense would get back on track and Zac Lee would find a way to make the necessary plays to win. And really, if you look at his statistics from yesterday, you would come to the conclusion that he really didn't play that bad. He completed 16 of his 22 passes, after all. But go up two paragraphs and re-read that line about stats being misleading.

Because if you watched the game, you saw the same thing as everyone else: a tentative QB who seemed to lack any aggression or resolve to rise to the moment when his team needed him most.

Where is this "gunslinger" I heard about through camp, the guy who wasn't afraid to air it out deep? The one who was so confident he bordered on cocky? Because that's not the guy we've seen the past two games under center for Nebraska.

To be fair, it wasn't a banner day for anyone on the offense. There were drops, the most glaring one by Niles Paul. After batting down a bubble screen pass (that was actually a lateral) with the skill of a defensive back, Niles and the rest of the Huskers watched it get taken back by Tech for 6 points.

I would go so far as to say that the receiving corps disappeared, but that would be inferring that they had actually shown up to the game. At least Chris Brooks decided to put in an effort.

In addition to poor performance by the players, an equal amount of blame lays upon the shoulders of Shawn Watson, whose play calling had many fans scratching their heads. And by scratching their heads, I mean hurling obscenities at their TV screen.

Last year against the Red Raiders, Watson called a perfect game in a 37-31 loss that helped the Husker offense establish it's identity the rest of the season. Yesterday seemed as if he was experimenting on how to do the exact opposite.

When the Red Raiders gained a two score lead, Watson decided that the Huskers needed to throw the ball every play, which was odd because it was still the first quarter. Oh, and the fact Nebraska has arguably the best running back in the Big 12 is another reason one would want to continue to use the ground game.

I know Roy Helu was banged up. However, the abandonment of the running game was a harbinger of doom for the Huskers yesterday. Without an effective running game, Tech's defense was able to drop everyone in coverage because they knew we were going to throw it every time.

Even more frustrating was Watson's decision to try to run it when Nebraska was down 3 scores in the fourth quarter. THAT is when you start throwing the ball every play.

It was if he had a sheet of situational play calls for each quarter but accidentally put the "4th quarter, down by 21" plays on the first quarter sheet and placed the 1st quarter running plays on the 4th quarter sheet.

It was truly bizarre to watch a team that can be so diverse at times be reduced to running two plays. Those two plays were either a zone read (which becomes easy to stop when it's apparent the QB has no intention of keeping it), or a shotgun pass where Lee would dance around, become flustered, and either take a drive-breaking sack or throw to a (well-covered) guy in the flats for three yards.

Then there's Cody Green. To be honest, he didn't look all that amazing yesterday. He overthrew receivers. He seemed to be unable to take any velocity off his throws when it was needed.

But unlike Lee, there was no hesitancy. Green always looked authoritative on his delivery. He stepped up in the pocket with purpose and delivered missiles, albeit inaccurate ones sometimes. There was the sense that, even if there would be bumps in the road with him in the game, he believed that he could handle them. Lee has shown that he shrinks in those moments.

After watching Lee stumble his way through another hesitant and uneven performance, people will be calling for Green to start, and that's completely understandable. Halfway through the season, the decision needs to be made whether or not we continue to give Lee a chance or whether the future is now and it's time to let the freshmen try his hand.

The schedule is friendly for such an experiment. Green would be in the confines of home, playing against an Iowa State team that ranks 95th in the country in passing defense. So it will be interesting to see how Pelini and Watson handle the quarterback situation.

Do you give Green the nod but still put Lee in for one or two series a half? Do you stick with Lee but let him know Green will be getting a few series? It's a difficult situation that Nebraska finds itself in, but that is what happens after you lay a bomb like the offense did against Texas Tech.

With Oklahoma coming to Lincoln in three weeks, one thing is for sure. Nebraska had better establish it's offensive identity quickly, or that Big 12 North title that once seemed assured will be in serious jeopardy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Huskers Will Exorcise Red Raider Demons

After an emotional and extremely gratifying win over Missouri last week, there was some concern that the Huskers might have a problem on their hands this week against Texas Tech. Not only because of the concern for a potential letdown, but because the Red Raiders, more than perhaps any team in the Big 12 this decade, have been a thorn in the side of Nebraska.

Last year's overtime defeat. The LeKevin Smith fumble in 2005 that lost Nebraska the game. The 70-10 drubbing in 2004 that was a quintessential Blackshirts-under-Cosgrove moment.

With momentum building and Nebraska starting to make waves nationally, Texas Tech comes to town in a match-up that will go a long way in determining just how far the Huskers have come the past year.

In many ways, this game is a classic trap game. Coming off a big road comeback....a team whose offense has given you fits for years....your own offense coming off a performance that stunk of Garbagio Armani for the first three quarters, with a quarterback who still hasn't shown he can put together a whole game against a quality opponent. An injury to a key offensive cog (Burkhead).

Lest we forget, the real reason Nebraska was in position to win last season in Lubbock wasn't because of a stout defensive performance or offensive fireworks. It was due to the Husker offense spending 2/3rds of the game on the field. Literally. Joe Ganz and company were on the field for 40 minutes.

Can Nebraska do that again? And furthermore, do they really have to rely on that this year? Yes, it would obviously help to keep the Tech offense on the sideline most of the game, but unlike last year, I don't think it's an absolute necessity. This season, there's a Nebraska defense that is playing with a confidence and swagger that wasn't there last year.

A year in the system has given rise to a unit that has grown by leaps and bounds, and that will go a long way in stopping the Red Raiders tomorrow. With most of the game spent in the Dime formation, it will all depend on sound tackling and preventing four yard gains turning into 40-yarders.

The biggest advantage Nebraska has is that it's defensive line's dominance enables the Huskers to drop seven players into coverage and still generate a pass rush, something that is an absolute necessity against Texas Tech. If Suh and his buddies on the front get into the backfield and throw off Steven Sheffield's timing, it will go a long way in keeping the Red Raiders off the scoreboard.

The most comforting feeling in Pelini's second year is the complete lack of complacency in Nebraska's program. It seems as if every cog within the team refuses to rest on their laurels or previous accomplishments. The team has adopted Pelini's expectations of perfection, and that will be the reason that there will be no letdown against Tech.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Suh Striking the Pose: Pipe Dream or Legitimate Chance?

After the Missouri game, I jumped on the Suh-for-Heisman bandwagon, one that I thought would be reserved for my fellow delusional Husker fans. All of a sudden though, Suh has become the fresh face in the race, joining Tennessee's Eric Berry as the only defensive players on the potential ballot. Sure, we expect the Omaha and Lincoln press to start boosting his candidacy, but national media? We were skeptical that they would come around.

However, national writers like Sports Illustrated's Gene Menez and Pat Forde now have him their top 5. SI's Andy Staples has him as his leader, claiming that he fits the billing for Heisman, which is supposed to be awarded to the nation's Most Outstanding Player, not the media's skill-position darling of the moment.

And right now Suh is kicking more doors down than the bad guys from the ADT home security commercials, forcing people to take notice of his dominance.

The question is, can he stay there? Is the media merely finding someone to fill the void that exists because of the sub-par play of the quarterbacks (Bradford, McCoy, Tebow) thus far, or are they really going to give him a shot?

And furthermore, can Suh continue to contribute at this pace, a necessity given the media's penchant for moving on to the next big thing after a bad week or two?

I for one think that if there's one thing we can count on, it's that Suh will continue to put up great numbers. Obviously, every team thus far has thrown double teams and other tricks at Suh in an effort to slow him down, and he has proven that those efforts are futile at best.

Will he continue to put up games like Virginia Tech or Missouri though? That's a tall order. Not many guys have games like Mizzou (six tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, an interception, and three quarterback hurries, along with a pass breakup) twice in a career, let alone a season.

Unfortunately, if he's to stay in the conversation, Suh has to continue performances close to these. Suh has been aided by the aforementioned quiet performances by the the big three quarterbacks from last year. But that cannot be counted on continuing through the season.

Will ESPN and Sports Illustrated continue to list Suh so highly if Tebow and company start putting up big numbers? Will Suh be at a disadvantage from a lack of nationally televised games? It's all up in the air right now.

The good news for Suh is that his fellow linemates are all good players, and that will prevent any opposing team to focus too much attention on him, preventing him from making the plays necessary to stay in the Heisman conversation.

The bad news? So many teams in the Big 12 throw the ball so quickly that it's going to be difficult for him to get the sacks that so many pundits look at to determine how dominant a player is at defensive tackle.

Which shows just how short-sighted the national media is. At least SI's Staples has pointed out that any media member with a vote has to watch Suh play a whole game before passing judgement. It's difficult for some to keep their eyes on the trenches, when the perceived "real" action happens wherever the ball is headed.

But even when Suh doesn't put up stats, he single-handedly can turn the outcome of a game just with his presence. He might not get a sack, but if he collapses the pocket from the interior and forces a quarterback outside to Pierre Allen or Barry Turner, he deserves as much of the credit as them.

The truth of the matter is, Suh's chances of success are directly tied to Nebraska's. If the Huskers continue to win and make a run at the Big 12 championship, Suh will at least stay in the conversation. However, should NU falter (I don't think they will, but then again, I'm chugging the Husker Kool-Aid), then Suh's chances diminish greatly.

What the hell, though. If I'm chugging the Kool-Aid, then I might as well beer-bong it. Suh for Heisman. Why not?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Huskers Show Muscle in Missouri Monsoon

I'm still dumbfounded. The game ended hours ago, but I'm still sitting here in some kind of idiotic stupor, like a kid who thought he had lost his favorite toy but then found it in the least likely of places.

Which is fitting, because a similar thing happened to Nebraska on Thursday night in Columbia.
For three quarters, the Huskers offense looked less effective than Poland's army did against Blitzkrieg tactics.

Zac Lee seemed hell-bent on trying to replicate his performance against Virginia Tech. The running game was anemic, receivers were dropping passes, and our line was getting pushed back on every play. It was truly painful to watch, and it got so bad that I even tweeted at one point: "It has become apparent the only way we are going to score is if our defense does it."

That's right—the Nebraska offense laid such an epic bomb during the first three quarters that I thought our defense would have to find a way to score two touchdowns and simultaneously keep Missouri from scoring to win.

All of which goes to show that doubting Nebraska might be a very bad idea.

First off, let me say that I know it's only Missouri. This wasn't Oklahoma. This wasn't Texas. This didn't win any championship, and it probably didn't really alter the national perception of the Huskers that much.

But compared to the alternative? If Nebraska loses that game, the entire season swings the other direction. People would have written the Huskers off, and we wouldn't have heard anything about them the rest of the year.

But a win like that? In those conditions, and particularly in that style? It gets people's attention.
Yes, much will be pointed out about the negative—like having approximately 80 yards of offense through three quarters. But numbers, stats, all that crap doesn't matter when the scoreboard reflects the true story: When it seemed there was no hope, both units, both offense and defense, rose to the challenge and responded with a kind of grit that even the most hardened Husker fan didn't know was there.

With Cody Green taking warmup snaps on the sideline, Lee decided to show why Shawn Watson and Bo Pelini had so much faith in him. A guy who couldn't hit the broad side of very large barn for the first 45 minutes threw three touchdown passes in four minutes, not only vaulting Nebraska to a lead it would not relinquish, but simultaneously turning Faurot Field into the quietest group of 70,000 people I've ever seen.

Lee's main target, Niles Paul, finally had his true breakout game. While some may have pointed to his performance against Florida Atlantic, I'd say his six-catch, 102-yard game tonight, complete with two momentum-changing touchdowns (in a torrential downpour, no less), tops that performance by a mile.

Oh, and Bo? You might want to dust off those Blackshirts. Missouri totaled a meager 225 yards and turned the ball over three times, the last two being absolute back-breakers.

Ndamukong Suh turned in a performance that hopefully will open up whatever eyes were still closed to his brilliance. For three quarters, he nearly singlehandedly kept Missouri from opening up a lead—and then, somehow, he topped it in the fourth.

His final stat line is impressive: a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, six tackles. But like most interior defensive linemen, stats don't do the man justice. He dominated that game like few players can.

I'm not the first to say it, but I will repeat it: This man has to be considered for the Heisman. The quarterback club be damned—if Suh keeps this up, he has to get an invite; otherwise they ought to throw that trophy away, because it's a fraud.

For over two hours, I sat in silent gloom, that familiar shroud of a loss creeping in. We've all felt it ruin our weekend in the past. When Nebraska loses, the world just isn't that fun. You're irritable, cranky, and sometimes downright depressed.

Watching Nebraska for three quarters, I feared I'd find myself in that all-too-familiar position.
Fifteen minutes and 27 points later, all is right in the world.

It's too early to say where the season goes from here. There's still a lot of football left to play and plenty of drama yet to unfold. But at the end of the season, and maybe even years from now, we'll look back at this game as a turning point, one where Nebraska, having played 45 minutes of the crappiest football anyone has ever seen, decided that enough was enough.

The Big Red might not be "Back." But they sure as hell are on their way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bowden's Plight Highlights Osborne's Good Decision

There was a time a dozen years ago when two men stood out above all others in the world of college coaching. Bobby Bowden directed the Florida State Seminoles through the 1990's in style, leading a program that finished ranked in the top 5 every season during that decade. FSU won two national championships (one of them coming over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl) and won or shared the conference title in every season over that span.

The other program at the top was Nebraska, who joined FSU as the only programs to rack up 100 wins in the decade. The Huskers, led by Tom Osborne, won 3 national championships in 4 years to finish Osborne's career, which ended with his retirement after sharing the national championship with Michigan in 1997.

I bring this up because of the current calls for Bowden to step down at Florida State. To think that the man who brought Florida State from the cellars of college football to the pinnacle is being asked to give up the program that he built is one that has stirred heated debate in the world of college football.

Bowden took over Florida State in 1976. The previous three seasons, the Seminoles had gone a combined 4-29. Four years later, the Seminoles lost only one game, the Orange Bowl to Miami, a game that could have awarded them a national championship. For the last 25 years of the 20th century, Bowden was the steward of a juggernaut, and much of the credit for that belongs to him.

Yet, much like his friend Joe Paterno once did at Penn State, he now finds himself confronted with boosters, trustees, and fans who question whether the game has passed him by. And unlike JoePa, who was able to resurrect his program in a highly-suspect Big 10 in the latter half of the current decade, Bowden has not been able to completely right the ship in Tallahassee.

While he hasn't overseen any losing seasons this in this decade as Joe Pa did (Paterno's record during the first five seaons of the 2000's: 26-33), Bowden also doesn't have near as forgiving of supporters as Paterno did. Would Bowden still be the coach at Florida State if he had four losing seasons in five years, as Paterno did? Doubtful, given the run of success that the Seminoles had in the 80's and 90's.

While some of you may say that a run like that would elevate a coach to a status that is beyond firing, I would say otherwise. College football fans are some of the most impatient people in the sporting world: if success becomes so commonplace that it is expected, it doesn't matter what you did to get to that point, you are expected to maintain it.

Why, even Osborne faced calls for his head after he took over for Bob Devaney. Despite the fact he never won less than 9 games and his teams finished ranked in the top 15 in 24 of his 25 years at the helm, many fans, spoiled from Devaney's two national championships in his final two years, questioned whether or not Osborne was the right guy for the job.

The criticism was so bad that Osborne actually considered taking the Colorado job in December of 1978, but fortunately for Nebraska, opted to stay put. But what puts Osborne in deity status is that he left at the apex.

Unlike Bowden or Paterno, Osborne left before his program began it's downward spiral. It is impossible to say whether or not Nebraska would have gone as far downhill as it did if he had stayed. Would there have been two 5-7 seasons in four years? Would the bowl streak have ended? I would argue that those disasters would have been averted had Osborne stayed at NU.

But what if Nebraska had started going 7-5 or 8-4 every year? What if the Huskers had two consecutive seasons with 6 wins? Would Nebraska fans tolerate it for very long, even from a man they consider just behind God and Christ in terms of devotion? I'd like to think that they would. I'd love to think that Nebraska fans would have given him the same leeway that Paterno had in that dark period from 2000 through 2004.

However, with the rise of the Big 12 South and the cyclical nature of college football's hierarchy, it's tough to say just how differently Osborne's career would have played out. Nebraska fans look at 9 wins and they shrug. It's probably delusional to have such high expectations, but Husker fans were spoiled for 40 years, and they expect championships.

He'd undoubtedly be either in the lead or neck-and-neck with Bowden and Paterno for the career wins record. He may have tacked a couple of more conference championships, maybe even recruited enough horses to reverse that debacle at the end of the 2001 season and win another national title.

But there's no guarantee that the same slide suffered by FSU and Penn State could have been avoided by NU, even with Osborne at the helm.

For the record, I think Bowden should be able to stay until he decides to leave. While I sympathize with Florida State fans, the man has done enough for your school that he's earned the right to stay, especially given that Jimbo Fisher is supposed to be the man in charge by 2011. That's the rest of this season and next year, and I don't think it's too much to ask that the man be given that time frame to have one last hurrah and turn it around in Tallahassee.

But having watched fans call for Paterno's head a few years back and people calling for Bowden's now, I'm glad that Tom Osborne got out while he was still on top. Paterno and Bowden, as unfair as it is, will always have the "Yeah, but they tailed off at the end there" arguments as part of any debate over their legacy.

Osborne's, on the other hand, will only continue to gain luster as time passes.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bo Knows Best About Blackshirts

Judging by the banter that I've seen on various Husker message boards, the jury is out on whether or not Bo Pelini should give out the coveted Blackshirts to the Nebraska defense. The tradition, which goes back to Bob Devaney's third season, is a hallowed part of Nebraska football lore, which is funny because the only reason that the color is black is that the sporting goods store gave assistant Mike Corgan a deal because they weren't selling. Can you imagine if neon yellow had been the best deal?

Luckily, black was the best bargain, and Nebraska's defense has never been the same since. Which brings us back to the present day. Many fans are pointing to the defense's performance against both Virginia Tech and the shutout performance against Louisiana Lafayette as worthy of having the blackshirts bestowed before next week's melee against the Missouri Tigers, and to be honest, it's hard to disagree with them.

Nebraska's defensive rankings through four games:

Scoring defense: 7 points per game (3rd nationally)

Total defense: 285 yards per game (23rd nationally)

While those are obviously good numbers, this is where Bo Pelini's decision to withhold the blackshirts comes in. Pelini isn't going to hand out something so valuable just because of a few solid games. If you look at Bo's quotes throughout camp and this season, the thing constantly preached is "playing up to expectations". Not the media's expectations, not the expectations of the fans, up to Pelini's expectations.

Which is why the Big Red are still sans blackshirts. Bo doesn't care about rankings, he cares about across-the-board effort and consistency. As we saw with Virginia Tech, one play, no matter how good the other 60 or 70 went, can cost a team a ball game, and Pelini will continue to keep the shirts in the box until the Husker defense can achieve his goal of perfection.

While Husker fans bemoan that Pelini is ruining the "tradition" of handing out the blackshirts before the first game, they need to know that Bo isn't the first Husker coach to make players earn the jerseys on a daily basis.

While Tom Osborne instituted the aforementioned practice of giving out the blackshirts before the first game, Bob Devaney's policy is nearly identical to that of Pelini's. Initially, the black pullovers were distributed each day at practice and collected immediately afterward. A player might have it one day and a gray one the next: the blackshirt wasn't a right as a starter, it was an honor that had to be earned on a daily basis in practice throughout the season.

Having lofty statistical rankings is all well and good, but the results in games are not what makes a defender a "blackshirt". It's on a cold Tuesday afternoon in November, when the last place you want to be is on a practice field yet you have the focus and determination to play to your highest level on every play. Anybody can get up for games, it's the times when the lights are off and nobody is watching when championship teams are made, and Bo expects his team-especially his defense- to play at that level no matter what. And I for one agree with him.

Monday, September 28, 2009

With Cream Puffs Out of Way, Eyes Turn to Clash in Columbia

Is anyone else glad that Bo Pelini and Jeff Jamrog are working on beefing up Nebraska's non-conference schedule the next few years? After watching the Huskers win the Sun Belt title Saturday with their defeat of the ULL Ragin Cajuns, fans of the Big Red can now turn their attention to the conference slate, where we will finally find out just how good the Huskers are in their second year under Pelini.

For decades, Missouri, along with both of the Kansas teams, was little more than a nuisance to Nebraska, similar to a pesky younger brother who would irritate until the older brother responded by taking them to the woodshed and putting them back in their proper place.

That pecking order began to fall apart in 2003, when Nebraska, up 24-14 going into the 4th quarter, gave up 27 points in the final period to a team led by Brad Smith, a collapse that probably contributed to Steve Pederson's decision to fire Frank Solich at the end of the season (though that was probably more of a reaction to the 7-7 campaign in 2002).

Counting that game, Nebraska has lost three straight games at Farout Field, which is why next week's game in Columbia is the game on which Nebraska's season hinges. Last year, the Huskers were embarrassed on their own field by Chase Daniel, Jeremey Maclin, and Chase Coffman, who cruised to an easy 52-17 victory.

This year, the Huskers return to Columbia with an improved defense who has obviously benefited from having a year in Pelini's system and bouyed by their strong performance against Virginia Tech. In addition to the improved defense, Nebraska's running game is stronger than a year ago and the wide receivers have more explosiveness than the duo of Nate Swift and Todd Peterson from a year ago.

The biggest benefit for Nebraska is that all the main characters from the past few debacles against Mizzou are gone. Booger McDaniel, Maclin, and Coffman have all moved on, and in their place are some talented but green replacements. Blaine Gabbert, who a couple of years ago was in many circles regarded as the #1 pro-style recruit in the country, has stepped in to the quarterback spot and has performed admirably, but not as lethal as McDaniel was. In addition to the turnover in offensive talent, the Tigers have had to overcome replacing both their offensive and defensive coordinators.

Missouri opened a lot of eyes with an opening-week drubbing of Illinois, but that the enthusiasm from that victory has been tempered by having to come from behind to beat Bowling Green and struggling with Nevada (coupled with the realization that Illinois is just downright terrible). The Tigers will face their first true test against Nebraska, who already has shown it's mettle with it's near-win against #6-ranked Virginia Tech.

The interesting thing about Mizzou is that with it's rise in relevancy and it's drubbings of Nebraska the past couple of years, the Tigers have seemingly replaced Colorado as the pre-eminent rival of the Huskers in the Big 12 North. Sure, Kansas is a decent program, in many ways equal or better than Missouri in terms of accomplishment and ability. But Kansas doesn't raise the same level of ire in Husker fans as Missouri does. With Mizzou, there is just something that rubs Nebraska backers the wrong way about them.

Maybe it's the arrogance of those within the program over finally playing decent football after decades of underacheiving. And yes, decent. Despite winning 10 games a year ago and 12 the season before that, Missouri has averaged 8 wins a season since 2003, hardly the results that would warrant the Tiger faithful having such a high opinion of themselves.

The rise of the rivalry could come from Missouri fans, who for the most part strike Nebraska as one of the least classy groups of people they have had to attend games with. And I'm not trying to rip on the entire fan base, but what upsets Nebraska fans is this: When there is a jerk at a Nebraska game, he's the exception to the norm. At Mizzou, it seems that the jerk is the norm, while a classy Mizzou fan is the exception. I'm not trying to deride every Missouri fan, but that seems to be the consensus among many who have had to go to a game in Columbia.

That's what makes the showdown on October 8th so exciting. Two ranked teams, a prime-time Thursday night national telecast, and a shot at redemption and payback for Nebraska. These two teams, despite what they may say to the media, have a genuine dislike for each other. Mizzou players expressed annoyance and surprise when the media picked Nebraska to win the North before the season, and Nebraska desperately wants to show to the entire nation that they are on the path back to power. And what better way to prove it than by annihilating the Tigers on their home field?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: Huskers Blow It in Blacksburg

The picture for this article nearly made me vomit. True story. I wanted to write this article on Saturday night, when my depression, angst, and anger were all at a fever pitch. That article would probably have packed quite a punch, but it wouldn't have been fair to the Huskers for me to write while alcohol and so much ill will coursed through my veins.

Nebraska should have won this game. The statistics all point to a dominant defensive effort by the Blackshirts, and Roy Helu turned in a memorable performance. Nebraska could have won this game, if they had substituted a touchdown for one of their five field goals. Nebraska would have won this game, if they could have gotten one more first down.

But there are no moral victories in football. The stats, the effort, the gameplan, all of it can be commended, but it is an ineffective strategy to help one cope with the cruel reality of what the scoreboard read: Virginia Tech, 16. Nebraska, 15.

There will be many images from this game that I'd like to forget but will be unable to. The 3rd-quarter penalty debacle that not only cost us a touchdown but pushed us out of field goal range. Meno Holt's dropped touchdown pass. And that lonely #19 in maroon and orange, somehow behind our secondary, the feeling of desperation and the realization that yes, he was going to catch the ball, that somehow, Nebraska is just destined to blow these games and tear out the heart of it's collective fan base.

I'm not sure what Nebraska did to anger the college football gods. Perhaps we were too blessed in the 1990's, maybe we were so spoiled that it wasn't enough just for us to lose our identity, our bowl streak, and our national respect the past few years. Maybe we needed to lose games like this in the most heart-breaking ways imaginable to remind us of just how special those glory days were. But at what point does karma evening things out go too far? To lose would be one thing, but to stand on the precipice of a great victory, only to have it torn from us, seems especially cruel.

This loss will sting for a long, long time. I still remember with particular frustration the feeling I had when we lost to Texas at home in 2006, when Terrence Nunn fumbled away a game-clinching first down? Now, is it fair to Nunn that this moment, one bad play, will be what we remember most about his career at Nebraska, a career that includes being among the top-5 pass catchers of all time? No, it's not. But all it takes is one bad play in the wrong situation, and your legacy at NU is forever altered.

And so I arrive at Matt O'Hanlon. I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, because even that horse's corpse can't have much left on it after what Husker fans have been saying the past two days. I know Matt is well-respected among his teammates, he works hard, and I'll always appreciate his effort during his time at NU. That said, he had no business being on that field. I know, he came back and made a sack on the next play, but that in no way excuses the brain fart of Biblical proportions he suffered on the 81-yard play before it. And this isn't just me tearing into Matt, because everyone makes mistakes. But in that situation, you have to be telling yourself before and during the play, that NOBODY GETS BEHIND YOU. NOBODY.

My question is this: throughout camp, the staff talked at length about the strides that Ricky Thenarse had made, that he was one of the best players on the defense, and he was listed as co-#1 at safety. In addition to Thenarse, Eric Hagg was described by defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders as "the best lockdown guy we have", and in addition to that praise, he is capable of playing both corner and safety. Oh, and did I mention that both of these players are measurably more athletic than Matt O'Hanlon?

I don't know what the staff's thought process is with #33. For some reason, he manages to find himself on the field at the most key points of the game despite the fact he is, in my estimation, our fourth-best safety. I know that O'Hanlon undoubtedly feels like jumping off a building after Saturday, and I'm sure he's aware that people in this state will remember his gaffe for the rest of their lives. He understands our fan base enough, he's aware of that. So while I'm angry and astounded by his failure to do his job, I do legitimately feel awful for him. That said, he shouldn't have been out there in the first place.

In the end, it's not just Matt's fault. His mistake only cemented what was a day of missed opportunities and Nebraska's failure to finish and make a play when they needed it most. When we needed a touchdown (or a first down on the final drive to kill the clock), the offense couldn't do it. When the Huskers needed a turnover or a stop at the goal line, they couldn't do it. For a brief while, NU showed they are capable of playing with great teams, that they are on their way back to where they used to be.

But on the way isn't where we hoped to be today. We wanted to be back. And that, unfortunately, is going to have to wait. We outplayed Virginia Tech, and I fiercely believe we are the better team. But my hat is off to VT, because the team that deserved to win did. Now, NU must figure out a way to move past this knee-buckling stomach punch and look forward to the rest of the season. There may be a hangover, but I don't think Bo Pelini will let them dwell on it. In fact, I take a great deal of solace from reading this quote from Phillip Dillard, the senior Husker linebacker:

"There's only two ways you can go - you can either go up or you can go down," Dillard said. "This team's going to choose to go up, and we're going to keep fighting and we're going to keep proving ourselves, because it's not over.

"It's a long season. I believe in my teammates, and everyone else should. Regardless of whether we won or lost, you saw the fight in us. That's something you didn't see in us for a long time."

There's still a lot of football left to be played, and I hope the rest of the team follows Dillard's lead and uses this game as motivation to avoid having to feel this kind of gut-wrenching loss the rest of the season.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Big Week as the Big Red Heads to Blacksburg

I've never been a big believer in "signature victories" or whatever other monikers people are so quick to put on games against big-time opponents. For the four years of the Callahan era, Husker fans waited for the day Callahan would get over the hump and beat a top program, a signal that the program was relevant and powerful again. Of course, that day never came, which is why Callahan is coaching the offensive line for the New York Jets right now.

While beating a #14-ranked Virginia Tech team would hardly qualify as a signature victory, it would go a long way in re-establishing the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the nation's football-following consciousness. For years now, it's been a skeptical eye that looks Lincoln's way whenever the Huskers have a marquee game. Which is understandable after the debacles against USC, the inability close against Texas, and the fact we've won exactly zero-that's right, zero- conference championships this decade.

A win in Blacksburg is no easy feat, as Lane Stadium's 66,000 fans are much louder than Nebraska's 85,000 in Lincoln. Whereas Memorial Stadium is beautiful atmosphere on gameday, Lane is an intimidating one, which will test a young Huskers team that hasn't had to work on audibles or adjustments away from home yet.

A few things that will have to happen for the Huskers if they are going to come home with a win:

- Roy Helu has to re-establish himself after a sub-par game against Arkansas State. The Huskers can't depend on Zac Lee to drop another 300 yard game with 4 touchdowns, especially in light of the fact that there's a good chance that rain could show up on Saturday. Nebraska needs to be able to run the ball and wear down the defense, otherwise it's going to be a long game.

- Stop Tyrod Taylor. Obviously any 4th grader could have told you this, but it has to be said. Taylor had one of his best passing games against the Huskers last year, and NU has to be able to keep him in the pocket and prevent him from making plays with his feet. Force Taylor to become a real quarterback, and NU can blitz and force him into some bad throws.

- Tackle better. The Huskers looked shoddy at times last week, with too many arm tackles. Against Taylor and freshmen standout Ryan Williams, NU will need to fix those problems or it could get extremely ugly.

While I predicted that Nebraska would lose this game in my season preview column, I also have 20 dollars on the Huskers going into Oklahoma undefeated, so you can see that I've struggled to temper my enthusiasm for NU's potential this year with the realization that we are sending an extremely green team to Blacksburg. Despite their youth though, Nebraska has the ability and coaching staff to win this ball game, and it's a win that both the Huskers (and after last week, the entire Big 12) needs right now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Belated Nebraska Season Prediction

While some may consider it a faux pas to post a game-by-game prediction article after the season has started, I think there's nothing wrong with it if you already knew what the outcome of the first game was going to be.

Speaking of the Florida Atlantic game, how much fun was that to watch? I was so excited that I even tweeted that NU needs to start a Roy Helu-for-Heisman campaign.

That's right, I advocated starting a Heisman campaign off of one performance against an out-manned opponent in the season's opening game. (And to answer your inner monologue, yes, I'm embarrassed to use the word "tweeted"). Perhaps my optimism is running too high, but there was a lot to like about last Saturday's 49-3 romp.

The young linebackers played as well as you could hope for in their first start, the secondary didn't suffer any of the lapses that were so common last year (though Larry Asante apparently still hasn't learned how to catch, despite being a senior). The defensive line play was solid against a team that was in max protect the whole night, and even the younger guys (Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler) looked pretty decent in their collegiate debuts.

To top it off, Cody Green and Rex Burkhead both got into the end zone, with Green's following an electric 49-yard jaunt down the sideline and Rex showing suprising strength for a 200-pound guy fresh out of high school. I think it's fair to say that I'm as excited for Nebraska's future as hippies were for Dubya to leave office. HEY-OH!

So how does the rest of the season shake out? Obviously, had I written this article on time, the result may have been different. Before last week's games, OU hadn't lost Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, Baylor hadn't defeated Wake Forest, and Missouri hadn't destroyed Illinois. All that aside, here's how I see the rest of the season shaking out for the Big Red.

Sep. 12—Arkansas State

Despite having the Sun Belt's preseason offensive (QB Corey Leonard) and defensive (DE Alex Carrington) players of the year, the Red Wolves aren't going to stop the Big Red. They might have had a prayer of sneaking up on Nebraska if they hadn't already beaten Texas A&M last year at Kyle Field, something that is already on the Husker's radar.

Prediction: Nebraska 45, Red Owls 10

Sep. 19—@ Virginia Tech

After Darren Evans went down in the preseason, I thought Nebraska's chances of stealing one from Lane Stadium went up considerably. However, now I'm not so sure after watching freshman Ryan Williams total 113 total yards and two touchdowns on just 15 touches, and that was against Alabama's defense.

The question here is, just what do Pelini and Watson have in their bag of tricks for this game? Against Florida Atlantic, we saw the most vanilla gameplan we'll see all year out of the Huskers, and that's on both sides of the ball.

The key will be stopping QB Tyrod Taylor and Williams from running on them. If we can successfuly do that, it will force Taylor to go to the air, and that's where we can hopefully use whatever blitz packages Pelini has saved through the first two weeks of the season. If NU can get to Taylor, he will make bad throws, despite whatever progress he has supposedly made in the offseason. Even if all this comes to fruition, can NU move the ball on Tech's defense?

If you look at Tech's loss to Alabama, the Hokies gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to the Crimson Tide. That stat is misleading in my opinion because the defense played solidly early in the game. The key number to look at here is time of possession, where the Tide held the ball for 37 minutes to 23 minutes for VT.

Nebraska's forte last season was holding onto the ball and wearing down a defense, and that's when big plays (Castille in the Gator Bowl, anyone?) started coming. The Huskers can't afford a slow start in Lane Stadium, they need to piece together long scoring drives from the get-go and take the crowd out of it, while wearing down the defense before breaking out something sweet at just the opportune time for the kill shot.

That said, if Virginia Tech can put up 24 on Alabama, what will they put up on us? Just how far has the defense really came? While my gut is telling me to put NU as winning this game, my gut has also led me astray many times.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 28, Nebraska 21

Sep. 26—Louisiana-Lafayette

After losing the two most prolific offensive players in school history to graduation last year, the Ragin' Cajuns are in for a rough game, but at least they can take solace in being cannon fodder for the 300th consecutive sellout in Memorial Stadium.

Prediction: Nebraska 45, Louisiana-Lafayette 10

Oct. 8—@Missouri

I was pretty sold on Nebraska winning this game. That is, until I saw Blaine Gabbert torch Illinois for 313 yards passing and four total touchdowns. Pretty much everyone expected there to be some kind of dropoff after Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin left town, but the season opener was an eye-opener for anyone who anticipated that.

While Gabbert's blistering start is a cause for concern, I think everyone needs to take a step back and look at the game. First off, it was against Illinois, a team whose defense wasn't any good last year during a 5-7 campaign and whose best offensive weapon (Arrelious Benn) was sitting the entire second half due to injury, making them pretty one-dimensional. Remember, Illinois went to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago. Illinois last year was the Big 10's equivalent of Kansas State.

That said, going into Missouri on a Thursday night for a nationally televised game is something to be a little concerned about. And I'm not talking about the final score; I'm more concerned for our players safety going into Faurot Field, when the whole city will have been drinking since 10:00 a.m.

According to Pelini, the reason we got our asses handed to us last year is because the coaching staff "got cute" with it's game plan and gave the players more than they could handle, which is why you saw Maclin streaking through our secondary like The Flash.

If Nebraska wants to rebuild it's national image, it's games like this one (and obviously Va. Tech) that they need to win. The real X-factor here is that Pelini and his staff have 11 days to prepare for Mizzou thanks to a bye week. The Tigers had a problem with turnovers last year, plunging from 11th nationally to 8th in the Big 12 last year.

I'm sure that the NU staff will "get cute" again with it's game plan. The difference is that this year, our defense actually knows what they are doing, and I think we'll get 3+ turnovers. And that, combined with a stronger special teams (the Tigers lost the most accurate kicker in NCAA history to graduation last season), will be the difference for Nebraska escaping Faurot with a win.

Prediction: Nebraska 24, Missouri 17

Oct. 17—Texas Tech

Last year, the Huskers took a Red Raiders team that was ranked in the top 10 at the time to the brink—in Lubbock—only to lose on Joe Ganz's interception in overtime. This year, without Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, it's going to be much tougher for Tech to get a win.

I know, I know, Taylor Potts is already becoming the next guy in the Tech quarterback assembly line, but I still think that losing Crabtree will be a bigger loss than anyone is saying yet. Also, the Red Raiders have to come to Lincoln this time. Still, I could see a nail-biter developing.

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Texas Tech 31

Oct. 24—Iowa State

Win. Best of luck to the Cyclones against the Hawkeyes this weekend, though.

Oct. 31—@Baylor

I'll admit, this is a tough game to call so early in the season. The Bears are coming off a win over a pretty good Wake Forest team, and Robert Griffin has solidified his passing skills to go with his world-class speed. While I'm impressed with Baylor's improvement, I still don't think they have the horses to keep up with the Huskers, especially given Nebraska's continuing improvement on the defense.

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Baylor 14

Nov. 7—Oklahoma

So much could happen between now and this game. Will Oklahoma shore up their pass protection? How will Sam Bradford recover from his AC joint injury? Will Nebraska still be healthy at that point in the season?

While I certainly believe this will be much more competitive than last year's massacre in Norman, I still don't know if Nebraska can knock off OU. This is what makes predictions hard, because my head is telling me that Oklahoma is the smart pick, but my heart is telling me that NU will win.

To be honest, I don't know, I really do think this game could go either way. How much faith does Pelini and company have?

In the summer of 2008, Pelini went on Jim Rome's radio show. Rome asked if he should buy tickets for this game, still over a year away at the time. He was basically asking if that by then, would Nebraska be back to where they need to be and in a position to beat Oklahoma. Pelini's response, simply put: "Buy the tickets."

I hope Bo's right. Because I'm buying tickets, even if the outcome isn't what I hope for.

Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 17

Nov. 14—@Kansas

This game will be the most pivotal in the season for Nebraska. Coming off a letdown against OU, they have to travel to Lawrence to battle a very good Kansas team. While the Jayhawks have to work with some inexperience on the offensive line, you'd think that they'd have everything figured out by mid-November. Same goes with replacing their three starting linebackers from last year.

That said, I think the difference in this game is Pelini and the coaching staff. In the past, maybe NU tanks this game after a letdown against OU. I don't see Pelini and company letting that happen. They're going to force the Huskers to snap out of it and be accountable, and I think that's why NU will win this game and regain their momentum going into the end of the season. Reesing, Briscoe, and Sharp are good weapons for the Jayhawks, but by then we'll have faced plenty of good players, and if we beat KU last year, there's no reason to think we can't do it again.

Prediction: Nebraska 31, Kansas 21

Nov. 21—Kansas State

While it'll be interesting to see if Bill Snyder can revive the program for a second time, that's going to take a little while with the talent left over from Ron Prince, who loved JUCO players like fat kids love cake. And that opening 21-17 win over UMass doesn't bode well.

Prediction: Nebraska 42, Kansas State 7

Nov. 27—@Colorado

While some people picked the Buffs as a potential sleeper in the North, I wasn't sold on it, and I'm still not. I don't look at the loss to Colorado State with as much disbelief as some did, mainly because I'm a big believer that anything can happen in a rivalry game. Still, I don't think CU is going to get to the 10 wins that coach Dan Hawkins promised. I think Nebraska uses this as a springboard into the Big 12 title game.

And it won't be the barnburner it was last season, either. The real question is, how much debris will get thrown on the field when Nebraska wins?

Prediction: Nebraska 35, Colorado 15

Dec. 5—Big XII Championship Game

That's right, I'm predicting a Big XII North title for the Huskers, where they earn the right to play spoiler against Texas. The Longhorns should be in position to grab a national title berth if they win this game, which, if they are healthy, will happen. Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley will be too much for the Huskers.

Prediction: Texas 34, Nebraska 14

The bowl game is tough to call. What if Oklahoma loses to Texas AND Oklahoma State? What if Okie State crumbles for a couple games before beating OU? We could be headed to anywhere from the Alamo Bowl to the Cotton Bowl, but in my opinion, our conference is too deep for us to end up in the latter.

My guess, much like the rest of the pundits nationwide, is that Nebraska will end up in the Holiday Bowl, most likely against the likes of Oregon or Oregon State. I'd rather face the latter, to be honest with you, despite Oregon's loss to Boise State.

Either way, I'm predicting a Nebraska win in the Holiday Bowl, which leaves the Huskers with a record of 11-3, and a springboard into national title contention in 2010, when we'll have 18 starters back and a shot at the whole thing. Don't look ahead, though, guys, this season's ride promises to be one you don't want to miss.